Tags Archives: Human health

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China’s Bad Earth

By Josh Chin and Brian Spegele / The Wall Street Journal

By Josh Chin and Brian Spegele / The Wall Street Journal

In Dapu, a rain-drenched rural outpost in the heart of China’s grain basket, a farmer grows crops that she wouldn’t dare to eat.

A state-backed chemicals factory next to her farm dumps wastewater directly into the local irrigation pond, she says, and turns it a florescent blue reminiscent of antifreeze. After walking around in the rice paddies, some farmers here have developed unexplained blisters on their feet.

“Nothing comes from these plants,” says the farmer, pointing past the irrigation pond to a handful of stunted rice shoots. She grows the rice, which can’t be sold because of its low quality, only in order to qualify for payments made by the factory owners to compensate for polluting the area. But the amount is only a fraction of what she used to earn when the land was healthy, she says. The plants look alive, “but they’re actually dead inside.”

The experiences of these farmers in Dapu, in central China’s Hunan province, highlight an emerging and critical front in China’s intensifying battle with pollution. For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China’s ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.

Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.

Rural China’s toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country’s mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them.

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Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages

By Guardian Weekly / The Guardian

By Guardian Weekly / The Guardian

From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world, collectively known as rare earths.

The town of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, is the largest Chinese source of these strategic elements, essential to advanced technology, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to wind farms and, above all, electric cars. The minerals are mined at Bayan Obo, 120km farther north, then brought to Baotou for processing.

The concentration of rare earths in the ore is very low, so they must be separated and purified, using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths. China accounts for 97% of global output of these precious substances, with two-thirds produced in Baotou.

The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukaemia. “Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes,” says Li Guirong with a sigh.

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It’s time to take our heads out of the tar sands

By Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray

By Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray

Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Megantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all.

We write today as witnesses, witnesses to an ecological and social disaster which words can scarcely describe: we have just returned from Fort McMurray, Alberta, the nerve-centre of the tar sands. Welcomed by the local Indigenous community and accompanied by hundreds of citizens from across North America, we walked through the heart of the largest industrial project on the planet. Some of us also visited the Suncor Oil facilities at that company’s invitation.

What we have seen and heard has left an indelible mark upon us. We return deeply saddened and angry. The extent of the devastation caused by this industry is obvious to anyone who sets eyes upon the place, and the numbers confirm this feeling. Each day, oil sands production releases 11 million litres of toxic water into our natural environment — 4 billion litres per year — and emits the equivalent, in greenhouse gas emissions, of 15 million cars.

This is to say nothing of the appalling social effects upon local populations. In some Indigenous communities in the region cancer rates have exploded, and now exceed the Canadian average by a staggering thirty per cent. Meanwhile, the industry has treated First Nations with complete contempt: the Beaver Lake Cree community, for example, has recorded no less than 20,000 violations of their territorial treaties. In many cases, as much as 80 per cent of the territory of Indigenous communities is inaccessible to them at one point or another of the year due to tar sands development. Just as it is here, the Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones in these types of development projects.

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More than 2 million people killed by air pollution each year

Institute of Physics

Institute of Physics

Over two million deaths occur each year as a direct result of human-caused outdoor air pollution, a new study has found.

In addition, while it has been suggested that a changing climate can exacerbate the effects of air pollution and increase death rates, the study shows that this has a minimal effect and only accounts for a small proportion of current deaths related to air pollution.

The study, which has been published today, 12 July, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, estimates that around 470,000 people die each year because of human-caused increases in ozone.

It also estimates that around 2.1 million deaths are caused each year by human-caused increases in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – tiny particles suspended in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing cancer and other respiratory disease.

Co-author of the study, Jason West, from the University of North Carolina, said: “Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health.  Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe.”

According to the study, the number of these deaths that can be attributed to changes in the climate since the industrial era is, however, relatively small. It estimates that a changing climate results in 1500 deaths due to ozone and 2200 deaths related to PM2.5 each year.

Climate change affects air pollution in many ways, possibly leading to local increases or decreases in air pollution. For instance, temperature and humidity can change the reaction rates which determine the formation or lifetime of a pollutant, and rainfall can determine the time that pollutants can accumulate.

Higher temperatures can also increase the emissions of organic compounds from trees, which can then react in the atmosphere to form ozone and particulate matter.

“Very few studies have attempted to estimate the effects of past climate change on air quality and health. We found that the effects of past climate change are likely to be a very small component of the overall effect of air pollution,” continued West.

In their study, the researchers used an ensemble of climate models to simulate the concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in the years 2000 and 1850. A total of 14 models simulated levels of ozone and six models simulated levels of PM2.5.

Previous epidemiological studies were then used to assess how the specific concentrations of air pollution from the climate models related to current global mortality rates.

The researchers’ results were comparable to previous studies that have analysed air pollution and mortality; however, there was some variation depending on which climate model was used.

West added, “We have also found that there is significant uncertainty based on the spread among different atmospheric models.  This would caution against using a single model in the future, as some studies have done”.

From Friday 12 July, this paper can be downloaded from http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034005/article.

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Originally posted by Institute of Physics here.