Environment

Humans Have Produced Whopping 9 Billion Tons of Plastic

A new study, which is the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever made, finds that since large-scale manufacturing of plastics took off in the 1950s and until 2015, humans have produced approximately 9 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tons) of plastic.

To put that in perspective, all that plastic would be equivalent to 85,567 aircraft “supercarriers” like the USS Gerald R. Ford, which weighs 107,000 tons (97,000 metric tons).

Of those 9 billion tons, half was made in the last 13 years, said Roland Geyer, an associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the new study, which was published online today (July 19) in the journal Science Advances.

As of 2015, about 7 billion tons (6.3 billion metric tons) of plastic have been disposed of as waste, with only 9 percent of it recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and a whopping 79 percent finding its way into landfills, the researchers report.

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Environment

The Gulf of Mexico’s ‘Dead Zone’

The oxygen-poor “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico may be the biggest on record this year, nearly doubling in size to cover an area of ocean as large as Vermont, scientists at Louisiana State University estimate.

The dead zone develops when nitrogen-rich runoff from the Midwestern farm belt pours into rivers and out into the Gulf. That runoff is loaded with fertilizer, as well as nutrients from animal and human waste, and it fuels the growth of algae that die, sink, and decompose, depleting oxygen levels offshore. That drives away marine life in the zone — or kills species that can’t escape.

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Wildfires

Wildfires – Siberia

Wildfires in Russia’s Far East and Siberia swelled by 3,600 ha to 16,700 ha over the past 24 hours, the Russian Aerial Forest Protection Service reported on Friday.

“The major increase occurred in the Magadan Region – in one day the wildfire area grew 43-fold from 40 ha to 1,700 ha. In the Amur Region the wildfires grew from 1,700 to almost 2,000 ha, and in the Irkutsk Region – from 4,000 to 5,200 ha,” the service said.

Wildfires – New Mexico, USA

Eleven wildfires are burning in New Mexico as of Thursday. The state Department of Health issued a smoke advisory for northern parts of the state.

Air Pollution From Wildfires Much Worse Than Previous Estimates

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Particle pollution from wildfires, long known for containing soot and other fine particles known to be dangerous to human health, is much worse than previously thought, a new study shows.

Naturally burning timber and brush from wildfires release dangerous particles into the air at a rate three times as high as levels known by the EPA, researchers at Georgia Tech found.

Scientists sampled air quality by flying planes directly into thick plumes from three major wildfires, including the 2013 Rim Fire, the largest wildfire in the Sierra Nevada. Previous EPA data was based on plume samples from controlled burns. Greg Huey is the study’s lead author.

“Under the conditions of the prescribed fires, it seems like you can get a smaller impact on air quality, So I think an extrapolation is that if you had more prescribed burning you might prevent some wildfires and in the process of doing that you would also probably help air quality issues,” Huey says.

The study also found wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals.

Wildlife

Medications, pesticides, found in blood of sea turtles on Great Barrier Reef

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Heart and gout medications, pesticides, herbicides and other industrial chemicals have all been found in the blood of green sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef, according to researchers.

The discovery was made as part of project led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which compared samples from turtles in urban areas to the more remote locations.

Chemical exposure has been linked to stress and other side effects in wildlife, and the indications of inflammation and liver dysfunction were found in some green turtles.

The scientists said the worrying thing was there are more chemicals they could not identify than chemicals they could identify.

Faceless Fish

An Australian museum expedition has come across a species of fish not seen near the country since 1873. It has no visible eyes, gills or any other facial features except for two nostrils and a mouth at the bottom of its body.

Dubbed the “faceless cusk,” the fish measures roughly 22 inches in length and was captured by trawling a deep ocean trench off Australia’s eastern coast at a depth of around 2 miles.

According to Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the creature, known as a cusk eel, has been previously observed from the Arabian Sea, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Japan to Hawaii. But living at depths of up to 14,000 feet, it is rarely seen.

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Environment

Trash Isn’t Just A Problem For Henderson Island, It’s Everywhere

The uninhabited Henderson Island has gained a lot of attention because of the fact that it has no people, but lots of trash.

A recent study determined that the island has become a dumping ground for plastic refuse. Unfortunately, it’s not alone. Here are just a few examples of seemingly pristine locales that have become polluted by humanity’s waste.

The Mariana Trench: The Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the ocean and, as such, one would expect it to be free from humanity’s touch, but that is not the case. A study has discovered that sea life living in the trench were found to have high levels of cancer-causing pollutants in their bodies.

Ironically, the isolated nature of the Mariana Trench is part of the reason that these pollutants often end up there.

“[These chemicals] don’t like water, and so they will stick to things in the water like plastic, and then that plastic will settle,” said the study’s co-author Stuart Piertney. “Because these deep-sea trenches are the very bottom of the sink for the oceans, there’s a sort of inevitability that they’re going to end up there.”

We know less about the depths of the ocean than we do the surface of the moon, but this serves as a reminder that our actions have consequences regardless of whether we are aware of them.

“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants in one of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on Earth really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” said co-author Alan Jamieson.

Hawaii’s Northwestern Islands: Hawaii is a tropical paradise and one of the world’s top vacation spots, but it also has a string of uninhabited islands. Those islands serve as a wildlife refuge for many types of marine life, but, like Henderson Island, they too have became littered with trash.

The problem has gotten so bad that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has organized cleanup efforts. A recent expedition uncovered more than 57 tons of garbage. In addition to polluting the water and ruining the area’s natural beauty, the trash, which is mostly plastic, is dangerous to the local wildlife.

The debris, which includes lighters, bottle caps, and other hard plastic items, are often mistaken for food by seabirds, which will feed the trash to their offspring.

Smaller debris isn’t the only problem facing these islands. Despite the fact that fishing is prohibited in wildlife sanctuaries, lost nets and lines that often end up in the area can kill larger marine life such as dolphins or sea turtles.

Plastic Is The Problem: In the case of both Henderson and Hawaii, the bulk of the discarded trash is made of plastic. Every year, roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up the in ocean. This waste is then caught up in gyres that carry the garbage to remote locations.

Environment

One of the World’s Most Polluted Islands

A tiny, uninhabited piece of land in the South Pacific Ocean, called Henderson Island, is considered one of the most remote islands in the world. But now, researchers say it has earned a much more worrisome new title: the world’s most polluted island.

Henderson Island is so remote that it’s visited only every five to 10 years, for research purposes, and is listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But this isolation from humanity has not prevented the island’s beaches from becoming filled with trash. In a new study, researchers estimate that 37.7 million pieces of plastic — amounting to 17 tons of plastic debris — litter the beaches of Henderson Island.

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Wildlife

Polluted Killer Whale

An orca that was found dead last year is now considered one of the most polluted whales ever found: The marine animal contained some of the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — human-made organic chemicals known to cause a variety of adverse health effects — ever recorded.

Lulu, an adult female killer whale, was a member of the last orca pod living near the United Kingdom. When the dead whale was discovered in January 2016 on the Isle of Tiree, Scotland, after becoming entangled in fishing rope, researchers analyzed the orca’s body in hopes of determining the health of the rest of the small pod. They found that Lulu might have been the most contaminated whale ever discovered.

The PCB concentrations in Lulu’s blubber were 100 times higher than the toxicity level scientists have determined is safe for marine mammals, according to researchers from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

High concentrations of PCBs can cause a range of health issues for marine mammals, including impaired immune function, increased susceptibility to cancers, and infertility, according to the SRUC researchers.

Though Lulu was at least 20 years old when she died, an analysis of the orca’s ovaries showed that she had never reproduced. In fact, researchers have not verified a single calf in the 23 years that the U.K. orca pod has been monitored.

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Environment

Pollution causes rise in cancer cases

Air pollution contributes to a 10 per cent rise in people being diagnosed with cancer, a study has found.

US researchers believe it causes an extra 44 cases per 100,000 people – equivalent to more than 28,600 cancer diagnoses in Britain.

The study, published in the journal Cancer, is the first to examine the link between environment and cancer, although previous research has found diesel fumes could cause women to give birth prematurely.

Its authors say developing the disease is 50 per cent due to genetics, but environment also damages our DNA, changes the way genes work and can even alter important hormones.

They examined the populations of almost 2,700 counties across America, where cancer affected an average of 451 people in every 100,000 between 2006 and 2010.

The extra 44 cases found in the worst polluted counties compared to the cleanest represents a rise of around 10 per cent, while socio-economic circumstances and roads also increased risk.

Lung cancer had already been linked to diesel exhausts and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, produced by cars and also thought to cause asthma and heart disease. But an extra ten cases of prostate cancer per 100,000 men were also attributed to air pollution, with almost four extra cases of breast cancer per 100,000 women. The reasons behind this increase are still being examined, but the study states: ‘Environmental exposures can alter or interfere with a variety of biological processes, including hormone production and function, inflammation, DNA damage and gene suppression or over-expression.’

Previous research has suggested particles of pollution can mimic oestrogen, which is known to fuel breast cancer.

They can also make women’s breasts denser, which raises their danger of the cancer.

To investigate the effects of overall environmental quality, the researchers looked at air, water and land quality, as well as the built environment and social factors. When adjusting for age, the annual incidence was 451 cancer cases per 100,000 people.

But counties with poor environmental quality had on average 39 more cases per 100,000 people than those of high quality.

Water quality had little or no effect on cancer rates when taken in isolation, with land quality, including the use of pesticides, having a small effect.

Air quality alone was found to cause an extra 44.19 cases per 100,000 over the four years.

Environment

Ancient underground water sources not immune to today’s pollution

New research suggests ancient underground water sources long believed to be shielded from modern-day contaminants may not be as safe as previously thought.

The study, led by University of Calgary hydrogeologist Scott Jasechko, involved delving into data collected from 6,000 groundwater wells around the world.

The research yielded two interesting findings – up to 85 per cent of the fresh, unfrozen water in the upper kilometre of the earth’s crust is more than 12,000 years old and it’s possible for ancient and recent water sources to mingle deep underground.

The implication of that finding is that, unfortunately, even deep wells are vulnerable to modern land uses.

The tests released a specific radioactive hydrogen isotope into the environment called tritium, which has been useful in dating water samples. Trace levels of tritium – too low to pose any danger – were found in deep groundwater wells, demonstrating there is a way for old and new water to mix.

“Its presence alone indicates that some of the water in the well is recent rain and snow,” said Jasechko. “And the fact that we find that at deep depths implies that even deep wells are vulnerable to modern-era contaminants.”

Environment

Plastic-eating caterpillar

A caterpillar that munches on plastic bags could hold the key to tackling plastic pollution, scientists say.

Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered that the larvae of the moth, which eats wax in bee hives, can also degrade plastic. Experiments show the insect can break down the chemical bonds of plastic in a similar way to digesting beeswax.

Each year, about 80 million tonnes of the plastic polyethylene are produced around the world. The plastic is used to make shopping bags and food packaging, among other things, but it can take hundreds of years to decompose completely.

However, caterpillars of the moth (Galleria mellonella) can make holes in a plastic bag in under an hour.

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Environment

The Arctic Ocean May Soon Have Its Very Own ‘Garbage Patch’

In findings published this week, a 2013 Arctic Ocean expedition found plastic “was abundant and widespread” in the waters east of Greenland in the Barents Sea, off the coasts of northern Russia and Scandinavia.

A multinational expedition that skimmed the Arctic Ocean in 2013 found plastic “was abundant and widespread” in waters east of Greenland in the Barents Sea, off northern Russia and Scandinavia. In some parts of those waters, they found hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic per square kilometer of surface, the researchers reported this week.

“The growing level of human activity in an increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic, with wider open areas available for the spread of microplastics, suggests that high loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic in the future,” the researchers warned.

Nearly all the plastic was concentrated in the stretch between Greenland and the Russian islands of Novaya Zemla. Those waters “constitute a dead end” for the currents that flow northward from the Atlantic, bringing with them trash from the coasts of Europe and North America, the study found.

“The total load of floating plastic for the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean was estimated to range from around 100 to 1,200 tons, with 400 tons composed of an estimated 300 billion plastic items as a midrange estimate,” the scientists wrote.

Environment

Beijing Moves from Coal to Natural Gas

The last large coal-fired power plant in Beijing has suspended operations, with the city’s electricity now generated by natural gas, as the city battles a long term heavy smog problem. The shuttering of the Huangneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant comes on the heels of China’s annual legislative sessions, where Premier Li Keqiang promised to “make our skies blue again” in his state-of-the-nation speech.

The Huangneng plant is the fourth to be closed and replaced by gas thermal power centres between 2013 and 2017, cutting nearly 10 million tonnes in coal emissions annually. Smog has cloaked the capital for several days and is expected to continue through the week.

However, PM2.5 (harmful particulate) levels have remained between 200 and 330 micrograms per cubic metre –well above the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum average exposure of 25 micrograms per cubic metre in a 24-hour period.

The pollution often vanishes during prominent events like the legislative sessions and the 2008 Summer Olympics as authorities order factories to halt activity and force cars off the road.

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Environment

India Beats China As Worst Air-Polluted Country On Earth

India now has the world’s worst air pollution. They have beaten China. Specifically, it is New Delhi, India’s capital that has the worst air pollution on Earth.

Industrialization, coal-fired power plants, and low regulation have made the air pollution in India so much worse. Technology Review has reported that there have been 1.1 million deaths recorded last year due to air pollution in India. The country has been tied with China as having deadly air pollution. India’s rapid industrialization, too much use of coal for energy, growing population, and an ageing populace that is affected by air pollution are the factors why there are so many deaths.

Pollution Has Worked Its Way Down To The World’s Deepest Waters

The Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific is the deepest part of the world’s oceans. You might think a place that remote would be untouched by human activity.

But the Mariana Trench is polluted.

At its deepest — about 7 miles down — the water in the trench is near freezing. The pressure would crush a human like a bug. Scientists have only recently explored it.

Among them is biologist Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in England. His team dropped what they call a mechanical “lander” down into the trench. It had cameras and water samplers and some baited traps. They didn’t really know what they’d find.

When the lander surfaced, the traps contained amphipods — shrimplike crustaceans. That wasn’t terribly surprising, as amphipods are known to live at great depths. But bringing them back from the Mariana Trench was a rarity, and Jamieson thought there might be something to learn from them. He took the creatures to an environmental scientist.

The amphipods were contaminated with PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — toxic chemicals used for decades in industry, as well as other industrial pollutants known as persistent organic pollutants.

Every sample we had,” Jamieson says, “had contaminants in it at very high or extraordinarily high levels. How high? He compared the contamination level in his Mariana amphipods to crabs living in waters fed by one of China’s most polluted rivers, as well as amphipods from other parts of the world. “And what we were finding in the deepest place in the world were (levels) hugely higher, 50 times in some cases,” he says.

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Wildlife

Whale found dying off coast of Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach

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Scientists in Norway found more than 30 plastic bags and other plastic waste inside the stomach of a whale stranded off the coast. Wardens had put the whale down after realising it wasn’t going to live, and had clearly consumed a large amount of non-biodegradable waste.

Despite the huge volume of plastic clogging up the whale’s stomach, the fact it died from ingesting the waste was “not surprising”, said researchers, as the volume of plastic in our seas continues to grow.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale was found stranded in shallow waters off the island of Sotra, and was in such poor condition the wardens decided to put it down. The creature had very little blubber and was emaciated, suggesting the plastic had lead it to become malnourished.

Dr Terje Lislevand, a zoologist who studied the whale, said: “The whale’s stomach was full of plastic bags and packaging with labels in Danish and English.” He also said the intestines were probably blocked up with plastic, causing severe pain.

Mexico’s vaquita porpoise close to extinction, 30 left

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Mexico’s vaquita marina is edging closer to extinction as scientists warned Wednesday that only 30 were left despite navy efforts to intercept illegal fishing nets killing the world’s smallest porpoise. At the current rate of loss, the vaquita will likely decline to extinction by 2022, unless the current gillnet ban is maintained and effectively enforced.

An analysis of acoustic data from the upper Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico found that, as of November, only about 30 vaquitas likely remained in their habitat, the report said.

A previous census between September and December 2015 had found around 60 vaquitas. There were 200 of them in 2012 and 100 in 2014.

Authorities say the vaquitas have been dying for years in gillnets that are meant to illegally catch another endangered specie, a large fish called the totoaba. Smugglers ship the totoaba’s dried swim bladder to China, where it fetches tens of thousands of dollars and is eaten in soup.

Known as the “panda of the sea” because of the dark rings around its eyes, the 1.5-meter (five-foot) cetacean has rarely been seen alive.

In a possibly last-ditch effort to save the vaquita, scientists plan, after getting government approval, to capture specimens and put them in an enclosure in the Gulf of California where they can reproduce.

Shark Fin Fast

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Indonesia cautions that there is an urgent need for shark fin soup enthusiasts to refrain from serving or eating the dish as some of the shark species in the archipelago are nearing extinction.

WWF says about 110,000 tons of shark fins are taken from Indonesian waters each year, leading to the sharp decline in shark populations.

“Indonesia largely depends on fisheries, so this is about food security too — if all the sharks are gone, we would have to start eating plankton soup,” said WWF leader Imam Musthofa Zainudin.

Environment

Warsaw Grapples With Gray Smog

An eerie gray mist with a pervasive odour of fumes wreathed Warsaw and dozens of other Polish cities, bringing a global problem more associated with Beijing and New Delhi into the heart of Europe. It took less than half a day, on Jan. 8, for the smog levels to break all records set in the 10 years since Poland, following a directive from the European Union, put in place an air pollution monitoring system.

Warsaw city officials reacted by making all public transportation free last Monday, in an attempt to keep cars off the roads, and warned residents to stay indoors unless necessary. Pollution levels eventually dropped off toward the end of the week.

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