Category Archives: news

Stop Flushing Your Drugs – the Fish are Overdosing!!

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And going sterile:

NO ONE EVER planned for fish to take birth control pills. But they are. As treated wastewater flows into rivers and streams every day, fish all over the world get a tiny dose of 17α-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic steroidal estrogen that’s used in birth control pills. They also get a little sip of the anticonvulsant carbamazepine, a nip of the antidepressant fluoxetine, and a taste of hundreds of other drugs that we take to make our lives better.

Let’s face it – we are a society obsessed with drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise. Also, increasingly so, we are a society obsessed with keeping our bodies free of toxins. Conflict of interest much? The fish think so. Male fish inhabiting waters near water treatment plants, for example, are becoming feminized (aka growing eggs in their testes) as a result of our habits.

By far, the most dramatic example of this kind of pharmaceutical pollution has been the effect of estrogenic compounds on fish. In the 1990s, scientists working in the U.K. noted that male fish living downstream from wastewater treatment plants were becoming feminized. They were making proteins associated with egg production in female fish, and they were developing early-stage eggs in their testes. Feminized male fish have now been observed in rivers and streams in the U.S. and Europe.

Recent studies done by John Sumpter, an ecotoxicologist at England’s Brunel University and Karen A. Kidd, a biology professor at the Canadian Rivers Institute, University of New Brunswick, confirm that the level of pharmaceutical drug contamination in the waters is affecting the fish. The drugs are getting there via several paths (see image below) – in our bodily excretions, and through our drains (I know all you ninjas have flushed a little something down your toilets at some time or another). The levels are low – as low as the parts per trillion (ppt) range, but because drugs are specifically formulated to be effective at low levels, even the ppt range can affect the water populations.

FOR THREE SUMMERS, Kidd and her colleagues spiked a lake in Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area with 17α-ethinylestradiol at a concentration of 5 ppt—a concentration that has been measured in municipal wastewaters and in river waters downstream of discharges. During the autumn that followed the first addition of the estrogenic compound, the researchers observed delayed sperm cell development in male fathead minnows—the freshwater equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. A year later, the male fathead minnows were producing eggs and had largely stopped reproducing. The minnow population began to plummet. The decline continued for an additional three years until the fish had all but disappeared from the lake.

And as the circle of life goes, the loss of one species ripples through the food chain:

The fathead minnow wasn’t the only fish to feel the effects of the trace amounts of birth control. The population of lake trout, which feed on smaller fish, fell by about 30%. “The numbers of lake trout dropped not because of direct exposure to the estrogens but because they lost their food supply,” Kidd says.

But Kidd’s story is not all doom and gloom. In 2006, three years after her team stopped adding 17α-ethinylestradiol to the lake, the fathead minnow population rebounded. “So given enough time, once you remove the estrogens from a system, the fish can recover to their original population size,” Kidd notes.

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People and animals excrete pharmaceuticals and their metabolites, which then find their way into the environment through a variety of routes—treated wastewater, agricultural runoff, and biosolids and manure that are used as fertilizers. Pharmaceuticals also enter the environment when people dispose of medications by flushing them down the toilet or pouring them down the drain.

We cannot avoid the bodily excretion of drugs that make it through our systems, but we can use other means of disposing of unused drugs. C&EN recommends:

Getting people to stop flushing away their unwanted medication is one easy way to cut down on pharmaceutical pollution. So last year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued new federal guidelines for the proper disposal of prescription drugs. According to the guidelines, unused, unneeded, or expired prescription drugs should be removed from their original containers and thrown in the trash.

To prevent accidental poisonings or potential drug abuse, ONDCP recommends mixing meds with an undesirable substance, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter. The mix should be placed into impermeable, nondescript containers, such as empty cans or sealable plastic bags, before being tossed in the trash.

In some cases, the risk of poisoning or abuse outweighs the potential environmental impact. The Food & Drug Administration recommends that certain controlled substances, such as the painkillers OxyContin and Percocet, are best disposed of down the drain. A full list is available at ONDCP’s website (whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/drugfact/factsht/proper_disposal.html).

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Moral of the story: stop flushing your goods. And check C&EN for more details.

[Chemical & Engineering News]

Exxon Valdez v Alaskan Fisherman: Still in Legal Purgatory

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Nearly two decades after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the class action law suit representing the fishermen of Prince William Sound has made it to the Supreme Court. The fishermen who lost their livelihoods as a result of the spill will find out if they will be the awarded the $2.5-5 billion they were awarded in the first round of court hearings, or if they will get zero.

In the spring of 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and gushed nearly 11 million gallons of fuel, killing more than 200,000 seabirds as well as otters, harbor seals and other marine life. It shut down the region’s fishing industry.

In 1994, they were awarded $5 billion in punitive damages in U.S. District Court. In a series of appeals, that was cut to $2.5 billion. That verdict could be upheld, or done away with entirely, when the Supreme Court rules sometime later this year.

Exxon, in a press statement, called the oil spill a tragic accident that the corporation deeply regrets. But a spokesman said the corporation already has spent more than $3.5 billion in compensatory and cleanup payments and does not believe that maritime law allows for punitive damages.

Such comments reignite the anger in the 63-year-old Copeland. Back in 1989, he was so frustrated by the slow progress of the cleanup that he built his own oil skimmer made of hoses, flour scoops, five-gallon buckets and a small pump.

That was the start of the “fishermen’s bounty program” that eventually corralled some 40,000 gallons of oil that Exxon purchased.

Here is a pretty moving Sierra Club Chronicles episode (introduced by Darryl Hannah) on the saga [via ExxposeExxon.com], The Day the Water Died:

[googlevideo]http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2200919808132393024&hl=en[/googlevideo]

[Seattle Times]

Suprise, Suprise, Humans Are Impacting the Oceans

So, I was looking for an uploadable version of this BBC ‘fly-over’ video of some work that has been done by researchers on the severity of human impact on the oceans. This map illustrates the areas of impact in the oceans – scary.

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Only about 4% of the world’s oceans remain undamaged by human activity, according to the first detailed global map of human impacts on the seas.

However, I got distracted by this series of videos from the 2003 BBC Horizon show The Big Chill. This is basically all old (and at times prophetic) news by now, talking about the infamous ocean conveyor belt and the dire consequences that may ensue if it shuts off. But it gives a good bit of perspective on how little we still know and how much can happen in 5 years. Think about all the craziness that has gone down since 2003 concerning climate change – climatically, politically, intellectually, technologically.

Oh, and watch out for the endearingly geeky clone of a certain red-bearded ninja.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=bRdS_T9Hp3g[/youtube]

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=rkOJm_ic3s0[/youtube]

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[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=LxRxMpk0ZOs[/youtube]

Mirrored Crops

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Send that sunlight right back to where it came from, ninja!

Forget mirrors in space and seeding the oceans with iron, scientists have come up with a new way to tackle the looming threat of global warming: fields of shiny crops.

Experts at the University of California, Irvine, say reflective plants could send more of the sun’s heat back into space, and even reverse temperature rises in parts of the world. Encouraging farmers to grow shinier crops could reduce maximum daytime temperatures in agricultural regions by as much as 1.9C, they say.

Some climate experts say that such emergency geoengineering measures, including artificial volcanoes and orbiting sunshades, could be needed in future to tackle rising temperatures, if world leaders fail to constrain soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the full article over at The Guardian, via BLDGBLOG.

Cali Sues the EPA

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[image from WIRED]

The Govinator is poised to strike! California is suing the Environmental protection agency for denying California a waiver it and 16 other states need to regulate greenhouse gases from new cars and trucks. The reason, you ask? Well Dubya signed a bill [just in time] to cut greenhouse emissions gradually over time [much less drastic than the California regulations], and the EPA decided that California’s waiver was therefore no longer needed. Once again, this administration shows that it prefers mediocrity [and auto/oil lobbyist money] to innovation and forward thinking.

Read the article here, via YAHOO Green and WIRED.

D.C. Trumps Beantown for Most Walkable City

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Can Boston hold no title of its own anymore?? It is not the greenest city (though it made the top 10 in the 2007 MSN City Gude; it was #11 in 2006 according to thegreenguide.com). It is not the best city to find a job in (didn’t even make top 25). It is not the best place to live, although our near neighbor Milton made #7 (and I’m sorry, but f* cnn money, what do they know about how we want to live). It is not the most cultural city (#5). It is not the best city for shopping (#8). It is not the best ‘after dark’ city (#12, god help us). We do not have the best people (#15, um ouch). Best food? no. We don’t even make the top 10 underrated cities. Need I go on?

But Best City for Walking?? Surely that is ours. Alas, no longer; the self-proclaimed title has been stripped:

With its tightknit residential neighborhoods, its boulevards lined with cafes, shops, and parks, Boston officials for years have smugly considered the Hub the best city for a stroll.

Hotel, tourist, and advertising executives two decades ago coined the phrase “America’s Walking City” and made it part of an international ad campaign. Mayor Thomas M. Menino is fond of calling the city “the most walkable in America.”

There has never been any empirical data for the boast.

“We just claimed title to it,” said Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Just let someone else dispute it.”

Well, someone has.

Damn the Brookings Institution.

A report by a venerable think tank, the Brookings Institution, declared yesterday that Boston is, in fact, not number one. Brookings instead bestowed top honors on the nation’s capital, saying Washington D.C.’s urban planners have created “the national model of walkable urban growth.”

Boston ranked second, ahead of San Francisco, Denver, and Portland, Ore.

The response from Boston officials was confusion, then indignation. (Some noted that Brookings is based in Washington. Coincidence?)

Granted, it is cold outside. But, as orangemenace puts it: “I say we’re still first – walking around DC is begging for a mugging.” My ninja, please.

[boston.com]

British Petroleum on Staff at UC Berkeley

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Oil giant BP has been in negotiations with UC Berkeley since February on a partnership to research renewable energy technologies, specifically biofuels. BP will provide the university with $500 million over 10 years. The contract was signed a couple of weeks ago on November 14, but the deal remains a controversial one. Two days before the contract was signed Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! hosted an interesting discussion between two UC Berkeley professors with opposing views on the debate. Miguel Altieri is a Professor of Entomology and a renowned expert in agroecology, or sustainable agriculture. He is opposed to the deal between BP and UC Berkeley. Daniel Kammen is a professor in the Energy and Resources Group, as well as professor of public policy and nuclear engineering. He directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and is on the executive committee of the Energy Biosciences Institute, which will carry out much of the research under the deal. Kammen is generally supportive of the deal. I highly suggest you read the entire transcript of the interview, but here are some excerpts that highlight views on both sides of the story:

Critics at UC Berkeley point to the corporatization of academic research, the ecological dangers of biofuels, and BP’s long history of environmental irresponsibility, they say. They call this an act of greenwashing by BP and have been protesting the deal since it was announced in February of this year. But supporters claim that the corporate – academic partnership allows the university to realize its renewable energy research agenda and provides the most effective and economical means of addressing the looming environmental crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the issue of BP giving this enormous sum of money, $500 million over the next ten years, is this of concern to you, the issue of the privatization of a public institution?

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I think that the size of the grant can be a concern, but not for the reasons that you’re raising. I actually think that this amount of money is relatively small change, both for the oil industries around the world and, in fact, for the amount of money it takes to bring new products to market. New cars and new drugs frequently take that much money — half a billion dollars — to bring them to market. And as a research pot of money to start with, I actually don’t regard it as that much money.

The chance, though, that this amount of money would alter what a university does is a concern to me, and the degree to which a university might see grants like this as a reason or as an excuse or as a mechanism to alter what they would work on — say, move away from some areas and move into others — is a concern if it was being done in a way that I thought that the company had that driving force.
MIGUEL ALTIERI: Well, my concerns is that, first of all, Professor Kammen is saying, it’s very little money, and eventually it’s little money for BP, but a lot of money for UC Berkeley. And what they’re going to do with this money is basically skim off what 200 years of public investment has done. It would be very expensive for BP to build a university and a research facility. They will come with $500 million. They skim off what the public university has built over years, and then they bring fifty scientists from BP that are going to have access to students, and so therefore what they’re going to do is influence the research agenda of the public university. And it’s already happening.

And anybody that has protested — faculty — have been basically dismissed and disregarded as a colorful — as part of the colorful character of the campus. You know, we have to have these people that are always protesting.

And what worries me is that, on the one side, they’re promoting the wrong technology: biofuels is the wrong way to go. There’s no discussion, for example, in this proposal about alternative transportation systems, how to curb consumption patterns of petroleum and how to promote other alternatives that are much more viable. And biofuels are going to cause tremendous problems not only in the United States, but in third world countries especially, because if we devoted all the corn that is in this country, 125,000 square miles, we would only satisfy 12% of the gas needs. So obviously what’s going to happen is that it’s going to be grown in the third world, and basically the people in the third world are going to be paying the price for the over-consumption and the old-based style of living of Europe and the United States.

DANIEL KAMMEN: Well, I think there’s a couple really good points in what Miguel just said. The first one is I’m actually, as well, concerned, that I thought that the debate on campus is not one that has been as open as it could be. And you’re right, there has been sort of high-profile protests, but protests and actually having sit-downs between the sides has been somewhat lacking. And I actually really view that as a feature that the campus is responsible for the lack of that, not BP so far, and the campus needs to do a better job in that regard.

In terms of the fuel issues around the world, I actually take quite a different view than that by Miguel. It is true that if we devoted all of our corn to making ethanol in the US, we would only reach about 10% or 12%, so it wouldn’t be a significant effort, and you wouldn’t want to give up all that corn use for ethanol. But an interesting and, I think, a critical feature of the BP proposal is that, in fact, corn ethanol is excluded. Everyone who works on ethanol and biofuels worldwide recognizes that alternate fuels are available that are far better, the so-called cellulosic crops, that even include using garbage and using the waste carbon dioxide that comes out of power plants on just the land sitting next to those power plants. Those are areas for research in this proposal, not corn.

And so, if there was to be an approach that would look at alternatives that did not make the tension between food and fuel worse, it’s a project like this. In fact, in many parts of the developing world, the potential to grow crops that are useful for farmers locally at much higher efficiencies than they draw today — for food stocks, again, not corn — is an option that this proposal should be looking at. And the degree to which we do a good job there, I think, is very much due to the sort of things that Miguel said, and that is having this broader discussion and analysis not only of what we should be doing, but also how it goes on.

MIGUEL ALTIERI: I think what we need is, first of all, is to call again for an open debate, which has been suppressed, because basically the people that were questioning this have been accused of attempting against academic freedom. And basically what academic freedom now means in Berkeley is just that you cannot question the financial associations of faculty.

I mean, we need to look at the record of BP. We cannot associate with BP. It has a horrible record in terms of environment, in terms of human rights, and so on. And they have been, you know, destroying the environment for many years, and now they come as the doves of ecology.

We need to also put in place people that are going to be looking critically at the social, ecological impacts. We cannot leave in charge climate change and ecological questions to a bunch of engineers and chemists and genetic engineering people. We need to bring ecologists, social scientists, but also that are critical and are independent, that are not associated with this proposal and therefore open to debate, and also bring the public of California to question their public university that is being funded by them. They need to reclaim their university, their public university.

My question is: How many universities is BP trying to infiltrate? They have also recently teamed up with researchers at the Biodidesign Institute at Arizona State University to learn more about using cyanobacteria as a biofuel feed stock. Don’t get me wrong, it is nothing new for companies to be teaming up with universities to do research, but the sheer scale and influence of a mega-company like BP changes the dynamic of the game. It may be inevitable that the oil giants will take over the biofuels industry, if only by brute force, but is it necessary, or even allowable, that they take over our universities and intellectual freedom as well?

[DemocracyNow!]

iToxic

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Love it, hate it, love to hate it, hate to love it, whatever your feelings toward the iPhone, the facts remain, that thing is toxic. Greenpeace disected it like a frog in middle school and look at what they found:

Analysis revealed that the iPhone contains toxic brominated compounds (indicating the prescence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs)) and hazardous PVC. The findings are detailed in the report, “Missed call: the iPhone’s hazardous chemicals

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=dBF_AkaXRG4[/youtube]

Not only that, but Apple’s competitors are doing far more to clean up their acts:

Nokia is totally PVC free, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have already products on the market with BFR free components. Apple’s competitors have also identified extra toxic chemicals they intend to remove in the future – beyond current minimum legal requirements.

Nokia and Sony Ericsson have better take-back policies than Apple and accept responsibility for reuse and recycling of phones they manufacture. That saves resources and helps prevent old phones from adding to the mountain of e-waste that has been dumped in Asia.

What is worse, one of the chemicals used in the iPhone is actually banned in the phone’s home state of Cali:

Man, Apple just can’t catch a break, environmentally speaking. In addition to receiving thorough tongue lashing from Greenpeace about potentially hazardous chemicals in the iPhone, the Center for Environmental Health upped the stakes on Monday and said it will actually be initiating legal action against the Cupertino company.

According to spokesperson Charles Margulis, the levels of phthalates (a group of chemical compounds that are mainly used as “plasticizers,” i.e., substances that increase flexibility) in the iPhone are in violation of California law, specifically Proposition 65.

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[wired & greenpeace via watercheck.biz]

The Greenest Monster

All you baseball loving ninjas out there, Red Sox fans in particular, this is for you.

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The Red Sox have a new five-year initiative to help Boston’s beloved Fenway Park go green. With plans on the drawing board for solar panels, a new recycling program, and locally grown produce at the concession stand, the Sox are heating it up.

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Recycling. Solar panels. What is it that has suddenly inspired the Red Sox to go as green as their famous short left-field wall known as the Green Monster? Hey, this is sports. So think competition. And while the American League’s Red Sox and Cleveland Indians may have tied this year for the best win-loss record in baseball, it turns out that the Indians beat out the Sox on going green by already putting in more than 8,000 watts of solar panels at Jacobs Field.

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And what’s more, the National League is ahead of both American League teams, with the Colorado Rockies lighting up their scoreboard with 10,000 of solar and the San Francisco Giants becoming giants in major league solar with a whopping 120,000 watts. But the Red Sox organization is famous for coming from behind. Down three games to none in the 2004 pennant race against the Yankees they went on to win the World Series. They say, when it comes to going green, ‘bring it on.’

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Photos courtesy of yours truly, because that’s right my ninjas, I was there.

[living on earth]