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HINKLEY, CALIFORNIA—We all love a neat, tidy Hollywood ending to a David and Goliath story. Sadly, in the real world, they are hard to come by. More often than not, the little guy might win a battle, but Goliath prevails over the long haul -- winning the war.
Before I went to Hinkley, I did, of course, watch the movie once again. As it turns out, Erin Brockovich is accurate in many respects.
You might remember the woman who gets a big check at the end of the movie after the down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant has brought a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath the tiny desert town half way between L.A. and Las Vegas.
In the movie, she was known as Donna Jensen (and played by Marg Helgenberger). There is no real-life Donna Jensen -- the details of her story are a composite of several real-life travails. Read the rest
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I was born in 1981 and, because of that, I largely missed the part of American history where our rivers were so polluted that they did things like, you know, catch fire. But it happened. And, all things considered, it didn't happen that long ago. The newspaper clippings above are from a 1952 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga river. Between 1868 and 1969 that river burned at least 13 times.
That's something worth remembering — not just that we once let our waterways get that trashed, but also the fact that we've gone a long way towards fixing it. We took 200 years of accumulating sewage and industrial degradation and cleaned it up in the span of a single generation. At Slate, James Salzman writes about that reversal of environmental fortune, a shift so pronounced — and so dependent upon a functioning government in which a diverse spectrum of politicians recognize the importance of investing in our country's future — that it seems damned-near impossible today.
... discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit. I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters.
In 1972, a landmark law reversed the course of this filthy tide. Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.
The waste flushed down drains and toilets needed a different approach, so the Clean Water Act provided for billions of dollars in grants to construct and upgrade publicly owned sewage-treatment works around the nation. To protect the lands that filter and purify water as it flows by, permits were also required for draining and filling wetlands.
Image from the Blog on Smog, which also has a really nice timeline of cleanup on the Cuyahoga.
Via Laura Helmuth
At Grist, Jess Zimmerman has an interesting piece about a lake near a notoriously leaky former Soviet nuclear research site, where the radiation level is so high that an hour on the beach can be enough to kill you.
You can’t really blame Lake Karachay for acting up — it comes from a really rough area. The lake is located within the Mayak Production Association, one of the largest — and leakiest — nuclear facilities in Russia. The Russian government kept Mayak entirely secret until 1990, and it spent that period of invisibility mainly having nuclear meltdowns and dumping waste into the river. By the time Mayak’s existence was officially acknowledged, there had been a 21 percent increase in cancer incidence, a 25 percent increase in birth defects, and a 41 percent increase in leukemia in the surrounding region of Chelyabinsk. The Techa river, which provided water to nearby villages, was so contaminated that up to 65 percent of locals fell ill with radiation sickness — which the doctors termed “special disease,” because as long as the facility was secret, they weren’t allowed to mention radiation in their diagnoses.
Suzanne Paulson, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, saw "Carmageddon" as an opportunity to make use of a "natural experiment." She and a colleague "measured pollutants in the air during the LA freeway shutdown last year, and have now released their findings.
Air quality near the normally busy highway improved by 83 percent that day last July, relative to comparable weekends. Elsewhere in West Los Angeles, the improvement was equally dramatic. Air quality improved by 75 percent on that side of the city and in Santa Monica, and by 25 percent throughout the entire region, as a measure of the drop in ultrafine particulate matter associated with tailpipe emissions.
"We saw what we expected: you take motor vehicles away, the air gets really, really clean," Paulson says, "which tells us that most of the pollution is from motor vehicles from one type or another in this area."
More: L.A.'s 'Carmageddon' Produced Dramatic, Instantaneous Air Quality Improvements (The Atlantic).Another "Carmaggedon" just took place in LA. Wonder if there will be more science to come from this edition.
Nathan Kensinger is an artist "whose work explores hidden urban landscapes, off-limits structures, and other liminal spaces." He told me about a project that he, Laura Chipley, and Sarah Nelson Wright are working on called The Newtown Creek Armada:
It's a public art installation that is using remote control boats and underwater cameras to explore the Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund Site in New York City.
The installation opens this weekend, when we will be inviting the public to pilot our fleet of nine miniature boats, and to film their own voyage on the Newtown Creek. We will also be presenting several videos of our voyages that document the more polluted parts of the creek, which is home to the second largest oil spill in the United States, and has been used as a dumping ground for heavy industry and raw sewage for over 150 years. Despite this history, nature is slowly returning to the area, as we discovered on our voyages.
20 AUGUST—34°42' N 140°19' W
In the middle of the night, I dream that I am at the wheel of a great ship, sailing the Pacific Ocean. A hundred and fifty feet of steel, crowned with a dozen broad sails, forces itself forward through the waves. The rigging creaks with the roll of the ship. Water hisses along the lee rail. I adjust the wheel, peering at the binnacle to see our heading.
We’ve been at sea for nearly a week, and for weeks more we have no hope of seeing land. What we do hope to see, though, is something much rarer, something that amounts to a new and dark wonder of the world.
We are aboard the Kaisei, sailing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
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Dolphin carcasses are displayed by conservationists and environmental police officers at San Jose beach, 40kms north of Chiclayo, Peru, on April 6, 2012. The cause of death of over 800 dolphins in the last four months on the shores of Piura and Lambayeque are still being researched, Gabriel Quijandria, Deputy Environment Minister said on April 20, 2012. More about the ongoing investigation into the possible cause of these mass die-offs: CBS News, MSNBC, AFP, DPA, CNN, (REUTERS/Heinze Plenge)
Let me preface anything else in this post by clarifying something important. What we are talking about here is a hypothesis—it's not been proven. In fact, it's not even really been tested yet. The studies that will put the hypothesis to the test are currently underway. So please (please, please, please) do not walk away assuming this is a given. It's not. It could very well be completely and utterly wrong. But it's interesting. And it will be in the news. And I want you guys to hear about it in the proper context.
Make sense? Okay, then ...
This idea is (for now) based on "what if" extrapolation rather than data. But it's not totally crazy. We know air pollution affects health in ways would not have been obvious just a few decades ago. For instance, there is a strong, well-documented connection between air pollution and heart disease. In 2009, Aruni Bhatnagar, professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, told me that studies from 250 different metropolitan areas in the United States showed that a spike in air pollution was reliably followed by a spike in cardiac deaths within next 24-48 hours. The people primarily at risk are those who already have underlying heart health problems, but it's not always clear who those people are. We don't yet know exactly how pollution affects the heart—it could well be a cascade of effects that actually starts in the lungs—but we can see that the affect is there.
This new hypothesis, proposed by Arne Astrup, head of the department of obesity and nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, does not come with that kind of supporting evidence. Instead, it's more of an extrapolation.
At Discovery News, Emily Sohn explains why this hypothesis could make sense—and why it's way too early to say whether or not it's actually right.
The idea proposes that breathing in extra CO2 makes blood more acidic, which in turn causes neurons that regulate appetite, sleep and metabolism to fire more frequently. As a result, we might be eating more, sleeping less and gaining more weight, partly as a result of the air we breathe.
...Obesity and its associated health risks have escalated dramatically in the last few decades. And even though just about everyone thinks the reason is obvious -- we are eating too many calories and exercising too little -- research has revealed that obesity is far more complex than that, with multiple genes, metabolic pathways and even gut microbes involved, said obesity researcher David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
It started with a team of researchers in California, who had been monitoring radioactive sulfur in the atmosphere since 2009. Last spring, after an earthquake and tsunami critically damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, those researchers watched the levels of radioactive sulfur skyrocket, relatively speaking. The amounts of radioactive sulfur that reached the California coast weren't high enough to be a threat to humans, but they made a big impact on extremely sensitive monitoring equipment.
Using that data, the researchers were able to figure out where the radioactive sulfur came from and back-calculate how much would have been produced at the site of the disaster—information that can tell us something about how dangerous the disaster really was to people living nearby.
But these researchers weren't the first to collect radioactive isotopes from Fukushima on American shores. And they weren't the first to offer up improved estimations of how much radiation leaked from the damaged power plant in the early days of the disaster. I thought this study was interesting. But, like a lot of you, I was left wondering why it was important.
Then yesterday, I interviewed Antra Priyadarshi, the lead author on the peer-reviewed paper that was published about this study. And I realized I'd gotten the story all wrong. This paper is about radioactive sulfur from the Fukushima disaster. But it isn't about the Fukushima disaster. It's not even about nuclear power. Not really.
In reality, this is a paper about coal. And it's important because of what it can tell us about the sort of air pollution that is much more mundane—and more deadly—than the fallout from a single nuclear disaster.
Read the rest