Margaret Renkl: On an endangered river, another toxic disaster is waiting to happen

NASHVILLE — Almost four years ago, spurred by my decades-long fascination with Homer’s story of the lotus-eaters, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama to see American lotuses in full bloom. Jimbo Meador, our guide, was happy to take us on his boat to see the extravagant flowers.A certified master naturalist, he was also happy to take birders to see the more than 300 species of birds that have been identified in that magnificent delta and to talk with history buffs about the original peoples who lived in the area or the fort where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought or the spot in the river where a ghost fleet of World War II Liberty ships was once anchored. Mr. Meador has spent his whole life talking about the crucial role the Mobile-Tensaw Delta plays in the human and ecological life of the region.The biologist E.O. Wilson called this delta “arguably the biologically richest place” Americans have.It’s also one of the most beautiful, an ecosystem that includes not just open water but also marsh, swamp and hardwood forest. From Mr. Meador’s flat-bottom boat, the delta feels entirely separate, a quiet world of sunshine and drifting clouds and lapping water and birdsong. Self-contained. Untouched.But the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is far from untouched. Nine rivers feed into it, and rivers carry more than just water. They also carry microplastics; fertilizer, pesticides and animal waste from factory-farming operations; silt from storm water runoff; and heavy metals from mines and factories — and that’s on top of the devastations wrought by damming or wetland development or the granddaddy of all environmental threats: climate change.These are the kinds of human-made perils that cause a waterway to be included on America’s Most Endangered Rivers, an annual list published by the nonprofit American Rivers. In this year’s report, the Mobile River, for which the delta is partly named, came in at No. 3, threatened by a coal ash storage pond at the James M. Barry Electric Generating Plant.Alabama Power has dumped 21.7 million tons of coal ash in a storage pond on land that lies within a hairpin crook of the Mobile River. Open to the elements, surrounded on three sides by water, separated from the river by only an earthen dam, the unlined storage pond is leaking heavy metals into the groundwater, which then makes its way to the river.Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for power. It contains high levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium and selenium. Utility companies have historically disposed of the ash by mixing it with water and storing it in pits or ponds constructed for that purpose. Because coal plants require massive amounts of water to generate energy — burning coal to boil water to create the steam that turns the turbines — they and their storage ponds are most often located on bodies of water.“For decades, utilities have disposed of coal ash dangerously, dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills where the toxins leak into groundwater,” according to a report last year by the nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice. There are hundreds of these coal ash storage facilities across 43 states and Puerto Rico, and almost all of them are leaking toxins into groundwater.The leaking storage pond at the Barry plant on the Mobile River was built in 1965, when storing coal ash in holding ponds was the norm. But as Carly Berlin of the nonprofit news organization Southerly pointed out in 2020, that strategy is no longer standard: “A considerable industry shift is underway,” she wrote. “Many Southern utilities are moving to excavate the material and relocate it to dry, lined landfills away from rivers or recycling it into building materials like concrete.”A lotus flower on the Mobile-Tensaw River DeltaDamon Winter/The New York TimesA common moorhen navigates among lotus leaves on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.Damon Winter/The New York TimesNot Alabama Power, though. It plans to pump the water out of its Barry plant pond and cap the ash in place on the banks of the Mobile River. Even if it weren’t already leaking into the groundwater, that strategy would still leave the toxic storage pond vulnerable to extreme weather events, like the catastrophic flooding that swamped Duke Energy’s coal ash storage ponds at the Sutton power plant near Wilmington, N.C., in 2018. A hurricane’s storm surge or rising water in extreme rain events could destroy the earthen dam and spill coal ash directly into the river. Once there, it would threaten the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Mobile Bay and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.“We’ve got an A-bomb up the river,” John Howard, a resident of Mobile County, told the CNN producer Isabelle Chapman. “It’s just waiting to happen.”We know what happens — to a river’s ecosystem, to human communities — when the dam on a coal ash pond finally breaks. In 2008 the collapse of a retaining wall at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond near Kingston in East Tennessee spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash into the nearby river system, covering some 300 acres of Roane County with toxic sludge. It remains the worst industrial spill in U.S. history.What followed that toxic spill was a yearslong cleanup operation that sickened workers by the hundreds. Dozens have since died, the majority from diseases linked to heavy metal contamination — “respiratory, cardiac, neurological and blood disorders, as well as cancers,” according to the nonprofit news site The Daily Yonder. “The jury in a 2018 court case determined that many of these ailments could have been caused by long-term coal ash exposure.” In that case, the U.S. District Court found in favor of 200 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the T.V.A. contractors who supervised the cleanup. (In “Tip of the Ashberg,” an episode in its podcast, “Broken Ground,” the Southern Environmental Law Center gives a full and heartbreaking account of the spill and its aftermath.)The heavy metals in coal ash do not biodegrade, and the environmental cost of releasing so many toxins into flowing water is impossible to calculate. The coal ash holding pond on the Mobile River contains almost four times as much toxic material as the sludge that spilled in Kingston. And it is leaking.In better news, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this year that it was finally getting serious about protecting groundwater from coal ash contamination — a move that was greeted with cautious optimism by environmental groups. “That was great to see,” said Cade Kistler, a full-time advocate for the nonprofit Mobile Baykeeper, in a phone interview last week. “It makes it crystal clear that Alabama Power’s plan is illegal under the E.P.A.’s rule because it will leave coal ash in groundwater. And that pollution is going to continue for generations if they move forward with this plan to cap it in place.”Nevertheless, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management — which has a long history of siding with industry over the environment — has already approved the cap-in-place plan, according to Mr. Kistler. “This clarification from the E.P.A. should force them to move the coal ash. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take the E.P.A. to push back on Alabama.”The fact that the Mobile River has just made American Rivers’ most-endangered list may bring even more scrutiny to the A-bomb on the riverbank, Mr. Kistler said. “We’re hopeful that the list will make more people aware of the extreme danger and shortsightedness of Alabama Power’s plan. Across the Southeast, utilities are moving 250 million tons of coal ash away from their coastal sites, where hurricanes and sea-level rise pose such a threat. The citizens and environment of Alabama deserve the same protection.”I have never been on an oyster boat in Mobile Bay, where generations of families have made their livelihoods. I have never visited nearby Africatown, a community founded by some of the people who were smuggled into Alabama on the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans into this country, a ship that now lies at the bottom of the Mobile River. I don’t belong to any of the human communities that would be devastated if the earthen dam keeping Alabama Power’s coal ash out of the Mobile River ever collapses.But I have been in the American Amazon, as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is known. I have heard the songbirds calling, and I have seen the ospreys fishing. I have fallen under the spell of the intoxicating American lotus in full bloom, and I can hardly bear to think that any of these treasures, human and environmental, could be in such danger.I called up Mr. Meador, who is no longer giving public tours of the delta. I wanted to ask how he feels about seeing the Mobile River on a top-10 list of America’s endangered rivers. “You know, I grew up on Mobile Bay when the water was so clear, and now the water is never clear,” he said. “The whole thing is just really sad to me. We’ve already lost so much.”Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

The ocean's biggest garbage pile is full of floating life

Researchers found that small sea creatures exist in equal number with pieces of plastic in parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which could have implications for cleaning up ocean pollution.In 2019, the French swimmer Benoit Lecomte swam over 300 nautical miles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution.As he swam, he was often surprised to find that he wasn’t alone.“Every time I saw plastic debris floating, there was life all around it,” Mr. Lecomte said.The patch was less a garbage island than a garbage soup of plastic bottles, fishing nets, tires and toothbrushes. And floating at its surface were blue dragon nudibranchs, Portuguese man-o-wars, and other small surface-dwelling animals, which are collectively known as neuston.Scientists aboard the ship supporting Mr. Lecomte’s swim systematically sampled the patch’s surface waters. The team found that there were much higher concentrations of neuston within the patch than outside it. In some parts of the patch, there were nearly as many neuston as pieces of plastic.“I had this hypothesis that gyres concentrate life and plastic in similar ways, but it was still really surprising to see just how much we found out there,” said Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study. “The density was really staggering. To see them in that concentration was like, wow.”The findings were posted last month on bioRxiv and have not yet been subjected to peer review. But if they hold up, Dr. Helm and other scientists say, it may complicate efforts by conservationists to remove the immense and ever-growing amount of plastic in the patch.The world’s oceans contain five gyres, large systems of circular currents powered by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation. They act like enormous whirlpools, so anything floating within one will eventually be pulled into its center. For nearly a century, floating plastic waste has been pouring into the gyres, creating an assortment of garbage patches. The largest, the Great Pacific Patch, is halfway between Hawaii and California and contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic, according to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. All that trash turns out to be a great foothold for living things.The snail Recluzia species, viewed from the side oral end.Denis RieckViolet snail Janthina species, viewed from the side, with a large bubble raft made from snail mucus emerging from the water.Denis RieckBlue button Porpita species, viewed from above.Denis RieckThe floating anemone Actinecta species, viewed from the side, with the aboral float at the surface.Denis RieckDr. Helm and her colleagues pulled many individual creatures out of the sea with their nets: by-the-wind sailors, free-floating hydrozoans that travel on ocean breezes; blue buttons, quarter-sized cousins of the jellyfish; and violet sea-snails, which build “rafts” to stay afloat by trapping air bubbles in a soap-like mucus they secrete from a gland in their foot. They also found potential evidence that these creatures may be reproducing within the patch.“I wasn’t surprised,” said Andre Boustany, a researcher with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “We know this place is an aggregation area for drifting plastics, so why would it not be an aggregation area for these drifting animals as well?”Little is known about neuston, especially those found far from land in the heart of ocean gyres.“They are very difficult to study because they occur in the open ocean and you cannot collect them unless you go on marine expeditions, which cost a lot of money,” said Lanna Cheng, a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego.Because so little is known about the life history and ecology of these creatures, this study, though severely limited in size and scope, offers valuable insights to scientists.Blue sea dragons, Glaucus species, viewed from above with dark blue ventral surfaces.Denis RieckBy-the-wind sailor Velella species, viewed from above.Denis RieckA Portuguese man-of-war, Physalia species, viewed from the side, with the float above the surface.Denis RieckA buoy barnacle, Dosima fascicularis, viewed from the side, with aboral white float at the water’s surface.Denis RieckBut Dr. Helm said there is another implication of the study: Organizations working to remove plastic waste from the patch may also need to consider what the study means for their efforts.There are several nonprofit organizations working to remove floating plastic from the Great Pacific Patch. The largest, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation in the Netherlands, developed a net specifically to collect and concentrate marine debris as it is pulled across the sea’s surface by winds and currents. Once the net is full, a ship takes its contents to land for proper disposal.Dr. Helm and other scientists warn that such nets threaten sea life, including neuston. Although adjustments to the net’s design have been made to reduce bycatch, Dr. Helm believes any large-scale removal of plastic from the patch could pose a threat to its neuston inhabitants.“When it comes to figuring out what to do about the plastic that’s already in the ocean, I think we need to be really careful,” she said. The results of her study “really emphasize the need to study the open ocean before we try to manipulate it, modify it, clean it up or extract minerals from it.”Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, disagreed with Dr. Helm.“It’s too early to reach any conclusions on how we should react to that study,” he said. “You have to take into account the effects of plastic pollution on other species. We are collecting several tons of plastic every week with our system — plastic that is affecting the environment.”Plastic in the ocean poses a threat to marine life, killing more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals, according to UNESCO. Everything from fish to whales can become entangled, and animals often mistake it for food and end up starving to death with stomachs full of plastic.Ocean plastics that don’t end up asphyxiating an albatross or entangling an elephant seal eventually break down into microplastics, which penetrate every branch of the food web and are nearly impossible to remove from the environment.One thing everyone agrees on is that we need to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean.“We need to turn off the tap,” Mr. Lecomte said.

Taiwan to ban PVC in food packaging starting July 2023

Taipei, April 30 (CNA) The manufacturing, import and sale of food packaging containing polyvinylchloride (PVC) will be banned in Taiwan starting in July 2023, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) announced on Friday.Wang Yueh-bin (王嶽斌), executive director of the EPA Recycling Fund Management Board, explained that although it is less commonly used compared to the past, plastic containers using PVC can still be found on some dairy packaging.PVC packaging can release plasticizers when used to store liquids, and overexpose to the substance can lead to the risk of cancer when the liquids are consumed, Wang said, noting that this plastic material may also contain stabilizers which can also harm people’s health.When burned, PVC containers can release dioxins and heavy metals, and while incinerators use filters to catch these materials, contaminated ashes might still leach into the ground to pollute the environment, he added.The ban on PVC packaging has already become an international norm, the EPA official said, citing South Korea and New Zealand as one of them.With this new measure, Wang said Taiwan can expect to reduce some 79 metric tons of PVC food packaging every year.According to the EPA, the ban on PVC packaging will fall under Article 21 of the Waste Disposal Act, which stipulates that for articles such as packaging or containers that pollute the environment, “the central competent authority may officially announce their prohibition of use and the restriction of manufacturing, import and sales of such items.”When the ban gets underway in July next year, the EPA said people caught selling PVC food packaging will be fined anywhere between NT$1,200 (US$40.74) and NT$6,000, while those caught manufacturing and importing such items will be subject to a NT$60,000-NT$300,000 fine.

U.S. plastic recycling rates have fallen below 6 percent

Americans are recycling far less plastic, according to an analysis published Wednesday, with rates falling below 6 percent in 2021. The new findings come as this waste has rebounded from the pandemic, despite global efforts to curb pollution.The research from Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup aims to shed light on the state of recycling in the United States given a delay in federal reporting. The Environmental Protection Agency last published recycling rates in 2020 based off data through 2018 and did not update it last year.Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, the new report estimates that Americans recycled 5 to 6 percent of their plastics, down from the 8.7 percent in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, it added, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is “sent to cement kilns and burned.”“The plastics industry must stop lying to the public about plastics recycling. It does not work, it never will work, and no amount of false advertising will change that,” said Judith Enck, who heads Beyond Plastics and served as a regional EPA administrator during the Obama administration. “Instead, we need consumer brand companies and governments to adopt policies that reduce the production, usage and disposal of plastics.”Though plastics use fell in the early days of the pandemic, consumption has surged along with economic activity. Meanwhile, plastic waste exports — which the authors said are counted toward recycling numbers without proof — have plummeted in the wake of import bans by countries such as China and Turkey.Plastics production in on track to unleash more emissions than coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade, research has found, with the industry emitting at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year.Millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, ensnaring turtles and other wildlife. Even Mount Everest has not escaped microplastics pollution. The United States contributes most to this deluge, according to a National Academy of Sciences study, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person.Postcards from the town in Japan that’s aims to produce zero waste — and is nearly thereAt the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030 — putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach, according to the latest report from the U.N. Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change.In an emailed statement, the EPA told The Washington Post it is “aware of the report and will review the data.” The agency said it expects to update its “Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling” webpage later this year.According to the United States’ first national recycling strategy, the EPA is aiming to achieve a 50 percent recycling rate by 2030. Some critics faulted that strategy for not taking aim at current levels of plastics production.The nation’s plastic recycling rate peaked at 9.5 percent in 2014, according to EPA data, “although that number also counted U.S. exported material as recycled when it was largely burned or dumped,” the report states.High recycling rates for other materials such as post-consumer paper, cardboard and metal “prove that recycling can be an effective way to reclaim valuable natural material resources,” the report said. “The problem lies not with the concept or process of recycling but with the material itself — it is plastic recycling that has always failed.”Plastics, the vast majority of which are made from fossil fuels, can take hundreds of years to decompose. Rather than fully degrade, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called “microplastics.” Over the course of a lifetime, individuals on average unknowingly consume more than 44 pounds of microplastics.Globally, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) first Global Plastics Outlook, which was published in February. Fifty percent ends up in landfills, 19 percent is incinerated, and 22 percent is “mismanaged” and ends up in uncontrolled dump sites, is burned in open pits or ends up as litter.“Despite the stark failure of plastics recycling, the plastics, packaging, and products industries have waged a decades-long misinformation campaign to perpetuate the myth that plastic is recyclable,” the report states.In late April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta opened an investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemical industries’ role in “causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis.” Bonta’s office issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, seeking information into its efforts to mislead consumers about the efficacy of plastics recycling.Not a single plastic service item “has even been recyclable” by the legal definition outlined by the Federal Trade Commission “green guides,” the report found, including the polypropylene cups and lids touted by Starbucks.In March, the United Nations adopted a first-of-its-kind, legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution.” The details of the treaty will be hashed out by 2024.

Tropical mammals under rising chemical pollution pressure, study warns

Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, nanoparticles, and other potentially toxic synthetic materials are being released into the environment in ever greater amounts. A recent study warns that action is needed to better monitor and understand their impacts on terrestrial mammals in the tropics.Mortality and mass die offs could result, but sublethal effects — such as reduced fitness or fertility — are perhaps of greater concern in the long-term, warn experts.In the research, scientists raise concerns over an increasing load of chemicals released into the tropical environment, with little monitoring conducted to understand the impacts on wildlife.Another study released this year reported that the novel entities planetary boundary has been transgressed. Novel entities include pesticides and other synthetic substances. The boundary was declared breached because scientific assessments can’t keep up with new chemicals entering the environment. Tropical mammals are living in an ever-changing chemical landscape warns a recent study, with wildlife increasingly exposed to an array of plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and nanoparticles. The recent study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, warns that this underrecognized threat requires urgent action.
Colin Chapman, a biologist and professor at George Washington University, and his colleagues reviewed the body of scientific literature investigating the scope of the “chemical landscape” inhabited by tropical terrestrial mammals. A recurrent theme: a paucity of studies covering the topic offered only glimpses of the effects of pollutants.
“As a society we are intentionally poisoning tropical wildlife,” Chapman told Mongabay. “We don’t know the effects of it, but we know we’re poisoning them. We know we’re poisoning ourselves and despite this knowledge, we’re not acting.”
Research in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna biome found that lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) accumulate pesticides and heavy metals, causing concern about potential health impacts. Image by Bernard DUPONT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Living in a chemical world
Earlier this year, an international group of researchers centered around the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) warned that the manufacture, use and disposal of synthetic chemicals — referred to by scientists as novel entities — has passed a crucial and dangerous environmental threshold, threatening “a safe operating space for humanity.” The novel entities pollution problem is just one of nine planetary boundaries — six of which, including climate change, have already seen their safe limits violated by human actions.
In 2019, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that the global chemical industry’s production capacity had reached 1.2 billion tons. In 2017, that industry was worth 5.68 trillion, a figure projected to double by 2030. In declaring the breach of the novel entities planetary boundary in January 2022, researchers emphasized that it has become impossible for science to assess the rapidly widening stream of existing and new chemicals entering the environment.
A variety of pollution routes exist in the tropics and elsewhere. Pesticides, for example, are being applied to agricultural lands at ever-greater rates. Previous estimates suggest a rate of around 2 million tons annually, though a recent study suggests 4 million tons are now used each year. Likewise, treated sewage that is spread as fertilizer can leach a harmful pharmaceutical cocktail and concentrated heavy metals into soils and groundwater. Plastics are released into the air when disposed of by burning, and also enter soils and waterways when thrown away, where they deteriorate into microplastics.
Increasing agricultural production and pharmaceutical use in tropical countries (even in remote parts of the Brazilian Amazon), combined with often lax regulations that enable the use of chemicals banned elsewhere, can heighten risk. Knowledge of the environmental impacts of all these chemical pollutants is not new, says Chapman, but research in tropical regions is lagging.
The studies and reports that do exist often focus on cases of intentional killings of wildlife using chemicals, or unintentional mass killings. Recently in India, for example, vultures died en-masse due to pesticide poisoning inadvertently spread to kill stray dogs. While such events can grab headlines and researchers’ attention, Chapman is equally concerned by systematic and prolonged chemical exposure which could cause sublethal effects.
A howler monkey (Alouatta palliata). Analysis of the feces of primates in protected areas in Costa Rica and Uganda by Michael Wasserman and his colleagues found exposure to chemical pollutants. Impacts on health and fitness are currently not known. Photo courtesy of Michelle Benavidez Westrich.
Looking beyond the lethal
Kurunthachalam Kannan, an environmental chemist and professor in environmental medicine and pediatrics at New York University’s Langone Health, who was not involved in the study, agrees that all this chemical exposure is troubling. Currently, far more is known about sublethal effects in humans than in wildlife populations, he states: “Sublethal health effects such as reduced reproduction, suppressed immune system and altered endocrine functioning can impair survival of wildlife and can disrupt ecosystem structure and function.”
A study published last year found that consumption of fruit contaminated with deltamethrin, an agricultural insecticide, could effect reproduction in fruit-eating bats due to oxidative stress in their testes “even in low, commercially prescribed concentrations”, the authors write.
Work by Chapman and Michael Wasserman, a co-author of the recent paper, who is with the University of Indiana’s Primate Environmental Endocrinology Laboratory, indicated that chemicals, including legacy and current use pesticides and flame retardants (some recognized as endocrine disruptors), are present in the tropics. They’ve been detected in the air in and around Las Cruces and La Selva Biological Stations in Costa Rica, and at Kibale National Park in Uganda. A follow-up study found traces of these chemicals in the feces of primates such as red colobus, chimpanzees and red-tailed monkeys. Yet, no one knows the effect of these chemical exposures on these species, Wasserman adds.
“Did the animal live a little bit less? Did they get cancer? [Did exposure] cause increased mortality?” Chapman wonders, but these are questions which remain unanswered for most exposed species, including primates. It’s unlikely species are going to go extinct due to chemical pollution, he adds, but exposure could hinder conservation efforts.
Research indicates that endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei) in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are being exposed to pesticides via the cultivation of tea and the consumption of contaminated plant leaves. This could have “potential health risks” for adults and juveniles, the study concluded, though the full extent of harm is still unknown. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.
Michael Bertram, an ecotoxicologist and researcher with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, studies the impact of chemical pollution on animal behavior, another realm in which research is lacking, and he is also concerned. “The [paper’s] authors rightly point out that although large-scale wildlife die-offs are a clearly observable and alarming sign of the presence of chemical contaminants at toxic levels in ecosystems, it is much more common for wildlife to be exposed to an invisible mixture of multiple chemicals, [reducing their resilience as they face] other stressors such as habitat loss and climate change.”
While many of the potential pathways of chemical exposure are enumerated by the study, more exist, Bertram says. For example, research shows that fish species accumulate chemicals in high concentrations which could then be passed up the food chain.
“Tropical mammals that consume tainted fish or other aquatic prey, drink contaminated water, or come into contact with contaminated sediment, will therefore be exposed to potentially harmful contaminants,” Bertram reports. “The fact that Chapman and colleagues provide such a comprehensive list of pathways by which tropical animals can be exposed to contaminants, but still many more pathways exist, is indicative of the scale of the problem with which we are confronted.”
An additional concern is the synergistic impact of chemical pollution when combined with other stressors.  Wholesale conversion of forest to agriculture, or the eating away at forest edges by fields, pastures and roads, can ramp up chemical exposure, says Wasserman: “The more you fragment a landscape, the more edge there is where you have contact between human dominated landscapes in the forest, and therefore more places for all those novel entities to enter the ecosystem.”
Climate change can also interact with chemical pollution in multiple ways, exacerbating or altering the effects of some contaminants. Chapman’s study cites the example of global warming-triggered forest fires leading to deaths due to smoke inhalation among elk populations.
“This is just one of many examples where one form of environmental change, in this case climate change which increases the likelihood and severity of fires, drives an increase in another form of environmental change, the contamination of air (and water) with particulate matter,” says Bertram. But once again, the impacts of potentially toxic forest fire smoke on tropical mammals has not been well documented.
Research in protected areas in Costa Rica and Uganda indicates pollution from pesticides and flame retardants. Photo courtesy of Michael Wasserman.
Monitoring health, researching effects
Clearly, tropical mammals face an ever-escalating chemical crisis, yet how serious this problem may be, remains unclear. Chapman and Wasserman urge further research and long-term monitoring to better understand the issue, but until more studies are done, they say, the precautionary principle should be implemented regarding chemical use.
“I think studying this in wild primates has a lot of potential,” notes Wasserman. “They are the ideal biosentinel for understanding exposure to novel entities, but also for human health concerns.”
Long-term monitoring of wildlife population health would not only aid in understanding and quantifying the scale and impact of chemical pollution, but also provide an early warning system for detecting emerging diseases, adds Chapman — a particularly relevant sensing system in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
NYU’s Kannan agrees that chemical impacts on tropical wildlife require far more study. “We need to grow and support a future generation of researchers in the area of wildlife ecotoxicology,” he states. “Furthermore, interdisciplinary research on the topic is needed which requires collaborations with wildlife biologists, veterinarians, toxicologists, chemists, and more importantly, community engagement and support.”
International bodies such as UNEP and the International Panel on Chemical Pollution have made similar calls for interdisciplinary research, and are working towards the development of a Global Science-Policy Panel to address the issue.
Meanwhile, Chapman and his colleagues are actively investigating levels of plastics and pesticides in the feces of primates at over 20 sites in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. This far flung effort, Chapman adds, is an example of the kind of research and monitoring needed in the long-term to truly understand the chemical landscape in which tropical mammals are now living.
“In order to act in an informed way, we need to have the infrastructure, the research capacity [and] more information about sublethal effects,” he concludes. “We have to revamp how that information is being collected and scale up that information.”
Banner image: Mountain gorillas thrive on rainforest foliage, but if that foliage happens to be tea leaves sprayed with pesticides on national park-adjacent plantations, they can be poisoned. Image by Ludovic Hirlimann via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Citations:
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Chapman, C. A., Steiniche, T., Benavidez, K. M., Sarkar, D., Amato, K., Serio-Silva, J. C., … Wasserman, M. D. (2022). The chemical landscape of tropical mammals in the Anthropocene. Biological Conservation, 269, 109522. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109522
Oliveira, J. M., Lima, G. D., Destro, A. L., Condessa, S., Zuanon, J. A., Freitas, M. B., & Oliveira, L. L. (2021). Short-term intake of deltamethrin-contaminated fruit, even at low concentrations, induces testicular damage in fruit-eating bats (Artibeus lituratus). Chemosphere, 278, 130423. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.130423
Wang, S., Steiniche, T., Romanak, K. A., Johnson, E., Quirós, R., Mutegeki, R., … Venier, M. (2019). Atmospheric occurrence of legacy pesticides, current use pesticides, and flame retardants in and around protected areas in Costa Rica and Uganda. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(11), 6171-6181. doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b00649
Wang, S., Steiniche, T., Rothman, J. M., Wrangham, R. W., Chapman, C. A., Mutegeki, R., … Venier, M. (2020). Feces are effective biological samples for measuring pesticides and flame retardants in primates. Environmental Science & Technology, 54(19), 12013-12023. doi:10.1021/acs.est.0c02500
Wu, D., Li, Q., Shang, X., Liang, Y., Ding, X., Sun, H., … Chen, J. (2021). Commodity plastic burning as a source of inhaled toxic aerosols. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 416, 125820. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2021.125820
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Recycling startup Ridwell makes household recycling easier

Jill Fransen considers herself a serious recycler, the kind of person who knows the difference between various plastics, takes care to sort them, and drives five miles from her home in Portland, Oregon’s, North Tabor neighborhood to drop off refuse at a recycling center.Over nearly a dozen years, Fransen’s routine was pretty well established. Then in late 2020, she heard about Ridwell, a subscription-based recycling service that had just been introduced in Portland. For about $12 per month, Ridwell would pick up items — stuff that many recycling programs won’t accept, like certain plastics and spent lightbulbs — right from one’s front porch, and take everything to its local plant to sort and redistribute for recycling or re-use.

Disease-causing parasites could be hitching a ride to the beach on microplastics

Typically when people hear about plastic pollution, they might envision seabirds with bellies full of trash or sea turtles with plastic straws in their noses. However, plastic pollution poses another threat that’s invisible to the eye and has important consequences for both human and animal health.Microplastics, tiny plastic particles present in many cosmetics, can form when larger materials, such as clothing or fishing nets, break down in the water. Microplastics are now widespread in the ocean and have been found in fish and shellfish, including those that people eat.As researchers studying how waterborne pathogens spread, we wanted to better understand what happens when microplastics and disease-causing pathogens end up in the same body of water. In our recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, we found that pathogens from land can hitch a ride to the beach on microscopic pieces of plastic, providing a new way for germs to concentrate along coastlines and travel to the deep sea.Investigating how plastics and pathogens interactWe focused on three parasites that are common contaminants in marine water and seafood: the single-celled protozoans Toxoplasma gondii (Toxo), Cryptosporidium (Crypto), and Giardia. These parasites end up in waterways when feces from infected animals, and sometimes people, contaminate the environment.Crypto and Giardia cause gastrointestinal diseases that can be deadly in young children and immunocompromised individuals. Toxo can cause lifelong infections in people and can prove fatal for those with weak immune systems. Infection in pregnant women can also cause miscarriage or blindness and neurological disease in the baby. Toxo also infects a wide range of marine wildlife and kills endangered species, including southern sea otters, Hector’s dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals.To test whether these parasites can stick to plastic surfaces, we first placed microplastic beads and fibers in beakers of seawater in our lab for two weeks. This step was important to induce the formation of a biofilm — a sticky layer of bacteria and gel-like substances that coats plastics when they enter fresh or marine waters. Researchers also call this sticky layer an eco-corona. We then added the parasites to the test bottles and counted how many became stuck on the microplastics or remained freely floating in the seawater over a seven-day period.[embedded content]Biofilms are vast communities of microbes that can form on almost any surface, including your teeth.We found that significant numbers of parasites were clinging to the microplastic, and these numbers were increasing over time. So many parasites were binding to the sticky biofilms that, gram for gram, plastic had two to three times more parasites than did seawater.Surprisingly, we found that microfibers (commonly from clothes and fishing nets) harbored a greater number of parasites than microbeads (commonly found in cosmetics). This result is important because microfibers are the most common type of microplastic found in marine waters, on coastal beaches, and even in seafood.Plastics could change ocean disease transmissionUnlike other pathogens that are commonly found in seawater, the pathogens we focused on are derived from terrestrial animal and human hosts. Their presence in marine environments is entirely due to fecal waste contamination that ends up in the sea. Our study shows that microplastics could also serve as transport systems for these parasites.These pathogens cannot replicate in the sea. Hitching a ride on plastics into marine environments, however, could fundamentally alter how these pathogens move around in marine waters. We believe that microplastics that float along the surface could potentially travel long distances, spreading pathogens far from their original sources on land and bringing them to regions they would not otherwise be able to reach.On the other hand, plastics that sink will concentrate pathogens on the sea bottom, where filter-feeding animals like clams, mussels, oysters, abalone, and other shellfish live. A sticky biofilm layer can camouflage synthetic plastics in seawater, and animals that typically eat dead organic material may unintentionally ingest them. Future experiments will test whether live oysters placed in tanks with and without plastics end up ingesting more pathogens.The biofilms that form on microplastics can help pathogens spread through the sea.Emma ZhangA-One Health problemOne Health is an approach to research, policy, and veterinary and human medicine that emphasizes the close connection between animal, human and environmental health. While it may seem that plastic pollution affects only animals in the ocean, it can ultimately have consequences on human health.Our project was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of experts, ranging from microplastics researchers and parasitologists to shellfish biologists and epidemiologists. This study highlights the importance of collaboration across human, animal, and environmental disciplines to address a challenging problem affecting our shared marine environment.Our hope is that a better understanding of how microplastics can move disease-causing pathogens in new ways will encourage others to think twice before reaching for that plastic straw or polyester T-shirt.This article was originally published on The Conversation by Emma Zhang and Karen Shapiro at University of California, Davis. Read the original article here.

The race to design a bacteria that can eat plastic

Though its effects are not always visible to the naked eye, plastic is choking life on Earth. Birds are dying from plastic accumulating their intestines. Animals are full of microplastics, and humans are unintentionally eating a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, which is seeping into our bloodstream. And the ocean is becoming an open plastic dump to the extent that microplastic particles may outnumber zooplankton. 
These harrowing scenes could come to define our planet’s future. The process for manufacturing plastic exacerbates climate change, and the prevalence of plastic in the environment has led to heartbreaking sights like sea turtles with straws stuck up their noses. Yet because plastic is designed to be durable and lasting, scientists who dream of permanently removing it from our environment have often despaired of solutions. 
One oft-floated pipe dream as to how to alleviate plastic pollution: can we breed something that will consume it?
RELATED: How plastic pollution threatens our health, food systems, and civilization itself
A new study suggests that an enzyme which targets polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — a widely-used polymer found in a majority of consumer packaging products that comprises 12 percent of all global waste — could make that scientific dream, which is also planetary necessity, into a reality.
The key ingredient was a natural enzyme known as PETase, according to the paper published in the scientific journal Nature. Using a machine learning model, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences figured out what mutations would cause the enzyme to be able to quickly break down the targeted types of plastic waste.
“Collectively, our results demonstrate a viable route for enzymatic plastic recycling at the industrial scale,” the researchers conclude in their paper.

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“Enzyme scale-up has been a well-explored problem in many industries,” Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin, told Salon by email when asked how long it would take for this enzyme to be available on a wide scale. “Therefore, we feel that this part of the problem is easily achievable in a short period of time. The more challenging aspect will be implementing enzyme degradation on a large scale with mixed stream plastics.” (Mixed stream plastics are all non-bottle plastics collected from the waste stream, or the entire life cycle of the garbage produced in a community.)

This was not the first effort to find biological means of solving the plastic pollution problem. In March 2016, Japanese researchers found a bacteria known as Ideonella sakaiensis that, they marveled, would “eat” the plastic outside of an Osaka bottle factory until it turned into sludge.

Alper added, when asked about how the new team’s research built on previous efforts to address plastic pollution, “We utilized the enzymes that have been found in bacteria evolved to use PET. By starting with this enzyme as a scaffold, we applied machine learning techniques to substantially improve upon function.”
As Alper’s reply indicates, this was not the first effort to find biological means of solving the plastic pollution problem. It all began, as much of scientific history does, with a random crucial discovery. In March 2016, Japanese researchers found a bacteria known as Ideonella sakaiensis that, they marveled, would “eat” the plastic outside of an Osaka bottle factory until it turned into sludge. “The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, breaks down the plastic by using two enzymes to hydrolyze PET and a primary reaction intermediate, eventually yielding basic building blocks for growth,” the scientists wrote.
Plastic-eating bacteria was later discovered in Oregon and Germany by subsequent researchers, demonstrating to scientists that there could be a biological solution to the plastic problem. By 2020, scientists at the University of Portsmouth had managed to alter the PETase enzyme to create a supposed “cocktail” that could digest plastic up to six times faster than normal. In the abstract of their paper, the researchers singled out the discovery of the Ideonella sakaiensis as vital to their research, as well as addressing an international catastrophe.
“Plastics pollution represents a global environmental crisis,” the authors wrote. “In response, microbes are evolving the capacity to utilize synthetic polymers as carbon and energy sources.”
Last year, scientists at the University of Edinburgh announced that E. coli, a common bacteria, could be used to convert PET into vanillin, the primary component of extracted vanilla beans. They even suggested that the vanillin might be able to be safely consumed by humans, although they emphasized that further experiments would be required.
Joanna Sadler, a biotechnology professor at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the most recent study but was involved in the E. coli study, seemed hopeful about the developments in the latest paper. Sadler characterized the new enzyme as the “fastest enzyme reported to date” in terms of the speed at which it can “depolymerise” different plastic substrates. 
“This makes it a very promising technological development in the field, and demonstrates the ‘evolvability’ of this enzyme,” Sadler said.
Alper, not surprisingly, echoed Sadler’s hopeful tone.
“Our enzyme is up to 30x more efficient than reported enzymes and operates at lower temperatures and thus saves on energy input and improves the ease of downstream processing,” Alper wrote to Salon.
For more Salon articles on plastic pollution:

Creepy dolls keep mysteriously washing up on stretch of Texas coastline: ‘A lot of nightmares’

The dolls keep arriving, month after month, year after year.Where they come from is a mystery, but the waves bring them in and lay them on the Texas sand, where Mission-Aransas Reserve researchers find them.AdvertisementWere they lost or were they discarded? How long ago?The ocean takes its toll, covering their beady eyes with barnacles, stealing their plastic limbs, staining their hair green with algae.AdvertisementThese dolls are creepy, Jace Tunnell says, and they won’t stop showing up.Tunnell is the director of the Mission Aransas Reserve at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. The Reserve, about 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, serves as a marine research and education program.Situated on the Gulf Coast, Tunnell and his colleagues regularly survey a roughly 40-mile stretch of beach running from north Padre Island, up to Matagorda Island — an area the dolls seem to be drawn to.“We’re actually doing scientific work, but the dolls are a perk,” Tunnell told McClatchy News in a phone interview.Often, researchers are surveying the coast for sea turtles, marine mammals and endangered bird species. They comb the 40-mile span twice a week, coming across all kinds of debris in the process.“Every day is something new,” Tunnell said. “Just when you think you’ve found everything that could possibly wash up on shore, something else comes up.”Much of it is junk, some of it is interesting. The dolls occupy a category of their own, and Tunnell tries to document each of the eerie castaways on social media when they’re found.“The creepiest are the ones that have lost all their hair,” Tunnell said, though each of the 30 dolls collected since he began keeping count have been disturbing in their own way.Advertisement“The first one we had found was a sex doll, the head of it. I posted a picture of it and I didn’t realize that’s what it was,” he said. “We got a lot of followers on the page after that.”Someone purchased that doll head for $35, and Mission-Aransas gave the money to a sea turtle rescue program.A surprising number of people want the dolls, offering to take them or buy them, Tunnell said.“What are they doing with those things?” he wonders.Those who keep up with Tunnell’s weekly debris updates seem to like the dolls. Most aren’t eager to buy one or take one home, but they follow along, seemingly fascinated and unnerved by the lost and forgotten toys.“Always creeps me out…at least this one has a body,” a commenter said about a recent discovery, posted April 22.Advertisement“She has pretty eyes for a change!” wrote another.The baby doll is missing both arms and something appears to have chewed on its left leg.“This one looks happy to be found! …. not like some of the others!” a comment read.Post after post, people keep wondering the same thing: Why are so many dolls washing up in this specific place? Is this coastline cursed? Probably not, but it is a bit unlucky.Through a two-year study conducted by the UT Marine Science Institute — of which Mission-Aransas is a part — researchers learned that the Texas Coastal Bend region is a junk magnet.“Texas coastal bend beaches get 10 times the amount of trash … than any other beach in the Gulf of Mexico,” Tunnell said, compared to what researchers in Florida and Mississippi found after conducting identical projects.AdvertisementThis is due in large part to a “loop current” reaching from the Yucatan Peninsula to Florida. This current creates eddies that push debris toward the Texas Gulf, and the Coastal Bend in particular.“There’s a lot of nightmares out there” in the debris, Tunnell said, more Barbies and Cabbage Patch Kids and so on. Odds are good they’ll keep making their way to Texas.Tunnell doesn’t keep any of the eerie toys, he said, just tosses them in a bucket to be sold at a yearly fundraising auction.“They could definitely be haunted,” he said.