Tag Archives: Pollution

Advertisements harm the planet, researchers say

Like them or loathe them, advertisements are everywhere. And they’re worsening the climate crisis, say social scientists.

LONDON, 27 November, 2020 − Part and parcel of modern society, advertisements are so familiar in the background of most of our lives that we probably scarcely notice them. That’s a pity, because − if a new report is right − their influence may be indirectly causing climate and ecological damage.

The report, Advertising’s role in climate and ecological degradation, was commissioned by the Badvertising campaign, which is run by the New Weather Institute, a group backing a rapid transition to a fairer economy, and the climate campaign Possible. It is published today to coincide with Black Friday, regarded as the start of the US Christmas shopping season.

The report’s message is simple: advertising makes us want more material goods and services, which damage the environment and the climate in both their provision and their use. So less and better advertising would be good for the planet.

Its author is Dr Tim Kasser. Answering an argument often made in support of advertising, he told the Climate News Network: “Advertising does help people choose between products, but it also inculcates a general desire to want more of what is offered in the marketplace.

“When hundreds of millions of people have desires for more and more stuff and for more and more services and experiences, that really adds up and puts a strain on the Earth.”

Dependent media

Cautiously, perhaps, the advertising industry “indirectly” contributes to climate and ecological degradation, the report argues. For this it holds responsible the industry’s “encouragement of materialistic values and goals, the consumption-driving work & spend cycle”, and the consumption of two products in particular − beef and tobacco.

Definitions may help here. Materialism, the researchers say, is people’s desire to be rich as a result of “exposure to messages in their environment which suggest that happiness and a good life depend upon wealth and consumption.”

And here’s a spoiler alert for journalists: the survival of the media “typically depends on revenue obtained from presenting users with advertisements that encourage consumption.” The more TV you watch, the more adverts you’ll see, and the more materialistic you’ll become, it seems.

On the work & spend cycle, the study says: “Individuals who live under consumer capitalism are subjected to numerous pressures to work long hours … [one] is the desire to consume.” So “advertising leads people to place higher value on consumption of what they see advertised and lower value on having more time available for non-work activities.”

“Advertising serves capitalist economies in much the same way that state-sponsored art served Stalin’s Soviet Union, presenting a fake, idealised world that papers over an often brutal reality”

Advertisements can in fact mean “many people come to want to work, shop, and consume relatively more than to rest, recreate, and relate with others.” And there’s more: “Long work hours are associated with higher ecological footprints, greenhouse gas emissions, and overall energy consumption.”

When people work long hours, they have less time to engage in ecologically-sustainable and relatively time-intensive activities: bike-riding rather than car-driving, or growing food instead of buying it pre-packaged from a shop.

One of the researchers’ selected products, beef, can cause environmental damage as it is produced: unsustainable water use, destruction of forests, high levels of both greenhouse gases and pollutants that cause excessive algal growth. It can also damage human health (for example, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, linked in cattle to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease). Excessive consumption has been linked with heart disease and cancer.

The lethal risks of smoking tobacco are all too familiar. Producing and using cigarettes, the report finds, has much the same environmental effects as the beef industry and, a familiar refrain, “scientific evidence is consistent with the conclusion that advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological degradation through its encouragement of the consumption of tobacco.”

It may sound as though this demolition of advertisements is essentially an attack on the bedrock of capitalism. Andrew Simms, a co-author, told the Network it’s not that simple: “Advertising is so clever at being attractive or entertaining that it’s easy to forget it is manipulating us to get what it wants.

Broader reach

“And what it wants is for us to consume more, regardless of the environmental consequences or, indeed, the impact on our mental health or personal debt.

“I find it helps to remember that advertising serves capitalist economies in much the same way that state-sponsored art served Stalin’s Soviet Union, presenting a fake, idealised world that papers over an often brutal reality. But advertising in one sense is even more dangerous, because it is so pervasive, sophisticated in its techniques and harder to see through.”

The authors also take a sideswipe at two other products: flying for leisure, and sports utility vehicles. For possible solutions they refer readers to the Badvertising campaign’s toolkit.

They sum up their report with a suggestion that there’s more to come: “Substantial scientific evidence exists to support the claim that advertising has indirect but real effects on climate and ecological degradation. It seems likely that similar dynamics occur for other products, services, and experiences.”

Realists (or cynics) may conclude that the report simply proves that advertising really does work. Idealists may counter that that shows the researchers have not been wasting their time. − Climate News Network

Like them or loathe them, advertisements are everywhere. And they’re worsening the climate crisis, say social scientists.

LONDON, 27 November, 2020 − Part and parcel of modern society, advertisements are so familiar in the background of most of our lives that we probably scarcely notice them. That’s a pity, because − if a new report is right − their influence may be indirectly causing climate and ecological damage.

The report, Advertising’s role in climate and ecological degradation, was commissioned by the Badvertising campaign, which is run by the New Weather Institute, a group backing a rapid transition to a fairer economy, and the climate campaign Possible. It is published today to coincide with Black Friday, regarded as the start of the US Christmas shopping season.

The report’s message is simple: advertising makes us want more material goods and services, which damage the environment and the climate in both their provision and their use. So less and better advertising would be good for the planet.

Its author is Dr Tim Kasser. Answering an argument often made in support of advertising, he told the Climate News Network: “Advertising does help people choose between products, but it also inculcates a general desire to want more of what is offered in the marketplace.

“When hundreds of millions of people have desires for more and more stuff and for more and more services and experiences, that really adds up and puts a strain on the Earth.”

Dependent media

Cautiously, perhaps, the advertising industry “indirectly” contributes to climate and ecological degradation, the report argues. For this it holds responsible the industry’s “encouragement of materialistic values and goals, the consumption-driving work & spend cycle”, and the consumption of two products in particular − beef and tobacco.

Definitions may help here. Materialism, the researchers say, is people’s desire to be rich as a result of “exposure to messages in their environment which suggest that happiness and a good life depend upon wealth and consumption.”

And here’s a spoiler alert for journalists: the survival of the media “typically depends on revenue obtained from presenting users with advertisements that encourage consumption.” The more TV you watch, the more adverts you’ll see, and the more materialistic you’ll become, it seems.

On the work & spend cycle, the study says: “Individuals who live under consumer capitalism are subjected to numerous pressures to work long hours … [one] is the desire to consume.” So “advertising leads people to place higher value on consumption of what they see advertised and lower value on having more time available for non-work activities.”

“Advertising serves capitalist economies in much the same way that state-sponsored art served Stalin’s Soviet Union, presenting a fake, idealised world that papers over an often brutal reality”

Advertisements can in fact mean “many people come to want to work, shop, and consume relatively more than to rest, recreate, and relate with others.” And there’s more: “Long work hours are associated with higher ecological footprints, greenhouse gas emissions, and overall energy consumption.”

When people work long hours, they have less time to engage in ecologically-sustainable and relatively time-intensive activities: bike-riding rather than car-driving, or growing food instead of buying it pre-packaged from a shop.

One of the researchers’ selected products, beef, can cause environmental damage as it is produced: unsustainable water use, destruction of forests, high levels of both greenhouse gases and pollutants that cause excessive algal growth. It can also damage human health (for example, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, linked in cattle to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease). Excessive consumption has been linked with heart disease and cancer.

The lethal risks of smoking tobacco are all too familiar. Producing and using cigarettes, the report finds, has much the same environmental effects as the beef industry and, a familiar refrain, “scientific evidence is consistent with the conclusion that advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological degradation through its encouragement of the consumption of tobacco.”

It may sound as though this demolition of advertisements is essentially an attack on the bedrock of capitalism. Andrew Simms, a co-author, told the Network it’s not that simple: “Advertising is so clever at being attractive or entertaining that it’s easy to forget it is manipulating us to get what it wants.

Broader reach

“And what it wants is for us to consume more, regardless of the environmental consequences or, indeed, the impact on our mental health or personal debt.

“I find it helps to remember that advertising serves capitalist economies in much the same way that state-sponsored art served Stalin’s Soviet Union, presenting a fake, idealised world that papers over an often brutal reality. But advertising in one sense is even more dangerous, because it is so pervasive, sophisticated in its techniques and harder to see through.”

The authors also take a sideswipe at two other products: flying for leisure, and sports utility vehicles. For possible solutions they refer readers to the Badvertising campaign’s toolkit.

They sum up their report with a suggestion that there’s more to come: “Substantial scientific evidence exists to support the claim that advertising has indirect but real effects on climate and ecological degradation. It seems likely that similar dynamics occur for other products, services, and experiences.”

Realists (or cynics) may conclude that the report simply proves that advertising really does work. Idealists may counter that that shows the researchers have not been wasting their time. − Climate News Network

Roof of the world is home to microplastic fibres

Microplastic fibres have been found in the snows of Everest. Pollution levels have literally reached new heights.

LONDON, 26 November, 2020 − Scientists have set a new record for the identification of microplastic fibres − an altitude record. They have found them at 8,440 metres high in the Himalayas, almost at the summit of Mt Everest.

It should be no surprise. Microplastic fibres and polymer fragments − derived from plastic products and especially from plastic waste − have been found in the sediments at the bottom of the sea, on the beaches around barren Antarctic islands, in the Arctic ice, on the surfaces of the ocean, and in the tissues of living things, from sea snails to whales.

And as the issue of plastic pollution made its way up the political agenda, it has now also climbed Mt Everest. Researchers report, in the journal One Earth, that they identified 12 fibrous plastic particles in every litre of snow from the highest measuring point, the so-called Balcony of Everest; particles were also identified in stream water at high altitudes and in even greater numbers − 79 per litre of snow − at the famous Everest Base Camp.

Their arrival on the world’s highest and most famous peak would have been inevitable. Seventy years ago manufacturers made plastic products at the rate of 5 million tonnes a year. In 2020, the world purchased 330 million tonnes, much of it used once and discarded.

“It really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener”

Somewhere between 93,000 tonnes and 236,000 tonnes is estimated to be floating on the sea surfaces. The cascade of polyester, acrylic, nylon, polypropylene and other polymer waste could increase threefold in the next two decades.

And just as there is more plastic on the planet, so there are more and more visitors to Sagamartha National Park in Nepal, and to the slopes of Mt Everest. In 1979, the region was host to 3,600 trekkers and climbers. By 2016, that number had climbed to 45,000. By 2019, climbers were forming an orderly queue and taking turns to reach the summit.

And each of these would have been wearing high-performance outdoor clothing, while carrying − and sometimes leaving behind − ropes, tents and lunch boxes fashioned from polymer materials.

The snow samples were collected by a National Geographic research team
formed to investigate the impact of climate change on the world’s highest peak, and studied by Imogen Napper of the University of Plymouth in the UK.

No longer pristine

“Mt Everest has been described as the world’s highest junkyard. Microplastics haven’t been studied on the mountain before, but they are generally just as persistent and typically more difficult to remove than larger items of debris,” Dr Napper said.

“I didn’t know what to expect in terms of results, but it really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analysed. Mt Everest is somewhere I had always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”

She added: “These are the highest microplastics discovered so far. While it sounds exciting, it means that microplastics have been discovered from the depths of the ocean all the way to the highest mountain on Earth.

“With microplastics so ubiquitous in our environment, it’s time to focus on informing appropriate environmental solutions. We need to protect and care for our planet.” − Climate News Network

Microplastic fibres have been found in the snows of Everest. Pollution levels have literally reached new heights.

LONDON, 26 November, 2020 − Scientists have set a new record for the identification of microplastic fibres − an altitude record. They have found them at 8,440 metres high in the Himalayas, almost at the summit of Mt Everest.

It should be no surprise. Microplastic fibres and polymer fragments − derived from plastic products and especially from plastic waste − have been found in the sediments at the bottom of the sea, on the beaches around barren Antarctic islands, in the Arctic ice, on the surfaces of the ocean, and in the tissues of living things, from sea snails to whales.

And as the issue of plastic pollution made its way up the political agenda, it has now also climbed Mt Everest. Researchers report, in the journal One Earth, that they identified 12 fibrous plastic particles in every litre of snow from the highest measuring point, the so-called Balcony of Everest; particles were also identified in stream water at high altitudes and in even greater numbers − 79 per litre of snow − at the famous Everest Base Camp.

Their arrival on the world’s highest and most famous peak would have been inevitable. Seventy years ago manufacturers made plastic products at the rate of 5 million tonnes a year. In 2020, the world purchased 330 million tonnes, much of it used once and discarded.

“It really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener”

Somewhere between 93,000 tonnes and 236,000 tonnes is estimated to be floating on the sea surfaces. The cascade of polyester, acrylic, nylon, polypropylene and other polymer waste could increase threefold in the next two decades.

And just as there is more plastic on the planet, so there are more and more visitors to Sagamartha National Park in Nepal, and to the slopes of Mt Everest. In 1979, the region was host to 3,600 trekkers and climbers. By 2016, that number had climbed to 45,000. By 2019, climbers were forming an orderly queue and taking turns to reach the summit.

And each of these would have been wearing high-performance outdoor clothing, while carrying − and sometimes leaving behind − ropes, tents and lunch boxes fashioned from polymer materials.

The snow samples were collected by a National Geographic research team
formed to investigate the impact of climate change on the world’s highest peak, and studied by Imogen Napper of the University of Plymouth in the UK.

No longer pristine

“Mt Everest has been described as the world’s highest junkyard. Microplastics haven’t been studied on the mountain before, but they are generally just as persistent and typically more difficult to remove than larger items of debris,” Dr Napper said.

“I didn’t know what to expect in terms of results, but it really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analysed. Mt Everest is somewhere I had always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”

She added: “These are the highest microplastics discovered so far. While it sounds exciting, it means that microplastics have been discovered from the depths of the ocean all the way to the highest mountain on Earth.

“With microplastics so ubiquitous in our environment, it’s time to focus on informing appropriate environmental solutions. We need to protect and care for our planet.” − Climate News Network

Green spaces keep hearts healthy and save lives

Planting trees and creating urban parks brings more green spaces and cleaner air, cutting heart deaths and saving lives.

LONDON, 16 November, 2020 − A vast study of the incidence of heart disease, the amount of green spaces and air quality in each county of the United States has shown that the presence of trees, shrubs and grass saves lives.

It has long been known that particulate matter from industry and car exhausts is bad for lungs and hearts. While it is also accepted that the greenery absorbs pollution, it has been hard until now to relate the extent of the two effects.

Using the data collected by NASA from satellites to calculate the greenness of vast areas of the US, the researchers compared it with the national death rates from the Atlas of Heart Disease.

They overlaid this with data from the Environment Protection Agency’s air quality measurements of particulate matter for each county and the Census Bureau’s information on age, race, education and income by county.

Using an internationally recognised system to measure the amount of green vegetation in any location, from a barren area of rock at one extreme (0.00 on the scale) to dense tropical rain forest (0.80) at the other, they found a measurable link between greenness and survival rates.

Policy shift needed

For every 0.10 (12.5%) increase in what’s called the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, heart disease decreased by 13 deaths per 100,000. For every one microgram increase in particulate matter per cubic metre of air, heart disease increased by roughly 39 deaths per 100,000.

“We found that areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and that having higher greenness measures, in turn, is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease,” said William Aitken, a cardiology fellow with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.

“Given the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher greenness measures, it’s important that dialogue about improved health and quality of life include environmental policies that support increasing greenness,” he said.

The research is significant in the battle against climate change too. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have severe problems with early death and disease as a result of air pollution. They have concentrated their efforts for reducing air pollution by reducing traffic and suppressing coal burning.

It is clear from this research that they could both remove particulates from the air and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of vegetation in polluted areas.

“Areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and having higher greenness measures is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease”

The US researchers hope their results will encourage clinical trials using built environment interventions (e.g., tree planting to increase the presence of vegetation) to improve cardiovascular health. “We will be performing a longitudinal study in Miami to assess if changes in neighbourhood greenness over time are associated with changes in cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Aitken said.

Commenting on the research Joel Kaufman, a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in addition to the actions that individuals could take to ensure healthy lives, such as not smoking, being physically active and controlling cholesterol, environmental factors had turned out to be very important.

Ambient air pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the major factors. Research over 20 years has shown that living in areas with higher concentrations of air pollutants, and breathing in the pollution, leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Demonstrably, green spaces matter.

Dr Kaufman said that community-led action had mostly been directed at increasing controls over the sources of air pollution affecting the environment. But another effective approach would be to increase the level of greenness, planting trees, shrubs and grass.

In a statement the American Heart Association said long-term exposure to air pollution reduced life expectancy by between several months and a few years, depending on its severity. Cutting pollution improved the health and life expectancy of those living in the area quite quickly. − Climate News Network

Planting trees and creating urban parks brings more green spaces and cleaner air, cutting heart deaths and saving lives.

LONDON, 16 November, 2020 − A vast study of the incidence of heart disease, the amount of green spaces and air quality in each county of the United States has shown that the presence of trees, shrubs and grass saves lives.

It has long been known that particulate matter from industry and car exhausts is bad for lungs and hearts. While it is also accepted that the greenery absorbs pollution, it has been hard until now to relate the extent of the two effects.

Using the data collected by NASA from satellites to calculate the greenness of vast areas of the US, the researchers compared it with the national death rates from the Atlas of Heart Disease.

They overlaid this with data from the Environment Protection Agency’s air quality measurements of particulate matter for each county and the Census Bureau’s information on age, race, education and income by county.

Using an internationally recognised system to measure the amount of green vegetation in any location, from a barren area of rock at one extreme (0.00 on the scale) to dense tropical rain forest (0.80) at the other, they found a measurable link between greenness and survival rates.

Policy shift needed

For every 0.10 (12.5%) increase in what’s called the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, heart disease decreased by 13 deaths per 100,000. For every one microgram increase in particulate matter per cubic metre of air, heart disease increased by roughly 39 deaths per 100,000.

“We found that areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and that having higher greenness measures, in turn, is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease,” said William Aitken, a cardiology fellow with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.

“Given the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher greenness measures, it’s important that dialogue about improved health and quality of life include environmental policies that support increasing greenness,” he said.

The research is significant in the battle against climate change too. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have severe problems with early death and disease as a result of air pollution. They have concentrated their efforts for reducing air pollution by reducing traffic and suppressing coal burning.

It is clear from this research that they could both remove particulates from the air and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of vegetation in polluted areas.

“Areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and having higher greenness measures is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease”

The US researchers hope their results will encourage clinical trials using built environment interventions (e.g., tree planting to increase the presence of vegetation) to improve cardiovascular health. “We will be performing a longitudinal study in Miami to assess if changes in neighbourhood greenness over time are associated with changes in cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Aitken said.

Commenting on the research Joel Kaufman, a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in addition to the actions that individuals could take to ensure healthy lives, such as not smoking, being physically active and controlling cholesterol, environmental factors had turned out to be very important.

Ambient air pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the major factors. Research over 20 years has shown that living in areas with higher concentrations of air pollutants, and breathing in the pollution, leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Demonstrably, green spaces matter.

Dr Kaufman said that community-led action had mostly been directed at increasing controls over the sources of air pollution affecting the environment. But another effective approach would be to increase the level of greenness, planting trees, shrubs and grass.

In a statement the American Heart Association said long-term exposure to air pollution reduced life expectancy by between several months and a few years, depending on its severity. Cutting pollution improved the health and life expectancy of those living in the area quite quickly. − Climate News Network

Japan faces another Fukushima disaster crisis

A plan to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water from the Fukushima disaster off Japan is alarming local people.

LONDON, 3 November, 2020 − The Japanese government has an unsolvable problem: what to do with more than a million tonnes of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, in store since the Fukushima disaster and growing at more than 150 tonnes a day.

The water, contained in a thousand giant tanks, has been steadily accumulating since the nuclear accident in 2011. It has been used to cool the three reactors that suffered a meltdown as a result of the tsunami that hit the coast.

Tritium is a radioactive element produced as a by-product by nuclear reactors under normal operation, and is present everywhere in the fabric of the reactor buildings, so water used for cooling them is bound to be contaminated by it.

To avoid another potentially catastrophic meltdown in the remaining fuel the cooling has to continue indefinitely, so the problem continues to worsen. The government has been told that Japan will run out of storage tanks by 2022.

Announcement delayed

As often happens when governments are faced with difficult problems, the unpalatable decision to release the contaminated water into the sea has not been formally announced, but the intention of the government to take this course has been leaked and so widely reported.

Immediately both local and worldwide adverse reaction has resulted. There are the direct effects on the local fishermen who fear that no one will want to buy their catch, but over a wider area the health effects are the main concern.

As ever with the nuclear industry, there are two widely different views on tritium. The Health Physics Society says it is a mildly radioactive element that is present everywhere, and doubts that people will be affected by it. But the Nuclear Information and Resource Service believes tritium is far more dangerous and increases the likelihood of cancers, birth defects and genetic disorders.

The issue is further complicated because the Fukushima wastewater contains a number of other radionuclides, not in such high quantities, but sufficient to cause damage. Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, is extremely concerned about Japan’s plans and the health of the local people.

“Ten half-lives for tritium is 123 years: that’s how long these tanks will have to last – at least. This will allow time also for politicians to reflect on the wisdom of their support for nuclear power”

In a detailed assessment of the situation he says other highly dangerous radioactive substances, including caesium-137 and strontium-90, are also in the water stored at Fukushima.

They are in lower quantities than the tritium, he says, but still unacceptably high – up to 100 times above the legally permitted limit. All these radionuclides decay over time − some take thousands of years − but tritium decays faster, the danger from it halving every 12.3 years.

In a briefing for the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), a UK based organisation, another independent analyst, Tim Deere-Jones, discusses research that shows that tritium binds with organic material in plants and animals.

This is potentially highly damaging to human health because it travels up the food chain in the marine environment, specifically accumulating in fish. This means fish-eating communities on the Japanese coast could ingest much larger quantities of tritium than some physicists think likely.

Relying on dilution

Tim Deere-Jones is also concerned that the tritium will be blown inshore on the prevailing wind in sea spray and will bio-accumulate in food plants, making it risky to eat crops as far as ten miles inland. Because of the potential dangers of releasing the water the NFLA has asked the Japanese government to reconsider its decision.

The government has not yet responded though, because officially it is still considering what to do. However, it is likely to argue that pumping the contaminated water into the sea is acceptable because it will be diluted millions of times, and anyway seawater does already contain minute quantities of tritium.

Dr Fairlie is among many who think this is too dangerous, but he admits there are no easy solutions.

He says: “Barring a miraculous technical discovery which is unlikely, I think TEPCO/Japanese Gov’t [TEPCO is the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant]  will have to buy more land and keep on building more holding tanks to allow for tritium decay to take place. Ten half-lives for tritium is 123 years: that’s how long these tanks will have to last – at least.

“This will allow time not only for tritium to decay, but also for politicians to reflect on the wisdom of their support for nuclear power.” − Climate News Network

A plan to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water from the Fukushima disaster off Japan is alarming local people.

LONDON, 3 November, 2020 − The Japanese government has an unsolvable problem: what to do with more than a million tonnes of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, in store since the Fukushima disaster and growing at more than 150 tonnes a day.

The water, contained in a thousand giant tanks, has been steadily accumulating since the nuclear accident in 2011. It has been used to cool the three reactors that suffered a meltdown as a result of the tsunami that hit the coast.

Tritium is a radioactive element produced as a by-product by nuclear reactors under normal operation, and is present everywhere in the fabric of the reactor buildings, so water used for cooling them is bound to be contaminated by it.

To avoid another potentially catastrophic meltdown in the remaining fuel the cooling has to continue indefinitely, so the problem continues to worsen. The government has been told that Japan will run out of storage tanks by 2022.

Announcement delayed

As often happens when governments are faced with difficult problems, the unpalatable decision to release the contaminated water into the sea has not been formally announced, but the intention of the government to take this course has been leaked and so widely reported.

Immediately both local and worldwide adverse reaction has resulted. There are the direct effects on the local fishermen who fear that no one will want to buy their catch, but over a wider area the health effects are the main concern.

As ever with the nuclear industry, there are two widely different views on tritium. The Health Physics Society says it is a mildly radioactive element that is present everywhere, and doubts that people will be affected by it. But the Nuclear Information and Resource Service believes tritium is far more dangerous and increases the likelihood of cancers, birth defects and genetic disorders.

The issue is further complicated because the Fukushima wastewater contains a number of other radionuclides, not in such high quantities, but sufficient to cause damage. Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, is extremely concerned about Japan’s plans and the health of the local people.

“Ten half-lives for tritium is 123 years: that’s how long these tanks will have to last – at least. This will allow time also for politicians to reflect on the wisdom of their support for nuclear power”

In a detailed assessment of the situation he says other highly dangerous radioactive substances, including caesium-137 and strontium-90, are also in the water stored at Fukushima.

They are in lower quantities than the tritium, he says, but still unacceptably high – up to 100 times above the legally permitted limit. All these radionuclides decay over time − some take thousands of years − but tritium decays faster, the danger from it halving every 12.3 years.

In a briefing for the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), a UK based organisation, another independent analyst, Tim Deere-Jones, discusses research that shows that tritium binds with organic material in plants and animals.

This is potentially highly damaging to human health because it travels up the food chain in the marine environment, specifically accumulating in fish. This means fish-eating communities on the Japanese coast could ingest much larger quantities of tritium than some physicists think likely.

Relying on dilution

Tim Deere-Jones is also concerned that the tritium will be blown inshore on the prevailing wind in sea spray and will bio-accumulate in food plants, making it risky to eat crops as far as ten miles inland. Because of the potential dangers of releasing the water the NFLA has asked the Japanese government to reconsider its decision.

The government has not yet responded though, because officially it is still considering what to do. However, it is likely to argue that pumping the contaminated water into the sea is acceptable because it will be diluted millions of times, and anyway seawater does already contain minute quantities of tritium.

Dr Fairlie is among many who think this is too dangerous, but he admits there are no easy solutions.

He says: “Barring a miraculous technical discovery which is unlikely, I think TEPCO/Japanese Gov’t [TEPCO is the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant]  will have to buy more land and keep on building more holding tanks to allow for tritium decay to take place. Ten half-lives for tritium is 123 years: that’s how long these tanks will have to last – at least.

“This will allow time not only for tritium to decay, but also for politicians to reflect on the wisdom of their support for nuclear power.” − Climate News Network

Poor air inflicts billions of premature deaths in Asia

Air pollution by tiny particles is among the world’s worst health risks. In South Asia, poor air is as bad as it gets.

NEW DELHI, 22 October, 2020 − Poor air costs lives, but finding out just how many of them will come as a shock to many residents of South Asia’s big cities.

In India’s capital, New Delhi, just going outside and breathing the air can shorten your life by more than nine years, according to a new report into the region’s air quality that measures the effects of pollution on life expectancy.

For millions of people across across north-west India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it will be bad news − despite the Covid crisis − because of the current surge in air pollution in the region.

But none of the people of four countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, will be happy with the prediction that their lives will be shortened unless their governments take air pollution seriously.

New Delhi is the worst single example in the four, but few of their citizens − a quarter of the world’s population − will escape.

Bangladesh worst hit

Averaged across the whole population, the people of Bangladesh suffer most from air pollution in any country, with their average life span cut short by 6.2 years.

An air quality index (AQI) provides daily air quality assessments, but not the actual health risk. An air quality life index (AQLI) goes further: it converts particulate air pollution into perhaps the most important air pollution metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy.

The report is the work of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which has recently updated its AQLI, based on research by its director Michael Greenstone that quantified the causal relationship between human exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy.

While the report makes grim reading for nations south of the Himalayas, it does offer some hope, saying that the people of China can see marked improvements since their government began clamping down on polluting industries in 2013.

The report uses two measures to calculate lower expectations of life expectancy: the more stringent World Heath Organisation guidelines (WHO) and the limits imposed by the governments concerned.

“The threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving [but] embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives”

It says air pollution shortens Indian average life expectancy by 5.2 years, relative to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met, but by 2.3 years relative to the rate if pollution were reduced to meet the country’s own national standard.

Some areas of India fare much worse than the average, with air pollution shortening lives by 9.4 years in Delhi and 8.6 years in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the report’s India fact sheet 2020 says.

Similarly, the Pakistan sheet says the average Pakistani’s life expectancy has been shortened by 2.7 years, while air pollution cuts lives by more than 4 years in the most polluted areas.

Naming Bangladesh as the world’s most polluted country, EPIC’s report says air pollution shortens the average citizen’s life expectancy by 6.2 years, compared to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met.

Again, some areas suffer far more, with lives cut by about 7 years in the most polluted district. In every one of the country’s 64 districts, particulate pollution levels are at least four times the WHO guidelines.

Possible underestimate

Surprisingly Nepal, which unlike its southern neighbours is not normally associated with air pollution, also had serious problems with its crowded and polluted cities. As a result, life expectancy there is cut by 4.7 years across the whole population.

“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving − perhaps more in some places − embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives,” says Professor Greenstone.

The science of air pollution, and the impact of poor air on the human body, is evolving rapidly, and some Asian scientists have expressed reservations about the accuracy of some of the calculations. However, none of them disputes the fact that millions are dying early because of the pollution.

The report concentrates on the effect of the smaller particulates that are known to do the most damage to lungs, and to enter the bloodstream, and it may in fact be underestimating the overall effects of poor air quality. − Climate News Network

* * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, covering development and the environment: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com and on twitter at @nivedita_Him

Air pollution by tiny particles is among the world’s worst health risks. In South Asia, poor air is as bad as it gets.

NEW DELHI, 22 October, 2020 − Poor air costs lives, but finding out just how many of them will come as a shock to many residents of South Asia’s big cities.

In India’s capital, New Delhi, just going outside and breathing the air can shorten your life by more than nine years, according to a new report into the region’s air quality that measures the effects of pollution on life expectancy.

For millions of people across across north-west India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it will be bad news − despite the Covid crisis − because of the current surge in air pollution in the region.

But none of the people of four countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, will be happy with the prediction that their lives will be shortened unless their governments take air pollution seriously.

New Delhi is the worst single example in the four, but few of their citizens − a quarter of the world’s population − will escape.

Bangladesh worst hit

Averaged across the whole population, the people of Bangladesh suffer most from air pollution in any country, with their average life span cut short by 6.2 years.

An air quality index (AQI) provides daily air quality assessments, but not the actual health risk. An air quality life index (AQLI) goes further: it converts particulate air pollution into perhaps the most important air pollution metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy.

The report is the work of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which has recently updated its AQLI, based on research by its director Michael Greenstone that quantified the causal relationship between human exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy.

While the report makes grim reading for nations south of the Himalayas, it does offer some hope, saying that the people of China can see marked improvements since their government began clamping down on polluting industries in 2013.

The report uses two measures to calculate lower expectations of life expectancy: the more stringent World Heath Organisation guidelines (WHO) and the limits imposed by the governments concerned.

“The threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving [but] embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives”

It says air pollution shortens Indian average life expectancy by 5.2 years, relative to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met, but by 2.3 years relative to the rate if pollution were reduced to meet the country’s own national standard.

Some areas of India fare much worse than the average, with air pollution shortening lives by 9.4 years in Delhi and 8.6 years in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the report’s India fact sheet 2020 says.

Similarly, the Pakistan sheet says the average Pakistani’s life expectancy has been shortened by 2.7 years, while air pollution cuts lives by more than 4 years in the most polluted areas.

Naming Bangladesh as the world’s most polluted country, EPIC’s report says air pollution shortens the average citizen’s life expectancy by 6.2 years, compared to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met.

Again, some areas suffer far more, with lives cut by about 7 years in the most polluted district. In every one of the country’s 64 districts, particulate pollution levels are at least four times the WHO guidelines.

Possible underestimate

Surprisingly Nepal, which unlike its southern neighbours is not normally associated with air pollution, also had serious problems with its crowded and polluted cities. As a result, life expectancy there is cut by 4.7 years across the whole population.

“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving − perhaps more in some places − embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives,” says Professor Greenstone.

The science of air pollution, and the impact of poor air on the human body, is evolving rapidly, and some Asian scientists have expressed reservations about the accuracy of some of the calculations. However, none of them disputes the fact that millions are dying early because of the pollution.

The report concentrates on the effect of the smaller particulates that are known to do the most damage to lungs, and to enter the bloodstream, and it may in fact be underestimating the overall effects of poor air quality. − Climate News Network

* * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, covering development and the environment: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com and on twitter at @nivedita_Him

Geology’s human footprint is enough to spur rage

Once again science has presented evidence that a new geological epoch is here. This human footprint is all our own work.

LONDON, 21 October, 2020 − The human footprint has left its mark on Earth, in every sense. The United States alone is scarred by 500,000 abandoned mines and quarries.

Right now, worldwide, there are more than 500,000 active quarries and pits, employing 4 million people, excavating the sand and gravel needed for new roads, new homes and new megacities.

Humans have not simply pitted the face of the Earth, they have paved it. In 1904, beyond the cities, the US had just 225 km of sealed highway. Now it has 4.3m km of asphalt or concrete roadway, consuming more than 20 billion tonnes of sand and gravel.

By comparison, the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most enduring construction in early human history, contains just 0.4bn tonnes of stone.

Humans have changed the face of the waters. In 1950, trawlers, long-liners and purse seiners fished just 1% of the high seas beyond territorial waters. No fish species of any kind was considered over-exploited or depleted.

Extinction threat widens

Less than one human lifetime on, fishing fleets roam 63% of the high seas and 87% of fish species are exploited, over-exploited or in a state of collapse. Meanwhile somewhere between 5m and almost 13 million tons of discarded plastics flow each year into the sea.

Humans and human livestock now far outweigh all other mammalian life. At least 96% of the mass of all mammals is represented by humans and their domesticated animals. Domestic poultry makes up 70% of the mass of all living birds. The natural world is now endangered, with a million species at risk of extinction.

And humans have left an almost indelible radiant signature over the entire global surface: between 1950 and 1980, nations detonated more than 500 thermonuclear weapons to smear the air and surface of the planet with radioactive materials: one of these, plutonium-239, will be detectable for the next 100,000 years.

The catalogue of planetary devastation that is the human footprint is assembled in a new study by US and European scientists in the journal Nature Communications: Earth and Environment. It is part of a fresh attempt to settle a seemingly academic question of geological bureaucracy, the naming of ages.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it”

The 11,000-year interval since the end of the last Ice Age and the dawn of agriculture, metal smelting, and the first cities, cultures and empires is still formally identified as the Holocene. The latest study of the human legacy is just another salvo in the campaign to announce and confirm the launch of an entirely new epoch, to be called the Anthropocene.

In fact, environmental campaigners, biologists and geophysicists have for years been informally calling the last six or seven decades the Anthropocene. But the authority with the last word on internationally-agreed geological labels − the International Commission on Stratigraphy − has yet to confirm the launch of the new geological epoch.

To help confirm the case for change, researchers have once again assembled the evidence and identified at least 16 ways in which humans have dramatically altered the planet since 1950, and the beginning of what is sometimes called The Great Acceleration.

For instance, humans have doubled the quantity of fixed nitrogen in the biosphere, created an alarming hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, released enough gases to raise the planetary temperature and precipitate global climate change, fashioned or forged perhaps 180,000 kinds of mineral (by comparison, only about 5,300 occur naturally) and − with dams, drains, wells, irrigation, and hydraulic engineering − effectively replumbed the world’s river systems.

Ineradicable scar

By forging metals and building structures, humans have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and left a mark that will endure for aeons.

Altogether, humans have altered the world’s rivers, lakes, coastlines, vegetation, soils, chemistry and climate. The study makes grim reading.

“This is the first time that humans have documented humanity’s geological footprint on such a comprehensive scale in a single publication,” said Jaia Syvitski, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who led the research team that assembled the evidence.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it.

“Society shouldn’t feel complacent. Few people who read the manuscript should come away without emotions bubbling up, like rage, grief and even fear.” − Climate News Network

Once again science has presented evidence that a new geological epoch is here. This human footprint is all our own work.

LONDON, 21 October, 2020 − The human footprint has left its mark on Earth, in every sense. The United States alone is scarred by 500,000 abandoned mines and quarries.

Right now, worldwide, there are more than 500,000 active quarries and pits, employing 4 million people, excavating the sand and gravel needed for new roads, new homes and new megacities.

Humans have not simply pitted the face of the Earth, they have paved it. In 1904, beyond the cities, the US had just 225 km of sealed highway. Now it has 4.3m km of asphalt or concrete roadway, consuming more than 20 billion tonnes of sand and gravel.

By comparison, the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most enduring construction in early human history, contains just 0.4bn tonnes of stone.

Humans have changed the face of the waters. In 1950, trawlers, long-liners and purse seiners fished just 1% of the high seas beyond territorial waters. No fish species of any kind was considered over-exploited or depleted.

Extinction threat widens

Less than one human lifetime on, fishing fleets roam 63% of the high seas and 87% of fish species are exploited, over-exploited or in a state of collapse. Meanwhile somewhere between 5m and almost 13 million tons of discarded plastics flow each year into the sea.

Humans and human livestock now far outweigh all other mammalian life. At least 96% of the mass of all mammals is represented by humans and their domesticated animals. Domestic poultry makes up 70% of the mass of all living birds. The natural world is now endangered, with a million species at risk of extinction.

And humans have left an almost indelible radiant signature over the entire global surface: between 1950 and 1980, nations detonated more than 500 thermonuclear weapons to smear the air and surface of the planet with radioactive materials: one of these, plutonium-239, will be detectable for the next 100,000 years.

The catalogue of planetary devastation that is the human footprint is assembled in a new study by US and European scientists in the journal Nature Communications: Earth and Environment. It is part of a fresh attempt to settle a seemingly academic question of geological bureaucracy, the naming of ages.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it”

The 11,000-year interval since the end of the last Ice Age and the dawn of agriculture, metal smelting, and the first cities, cultures and empires is still formally identified as the Holocene. The latest study of the human legacy is just another salvo in the campaign to announce and confirm the launch of an entirely new epoch, to be called the Anthropocene.

In fact, environmental campaigners, biologists and geophysicists have for years been informally calling the last six or seven decades the Anthropocene. But the authority with the last word on internationally-agreed geological labels − the International Commission on Stratigraphy − has yet to confirm the launch of the new geological epoch.

To help confirm the case for change, researchers have once again assembled the evidence and identified at least 16 ways in which humans have dramatically altered the planet since 1950, and the beginning of what is sometimes called The Great Acceleration.

For instance, humans have doubled the quantity of fixed nitrogen in the biosphere, created an alarming hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, released enough gases to raise the planetary temperature and precipitate global climate change, fashioned or forged perhaps 180,000 kinds of mineral (by comparison, only about 5,300 occur naturally) and − with dams, drains, wells, irrigation, and hydraulic engineering − effectively replumbed the world’s river systems.

Ineradicable scar

By forging metals and building structures, humans have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and left a mark that will endure for aeons.

Altogether, humans have altered the world’s rivers, lakes, coastlines, vegetation, soils, chemistry and climate. The study makes grim reading.

“This is the first time that humans have documented humanity’s geological footprint on such a comprehensive scale in a single publication,” said Jaia Syvitski, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who led the research team that assembled the evidence.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it.

“Society shouldn’t feel complacent. Few people who read the manuscript should come away without emotions bubbling up, like rage, grief and even fear.” − Climate News Network


Europe warns of Brazilian trade boycott over fires

Appalled by more forest loss and worse wildfires, eight European countries warn of a possible Brazilian trade boycott.

SÃO PAULO, 21 September, 2020 − There was international concern over the forest fires which swept the Amazon last year. This year’s devastation looks set to be still more severe. And it won’t go without vigorous protest, and possible action: a Brazilian trade boycott.

Six EU countries and the UK have sent an open letter to the Brazilian government protesting at Brazil’s environmental policy and threatening a boycott.

Fires in two of Brazil’s most important biomes (areas of the Earth  that can be classified according to the plants and animals that live in them), the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands area, have reached record numbers of fires.

The seven countries (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Italy, and the United Kingdom), are signatories to the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership, set up in 2015 to ensure sustainable commodity supply chains. Their focus is on deforestation and sustainable palm oil.

Worse than 2019

Their letter (which is supported by a non-member of the Partnership, Belgium) was prompted by evidence that this year’s fires in the Amazon are going to be even worse than those last year, which led to worldwide protests against the Brazilian government. In the first two weeks of September 2020 more fires have been recorded than during the entire month of September last year.

In addition, not only is the Amazon burning: the Pantanal is also seeing a record number of fires. An area the size of Belgium (almost 3 million hectares) has already been burnt. The Pantanal is a wildlife sanctuary, and untold millions of animals, birds and reptiles have been burned to death or have died from smoke inhalation, in what is probably one of the worst-ever extinctions of wildlife.

The fires in the Pantanal have been facilitated by an unprecedented drought, leaving rivers and streams dry, but police are investigating evidence that they were started deliberately by farmers seeking more grassland for their cattle. The Pantanal is also home to millions of cattle.

The letter’s signatories express alarm at the growth in deforestation which has led to the fires, pointing out that in the past Brazil successfully expanded agricultural production while reducing forest clearing.

Supermarkets intervene

“There is growing concern among consumers, companies, investors and European civil society about the present rates of deforestation”, they say.

Recently two of Germany’s biggest supermarket chains, Edeka and Lidl, asked the German government to put pressure on Brazil to reduce deforestation.

For Marcio Astrini, of the Brazilian NGO Climate Observatory, the letter will influence the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which still has to be ratified by most European parliaments.

“Jair Bolsonaro and his government are destroying our biomes, the Earth’s climate and the economic future of the country in the name of a toxic and stupid ideology, which favours environmental crime in detriment to productive forces and the comparative advantages which Brazil enjoyed”, he said.

Global protest

President Bolsonaro and his ministers, who against all the evidence continue to deny the severity of the fires in the Amazon, downplayed the importance of the letter, dismissing it as a “trade strategy” of the Europeans.

But it is not only the Europeans who are worried about what’s happening in the Amazon. A few days ago 230 agribusiness companies and NGOs joined forces to present the government with a list of proposals for ending deforestation (in Brazilian Portuguese)

The group, which includes WWF Brazil, the World Resources Institute, Imazon and Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), as well as some of the world’s biggest agribusiness companies, like Bayer, Danone, Unilever, Natura, JBS, Marfrig and Amaggi, says that a rapid decrease in deforestation is fundamental, not only for environmental but for economic reasons too.

It wants a return to regular monitoring and application of fines for illegal clearing, which the Bolsonaro government has effectively sabotaged by cutting funds for environmental agencies.

“Jair Bolsonaro and his government are destroying our biomes, the Earth’s climate and the economic future of the country in the name of a toxic and stupid ideology”

It says access to official funds should be conditional upon socio-environmental criteria, and attempts by private landowners to declare themselves owners of areas located within protected public lands should be stopped.

In other words, what it is demanding is not rocket science, but the enforcement of existing laws, instead of the illegality which the Bolsonaro government has indirectly encouraged.

Neither the Amazon nor the Pantanal, both humid areas, catches fire spontaneously. Huge areas illegally cleared last year are being set on fire to prepare the land for farming. Trees were felled en masse by big chains stretched between tractors that topple everything in their path.

This year the felled vegetation is being burned to clear the land for cattle or soy. Between January 2019 and April 2020 an area of over 4,500 sq kms of Amazon forest was cleared.

Catastrophe foretold

The fires spread easily because of tinder-dry conditions, and because the environment ministry failed to release funds for firefighting until the dry season was well under way.

There were warnings. In June IPAM declared that the deforestation of the last year and a half in the Amazon could herald a catastrophe in the region. “If 100% is burnt, an unprecedented health calamity will add to the effects of Covid-19”, it said.

The fires have covered towns and cities in the Amazon with huge clouds of sooty smoke, leading to thousands of people, including babies and small children, being hospitalised for breathing problems, as reported in a study published by Human Rights Watch, IPAM and IPES (the Health Policies Study Institute), on 26 August.

The fires’ impact is not confined to the Amazon region: black clouds of sooty particles are spreading south and are expected to reach São Paulo, Brazil’s major metropolis, within a few days. Pressure for a Brazilian trade boycott is liable to intensify. − Climate News Network

Appalled by more forest loss and worse wildfires, eight European countries warn of a possible Brazilian trade boycott.

SÃO PAULO, 21 September, 2020 − There was international concern over the forest fires which swept the Amazon last year. This year’s devastation looks set to be still more severe. And it won’t go without vigorous protest, and possible action: a Brazilian trade boycott.

Six EU countries and the UK have sent an open letter to the Brazilian government protesting at Brazil’s environmental policy and threatening a boycott.

Fires in two of Brazil’s most important biomes (areas of the Earth  that can be classified according to the plants and animals that live in them), the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands area, have reached record numbers of fires.

The seven countries (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Italy, and the United Kingdom), are signatories to the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership, set up in 2015 to ensure sustainable commodity supply chains. Their focus is on deforestation and sustainable palm oil.

Worse than 2019

Their letter (which is supported by a non-member of the Partnership, Belgium) was prompted by evidence that this year’s fires in the Amazon are going to be even worse than those last year, which led to worldwide protests against the Brazilian government. In the first two weeks of September 2020 more fires have been recorded than during the entire month of September last year.

In addition, not only is the Amazon burning: the Pantanal is also seeing a record number of fires. An area the size of Belgium (almost 3 million hectares) has already been burnt. The Pantanal is a wildlife sanctuary, and untold millions of animals, birds and reptiles have been burned to death or have died from smoke inhalation, in what is probably one of the worst-ever extinctions of wildlife.

The fires in the Pantanal have been facilitated by an unprecedented drought, leaving rivers and streams dry, but police are investigating evidence that they were started deliberately by farmers seeking more grassland for their cattle. The Pantanal is also home to millions of cattle.

The letter’s signatories express alarm at the growth in deforestation which has led to the fires, pointing out that in the past Brazil successfully expanded agricultural production while reducing forest clearing.

Supermarkets intervene

“There is growing concern among consumers, companies, investors and European civil society about the present rates of deforestation”, they say.

Recently two of Germany’s biggest supermarket chains, Edeka and Lidl, asked the German government to put pressure on Brazil to reduce deforestation.

For Marcio Astrini, of the Brazilian NGO Climate Observatory, the letter will influence the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which still has to be ratified by most European parliaments.

“Jair Bolsonaro and his government are destroying our biomes, the Earth’s climate and the economic future of the country in the name of a toxic and stupid ideology, which favours environmental crime in detriment to productive forces and the comparative advantages which Brazil enjoyed”, he said.

Global protest

President Bolsonaro and his ministers, who against all the evidence continue to deny the severity of the fires in the Amazon, downplayed the importance of the letter, dismissing it as a “trade strategy” of the Europeans.

But it is not only the Europeans who are worried about what’s happening in the Amazon. A few days ago 230 agribusiness companies and NGOs joined forces to present the government with a list of proposals for ending deforestation (in Brazilian Portuguese)

The group, which includes WWF Brazil, the World Resources Institute, Imazon and Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), as well as some of the world’s biggest agribusiness companies, like Bayer, Danone, Unilever, Natura, JBS, Marfrig and Amaggi, says that a rapid decrease in deforestation is fundamental, not only for environmental but for economic reasons too.

It wants a return to regular monitoring and application of fines for illegal clearing, which the Bolsonaro government has effectively sabotaged by cutting funds for environmental agencies.

“Jair Bolsonaro and his government are destroying our biomes, the Earth’s climate and the economic future of the country in the name of a toxic and stupid ideology”

It says access to official funds should be conditional upon socio-environmental criteria, and attempts by private landowners to declare themselves owners of areas located within protected public lands should be stopped.

In other words, what it is demanding is not rocket science, but the enforcement of existing laws, instead of the illegality which the Bolsonaro government has indirectly encouraged.

Neither the Amazon nor the Pantanal, both humid areas, catches fire spontaneously. Huge areas illegally cleared last year are being set on fire to prepare the land for farming. Trees were felled en masse by big chains stretched between tractors that topple everything in their path.

This year the felled vegetation is being burned to clear the land for cattle or soy. Between January 2019 and April 2020 an area of over 4,500 sq kms of Amazon forest was cleared.

Catastrophe foretold

The fires spread easily because of tinder-dry conditions, and because the environment ministry failed to release funds for firefighting until the dry season was well under way.

There were warnings. In June IPAM declared that the deforestation of the last year and a half in the Amazon could herald a catastrophe in the region. “If 100% is burnt, an unprecedented health calamity will add to the effects of Covid-19”, it said.

The fires have covered towns and cities in the Amazon with huge clouds of sooty smoke, leading to thousands of people, including babies and small children, being hospitalised for breathing problems, as reported in a study published by Human Rights Watch, IPAM and IPES (the Health Policies Study Institute), on 26 August.

The fires’ impact is not confined to the Amazon region: black clouds of sooty particles are spreading south and are expected to reach São Paulo, Brazil’s major metropolis, within a few days. Pressure for a Brazilian trade boycott is liable to intensify. − Climate News Network

Lethal price of climate inertia far exceeds action

Climate change will impose a lethal price if we do not all pay the far smaller cost of confronting it.

LONDON, 10 September, 2020 – In the hotter world of climate change, it won’t just be the glaciers that melt: national and regional economies, big business, government and even the multinationals will all pay a lethal price.

If the planet becomes 4°C warmer by 2100, then many regions could see a 10% fall in economic output. They’d be the lucky ones. In the tropics, the economic losses could be double that.

There are of course ways to limit losses and save lives. US researchers believe that if a quarter of all motorists in the US switched to electric vehicles, the nation could save $17bn a year in the costs of climate change and air pollution. If three fourths of drivers switched to cars fuelled by renewable electricity, savings could tip $70bn.

Both studies are specimens of the kind of economic reasoning – always arguable and often intensely-argued – that necessarily must make “what-if” calculations about the notional costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and the notional value of human lives blighted by heat-related illnesses and air pollution a lifetime from now.

But both are just the latest in a long line of calculations that demonstrate, repeatedly, that the costs to the next generation of doing nothing about climate change far outweigh the costs now of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture”

The latest exploration of the price of doing nothing is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

German scientists report that they looked, in detail, at the possible consequences of a 4°C warning, not on national economies but on 1500 states, provinces, departments and other political subdivisions within 77 nations around the globe.

Their finding – that more intense global heating could cost all of them 10% of their output and those in the warmer regions more than 20% – is, they say, conservative.

That is because their calculations do not take into account the potential catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and sea level rise – both of which could be substantial.

“Climate damages hit our businesses and our jobs, not just polar bears and coral reefs,” said Leonie Wenz, of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Tangible value

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture. They affect our harvests and they mean extra stress, and thus costs for our infrastructure.”

But, according to a study in the journal GeoHealth, even the purchase of a new car could soften the impact: providing the car is electric and the power for its batteries is delivered by wind or solar energy.

If electric vehicles replaced 25% of all cars on US roads, the country could save $17bn a year in the notional costs of climate change and health damage – asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and premature death – from choking exhausts. Triple that, and the savings would reach $70bn.

“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life are much studied and much debated metrics,” said Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University in Illinois, one of the authors.

“But they are used regularly to make policy decisions. It helps to put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere.” – Climate News Network

Climate change will impose a lethal price if we do not all pay the far smaller cost of confronting it.

LONDON, 10 September, 2020 – In the hotter world of climate change, it won’t just be the glaciers that melt: national and regional economies, big business, government and even the multinationals will all pay a lethal price.

If the planet becomes 4°C warmer by 2100, then many regions could see a 10% fall in economic output. They’d be the lucky ones. In the tropics, the economic losses could be double that.

There are of course ways to limit losses and save lives. US researchers believe that if a quarter of all motorists in the US switched to electric vehicles, the nation could save $17bn a year in the costs of climate change and air pollution. If three fourths of drivers switched to cars fuelled by renewable electricity, savings could tip $70bn.

Both studies are specimens of the kind of economic reasoning – always arguable and often intensely-argued – that necessarily must make “what-if” calculations about the notional costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and the notional value of human lives blighted by heat-related illnesses and air pollution a lifetime from now.

But both are just the latest in a long line of calculations that demonstrate, repeatedly, that the costs to the next generation of doing nothing about climate change far outweigh the costs now of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture”

The latest exploration of the price of doing nothing is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

German scientists report that they looked, in detail, at the possible consequences of a 4°C warning, not on national economies but on 1500 states, provinces, departments and other political subdivisions within 77 nations around the globe.

Their finding – that more intense global heating could cost all of them 10% of their output and those in the warmer regions more than 20% – is, they say, conservative.

That is because their calculations do not take into account the potential catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and sea level rise – both of which could be substantial.

“Climate damages hit our businesses and our jobs, not just polar bears and coral reefs,” said Leonie Wenz, of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Tangible value

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture. They affect our harvests and they mean extra stress, and thus costs for our infrastructure.”

But, according to a study in the journal GeoHealth, even the purchase of a new car could soften the impact: providing the car is electric and the power for its batteries is delivered by wind or solar energy.

If electric vehicles replaced 25% of all cars on US roads, the country could save $17bn a year in the notional costs of climate change and health damage – asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and premature death – from choking exhausts. Triple that, and the savings would reach $70bn.

“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life are much studied and much debated metrics,” said Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University in Illinois, one of the authors.

“But they are used regularly to make policy decisions. It helps to put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere.” – Climate News Network

‘Ban adverts for cars that damage the climate’

Tobacco advertisements are often banned these days. So why not ban adverts for gas-guzzling cars that damage the planet?

LONDON, 1 September, 2020 – Many countries now ban adverts for tobacco products and some now limit sales of junk food, to protect public health. All of them have reduced advertising, or ended it outright.

So, campaigners argue, why not do the same with adverts which promote high-carbon products and lifestyles, damaging people’s health and heating the planet?

There’s growing pressure for bans like that in the United Kingdom, with a focus on ending the promotion of highly-polluting cars, gas-guzzling 4x4s, also known as SUVs, an argument developed by a campaign called Badvertising.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based group which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change).

As part of its work to publicise how projects and communities can withstand the effects of climate heating, the Alliance too is supporting Badvertising, which it is convinced can succeed.

40-year resistance

The RTA argues that advertising bans have worked before, provided they have had three factors in their favour: strong evidence from trusted sources; clear campaigning; and a threat to public health, which policymakers take seriously.

Even so, it says, powerful moneyed interests will oppose changes that threaten their income. Advertising is one key way of driving consumption, encouraging us to “shop till we drop”. In 2020 world expenditure on advertising is expected to reach US$691.7 billion (£520bn), up by 7.0% from 2019, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

That’s more than China’s infrastructure investment programme after the 2008 financial crisis, and over four times more than the $153bn provided to developing countries in 2018 by the 30 members of the OECD’s development assistance committee.

With tobacco, once its huge public health impact became clear – 100 million people died in the last century from its use, and the figure for this century is expected to be ten times greater – campaigners had to work tirelessly for another 40 years until its promotion was banned.

The tobacco industry meanwhile resisted fiercely, arguing, for example, that adverts didn’t increase smoking but merely encouraged people to switch brands, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power”

For climate and health campaigners today there are valuable lessons to be learned from the fight against tobacco, the RTA says. Both tobacco smoke and car exhausts contain similar toxins that directly threaten human health.

Underlying health conditions mean that poorer households are worse hit than richer ones by the effects of tobacco and air pollution from vehicles, and so are more vulnerable too to health crises like Covid-19.

Junk food is another target for campaigners against advertising, particularly where child obesity is an issue. In London a ban on unhealthy food advertising was introduced in 2018, to widespread public approval. The UK government is now set to implement stricter rules on how junk food is advertised and sold across the country.

This year the Mexican state of Oaxaca banned the sale of sugary drinks and high-calorie snack foods to children. Mexicans drink 163 litres of soft drinks a year per head – the world’s highest level – and they start young. About 73% of Mexicans are considered overweight, and related diseases such as diabetes are rife.

A survey by El Poder del Consumidor (in Spanish) – a Mexican consumer advocacy group and drinks industry critic – found 70% of schoolchildren in a poor region of Guerrero state reported having soft drinks for breakfast. “When you go to these communities, what you find is junk food. There’s no access to clean drinking water,” said Alejandro Calvillo, the group’s director.

Doubt-spreading

In 2006 a US district judge ruled that tobacco companies had “devised and executed a scheme to defraud consumers … about the hazards of cigarettes, hazards that their own internal company documents proved they had known about since the 1950s.” After four decades of delay, obfuscation and the spreading of doubt by the industry, the tobacco companies were found guilty.

In the UK the first calls to restrict advertising came in 1962 from the Royal College of Physicians. The general advertising of tobacco products was banned in stages from 2003. But concern at the damage that advertising can cause continues.

Communities in the UK city of Bristol recently acted against the bright LCD billboards which have proliferated there, causing light pollution and using huge amounts of energy to adverise a range of goods and services. A Bristol initiative to help residents object to planning applications for new digital advertising screens has now led to a wider network, Adfree Cities.

Advertising is part of the broader public relations industry. The RTA quotes an American citizen, often called the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who worked for the US Committee on Public Information, a body for official propaganda during the first world war.

Bernays once wrote: “Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of.”

Doctors’ crucial intervention

One turning point in the battle against tobacco industry propaganda in the UK, the RTA says, was the involvement of the doctors’ trades union, the British Medical Association (BMA). This brought the people the public trusted most – their family doctors – into direct confrontation with the tobacco industry.

But the medical profession was to play another crucial part in protecting public health on a far wider front in 2017, when an article in the Lancet, the leading British medical journal, featured a major study, this time with evidence supporting the climatologists’ findings that climate change is a growing health hazard.

In response, Simon Dalby of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada asks why we don’t use advertising restrictions for climate change in the same way that we have with other public health hazards like smoking.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are already suffering because of climate change, he points out. Infectious diseases are spreading faster as the climate heats, hunger and malnutrition are worsening, allergy seasons are getting longer, and sometimes it’s simply too hot for farmers to tend their crops.

Professor Dalby’s suggestion? Not only should we restrict adverts for gas-guzzlers. We should treat climate change itself, not as an environmental problem, but as a health emergency. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Tobacco advertisements are often banned these days. So why not ban adverts for gas-guzzling cars that damage the planet?

LONDON, 1 September, 2020 – Many countries now ban adverts for tobacco products and some now limit sales of junk food, to protect public health. All of them have reduced advertising, or ended it outright.

So, campaigners argue, why not do the same with adverts which promote high-carbon products and lifestyles, damaging people’s health and heating the planet?

There’s growing pressure for bans like that in the United Kingdom, with a focus on ending the promotion of highly-polluting cars, gas-guzzling 4x4s, also known as SUVs, an argument developed by a campaign called Badvertising.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based group which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change).

As part of its work to publicise how projects and communities can withstand the effects of climate heating, the Alliance too is supporting Badvertising, which it is convinced can succeed.

40-year resistance

The RTA argues that advertising bans have worked before, provided they have had three factors in their favour: strong evidence from trusted sources; clear campaigning; and a threat to public health, which policymakers take seriously.

Even so, it says, powerful moneyed interests will oppose changes that threaten their income. Advertising is one key way of driving consumption, encouraging us to “shop till we drop”. In 2020 world expenditure on advertising is expected to reach US$691.7 billion (£520bn), up by 7.0% from 2019, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

That’s more than China’s infrastructure investment programme after the 2008 financial crisis, and over four times more than the $153bn provided to developing countries in 2018 by the 30 members of the OECD’s development assistance committee.

With tobacco, once its huge public health impact became clear – 100 million people died in the last century from its use, and the figure for this century is expected to be ten times greater – campaigners had to work tirelessly for another 40 years until its promotion was banned.

The tobacco industry meanwhile resisted fiercely, arguing, for example, that adverts didn’t increase smoking but merely encouraged people to switch brands, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power”

For climate and health campaigners today there are valuable lessons to be learned from the fight against tobacco, the RTA says. Both tobacco smoke and car exhausts contain similar toxins that directly threaten human health.

Underlying health conditions mean that poorer households are worse hit than richer ones by the effects of tobacco and air pollution from vehicles, and so are more vulnerable too to health crises like Covid-19.

Junk food is another target for campaigners against advertising, particularly where child obesity is an issue. In London a ban on unhealthy food advertising was introduced in 2018, to widespread public approval. The UK government is now set to implement stricter rules on how junk food is advertised and sold across the country.

This year the Mexican state of Oaxaca banned the sale of sugary drinks and high-calorie snack foods to children. Mexicans drink 163 litres of soft drinks a year per head – the world’s highest level – and they start young. About 73% of Mexicans are considered overweight, and related diseases such as diabetes are rife.

A survey by El Poder del Consumidor (in Spanish) – a Mexican consumer advocacy group and drinks industry critic – found 70% of schoolchildren in a poor region of Guerrero state reported having soft drinks for breakfast. “When you go to these communities, what you find is junk food. There’s no access to clean drinking water,” said Alejandro Calvillo, the group’s director.

Doubt-spreading

In 2006 a US district judge ruled that tobacco companies had “devised and executed a scheme to defraud consumers … about the hazards of cigarettes, hazards that their own internal company documents proved they had known about since the 1950s.” After four decades of delay, obfuscation and the spreading of doubt by the industry, the tobacco companies were found guilty.

In the UK the first calls to restrict advertising came in 1962 from the Royal College of Physicians. The general advertising of tobacco products was banned in stages from 2003. But concern at the damage that advertising can cause continues.

Communities in the UK city of Bristol recently acted against the bright LCD billboards which have proliferated there, causing light pollution and using huge amounts of energy to adverise a range of goods and services. A Bristol initiative to help residents object to planning applications for new digital advertising screens has now led to a wider network, Adfree Cities.

Advertising is part of the broader public relations industry. The RTA quotes an American citizen, often called the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who worked for the US Committee on Public Information, a body for official propaganda during the first world war.

Bernays once wrote: “Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of.”

Doctors’ crucial intervention

One turning point in the battle against tobacco industry propaganda in the UK, the RTA says, was the involvement of the doctors’ trades union, the British Medical Association (BMA). This brought the people the public trusted most – their family doctors – into direct confrontation with the tobacco industry.

But the medical profession was to play another crucial part in protecting public health on a far wider front in 2017, when an article in the Lancet, the leading British medical journal, featured a major study, this time with evidence supporting the climatologists’ findings that climate change is a growing health hazard.

In response, Simon Dalby of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada asks why we don’t use advertising restrictions for climate change in the same way that we have with other public health hazards like smoking.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world are already suffering because of climate change, he points out. Infectious diseases are spreading faster as the climate heats, hunger and malnutrition are worsening, allergy seasons are getting longer, and sometimes it’s simply too hot for farmers to tend their crops.

Professor Dalby’s suggestion? Not only should we restrict adverts for gas-guzzlers. We should treat climate change itself, not as an environmental problem, but as a health emergency. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Oceans’ plastic tide may be far larger than thought

Artificial fibres now go everywhere. The oceans’ plastic tide may reach their whole depth, entering marine life and people.

LONDON, 20 August, 2020 − The world’s seas could be home to a vast reservoir of hitherto unidentified pollution, the growing burden of the oceans’ plastic tide.

Up to 21 million tonnes of tiny and invisible plastic fibres could be floating in the first 200 metres of the Atlantic Ocean alone. And as British research exposed the scale of the problem, American chemists revealed that for the first time they had found microplastic fibres incorporated within human organ tissues.

A day or two later Dutch scientists demonstrated that plastic waste wasn’t simply a passive hazard to marine life: experiments showed that polluting plastic released chemicals into the stomachs of seabirds.

But first, the global problem. Oceanographers have known for decades that plastic waste had found its way into the sea: floating on the surface, it has reached the beaches of the remote Antarctic, been sampled in Arctic waters, been identified in the sediments on the sea floor and been ingested by marine creatures, from the smallest to the whale family.

Ominously, researchers warn that the sheer mass of plastic waste could multiply threefold in the decades to come. And, unlike all other forms of human pollution, plastic waste is here to stay, one day to form a permanent geological layer that will mark the Anthropocene era.

“Plastic is making its way into our bodies but very few studies have looked for it there. We don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard”

Scientists report in the journal Nature Communications that at 12 places along a 10,000 km north-south voyage in the Atlantic late in 2015, the waters were sampled for evidence of just three forms of plastic litter: polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.

These samples were taken at depths of 10 metres below the surface, between 10 and 30 metres below what oceanographers call the mixed layer, and then 100 metres even deeper.

They then looked for fragments of the three plastics right down to the scale of 25 millionths of a metre, and began counting. They found up to 7,000 particles of all three types in a cubic metre of seawater.

Then they did the sums: people have been throwing plastic bags, packets, bottles, cups, nets and packaging away since 1950, and it has been getting into the Atlantic since 1950, with the estimated mass so far ranging from 17 million to 47 million tonnes.

The Atlantic has an average depth of 3000 metres. The discovery that the mass of plastic just in the upper 200 metres of one ocean lies somewhere between 12 and 21 million tonnes suggests that the flow of plastic into the seas everywhere may have been seriously under-estimated.

Missing measurement

“Previously, we couldn’t balance the mass of floating plastic we observed with the mass we thought had entered the ocean since 1950,” said Katsiaryna Pabortsava of the UK National Oceanography Centre, at Southampton, who led the study.

“This is because earlier studies hadn’t been measuring the concentrations of ‘invisible’ microplastic particles beneath the ocean surface. Our research is the first to have done this across the entire Atlantic, from the UK to the Falklands.”

Large plastic fragments disfigure the landscape and represent a direct threat to animals that mistake them for food.

Nobody yet knows how dangerous microplastic fibres might be, but if they are consumed by little animals they soon get concentrated in bigger predators, including the greatest predators of all: humans.

Scientists told the American Chemical Society – at a virtual meeting – that they had developed the techniques needed to identify microplastic fibres in 47 samples from donated lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys: that is, such fragments did more than simply pass through a gastrointestinal tract. They became part of human flesh.

Seabird vulnerability

“There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies but very few studies have looked for it there,” said Charles Rolsky of Arizona State University. “And at this point we don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard.”

Although plastic seems to be durable and indestructible, there may be evidence that it can react with biology. The journal Frontiers in Environmental Science reports that fragments of plastic, collected from beaches and incubated in natural oils from the stomachs of a seabird known as the northern fulmar – hunted for food in the Faroe Islands – eventually released chemicals.

These were agents that had been added in the process of making that plastic: among them flame retardants, stabilisers and plasticisers. Once again, there is no certainty that such releases would harm the birds, but some of these chemicals have been identified in other tests as hormone disruptors.

“I’ve been working on northern fulmars for almost 10 years,” said Susanne Kühn of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands.

“As these seabirds ingest plastics regularly, and 93% of the fulmars from the North Sea have some plastic in their stomachs, it is important to understand the potential harm this could cause.” − Climate News Network

Artificial fibres now go everywhere. The oceans’ plastic tide may reach their whole depth, entering marine life and people.

LONDON, 20 August, 2020 − The world’s seas could be home to a vast reservoir of hitherto unidentified pollution, the growing burden of the oceans’ plastic tide.

Up to 21 million tonnes of tiny and invisible plastic fibres could be floating in the first 200 metres of the Atlantic Ocean alone. And as British research exposed the scale of the problem, American chemists revealed that for the first time they had found microplastic fibres incorporated within human organ tissues.

A day or two later Dutch scientists demonstrated that plastic waste wasn’t simply a passive hazard to marine life: experiments showed that polluting plastic released chemicals into the stomachs of seabirds.

But first, the global problem. Oceanographers have known for decades that plastic waste had found its way into the sea: floating on the surface, it has reached the beaches of the remote Antarctic, been sampled in Arctic waters, been identified in the sediments on the sea floor and been ingested by marine creatures, from the smallest to the whale family.

Ominously, researchers warn that the sheer mass of plastic waste could multiply threefold in the decades to come. And, unlike all other forms of human pollution, plastic waste is here to stay, one day to form a permanent geological layer that will mark the Anthropocene era.

“Plastic is making its way into our bodies but very few studies have looked for it there. We don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard”

Scientists report in the journal Nature Communications that at 12 places along a 10,000 km north-south voyage in the Atlantic late in 2015, the waters were sampled for evidence of just three forms of plastic litter: polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.

These samples were taken at depths of 10 metres below the surface, between 10 and 30 metres below what oceanographers call the mixed layer, and then 100 metres even deeper.

They then looked for fragments of the three plastics right down to the scale of 25 millionths of a metre, and began counting. They found up to 7,000 particles of all three types in a cubic metre of seawater.

Then they did the sums: people have been throwing plastic bags, packets, bottles, cups, nets and packaging away since 1950, and it has been getting into the Atlantic since 1950, with the estimated mass so far ranging from 17 million to 47 million tonnes.

The Atlantic has an average depth of 3000 metres. The discovery that the mass of plastic just in the upper 200 metres of one ocean lies somewhere between 12 and 21 million tonnes suggests that the flow of plastic into the seas everywhere may have been seriously under-estimated.

Missing measurement

“Previously, we couldn’t balance the mass of floating plastic we observed with the mass we thought had entered the ocean since 1950,” said Katsiaryna Pabortsava of the UK National Oceanography Centre, at Southampton, who led the study.

“This is because earlier studies hadn’t been measuring the concentrations of ‘invisible’ microplastic particles beneath the ocean surface. Our research is the first to have done this across the entire Atlantic, from the UK to the Falklands.”

Large plastic fragments disfigure the landscape and represent a direct threat to animals that mistake them for food.

Nobody yet knows how dangerous microplastic fibres might be, but if they are consumed by little animals they soon get concentrated in bigger predators, including the greatest predators of all: humans.

Scientists told the American Chemical Society – at a virtual meeting – that they had developed the techniques needed to identify microplastic fibres in 47 samples from donated lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys: that is, such fragments did more than simply pass through a gastrointestinal tract. They became part of human flesh.

Seabird vulnerability

“There’s evidence that plastic is making its way into our bodies but very few studies have looked for it there,” said Charles Rolsky of Arizona State University. “And at this point we don’t know whether this plastic is just a nuisance or whether it represents a human health hazard.”

Although plastic seems to be durable and indestructible, there may be evidence that it can react with biology. The journal Frontiers in Environmental Science reports that fragments of plastic, collected from beaches and incubated in natural oils from the stomachs of a seabird known as the northern fulmar – hunted for food in the Faroe Islands – eventually released chemicals.

These were agents that had been added in the process of making that plastic: among them flame retardants, stabilisers and plasticisers. Once again, there is no certainty that such releases would harm the birds, but some of these chemicals have been identified in other tests as hormone disruptors.

“I’ve been working on northern fulmars for almost 10 years,” said Susanne Kühn of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands.

“As these seabirds ingest plastics regularly, and 93% of the fulmars from the North Sea have some plastic in their stomachs, it is important to understand the potential harm this could cause.” − Climate News Network