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  • Arsenic Exposure Poses Increased Risk Infection & Respiratory Symptoms in Children

    Pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of arsenic during their pregnancy are more likely to give birth to babies who are predisposed to infections and respiratory related ailments in the first year of their lives, a new study which was recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives has revealed.

    For the study, which surveyed New Hampshire residents who get their water from private wells, the research team measured arsenic levels in urine samples taken from 412 pregnant women to gain a better understanding of how much arsenic each unborn baby was exposed to prior to their birth. Once the women had given birth, the researchers conducted telephonic surveys every 4 months to determine how many infections the children succumbed to and how severe these infections were, as well as the symptoms the child displayed within their first year.

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    The results of the study indicate that babies that were exposed to arsenic while in their mother's womb had more infections that required visiting a doctor or that needed to be treated with prescription drugs. According to Shohreh Farzan, a scientist at Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine and lead author of the study, babies exposed to high levels of arsenic in the womb were more likely to have infections of the upper and lower respiratory tract, together with respiratory symptoms (for example wheezing) that required medical attention.

    According to Margaret Karagas, a professor of epidemiology at the Giesel School of Medicine and co-author of the paper, the results of this study indicate that early exposure to arsenic may not only increase a child's risk to some types of infections, as well as the severity of those infections; but infants who succumb to these infections and respiratory symptoms could be at higher risk of developing allergies and respiratory conditions later in life.

    These findings echo observations of children exposed to high levels of arsenic in Bangladesh, where respiratory infections, impaired immune function and higher susceptibility to infection is higher in the general population due to widespread exposure to high levels of arsenic in well water that is used for drinking.

    The most common source of arsenic exposure is drinking water, particularly water drawn from private wells as these do not undergo the same level of testing as water that is supplied by a water utility, which must meet EPA standards for water quality. In the US, arsenic in well water is considered the biggest public health problem in terms of drinking water quality. In New Hampshire, approximately 10-15% of private wells are contaminated with arsenic at levels above the standard set by the EPA for drinking water. As these wells are not regularly monitored, many households may be unaware that they are being exposed to high levels of arsenic via their drinking water.

    The authors recommend that households that get their drinking water from private wells should have their water tested for arsenic. If high levels of arsenic are present, this can be filtered out with a good quality water filter that has the capability to remove the hazardous contaminant.  Berkey water filters remove this by 99.9%.

    Journal Reference

    Margaret R. Karagas, Emily Baker, Kari Nadeau, Richard Enelow, Donna Spiegelman, Susan A. Korrick, Zhigang Li, Shohreh F. Farzan. Infant Infections and Respiratory Symptoms in Relation to in Utero Arsenic Exposure in a U.S. Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1409282

  • Sediment Contaminants: Tracking the Source of Erosion

    Sediment contaminants are a common occurrence but rarely covered in today's environmental discussions. After a particularly heavy downpour you may often find that the waters in your local stream or river have transformed from a clear bubbling brook into a fast-moving mass of opaque chocolate colored liquid.

    That chocolate brown coloration is the result of suspended sediments, which may range in size from minute granules of clay or mud to larger pebbles and stones, originating from eroded substrates further upstream.

    As the river meanders through its course, sediments are swept away by the flowing water in the process commonly known as erosion. These suspended sediments will eventually be deposited, but very often they are not wanted in the place where they land up. This is especially true for drinking water sources, as not only is sediment considered a drinking water contaminant that makes your tap water murkey and unpleasant to drink, these sediments often have other contaminants clinging to them, which can pose a health hazard in drinking water.


    Soil scientist David Lobb has been investigating the origin of sediments carried by rivers in the Tobacco Creek Watershed, which eventually flow into Canada's Lake Winnipeg, where this load is deposited. Lake Winnipeg is Canada's 2nd largest watershed having three major river systems emptying into it. It is therefore very susceptible to the effects of activities that take place further upstream and important that we consider the watershed in its entirety, and not simply look at water that is flowing out of the watershed explains Lobb.

    The ecological health of a watershed, together with issues affecting its water quality, are areas of growing concern as both can be negatively impacted by a wide range of human activities. For example, crop fertilizers, animal waste from livestock, or sewage effluent from wastewater treatment plants, can all cause nutrient loading in lakes that encourage algal growth that clog up waterways, smother other species and generally disrupt the ecology of freshwater lakes. They can also fuel harmful algal blooms of toxic blue-green algae.

    Lobb, together with fellow researchers from the Universities of Manitoba and Northern British Columbia used a technique known as color fingerprinting to gain a better understanding of where the sediments in Lake Winnipeg were originating from. The color of a sediment is a key indicator of where it was originally eroded.

    According to Lobb, while this method of fingerprinting is not quite as accurate as taking fingerprints from a crime scene, the available tools can accurately identify the source of the sediments. The technique is also easy, quick and cheap to implement.

    "In the most simple case, black sediment is from surface sources and light sediment is from subsurface," explains Lobb, "That's an oversimplification of a very precise process backed up by statistical models."

    Lobb notes that it's important to determine whether sediments originate from surface or subsurface soils. Sediments originating from eroded subsoils tend to be eroded from the bottom and sides of rivers and streams as the water flows over them, whereas sediments originating from surface soils (topsoil) is more likely to have been eroded from farm lands, forest floors or areas along the river banks.

    "We found that nature is more often to blame for a lot of the sediments we see in our streams," says Lobb, "Humans may not have as much of an effect on the amount of sediment flowing out of a watershed as we've been taught," says Lobb, "but we do have a profound effect on hydrology, and that can contribute to the erosion and sediment produced downstream."

    The sediment in the South Tobacco Creek originates mostly from subsurface soils that are eroded from the banks of streams and the extensive walls of rock that frame the creek as it makes its way through the 600-foot escarpment. While people typically assume that sedimentation is due to erosion of farm lands, river channel erosion, which is a natural process that is constantly occurring, is one of the major contributors of sedimentation, according to Lobb.

    The color-coding fingerprinting technique allows us to easily finger point the geographic origins of sediment, however it is not so easy to know what action to take once we have these answers, says Lobb. One angle that they will be focusing on in future is managing runoff from farm lands — placing it as a top priority on the same level as managing soil erosion and topsoil loss from farm lands — addressing this at both local farm-field scale and watershed scale.

    The question of scale is both complicated and important as watersheds tend to be dynamic entities that are continually changing. The health of one stretch of a river will also impact the health of another stretch. It is thus important to look at the watershed in its entirety, and for Lake Winnipeg, the watershed extends over an area that is 40 times larger than the area the lake covers.

    "The public is demanding actions and impacts on a watershed scale," says Lobb. "Therefore, practices and processes have to reflect that larger regional scale."

    Journal Reference

    Louise R.M. Barthod, Kui Liu, David A. Lobb, Philip N. Owens, Núria Martínez-Carreras, Alexander J. Koiter, Ellen L. Petticrew, Gregory K. McCullough, Cenwei Liu, Leticia Gaspar. Selecting Color-based Tracers and Classifying Sediment Sources in the Assessment of Sediment Dynamics Using Sediment Source Fingerprinting. Journal of Environment Quality, 2015; 0 (0): 0 DOI: 10.2134/jeq2015.01.0043

  • Wastewater Treatment Plants Harmful to River Ecosystems

    Wastewater treatment facilities are supposed to remove pollutants from water fouled by human activities, yet the effluent released from water treatment plants is very often a source of a large number of contaminants found in rivers, according to a study recently published in the scientific journal, Freshwater Biology.

    Ibon Aristi, a researcher in the department of Plant Biology & Ecology at The University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain, assessed the impact of wastewater effluent from a treatment facility that flowed into the river Segre in Spain by analyzing the response of fluvial communities to pollutants present in the discharged effluent.

    Aristi divided the compounds found in the discharged effluent into two groups according to how they affected the rivers ecosystem:

    1) Pollutants that increase activity of organisms living in the river.

    2) Pollutants that reduce productivity or are otherwise harmful to organisms living in the river.


    Group 1 consists of nutrients and organic matter that aquatic dwelling organisms can readily assimilate. These pollutants tend to encourage growth of river organisms and increase their activity. However, according to Aristi, above a certain concentration these pollutants can be toxic, and thus harmful to river organisms. One of the key functions of wastewater treatment plants is to ensure that these pollutants are reduced to acceptable concentrations.

    Group 2 on the other hand consist of pollutants that are toxic to river organisms and will harm them even in low concentrations. For this study, the authors focuses on drugs dissolved in the river water.

    "We regard them as indicators of all the toxic pollutants, but one has to understand that together with the drugs there is a variety of toxic compounds, such as heavy metals, pesticides and components of soaps, and that it is when they are taken together that they are harmful," explained Aristi. "None of them are removed in the water-treatment plants because these plants are not equipped for that purpose."

    The results of the study show that both types of pollutants affect various river organisms. The first group of compounds that are readily assimilated by river organisms influences respiration — the rate at which the organisms process organic matter.

    "When the concentration of assimilable compounds increases, respiration also increases," explains Aristi. "Respiration is much greater at the place where the effluent from the water-treatment plants is incorporated than in the upriver stretches, and when it heads downriver, the concentration of assimilable compounds gradually decreases and with it respiration".

    The second group of more toxic pollutants tends to affect photosynthesizing organism more.

    According to Aristi, these toxic pollutants reduce the rate of plant production, causing it to be much lower than what it should be for the amount of light available — light is an important indicator of production as it is a fundamental requirement for photosynthesis; when light is abundant, plant growth rates increase and plants flourish. Yet, even though light was abundant, productivity in river water that contained wastewater effluent was much lower than it should be considering the light available for growth. "We have also seen that these organisms have activated a mechanism to protect themselves from the stress produced by the toxic substances".

    According to Aristi, this research shows that wastewater treatment facilities are not as efficient as they should be, and steps need to be taken to improve their efficiency if we want river communities and river ecosystems to remain healthy.

    Aristi concludes that we need to weigh up the pros and cons of maintaining the current situation where there are a lot of small wastewater treatment plants discharging into a river along many stretches, or try a different approach by reducing the number of wastewater treatment plants by constructing larger water treatment facilities that harm fewer stretches of a river. Alternatively we need to consider the possibility of improving the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants, for example by improving filtration to ensure pollutants are removed before effluent is discharged into a river. However, this could be costly says Aristi.

    Journal Reference

    Ibon Aristi, Daniel von Schiller, Maite Arroita, Damià Barceló, Lídia Ponsatí, María J. García-Galán, Sergi Sabater, Arturo Elosegi, Vicenç Acuña. Mixed effects of effluents from a wastewater treatment plant on river ecosystem metabolism: subsidy or stress? Freshwater Biology, 2015; 60 (7): 1398 DOI: 10.1111/fwb.12576

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  • Households, Not Hospitals, Primarily Responsible for Drug Residues in Wastewater

    Drugs and pharmaceuticals are listed as emerging contaminants that pose a concern in terms of drinking water contamination. Now a recent study conducted in Germany shows that most of the drug residues found in wastewater originate from domestic households rather than health care institutions such as nursing facilities and hospitals, whose output is considered insignificant by comparison.

    Scientists from Leuphana University analyzed data of drug consumption from a German hospital, nursing home and psychiatric clinic, and identified 50 substances that are frequently administered to patients which are commonly discharged into wastewater. Then, using the annually published German Drug Prescription Report which provides a list of drugs prescribed to patients on the public health-care scheme by German physicians, the researchers compared the average total use of these drugs over a 3-year period by health care institutions to the annual use of a selection of substances commonly used by German domestic households.

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    The findings, which were recently published in Environment International, show that for the large number of drugs tested, the average consumption — and thus contaminants discharged into wastewater — is much higher for domestic households compared to health care institutions.

    The results reveal that the use of drugs that act on the cardiovascular system or digestive tract is between 15 - 500 times higher in private homes than health care facilities, and as much as 2500 times higher than psychiatric clinics. Even painkiller consumption by hospitals is relatively low by comparison; for example, the use of Metamizole — a commonly prescribed painkiller — in hospitals accounts for only 22% of the total consumption. The only drugs that had significantly high consumption rates in health care facilities were Clomethiazole (a sedative widely used in hospitals), quetiapine and Moclobemide (a neuroleptic and antidepressant respectively, both of which are commonly used in nursing homes). By identifying these Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs), it is possible to ascribe emissions of specific drug contaminants to certain health care institutions on a regional level.

    While earlier studies have shown that drugs discharged into wastewater by general hospitals is much lower than that discharged by domestic households, this study is the first to demonstrate that on a national scale, only a very small portion of the drugs discharged into wastewater originate from nursing homes and psychiatric care facilities compared to domestic households.

    The methodical approach — modeling the prediction of drug emissions using consumption data — is unique.

    "Our study has shown that consumption patterns provide at least as accurate a picture of wastewater pollution by individual substances as wastewater measurements themselves" explained Manuel Herrmann, lead author of the study. "However, with respect to the measurement procedure, our method combines the advantages of being far less complex and less costly. Thus, contamination can easily be predicted, and policy and management can react appropriately and promptly."

    With all these drugs floating around in our water ways, and not much known about the cumulative effect of long-term exposure, it would be wise to take precautions and filter drinking water to remove any persistent drugs that could be contaminating your drinking water. The Berkey water filter has recently been tested and shown to remove many pharmaceuticals from the water.

    Journal Reference:

    Manuel Herrmann, Oliver Olsson, Rainer Fiehn, Markus Herrel, Klaus Kümmerer. The significance of different health institutions and their respective contributions of active pharmaceutical ingredients to wastewater. Environment International, 2015; 85: 61 DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.07.020

  • Thirsty Business: What Causes Our Thirst

    Scientists discover the mechanism in the human brain that controls body temperature and hydration.

    A team of researchers from Duke University and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) have unraveled how the human brain is able to determine when our bodies are becoming dehydrated and how it prevents the body from dehydrating by identifying a key protein that is thought to control body temperature and hydration.

    Their findings, which could potentially be used to clinically treat a wide range of health issues associated with an imbalance of body fluids often seen in emergency room situations, were recently published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

    “We have identified what we think is the first protein that could allow the brain to monitor physiological temperature and it is important because this protein contributes to how the brain detects heat and triggers adaptive responses such as thirst,” explains study leader Dr. Charles Bourque, a research scientist in the Medicine Faculty of McGill University and at the Centre for Research in Neuroscience, RI-MUHC. “This protein, which is an ion channel, that regulates the flow of ions across the cell membrane, is thought to play a crucial role in balancing body fluids (water, blood, etc.) and sodium (salts) levels, and changes in its regulation could be involved in linking salt to hypertension, and provoking fluid retention following cardiac failure, sepsis or brain trauma.”



    Dr. Bourque and his team are researching how the human brain maintains the balance of salt and water concentrations in body fluids as they moving through membranes — a process known as osmoregulation. Any changes in osmoregulation can cause health problems in humans. Sodium, for example, plays an vital role in regulating water content within our bodies; consequently high levels of salt can damage the kidneys and cause high blood pressure.

    An imbalance in body fluids, such as hyponatremia — a condition that results when blood sodium levels drop to abnormally low levels, is one of the more common reasons that patients admitted to an emergency room are hospitalized, says Dr Bourque. Sodium plays an important role in regulating the water content within and surrounding the cells in our body. When sodium levels drop, it causes water levels within the body to rise, which in turn causes brain cells to swell, resulting in symptoms such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. This condition is very common in older adults, where it can cause cognitive changes or even seizures.

    The discovery of this protein’s structure will help the scientists better understand the role played by this ion channel in hyponatremia and other medical conditions, and give them tools to make modifications to the channel to treat or prevent the condition, says lead author, Christian Zaelzer, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the RI-MUHC.

    According to Dr Wolgang Liedtke, an associate professor of neurology, anesthesiology and neurobiology at Duke University, who collaborated with Dr Bourque and his team on the investigation, this ion channel activates when dehydration sets in, turning on neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus — the part of the brain that tells the body to take action to maintain the body’s fluid balance. It uses two mechanism to achieve this: 1) It triggers a sensation of thirst to encourage a person to increase fluid intake; and 2) by secreting vasopressin — a hormone that has antidiuretic properties that promotes water retention in the kidneys, which maintains body-fluid balance.

    Journal Reference:

    Cristian Zaelzer, Pierce Hua, Masha Prager-Khoutorsky, Sorana Ciura, Daniel L. Voisin, Wolfgang Liedtke, Charles W. Bourque. ΔN-TRPV1: A Molecular Co-detector of Body Temperature and Osmotic Stress. Cell Reports, 2015; 13 (1): 23 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2015.08.061

  • Simple Filtration Method Can Stop Urban Storm Water from Killing Salmon

    A recent study has revealed that pollutants in stormwater runoff from parking lots, roads and other paved surfaces is killing adult salmon in West Coast urban streams. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, is the first to show how salmon mortality is linked to urban stormwater, and suggests that by filtering urban runoff using a simple inexpensive filtration system consisting of sand and soil filter media, the fish can be protected from the toxic effects of pollutants in runoff.

    According to Julann Spromberg, a NOAA Fisheries research scientist and lead author of the paper, untreated urban stormwater runoff is highly toxic to salmon, and the primary goal of this study is to come up with an inexpensive and practical solution for improving water quality. As salmon are good indicators of water quality, their survival is a good indicator of whether a water treatment method is effective or not.

    Credit: Credit:

    Biologists have been studying the impact that urban storm water has on salmon, concentrating largely on streams surrounding Puget Sound, Washington, where over half of the spawning adults returning to stormwater impacted streams each year die before they have had the chance to spawn.

    Coho salmon are listed as an endangered species in south western Washington, Oregon and California, and these significant annual losses of wild coho stocks to storm water toxins before they are able to spawn, could further endanger their populations.

    The proposed filtration columns function on the same principal as rain gardens, which are rapidly gaining in popularity in the Northwest. The authors suggest that this simple, ecologically sound, natural stormwater filtration method is an example of new green storm water management technologies that should be implemented in both new development and redevelopment projects in an effort to reverse the declining trend and help wild salmon stocks recover.

    The study, which exposed adult salmon from a hatchery in Washington to differing degrees of contaminated and uncontaminated water, including stormwater runoff from a major Washington highway, shows that coho salmon are ecological indicators of harmful water pollutants present in urban stormwater runoff. Fish that were exposed to runoff originating from the highway were killed within a 24 hour period. However, once the scientists filtered the polluted water through a 3ft column consisting of layers of sand, compost, gravel and bark, all of the exposed fish survived as they did when exposed to clean water. A water analysis revealed that the sand column filters reduced heavy metal pollutants by 58% and toxic hydrocarbons by 94%.

    Jen McIntyre, co-author and researcher at the storm water program at Washington State Univerity’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, was most impressed with how effective the treatment was.

    "It's remarkable that we could take runoff that killed all of the adult coho in less than 24 hours - sometimes less than four hours - and render it non-toxic, even after putting several storms worth of water through the same soil mixture."

    The researchers initially attempted to create a potion resembling stormwater runoff by mixing together various contaminants such as heavy metals and crude oil that are known to be present in urban runoff. However, this artificial concoction did not have the same fatal impact on the fish as the runoff from the highway — the fish survived being exposed to it the same as they did to uncontaminated water — which suggests that urban runoff contains other unknown pollutants from motor oil, exhaust and dust emitted by tires and brakes due to wear and tear.

    According to the scientists, it could take some time to conduct further tests and analysis to pinpoint what exactly in the water is killing the salmon. Previous research in this regard indicates that coho salmon mortality is correlated to the extent of paved surface within a watershed, so it appears that the toxic ingredients in streams originate from urban runoff rather than agricultural or household toxins such as pesticides or pharmaceuticals.

    "The recurring coho spawner deaths have been a high-profile mystery for many years, and we're now much closer to the cause," concludes co-author Nat Scholz. "Although we haven't identified a smoking gun, our study shows that toxic stormwater is killing coho, and that the problem can be addressed."

    Journal Reference

    Julann A. Spromberg, David H. Baldwin, Steven E. Damm, Jenifer K. McIntyre, Michael Huff, Catherine A. Sloan, Bernadita F. Anulacion, Jay W. Davis, Nathaniel L. Scholz. Coho salmon spawner mortality in western US urban watersheds: bioinfiltration prevents lethal storm water impacts. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12534

  • Insecticides Threaten US Freshwater Systems and Every Living Thing That Depends on Them

    While many people are aware of the devastating impact that pesticides are having on bees and other insect pollinators, there is far less awareness regarding the use of highly toxic insecticides (a form of pesticide) consisting largely of neonics, that are particularly persistent in the environment and poses perhaps the greatest threat to our freshwater systems and all forms of life that depend on these water bodies for their survival.

    A report titled: Water Hazard: Aquatic Contamination by Neonicotinoid Insecticides in the United States, that was recently published by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), reveals that freshwater systems throughout the US are contaminated with neonicotinoid insecticides, posing a hazard to freshwater invertebrates such as insects and crabs, as well as migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on them for a food source. The report particularly focus on the incorporation of neonicotinoid insecticides in seed coatings, of which as much as 95% can end up in the environment rather than on the crop it was intended to protect.

    photo by Shawn Caza: photo by Shawn Caza:

    Neonicotinoids are a type of insecticide that are known to have both an acute and chronic effect on honey bees and other insect pollinators, and are thought to play a primary role in the deterioration of bee health and the rapid decline in bee populations.

    Every year, neonicotinoid insecticides are applied to crops covering over 150 million acres of land, with seed coatings being the most widely used type of application. Once the nemonic insecticide has been applied, any remaining residues are washed off with runoff or leach through soils to contaminate soil and water sources offsite. Since these contaminants are highly mobile and are readily transported offsite, they are carried to areas such as wetlands and other sensitive aquatic systems where they were not intended to be used, with dire environmental consequences. Because neonic insecticides break down very slowly, they rapidly accumulate in the environment, especially in freshwater systems, endangering a variety of wildlife species — ranging from butterflies and bees to ladybugs, aquatic invertebrates and birds.

    The CFS report analyses case studies representative of California, Iowa and Maryland — all of which are experiencing far ranging neonicotinoid insecticide contamination that exceeds the recommended standard set the leading aquatic toxicology experts. It also draws attention to contamination other areas, such as New York, Wisconsin, Texas and South Dakota. The report discusses the key role that irrigation and field drainage play in transporting these contaminants to freshwater systems, and highlights the growing risk this poses to underground water sources and sensitive wetlands systems, and the valuable wildlife species that inhabit these ecosystems, including fish and migratory birds.

    This poses a very serious long-term risk to environment health, wildlife biodiversity, and to human health and well being. If not addressed urgently, we will very soon witness an ecological crisis akin to Silent Spring. Considering the extreme negative impacts that neonicotinoid pesticides have on insect pollinators, aquatic fauna and the greater environment, it is imperative that the use of these extremely hazardous toxins is suspended if we wish to prevent any further ecological damage.

    What you can do:

    1) Sign a petition demanding the EPA take immediate action to prevent further contamination of our freshwater systems to ensure environmental integrity and that our drinking water sources are pesticide free.

    2) Take measures to remove any pesticides that may be contaminating your drinking water and posing a health risk to you and your family by filtering your drinking water with a good quality home water filter like a Berkey that is capable of removing pesticides.


    Water Hazard: Aquatic Contamination by Neonicotinoid Insecticides in the United States. Center for Food Safety (CFS), September 2015.

  • Rethinking Watershed Management

    A recently published analysis of how land cover and climate change will affect watersheds across the United States, provides options for the management of runoff, storm water and floods that can be implemented by decision-makers to manage water quality.

    The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences, was conducted by scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who hope that the models and simulations produced will provide managers with practical ways to encourage land developers to implement water quality and conservation measures and to incorporate green infrastructure into their projects.


    Using data collected from satellite images, field stations, temperature gauges, stream gauges and water flow observations across the United States, the study connects the dots between land use and climate (notably temperature and rainfall/precipitation) to runoff and flooding within a watershed drainage system at a much larger scale than ever before.

    According to co-author, Timothy Randhir, of the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, this new information will give us a clearer understanding of the mechanisms and runoff processes in large watersheds.

    “We also want to highlight the importance of natural systems such as forest cover and open space when a town is considering new parking lots or shopping centers, for example. You can't just take away such ecosystem services and expect everything to be OK,” said Randhir. “All towns now have a big problem dealing with storm water, and with climate change it's going to get worse. In the past, the problems just flowed away to become some other town's problem, but that isn't going to work anymore.”

    Randhir hopes that this will encourage a new approach to the way managers manage water resources, moving away from the current reactive approach, where managers deal with stormwater and runoff issues after they have become problematic, to a more active approach where they take preventative measures before problems arise.

    “There seems to be a better understanding now that water flowing away from you doesn't just disappear, it affects someone else, and a problem in the system above you will affect you,” said Randhir. “This kind of systems thinking has to take over, and cooperation has to be used more often.”

    The report suggests recommendations on how to utilize tools such as improving infiltration or urban greening as mitigation measures to reduce flooding. According to Randhir, by combining green infrastructure with best management practices watersheds can made more resilient. It is in a town or city’s own best interests to encourage these measures by offering incentives to developers who install pervious surfaces that promote rainwater infiltration rather than impervious concrete that promote stormwater runoff; or water retention features such as drainage basins or rain gardens that capture runoff that is contaminated with heavy metals, grease and oil washed off road surfaces as well as sediments from soil surfaces.

    Land managers can also introduce incentives to farmers and private landowners to encourage them to take measures to prevent runoff on their properties. Randhir hopes that town and city managers make use of this new information to initiate changes to their land use practices. By doing so, flooding will be reduced, and water quality will improve for users downstream.

    Journal Reference

    Paul Ekness, Timothy O. Randhir. Effect of climate and land cover changes on watershed runoff: A multivariate assessment for storm water management. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/2015JG002981

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  • Ban Plastic Microbeads in Order to Protect Aquatic Wildlife

    Plastic microbeads are increasingly becoming a problem for species inhabiting both freshwater and marine ecosystems, and reducing water quality of valuable freshwater resources that humans depend on for drinking water and recreation. Now a team of conservationists suggest that banning the use of plastic microbeads in beauty products that will end up in wastewater streams, to be discharged into rivers and lakes, to ultimately end up in the ocean, is the only solution to the problem.

    Plastic microbeads are used in a wide range of beauty products such as soaps, facial scrubs and shower gels that by design are washed down the plughole and into the wastewater system. These tiny plastic beads pass through wastewater treatment works to pollute freshwater and marine environments. Collectively, the amount of microbeads being incorporated into products is huge, and so too is the impact they are having on aquatic ecosystems.

    Plastic microbeads Plastic microbeads

    In a report that was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from seven different institutions slam the use of plastic microbeads, which are used to give beauty products a granular texture that purportedly aids in tooth whitening (toothpaste) or removing dead skin (soaps, scrubs and shower gels) and recommend that manufacturers switch to non-toxic, biodegradable alternatives, which are readily available.

    "We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," said co-author, Stephanie Green, a Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

    "Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning," Green explains. "Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable."

    In their analysis, the scientists conservatively estimate that around 8 trillion microbeads (which could cover over 300 tennis courts) are emitted into rivers, lakes and estuaries every day in the US alone. These eventually spill out into the sea to contaminate marine ecosystems. But this is only 1% of the microbeads that flow down our drains; the other 99% -- which total an estimated 800 trillion -- is removed with the sludge from wastewater treatment plants,. This typically gets spread over surface soils, where the microbeads can potentially wash into streams, rivers and the ocean through surface runoff.

    "Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife," said lead-author, Chelsea Rochman, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis. "We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects," Rochman said. "We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."

    While plastic microbeads are a smaller contributor to the larger problem of plastic debris in freshwater bodies and oceans, they are arguably the easiest to control. As consumers and manufacturers become more aware of the problem of plastic microbeads, some manufacturers have committed to refraining from using plastic microbeads in personal care products that are designed to be 'rinse off', while some states have taken steps to regulate or even ban the sale of personal care products that contain plastic microbeads.

    The report points out that some of these bans include loopholes due to their choice of wording. For example, plastic microbeads are also used extensively in beauty products that are not designed to be 'rinse off', such as cleansers and deodorants, but could still potentially end up in our waterways, while some regulations allow the use of 'biodegradable' products, which allows the use of some plastic microbeads that do biodegrade, albeit only slightly. According to the report, when drafting new legislation, unambiguous wording must be used to "ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain."

    The authors conclude that: "The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple."  Thankfully there is a handy app that can help consumers choose products wisely. Use this microbead app to check if products contain plastic microbeads.

    Journal Reference
    Chelsea M. Rochman, Sara M. Kross, Jonathan B. Armstrong, Michael T. Bogan, Emily S. Darling, Stephanie J. Green, Ashley R. Smyth, Diogo Veríssimo. Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads. Environmental Science & Technology, 2015; 49 (18): 10759 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03909

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  • Chemicals Released During Natural Gas Operations Could Pose Health Risk to Humans

    Scientists are concerned that toxic mix of endocrine disrupting chemicals could pose more harm to humans than exposure to single chemical alone.

    Currently in the USA, over 15 million people reside within a mile of unconventional oil and gas extraction sites that utilize a combination of directional drilling and 'fracking' methods to release natural gas contained within the underlying rock. There is growing concern over the health impacts resulting from exposure to chemicals used during these operations, particularly the effect on human development, but until now scientific studies have been inconclusive.

    Now, after reviewing current studies on the health effects linked to unconventional oil and gas operations, a team of researchers led by scientists from the University of Missouri have concluded that these activities have the potential to release a complex mix of endocrine disrupting chemicals into the environment, which in combination with each other have the potential to form a toxic cocktail that could be detrimental to both human reproduction and human development.

    4142106708_5cfda863df_z Fracking Wastewater Pond - credit:

    The researchers reviewed over 100 peer-reviewed scientific research studies, examining them closely for links and patterns associated with chemicals used in unconventional oil and gas extraction and human development. They conclude that available studies suggest that exposure to these chemicals results in adverse health conditions, but point out that there is a lack of evidence-based studies related to unconventional oil and gas extraction processes.

    "We recommend a process to examine the total endocrine disrupting activity from exposure to the mixtures of chemicals used in and resulting from these operations in addition to examining the effects of each chemical on its own," said co-author, Susan Nagel, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health in the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri. "Studying these complex mixtures of chemicals released during fracking is necessary since the chemical identities used in oil and natural gas operations are not always known. Additionally, there is strong evidence of endocrine disrupting chemical mixtures having additive effects, so this approach also may be more sensitive."

    Chemicals used during hydrofracking operations to extract natural gas from underground rock can penetrate fissures in the rock or leach through soil and contaminate underground aquifers -- a vital source of freshwater that supplies drinking water for much of the nation. Furthermore, tainted wastewater can also seep through soils to contaminate groundwater sources, or chemicals can contaminate other freshwater sources, such as rivers and streams, during the disposal process if not treated or disposed of appropriately.

    If you are one of the 15 million US residents who live near an unconventional oil and gas site, you may want to consider taking extra precautions to remove any toxic industrial chemicals that may be present in your drinking water. A good quality home water filter that is capable of removing industrial chemicals and other toxins offers a sound investment for your long-term health.

    Journal Reference:

    Christopher D. Kassotis, Donald E. Tillitt, Chung-Ho Lin, Jane A. Mcelroy, and Susan C. Nagel. Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Oil and Natural Gas Operations: Potential Environmental Contamination and Recommendations to Assess Complex Environmental Mixtures. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1409535

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