Stories tagged pollution

Pretty pollution: The discolored wisps are indicators of pollution. Pretty, huh?
Pretty pollution: The discolored wisps are indicators of pollution. Pretty, huh?Courtesy Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery
An artist uses white cement treated with a light-sensitive photo-catalytic nano coating to make pollution pretty. As the cement is exposed to the air, the areas not protected by the nano coating begin to discolor, revealing a delightful design, as well as its nasty culprit.

It is estimated that two-thirds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) air pollution in North America comes from coal power plants. In a recent scientific article published in Geophysical Research Letters, a team of scientists have confirmed that SO2 levels in the vicinity of U.S. coal power plants have fallen by nearly 50% since 2005. .Mean SO2 values for 2005-2007
Mean SO2 values for 2005-2007Courtesy NASA
This finding, using satellite observations, confirms ground-based measurements of declining SO2 levels. In many parts of the world, ground-based monitoring does not exist or is not extensive; therefore, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the Aura satellite could potentially measure levels of harmful emissions in regions of the world where reliable ground monitoring is unavailable..Mean SO2 values for 2008-2010
Mean SO2 values for 2008-2010Courtesy NASA
Key: Yellow to violet colors correspond to statistically significant enhancements in SO2 pollution in the vicinity of the largest SO2 emitting coal-burning power plants indicated by the black dots.
Key: Yellow to violet colors correspond to statistically significant enhancements in SO2 pollution in the vicinity of the largest SO2 emitting coal-burning power plants indicated by the black dots.Courtesy NASA

Previously, space-based SO2 monitoring was limited to plumes from volcanic eruptions and detecting anthropogenic emissions from large source regions as in China. A new spatial filtration technique allows the detection of individual pollution sources in Canada and the U.S.

"What we’re seeing in these satellite observations represents a major environmental accomplishment," said Bryan Bloomer, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist familiar with the new satellite observations. "This is a huge success story for the EPA and the Clean Air Interstate Rule," he said.

Article: NASA Satellite Confirms Sharp Decline In Pollution From US Coal Power Plants

Feb
23
2011

We've written about freaky frogs on the Buzz Blog before, but some recent news may shed new light on our abnormal amphibians. Until recently, researchers thought that atrazine, an agricultural pesticide, was the sole cause of sexual deformities in frogs. Unfortunately, it's not so simple.
UT OH: What lurks in me waters?
UT OH: What lurks in me waters?Courtesy Mike Ostrowski

An ecologist at Yale University, David Skelly, sought to test assumptions about atrazine by studying the frequencies of frog deformity in different land types--agricultural, suburban, urban, and forested. Skelly expected to find the highest rates of deformities in agricultural areas, which would be consistent with atrazine being the main cause. Curiously, he found the highest rates of deformity in urban and suburban areas--places we wouldn't expect to find much atrazine. So what's going on?

It turns out that what makes atrazine so dangerous is that it mimics estrogen and binds to estrogen receptors in frog cells. Because estrogen impacts sexual development and function, so too does atrazine. But atrazine isn't the only estrogen-mimicking compound out there--there's a whole class of chemicals that mimic estrogens, including those found in birth control pills and plastics (BPA). And these chemicals are found in droves in cities and surburban areas--they're flushed into the sewage, but aren't filtered out during water treatment.
Birth control pills: Estradiol, a synthetic estrogen, helps prevent pregnancy in women. But much of it is excreted in urine and eventually makes its way into various water sources.
Birth control pills: Estradiol, a synthetic estrogen, helps prevent pregnancy in women. But much of it is excreted in urine and eventually makes its way into various water sources.Courtesy Ceridwen

So why do we care? Besides the fact that frogs are just awesome little creatures and important parts of their food webs, they have something in common with humans--estrogen receptors. The same chemicals that impact frogs can impact us. So how do we humans keep our sexual development and functioning intact?
BPA-free: This Sigg bottle is made from enameled aluminum, and it's an example of a BPA-free bottle.
BPA-free: This Sigg bottle is made from enameled aluminum, and it's an example of a BPA-free bottle.Courtesy Bucklesman

Skelly had a great idea to filter this stuff out of the water at the treatment plant, so that it won't get into our bodies from drinking water. He also suggested that regulatory changes would help so that when new chemicals are developed, they're scrutinized for unintended side effects. And of course, we can make choices that reduce our exposure, such as by buying BPA-free plastics, or using stainless steel and glass containers. And of course, increased awareness is always a good idea.

Do you take extra steps to avoid things like BPA? What are they?

Sep
29
2010

Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.
Not real: Not even close. So don't go thinking that what's happening in this picture is real.Courtesy Paranoid
Check this out, my little ducks: Scientists have genetically modified corn, so that it produces a deadly toxin. And that toxin is now appearing in waterways across the country.

O.M.G.

But you should also check this out, my little chickpeas: That toxin (called “BT toxin”) is also naturally produced by the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which is already found sort of all over the place, including on leaves of plants. Also, all evidence indicates that while the toxin is deadly to certain insect species, it is utterly harmless to vertebrates (including people). Which is good, because most of the corn planted in this country has been engineered to produce the toxin in its leaves and stems,a nd that’s the way it’s been for years. And that may be good itself, because the bug killing toxin the plants produce can allow farmers to use a lot less synthetic, broad-spectrum pesticides (broad spectrum pesticides kill off lots of different bugs, instead of a specific few).

And consider this, my little Turkish delights: Those manufactured pesticides definitely run off fields into ground and surface water. See? So it seems like pointing out that the chemicals produced by the plants themselves also find their way into the water is a little bit of a “well, duh,” situation.

But science doesn’t run on “duhs,” my little Faberge eggs, it runs on empirically confirming or disproving explanations and ideas, whether or not they initially seem obvious. Because the toxin was contained in the leaves and stalks of the plants, it seemed less likely to get washed away in the same way sprayed-on pesticides usually are. But it got washed away nonetheless.

It got washed away, my little candy apples, but not in the same way—the toxin was present in streams 6 months after harvest, inside the floating detritus from cornfields. That is, the toxin was inside the bits of leaves and stems that had washed off cornfields, and into streams.

That doesn’t mean that the BT toxin is harmless, my little floral prints, but nor does it mean that it’s necessarily harmful. BT toxin appears to be a pretty environmentally safe pesticide on land, but that doesn’t say much about effects it could have in an aquatic ecosystem. It could be that the presence of BT toxin in the water is still much safer than the alternative (chemical pesticides), or it could be that it will have far reaching effects—Corn Belt streams end up in the Mississippi and Missouri River basins, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, after all.

So, my little rabbits’ feet, we should try not to be all, “well, duh,” or to get too freaked out about the whole situation. Before that happens, scientists will have to figure out what environmental effects the BT toxin has, and how those compare to other pesticide run-off, and how each might balance against our need for crops that haven’t been eaten by bugs.

Scientific American’s brief article on the presence of BT toxin in streams also brings up the issue of no-till farming. Scraps from corn fields ending up in streams is very common, apparently, but the SA article suggests that no-till farming might be increasing the amount of that kind of organic matter that end up in the water. No-till farming is a method of farming where the soil isn’t regularly plowed or turned over, and scraps from crops (crop residue) are left on the field after harvesting to increase soil quality. No-till can increase the amount of water in the soil and decrease erosion, but the remaining crop residue might end up in nearby streams to a greater extent.

If this is the case, my little supernovas, it makes me wonder if the crop residue from no-till fields is worse for the water than soil washed off of tilled fields (and whatever washed away with that soil).

I also wonder what becomes of the toxins in BT-producing crops when the crop residue is not left on the field. Because, of course, that stuff doesn’t just disappear. Crop residue can be burned on the field, or processed into ethanol fuel, burned in a power plant to generate electricity, or maybe dumped into the ocean. So, my little chitterlings, even without bringing our thirst for fuel and electricity into the mix, what happens to BT toxin in those scenarios? Probably nothing, for the most part, but, again, we don’t want to invest too much time in saying “duh.”

It’s all very complicated. But you knew that already, didn’t you, my little safety goggles?

Jul
28
2010

One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.
One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.Courtesy PxMa
On my way to the candy store last week, I ran into a very skinny young man with a clipboard. I mean, I didn’t really run into him—more like he called me over while I was trying to avoid eye contact. He was really skinny, though, and I thought maybe he needed help. See, I’m pretty skinny myself, so when I think someone might be too skinny, it could suggest a real problem. I thought I could at least direct him somewhere where he might buy a sandwich or something.

But, to my surprise, the young man had little to no interest in sandwiches. (I know! What?!) What he was interested in was my money, money I had been saving to spend on really important things, things like candy. The slender lad was fund-raising for an organization that’s lobbying against proposed mining in the Boundary Waters.

I felt like, “I don’t even have cable, and you want $30 a month? I’m looking out for Number 1 here, sir. Go buy yourself a sandwich.” wasn’t really an acceptable excuse for not giving away my credit card information on the sidewalk, so when I told him I’d “think about it” and ran away, what I meant was, “I’m going to think of a better excuse for next time we run into each other.” But I also promised him I’d look into the issue. (That wasn’t what he wanted, but whatevs.)

And I did look into the issue, at least a little bit.

The deal is that there’s a Minnesotan mining company partnered with a South American corporation that’s been exploring for metals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Their test pits have revealed that there may be huge deposits of copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium in the area, and they want to dig it up.

And that’s cool, except that bringing up the metal-bearing ore also brings up toxic heavy metals (like lead, arsenic, and manganese), as well as lots of sulfide rock, which can release sulfuric acid into the environment. These mining byproducts can be tricky to contain anywhere, but the proposed mines are located in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. That means that any acidic or metal-contaminated water that leaks from the mines would flow into the lakes of the Boundary Waters, poisoning them.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.Courtesy SeanMack

So that’s no good. The mine owners, however, counter that the rocks in the area are very solid, and so very little water would seep through them to contaminate the watershed. They also claim that the waste rock produced would actually have very little sulfur in it, and would not produce acid pollution.

Ok, that’s good. Except mining opponents point out that environmental assessments of similar proposed mines in the area have returned grim results for the watershed, despite the companies’ claims that the mining operations wouldn’t pollute. Also, other mines in the region, like the Dunka pit, have produced so much pollution that cleanup operations have spanned decades.

Hmm. So what, then? One (i.e., me) is inclined to think that we shouldn’t be screwing around with an area as beautiful as the Boundary Waters, and that if it means mining a little less, that’s cool. So does Skinny get to dip into my precious candy fund? Maybe!

Except… how about this: maybe we really do want those metals. Probably most of us who feel particularly protective over areas like the Boundary Waters also feel like our reliance on fossil fuels is harming the environment. Burning those depleting hydrocarbons produces vast quantities of atmospheric pollutants, and to see the environmental dangers involved in just digging up the fossil fuels, we need look no further than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So how do we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels? With cool technology to make our vehicles more efficient, or to make larger, more powerful batteries, or to take advantage of other fuel sources.
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?Courtesy Jurii

And what do we need for all of that equipment? A whole new set of natural resources which, as Minnesota Public Radio points out in their story on the mine controversy, includes copper, gold, platinum, and palladium, “metals that are used in everything from electric wires and computers to catalytic converters and rechargeable batteries.”

How might the consequences of the continued heavy use of fossil fuels eventually affect the Boundary Waters compared to mining in its watershed? Is it better to obtain these minerals in other parts of the world, so that it’s someone else’s problem? Are some environments more or less valuable than others? What if the mining takes place in a country with less-strict regulations for keeping a mine clean? And is there anything to the thought that, as fossil fuel users, we’re taking advantage of mining and drilling in other parts of the world, while we’re unwilling to let it happen in our backyard?

It’s probably not useful to divide the sides of the issue into either/or and good/bad. I want the Boundary Waters to be protected, and I’m against pollution-causing mining operations, but… it’s complicated.

Too complicated to figure out on my way to the candy store, anyway.

Any thoughts on this, folks? Negative environmental effects here… or there? Now or later? What do we really need? How should we get it? And from where? What are we willing to sacrifice for it? And, for that matter, what’s ours to sacrifice?

Complicated!

My mom just sent me an E-mail. Why's that worthy of a Buzz post? Well, it just so happens that she's on board the OSV Bold, the US Environmental Protection Agency's only ocean and coastal monitoring ship. (It's crawling along the coast of Maine right now.) From the boat, scientists are able to sample the water column, ocean bottom, and sea life to get a sense of how the ocean is being impacted by human activities, and how we can better manage what goes into it. If you're curious, you can follow the adventures of the OSV Bold on Twitter, or read the daily observations log. (There's a photo of Moms in the batch posted for day 4, but her face isn't visible. Just trust me: she's the beautiful on the Bold. Oh, and lest you think this is a completely frivolous and nepotistic post, check it: www.whitehouse.gov picked up the story, too.)

Apr
23
2009

An environmentalist's dream: The rat-filled cans are too small to see in this picture.
An environmentalist's dream: The rat-filled cans are too small to see in this picture.Courtesy steven.buss
Here at Science Buzz, we sometimes have what might seem like a Through the Looking Glass attitude towards Earth Day and environmentalism. I, for one, litter filthy old cans all over my yard, comfortable in the knowledge that these cans will provide wonderful little shelters for the population of rats in my neighborhood. Sort of counter-intuitive, huh? Well check this out: after I get rats living in those cans, I’m going to use highly toxic chemicals to poison the little suckers in their homes. I will then plant sunflower seeds in my dead rat filled cans. So litter + poison + patience = a beautiful garden + delicious sunflower seeds.

Sophisticated environmentalism can be complicated like that.

It feels good though, doesn’t it? A little weird, but good.

Here’s another one (and this one comes from scientists who published in the journal Nature, not just from, you know, me):
Air pollution is fighting global warming!

Say what? We thought global warming was caused by air pollution.

Yes, but… think back to flowers growing from cans of dead rats. It’s like that, kind of.

See, yes, air pollution in the form of carbon dioxide (and other gases, but we’re dealing with CO2 here) is warming the planet. But CO2 isn’t the only junk we’re burping up into the atmosphere. Think about the grey brown haze you see over some big cities. Co2 is invisible, so what’s that stuff? Some of the chemicals we put into the atmosphere have the effect of absorbing sunlight, or reflecting it back into space. Some particles form the nucleus of water droplets in clouds, and cause the same amount of water in a cloud to be spread out among a much larger number of droplets, and more droplets cause light to be reflected and scattered more. It’s all part a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “global dimming”.

Some scientists believe that “global dimming” has had the effect of partially masking global warming; we aren’t as warm as we might otherwise be for the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere because a significant amount of solar energy has been prevented from reaching the Earth by other pollutants. So there’s that.

The Nature article, however, focuses on something else entirely. While many people might assume that plants have a harder time growing in our pollution-dimmed world, it turns out that they actually seem to grow better under a hazy blanket of pollution. The light-scattering effect of many air pollutants actually causes light to reach more plant leaves. So more photosynthesis is taking place under this diffused light than under direct sunlight. That means that plants are growing more, and growing plants suck up more carbon dioxide.

The scientists behind the study estimate that global dimming could be responsible for as much as a one quarter increase in plant productivity from 1960 to 1999, causing a 10% increase in the amount of carbon stored by the land.

This also means that as we have stricter air pollution controls, the rate of global warming probably won’t decrease as much as we’d have thought—there’d be less CO2 in the air, but because other pollutants would be reduced as well plants would be less productive, and suck up less of the CO2 that is released.

Well, shucks.

Jan
26
2009

Biologists are using clams to identify and clean up river pollutants.

Clams are filter-feeders, meaning they gather water into their shells, eat any food they find in that water, and then release the water back into the environment. The clam inadvertently filters more than just their food out of the water. Other material suspended in the water, such as toxins and pollutants, can accumulate in the clams.

Biologists in Washington, DC, along with help from high schoolers, released clams downstream from industrial parks and highways. The clams absorbed any lurking pollutants and then the scientists could identify the kinds and quantities of pollutants in the water. This process can be quite costly, but the clams offer an alternative method.

The ultimate goal is to be able to trace the pollutants back to their sources. From there, the cleanup process can begin.

Dec
01
2008

A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.
A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.Courtesy Sketchzilla
Buzzketeer General Liza put me on to this story last week, and I’m glad she did. Folks should know the plight of the polar bear.

So, you know those images of polar bears standing on the edge of ice sheets, looking sad because the ice is shrinking, and they need that ice to, you know, stay alive? You know what I’m talking about.

Well… it turns out that shrinking ice may be the least of their worries.

How do I put this? There’s trouble down south in the far north? A great big bear has a… Oh, forget it. Polar bears’ genitals are shrinking.

Oh, this is bleak. Two genital-based posts in a row? I don’t like it any more than you do, and I know you don’t like it. But we’re being beaten down and overwhelmed by genitals in the news, and we can’t ignore the news.

So, yes, after millennia of fearlessly swimming in an ocean of ice water, the mighty polar bear is finally suffering from shrinkage. But this isn’t one of the many problems that global warming can solve—this little situation is being caused by pollution, not cold water.

Y’all know about bioaccumulation and biomagnification? Toxic compounds can be found at very low concentrations in the environment, but still end up at dangerously high levels in certain plants and animals. This is caused by organisms taking in toxins faster than they can get rid of them, and by animals eating lots of other animals or plants that already have toxins in them. That’s what’s happening in the arctic. Tiny organisms are absorbing certain organic pollutants from the environment, and those organisms are getting eaten by tiny fish, and those tiny fish are getting eaten by bigger fish, and so on until big fish, with lots of the pollutants stored up in their bodies get eaten by an animal that doesn’t often get eaten by anything else, animals like killer whales, arctic foxes, or polar bears.

Biologists studied preserved polar bear genitals (penises, testicles, and ovaries) collected between 1999 and 2002, and found that individual bears with higher concentrations of these organic pollutants (called “organohalogens”) consistently had smaller bits and pieces. The organohalogens act like hormones in the bears, and we all know the amazing things hormones can do.

Now we must ask ourselves that age old question: “What does this mean for the bears?” Well, it seems that bears can’t rely on personality alone for successful mating. Polar bears don’t reproduce that often in the first place, and shrinking reproductive organs (in both boy-bears and lady-bears) is only going to make things trickier. And then there’s that whole ice-shrinking thing, which has probably taken a back seat in the minds of young bears everywhere.

In related news, a couple of polar bears at a Japanese zoo were having trouble conceiving until their handlers finally realized that they were both female. (I imagine that they would still have trouble conceiving, but I think the pressure is off now.) Apparently telling male and female bears apart is difficult as it is.