Reclaiming the Desert

A Lush Lawn Without Pesticides

A Lush Lawn Without Pesticides

Catherine Roberts                            April 6, 2021

 

Shortly after Lydia Chambers had her first child, in 1995, her family moved to a new home in Ohio. “It was this neighborhood with perfect lawns,” recalls Chambers, now 60. In her previous home, when a swath of dandelions appeared shortly after she and her husband moved in, she spent two weeks pulling them out by hand.

In their Ohio home, however, she had no time to take care of the yard. So she hired a service to come and treat it. At the time, she didn’t realize that the chemicals the service used might be dangerous. “Even though I kind of sensed it . . . I didn’t know,” she says.

In her professional life as a hydrogeologist, Chambers was beginning to learn about how long-term, low-dose exposures to dangerous chemicals could lead to cancer and other chronic diseases. This made her increasingly suspicious of the pesticides her landscaping company applied. By 2005, her family had moved to New Jersey and her elementary school-aged kids were playing in the yard constantly. As she did more research, she learned a particularly disturbing fact: One common weed killer, 2,4-­dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), was also an ingredient in Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Vietnam War.

“I guess if anything flipped a switch, it was that,” she says. Chambers and her husband finally committed to taking care of their yard with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers—even if that meant it sprouted a few weeds. “I was proud that I had a few weeds in my grass,” she says. “It was a symbol I was doing the right thing.”

For many Americans, however, a pristine lawn is the goal, and weed-free grass is big business. American consumers spend about $35 billion per year on lawn and garden products, according to market research firm Mintel. Professional lawn-care services and consumers going the DIY route choose from a variety of pesticides and fertilizers, many with familiar brand names, such as Roundup and Scotts.

The sense of unease that Chambers felt about pesticides is grounded in evidence: A growing body of research has linked many of them, even at low levels, to potential health problems such as cardiovascular disease, says Consumer Reports senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, an expert in environmental health.

Also, while synthetic lawn-care products may be helpful to your yard in the short term, they can harm beneficial organisms in soil and won’t lead to a healthy ecosystem in the long run. “You wonder,” asks Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit that advocates for transitioning away from synthetic pesticides, “why are we still using these things?”

Part of the problem is that even when consumers look for alternatives to traditional lawn chemicals, navigating the marketplace can be tricky. Unlike with food, there’s no legal definition of “organic” when it comes to lawn products, so it’s hard to assess the safety of a product that advertises itself as “organic,” “natural,” or “environmentally friendly.”

Still, it’s possible for consumers to move away from conventional lawn care. It just requires a bit of strategy, a few new habits, and some fresh ideas about what your yard should look like.

Health Harms of Lawn Care

On one hand, it’s a minority of lawn owners who hire lawn-care companies or add fertilizers or pesticides to their lawns. In a February 2021 CR nationally representative survey of 1,772 lawn owners, 51 percent said they don’t use any pesticides or fertilizers on their lawns. And according to Peter Groffman, PhD, a professor at the Advanced Science Research Center at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, who studies ecosystem ecology, “the biggest group of homeowners are what we call passive land managers—they just mow.”

Still, many American homeowners strive for a perfectly uniform, bright green lawn. And according to research by Paul Robbins, PhD, professor and dean at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many do this in spite of misgivings about the sometimes mysterious chemical inputs involved.

Lawn chemicals pose short- and long-term risks to health, and children are particularly vulnerable. Kids can accidentally ingest pesticides if they get their hands on them. Although acute poisonings are relatively rare, poison control centers still logged around 34,000 cases regarding pesticide exposure among children 5 and younger in 2019, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The long-term risks of chronic exposure to chemicals on our lawns are much harder to quantify than acute poisonings, but plenty of research has been conducted into how it may affect health. One thing we know: Lawn chemicals don’t just stay on the lawn. Research has demonstrated that pesticides can be tracked inside on shoes and clothes, where they then settle into the dust on floors and other surfaces. There, children, especially young ones who crawl around on the ground and explore the world by putting things in their mouths, are more likely to get these substances into their system.

The prenatal period and early childhood are also times when people are more vulnerable to the risks of these repeated tiny exposures, which may have long-term effects, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, a pediatrician and an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Still, the specific health effects of cumulative exposure to individual pesticides are difficult to tease out, in part because pesticides are designed to be toxic to living organisms. Scientists don’t typically expose people to them on purpose to find out what happens, as they do with medications. The evidence we do have—based on observational studies and experiments in animals and in cells—is open to interpretation.

Take, for example, the herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). They were the two most common active ingredients found in home and garden pesticides used in 2012, the last year for which data on national pesticide usage was available from the Environmental Protection Agency. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization that investigates the causes of cancer in humans, classifies 2,4-D as a possible carcinogen and glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Still, the science isn’t perfectly clear. The IARC’s classifications of carcinogens only indicate the strength of the evidence showing a given substance’s link to cancer. But chemicals in the same category could pose very different levels of real-world risk. Bayer, glyphosate’s manufacturer, told CR that the IARC’s analyses of carcinogens “do not reflect real-world exposure,” meaning the agency doesn’t say whether the amount of a substance you would typically be exposed to is enough to be dangerous.

The EPA has ruled that there isn’t good enough evidence to say whether 2,4-D causes cancer in humans—and that glyphosate probably doesn’t. The EPA also says that although 2,4-D was indeed an ingredient in Agent Orange, it was a different component, known as dioxin, that was found to cause cancer. And Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Industry Task Force II on 2,4-D Research Data, told CR that regulators have “consistently found 2,4-D not to have adverse human health impacts” when used as directed on the label.

A variety of studies, particularly among agricultural communities exposed to pesticides through their work or by proximity to farms, have linked these and other common lawn chemicals to an increased risk of other health problems, too. These include neurological issues, respiratory irritation, asthma, and liver and kidney damage. One 2015 study even suggests that both 2,4-D and glyphosate could be contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What’s more, several common lawn pesticides are suspected endocrine disrupters, meaning they might interfere with the body’s hormones. This is thought to occur at very low doses during certain vulnerable phases of life, such as the prenatal period and early childhood. Endocrine disruption may contribute to a range of issues, including diabetes and reproductive and developmental problems.

Still, industry groups maintain that the EPA’s approval of existing lawn pesticides means the chemicals should be safe to use as directed on the label. Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, an association representing pesticide and fertilizer industry players, says the EPA reviews hundreds of studies to arrive at its approval of a pesticide. And Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, says, “We look at EPA as the experts.”

The Limits of Regulation

It can be hard for consumers to know what to make of all this, especially when studies come to contrasting conclusions. After all, if these chemicals posed a real danger, why would they still be on store shelves?

In fact, David Dorman, PhD, a professor of toxicology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, N.C., says many dangerous products have been banned in the U.S., including DDT. Modern pesticides, he says, are “so much safer than what was used even 40, 50 years ago. So progress has been made.”

In theory, the EPA’s approach to regulating pesticides is precautionary—it requires manufacturers to demonstrate a chemical’s safety before bringing it to market. But many consumer advocates, including CR’s Hansen, say the EPA’s testing requirements are outdated and don’t reflect the latest in toxicological science. That allows some significant harms of pesticides to go undetected.

The problem, says Laura Vandenberg, PhD, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is that a clearer understanding of some of the most serious potential effects—such as cancer—may take decades to emerge. In that time, millions of people will have already been exposed unnecessarily, she says.

The EPA told CR that it is in the process of incorporating endocrine disruption into its standard tests for pesticide safety, and that it is implementing a set of new evaluation methods designed to reduce the need for animal testing. The agency says its risk assessment “ensures that when a pesticide is used according to the label, people and the environment are adequately protected.”

Environmental Impact

Lawn chemicals don’t just stay on your lawn or end up in your household dust. They can also sink deep into the soil, float off into the air, and be carried off by stormwater, ultimately causing harm to a range of organisms they were never meant to target.

A major component in conventional lawn care, fertilizer, is a key source of water pollution. The excess nutrients get washed out by rain into local waterways or sink into groundwater.

Once the nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer reach a lake or pond, they can prompt an overgrowth of algae, which eat up the oxygen in the water. That can cause fish to die en masse and sometimes makes water toxic.

Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may also gradually degrade the health of your soil by diminishing beneficial microbes and fungi. Healthy soil, along with being great for your grass, can help keep carbon out of the atmosphere, an important bulwark against climate change, says soil scientist Asmeret Berhe, PhD, professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced.

What’s a Consumer to Do?

If you’re concerned about the potential health and environmental effects of synthetic lawn chemicals, you might think the answer is choosing organic chemicals instead, or employing a green lawn-care service. But that can be harder than it sounds.

For agriculture, the federal government enforces regulations for food producers that would like to label their food as organic. But no federal laws exist for “organic” lawn-care products or service providers.

Before you hire a provider advertising organic lawn care, ask plenty of questions, says Michele Bakacs, associate professor and county agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in New Jersey. “If the first thing the landscaper talks to you about is the type of product that they’re using, well, that may be a little bit of a warning sign,” she says. Instead, look for a provider that offers a soil test and talks to you about improving the health of your soil, putting the right plant in the right place for your yard and using several types of turfgrass. These are signs of a provider interested in the unique ecology of your yard.

Although uncertainty remains about the extent of the harms of lawn products, reducing risks to people and the environment is easy: Avoid using synthetic lawn chemicals. There are other ways to achieve the same goals that are better for your lawn and for your family (see “How to Rehab Your Yard”).

It can take a bit of a mindset shift, says Joseph R. Heckman, PhD, an extension specialist and professor of soil science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “If you want to have an organic lawn, you have to have a little bit of tolerance for something less than perfect,” he says.

Over the years, the practice of pesticide-free yard care has evolved for Lydia Chambers and her husband. They still live in New Jersey, and Chambers now considers herself an environmental activist. Their latest effort: converting much of their 3-acre property from lawn into meadow. Soon, in place of acres of trimmed turf, they’ll have a spread of native wildflowers and grasses. The meadow will encourage a more diverse ecology in her lawn, she says—and there’s a bonus: “It will be way easier than handling more flower beds.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say

‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say

Adam Gabbatt                            April 5, 2021
<span>Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP</span>
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

 

Fewer than half of Americans belong to a house of worship, a new stud shows, but religion – and Christianity in particular – continues to have an outsize influence in US politics, especially because it is declining faster among Democrats than Republicans.

Just 47% of the US population are members of a church, mosque or synagogue, according to a survey by Gallup, down from 70% two decades ago – in part a result of millennials turning away from religion but also, experts say, a reaction to the swirling mix of rightwing politics and Christianity pursued by the Republican party.

The evidence comes as Republicans in some states have pursued extreme “Christian nationalist” policies, attempting to force their version of Christianity on an increasingly uninterested public.

This week the governor of Arkansas signed a law allowing doctors to refuse to treat LGBTQ people on religious grounds, and other states are exploring similar legislation.

Gallup began asking Americans about their church membership in 1937 – and for decades the number was always above 70%. That began to change in 2000, and the number has steadily dropped ever since.

Some of the decline is attributable to changing generations, with about 66% of people born before 1946 are still members of a church, compared with just 36% of millennials.

Among other groups Gallup reported, the decline in church membership stands out among self-identified Democrats and independents. The number of Democratic church members dropped by 25% over the 20-year period, with independents decreasing by 18%. Republican church members declined too, but only by 12%.

David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, said a reason for the decline among those groups is political – an “allergic reaction to the religious right”.

“Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically,” Campbell said.

“Since that is not their party, or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many – but by no means all – American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.”

Research by Campbell shows that a growing number of Americans have turned away from religion as politicians – particularly Republicans – have mixed religion with their politics. Campbell says there has always been an ebb and flow in American adherence to religion, but he thinks the current decline is likely to continue.

“I see no sign that the religious right, and Christian nationalism, is fading. Which in turn suggests that the allergic reaction will continue to be seen – and thus more and more Americans will turn away from religion,” he said.

The number of people who identify as non-religious has grown steadily in recent decades, according to Michele Margolis, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of From Politics to the Pews. More than 20% of all Americans are classed as “nones”, Margolis said, and more than a third of Americans under 30.

“That means non-identification is going to continue becoming a larger share of population over time as cohort replacement continues to occur,” Margolis said. But she agreed another factor is the rightwing’s infusion of politics with theism.

“As religion has been closed linked with conservative politics, we’ve had Democrats opting out of organized religion, or being less involved, and Republicans opting in,” she said.

Christian nationalists – who believe America was established as, and should remain, a Christian country – have pushed a range of measures to thrust their version of religion into American life.

You virtually have to wear religion on your sleeve in order to be elected

Annie Laurie Gaylor

In states including LouisianaArkansas and Florida, Republicans have introduced legislation which would variously hack away at LGTBQ rights, reproductive rights, challenge the ability of couples to adopt children, and see religion forced into classrooms.

The governor of Arkansas recently signed into law a bill that allows medical workers to refuse to treat LGBTQ people on religious grounds. Montana is set to pass a law which would allow people or businesses to discriminate, based on religion, against the LGBTQ community.

“Do not make me NOT do what my God tells me I have to do,” said the Republican Montana congressman John Fuller, a supporter of the law.

Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, who authored a report into the creep of Christian extremism in the US, warned that the drop-off in religious adherence in America could actually accelerate that effort, rather than slow it down.

“Surveys of those who identify with Christian nationalist beliefs consistently show that this group feels that they are subject to more discrimination and marginalization than any other group in society, including Islamic people, Black people, atheists, [and] Jewish people,” Gill said.

“They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs – and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling on to power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”

The influence of religion over politics is stark, Gill said.

“America perceives itself to be a predominantly religious society, even if the facts no longer agree. Politicians often feel beholden to pronounce their religious faith – and are attacked for a perceived lack of it,” she said.

While the danger of a rightwing backlash is real, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that the Gallup data suggests the US is moving in a positive direction.

“We have this constitutional separation of church and state in America, and our constitution is godless, and it says you can’t have a religious test for public office, and yet you virtually have to wear religion on your sleeve in order to be elected,” Gaylor said.

“There is movement [away from religion], and we’re just delighted to see this. We think it’s great that Americans are finally waking up.”

Florida county fears “imminent” reservoir collapse

Florida county fears “imminent” reservoir collapse

Li Cohen                  April 4, 2021

 

Some residents in Manatee County, Florida, were evacuated from their homes over Easter weekend as officials cited fears that a wastewater pond could collapse “at any time.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area on Saturday.

 

County officials said the pond, located at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant, has a “significant leak,” according to CBS affiliate WTSP-TV. The Manatee County Public Safety Department told people near the plant to evacuate due to an “imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater.”

“A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally,” said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, “signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time.”

Manatee County Public Safety Department initially sent out emergency evacuation notices on Friday for those who were within half a mile of Piney Point, and by 11 a.m. Saturday, evacuation orders were extended to people within one mile north of the reservoir’s stacks of phosphogypsum — a fertilizer waste product — and those within half a mile to the south of the site. Surrounding stretches of highway were also closed to traffic.

Related: Bacteria on Florida beaches proves deadly

Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site on Saturday evening. Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area.

The closure of U.S. 41 will be expanded south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East. There are an estimated 316 households in the evacuation area. Those households will all receive an emergency alert to evacuate.

Phosphogypsum is the “radioactive waste” left over from processing phosophate ore into a state that can be used for fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals,” the Center said in a statement on Saturday. “For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall.”

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a statement Saturday that the “public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”

Officials are on site conducting a controlled release of water, roughly 22,000 gallons a minute.

The water that is currently being pumped out by officials in order to avoid a full collapse is a mix of sea water from a local dredge project, storm water and rain runoff. The water has not been treated.

“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” the state said in a statement. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried wrote a letter to DeSantis on Saturday urging an emergency session of the Florida cabinet to discuss the situation. She wrote that the leaking water is “contaminated, radioactive wastewater,” and noted that this leak is not the property’s first.

“For more than fifty years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents,” Fried wrote. “There have been numerous, well-documented failures — which continue today — of the property’s reservoir liner, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and exacerbated since.”

Video of a Manatee County Commissioners meeting provided insight into what happened prior to the leak. On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, appeared emotionally distressed while briefing the Manatee County Commissioners about the situation.

“I’m very sorry,” he said. He told commissioners he had only slept a few hours that week because he was trying to fix the situation, and through tears, said he first noticed “increased conductivities within the site’s seepage collection system” 10 days prior on March 22. This system, he said, offers drainage around the gypsum stacks.

He said he immediately notified FDEP of his concerns.

“The water was changing around the seepage. We went into a very aggressive monitoring program,” he said, to find out where the seepage was coming from.

They discovered the south side of the stack system had “increased in conductivity” and that the acidity of the water, which is normally around a 4.6, had dropped to about a 3.5, which indicated an issue.

After a few days, the water chemistry had not improved and water flows were increasing from about 120 gallons a minute to more than 400 gallons per minute in less than 48 hours, Barath said. Last Saturday night, the flow rates increased to “rates that I could not even estimate to you,” he said.

Water was filling the stacks so quickly that the ground was starting to rise, Barath said. This “bulging” was temporarily stabilized but then extended hundreds of feet.

Barath submitted a report to the state on March 26, according to the state-run “Protecting Florida Together,” website, which was created by DeSantis to allow more transparency about state water issues.

“I was anticipating that the gypstack itself was destabilizing at a very rapid rate and recommended that we consider an emergency discharge,” he told commissioners. He said he feared that “overpressurizing” the system would result in “complete failure.”

“I’ve spent most of my days and nights constantly monitoring all aspects of this gypstack system and identifying failure points within it,” he said, noting that failure points were happening “constantly, I mean hourly.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said that it ordered the company to “take immediate action” to prevent further leaks. On March 30, the department said that “pipes at the facility are repaired” and controlled discharges were initiated to prevent any pressure buildup.

However, based on Barath’s testimony at the meeting, the situation was far from over. He concluded his address by saying they were doing “everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe.”

On Friday, another leak was detected in the south containment area of the facility. Despite overnight work to attempt to stop this and other leaks, Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur said on Saturday that the situation was “escalating.”

Town’s Water Contaminated With ‘Forever Chemicals’

Consumer Reports

Town’s Water Contaminated With ‘Forever Chemicals’

Lewis Kendall                         April 2, 2021

 

On a bitterly cold afternoon earlier this year, the Haw River in North Carolina was running high—its water a bright ocher, thanks to heavy rainfall and snow melt.

Most of the water flowed south, where it would eventually connect with Jordan Lake and the rest of the Cape Fear River Basin, home to the cities of Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, and Wilmington, and a major source of drinking water for the eastern half of the state.

But some of it took a sharp turn, pumped up to the local water treatment plant where it was cleaned and filtered before continuing its journey, piped down the road and into a church in downtown Pittsboro, where Jim Vaughn had just finished helping hand out free lunches.

Vaughn, a retired electrical equipment salesman and longtime Pittsboro resident, had found a problem with the water coming out of the church’s tap: contamination with a group of chemicals that are linked to health concerns.

The 76-year-old is part of a collaborative project between the Guardian and Consumer Reports that tested 120 tap water samples from locations across the U.S. for dozens of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are a group of roughly 5,000 compounds found in everything from food packaging to nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. The health risks associated with long-term PFAS exposure include cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

The chemicals have been around for more than 80 years, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Environmental Protection Agency set an advisory limit for PFAS in drinking water—70 parts per trillion (ppt).

According to the test, the water coming from the Pittsboro church’s tap measured PFAS levels of 80 ppt.

 

The EPA is under considerable pressure to lower its limits on PFAS. For instance, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has proposed a total PFAS limit of 1 ppt in drinking water and groundwater.

CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more. That is in line with the standards for bottled water that an industry group, the International Bottled Water Association, has its members adhere to.

Vaughn, who wears a black cowboy hat with a multicolored feather stuck in the band, wasn’t particularly surprised at the high PFAS result from the Consumer Reports and Guardian testing. His lack of surprise was also likely due to North Carolina’s long history with PFAS. In the early 1970s, the chemical company DuPont began operating a manufacturing facility that discharged PFAS into the Cape Fear River.

“There’s a feeling of helplessness,” Vaughn says. “Is there something we can do about it? Is there something that the town will do about it? Or will we let it ride and try to ignore it?”

Knowingly or unknowingly, he says, communities like Pittsboro are used to getting “dumped on.”

For more than 90 years Duke Energy operated a large coal-fired power plant in the nearby community of Moncure (population 709), right where the Haw and Deep rivers converge to become the Cape Fear. The area is now the site of a coal ash disposal pit, which is being filled with as much as 12 million tons of slag, powder, and other residual byproducts of burning coal. Multiple tests have revealed elevated levels of metals and other contaminants in groundwater near the site.

The PFAS contamination of Cape Fear River has been a source of controversy for years. A 2007 EPA study found evidence of PFAS contamination downstream from the plant and throughout the Cape Fear River Basin, including high concentrations near the Fort Bragg and Pope Field military bases. In 2016, researchers discovered contamination farther downstream, as well as in local drinking water, a revelation that spawned a spat of news coverage.

Since then the state has engaged in a back and forth with the offending companies over the issue. In 2017, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality blocked the DuPont plant (now operated by a DuPont offshoot, The Chemours Company) from discharging into the Cape Fear, and later entered into a consent order requiring that Chemours pay a $12 million fine.

Late last year the state filed a lawsuit against the companies, alleging that they “knowingly discharged vast quantities of PFAS into the air, water, sediments, and soils of . . . southeastern North Carolina.”

Asked to comment about the CR test finding in Pittsboro, Chemours spokesman Thom Sueta said in an email that the company had taken “numerous actions to reduce the emissions of fluorinated organic compounds (FOCs)—that includes PFAS,” and that its goal was to reduce them “by at least 99 percent” at its sites worldwide compared with a 2018 baseline.

Sueta said there were “many sources that impact the water quality of the Cape Fear River.” At its Fayetteville, N.C., site, Chemours has installed “a thermal oxidizer that is destroying more than 99.99 percent of FOC emissions from the processes directed to it” and there was “remediation work underway to address groundwater, including our seep treatment units,” Sueta said.

Long-Standing Concerns

The highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals from the 2007 EPA study were found upstream of the Chemours plant, near Pittsboro.

That was one of the first indications that the problem might be more widespread than first thought, says Emily Sutton, at the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit that focuses on the Haw. For Sutton, who serves as riverkeeper for the Haw and spends most of her time these days studying, thinking, and talking PFAS, the issue is threefold.

The first and often most pressing problem for locals like those in Pittsboro is the contamination in municipal drinking water. But solving this requires hugely expensive upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities (recently floated price tags for Pittsboro, a town of 4,200, range upwards of $20 million) or costly individual, in-home filtration systems. “We know that the drinking water in the town of Pittsboro is contaminated,” Sutton says. “People who are concerned are left to pay for a reverse osmosis system in their own home. That means that only people who can afford that luxury have safe drinking water.”

The second problem is identifying and stopping contamination at its source. According to Sutton, ongoing testing has revealed that much of the PFAS chemicals floating down the Haw and into Pittsboro originate from the nearby city of Burlington. Late last year, the Haw River Assembly helped forge an agreement with the city, compelling it to identify the local facilities or companies responsible for discharging PFAS.

More broadly, Sutton says, regulatory agencies in the U.S. need to reconsider their priorities. The current system favors the introduction of new chemicals, products, or processes, only later limiting or removing them after they’re proved to be harmful. Sutton would rather bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality operate under the precautionary principle—the idea that the onus lies with companies and producers to prove something is harmless before it is introduced into the environment.

PFAS chemicals are a perfect example, she adds, saying that of the some 5,000 compounds in the category, scientists can only test for roughly 30. “We can’t regulate these compounds one at a time,” Sutton says. “The science exists to demonstrate that (they) should be regulated as a class because they’re equally as harmful. It’s such an obvious step that we could take as a country to prioritize the health of our communities rather than the profit of industries.”

Officials in the town insist that they are doing everything they can to improve the water quality. Chris Kennedy, the town manager for Pittsboro, told the Guardian that that while the town was not a contributor to PFAS, it was “still diligently working towards removing PFAS from our potable water supply.” Kennedy said the town was in the process of installing infrastructure that will remove at least 90 percent of PFAS by the end of the year and that it was taking steps where it could “to reduce contamination into the Haw River, which will provide the best results long term.”

Pittsboro itself stands at a crossroads. A new 7,100-acre mixed-use development is set to add as many as 60,000 people to the town. That kind of rapid growth is likely to squeeze low-income residents and exacerbate public health disparities that already exist in the community, says Jennifer Platt, a Pittsboro resident and adjunct professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Platt, who has a 12-year-old son, installed a home filtration system after she first learned about the PFAS contamination, calling it “not affordable but mandatory.” But she also recognizes that many residents don’t have the means to do what she did.

“Here it’s about equity in terms of who understands the problem with the water and who’s able to deal with it,” the 51-year-old says.

Platt is part of the local Water Quality Task Force, which recently recommended that the town build a centralized water station—fitted with a reverse osmosis filtration system—where residents could access clean water. She adds that she would like to see the money from lawsuits against PFAS polluters redistributed to affected residents to subsidize filtration systems or bottled water.

But while she is optimistic now that the ball is rolling, the whole ordeal has highlighted the failures of government and regulatory agencies to keep people safe, particularly those in more marginalized areas, Platt says.

“Our national policies are not geared toward protecting us,” she says. “Poorer communities are bearing the brunt of our pollution. What we have to do now is to continue to mitigate the problem as best as we can until we have a permanent solution.”

Editor’s Note: Reporting in North Carolina for the Guardian was supported by the Water Foundation.

There’s another pandemic under our noses, and it kills 8.7m people  year

There’s another pandemic under our noses, and it kills 8.7m people  year

Rebecca Solnit                April 2, 2021
<span>Photograph: Jeff Zehnder/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jeff Zehnder/Alamy

 

It is undeniably horrific that more than 2.8 million people have died of Covid-19 in the past 15 months. In roughly the same period, however, more than three times as many likely died of air pollution. This should disturb us for two reasons. One is the sheer number of air pollution deaths – 8.7 million a year, according to a recent study – and another is how invisible those deaths are, how accepted, how unquestioned. The coronavirus was a terrifying and novel threat, which made its dangers something much of the world rallied to try to limit. It was unacceptable – though by shades and degrees, many places came to accept it, by deciding to let the poor and marginalized take the brunt of sickness and death and displacement and to let medical workers get crushed by the workload.

We have learned to ignore other forms of death and destruction, by which I mean we have normalized them as a kind of moral background noise. This is, as much as anything, the obstacle to addressing chronic problems, from gender violence to climate change. What if we treated those 8.7 million annual deaths from air pollution as an emergency and a crisis – and recognized that respiratory impact from particulates is only a small part of the devastating impact of burning fossil fuels? For the pandemic we succeeded in immobilizing large populations, radically reducing air traffic, and changing the way many of us live, as well as releasing vast sums of money as aid to people financially devastated by the crisis. We could do that for climate change, and we must – but the first obstacle is the lack of a sense of urgency, the second making people understand that things could be different.

I have devoted much of my writing over the past 15 years to trying to foreground two normalized phenomena, violence against women and climate change. For all of us working to bring public attention to these crises, a major part of the problem is trying to get people engaged with something that is part of the status quo. We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaches norms, but not to things that have been going on for decades or centuries. The first task of most human rights and environmental movements is to make the invisible visible and to make what has long been accepted unacceptable. This has of course been done to some extent, with coal-burning power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the overall causes of climate chaos.

The first obstacle is the lack of a sense of urgency, the second making people understand that things could be different

Climate change is invisible, in everyday political consciousness, because it occurs on a scale too vast in time and space to see with the naked eye and because it concerns imperceptible phenomena such as atmospheric composition. We can only see its effects – as cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan, peaking earlier this year than at any time since records began being kept in 812 AD, and even there the beauty of flowers is gloriously visible while the disturbance of seasonal patterns is dry data that is easy to miss. Other effects are often overlooked or denied – there were California wildfires before climate change, but they are bigger, stronger, faster, in a longer fire season now, and recognizing that also requires paying attention to data.

Among the striking phenomena of the early weeks of the pandemic were air quality and birdsong. In the quiet as human activity halted, many people reported hearing birds singing, and across the world air pollution levels dropped dramatically. In some places in India, the Himalayas were visible again, as they had not been for decades, meaning that one of the subtle losses of pollution was vistas. According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year.

Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized. One way to do so is by drawing attention to the cumulative effect and the quantifiable results. Another is to map out how things could be different – in the case of climate change, this means reminding people that there is no status quo, but a world being dramatically transformed, and that only bold action will limit the extremes of this change. The energy landscape is also undergoing dramatic change: the coal industry has collapsed in many parts of the world, the oil and gas industry are in decline. Renewables are proliferating because they are steadily becoming more and more effective, efficient and increasingly cheaper than fossil-fuel generated power. A lot of attention was paid to whatever actions might have caused Covid-19 to cross from animals to humans, but the actions that take fossil fuel out of the ground to produce that pollution that kills 8.7 million annually, along with acidifying oceans and climate chaos, should be considered far more outrageous a transgression against public health and safety.

My hope for a post-pandemic world is that the old excuses for doing nothing about climate – that it is impossible to change the status quo and too expensive to do so – have been stripped away. In response to the pandemic, we in the US have spent trillions of dollars and changed how we live and work. We need the will to do the same for the climate crisis. The Biden administration has taken some encouraging steps but more is needed, both here and internationally. With a drawdown on carbon emissions and a move toward cleaner power, we could have a world with more birdsong and views of mountains and fewer pollution deaths. But first we have to recognize both the problem and the possibilities.

  • Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is also the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. Her most recent book is Recollections of My Nonexistence

How the global demand for seafood is leading Chinese factories to pollute an African nation

How the global demand for seafood is leading Chinese factories to pollute an African nation

Ian Urbina, The Outlaw Ocean Project. Contributor       

 

Gunjur, a town of some fifteen thousand people, sits on the Atlantic coastline of southern Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent. During the day, its white-sand beaches are full of activity. Fishermen steer long, vibrantly painted wooden canoes, known as pirogues, toward the shore, where they transfer their still-fluttering catch to women waiting at the water’s edge. The fish are hauled off to nearby open-air markets in rusty metal wheelbarrows or in baskets balanced on heads. Small boys play soccer as tourists watch from lounge chairs. At nightfall, work ends and the beach is dotted with bonfires. There is drumming and kora lessons; men with oiled chests grapple in traditional wrestling matches.

Hike five minutes inland, and you’ll find a more tranquil setting: a wildlife reserve known as Bolong Fenyo. Established by the Gunjur community in 2008, the reserve is meant to protect seven hundred and ninety acres of beach, mangrove swamp, wetland, savannah, and an oblong lagoon. The lagoon, a half mile long and a few hundred yards wide, has been a lush habitat for a remarkable variety of migratory birds as well as humped-back dolphins, epaulet fruit bats, Nile crocodiles, and callithrix monkeys. A marvel of biodiversity, the reserve has been integral to the region’s ecological health—and, with hundreds of birders and other tourists visiting each year, to its economic health, too.

But on the morning of May 22, 2017, the Gunjur community discovered that the Bolong Fenyo lagoon had turned a cloudy crimson overnight, dotted with floating dead fish. “Everything is red,” one local reporter wrote, “and every living thing is dead.” Some residents wondered if the apocalyptic scene was an omen delivered in blood. More likely, ceriodaphnia, or water fleas, had turned the water red in response to sudden changes in pH or oxygen levels. Locals soon reported that many of the birds were no longer nesting near the lagoon.

An aerial shot of the Gambian coastline. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
An aerial shot of the Gambian coastline. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

A few residents filled bottles with water from the lagoon and brought them to the one person in town they thought might be able to help—Ahmed Manjang. Born and raised in Gunjur, Manjang now lives in Saudi Arabia, where he works as a senior microbiologist. He happened to be home visiting his extended family, and he collected his own samples for analysis, sending them to a laboratory in Germany. The results were alarming. The water contained double the amount of arsenic and forty times the amount of phosphates and nitrates deemed safe. The following spring, he wrote a letter to Gambia’s environmental minister, calling the death of the lagoon “an absolute disaster.” Pollution at these levels, Manjang concluded, could only have one source: illegally dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead, which operates on the edge of the reserve. Gambian environmental authorities fined the company twenty-five thousand dollars, an amount that Manjang described as “paltry and offensive.”

Golden Lead is one outpost of an ambitious Chinese economic and geopolitical agenda known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government has said is meant to build goodwill abroad, boost economic cooperation, and provide otherwise inaccessible development opportunities to poorer nations. As part of the initiative, China has become the largest foreign financier of infrastructure development in Africa, cornering the market on most of the continent’s road, pipeline, power plant and port projects. In 2017, China cancelled fourteen million dollars in Gambian debt and invested thirty-three million to develop agriculture and fisheries, including Golden Lead and two other fish-processing plants along the fifty-mile Gambian coast. The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved, three-mile road through the heart of town.

Golden Lead and the other factories were rapidly built to meet an exploding global demand for fishmeal—a lucrative golden powder made by pulverizing and cooking fish. Exported to the United States, Europe, and Asia, fishmeal is used as a protein-rich supplement in the booming industry of fish farming, or aquaculture. West Africa is among the world’s fastest-growing producers of fishmeal: more than fifty processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and Gambia. The volume of fish they consume is enormous: one plant in Gambia alone takes in more than seven thousand five hundred tons of fish a year, mostly of a local type of shad known as bonga—a silvery fish about ten inches long.

Gambian fishermen holding fistfuls of fishmeal. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
Gambian fishermen holding fistfuls of fishmeal. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

For the area’s local fishermen, most of whom toss their nets by hand from pirogues powered by small outboard motors, the rise of aquaculture has transformed their daily working conditions: hundreds of legal and illegal foreign fishing boats, including industrial trawlers and purse seiners, crisscross the waters off the Gambian coast, decimating the region’s fish stocks and jeopardizing local livelihoods.

At the Tanji fish market in summer of 2019, Abdul Sisai stood at a table offering four sickly-looking catfish for sale. The table swarmed with flies, the air was thick with smoke from nearby curing sheds, and menacing seagulls dive-bombed for scraps. Sisai said that bonga had been so plentiful two decades ago that in some markets it had been given away for free. Now it costs more than most local residents can afford. He supplements his income by selling trinkets near the tourist resorts in the evenings.

Sibijan deben,” Sisai said in Mandinka, one of the major languages in Gambia. Locals use the phrase, which refers to the shade of the tall palm tree, to describe the effects of extractive export industries: the profits are enjoyed by people far from the source—the trunk. In the past several years, the price of bonga has increased exponentially, according to the Association for the Promotion and Empowerment of Marine Fishers, a Senegalese-based research-and-education group. Half the Gambian population lives below the international poverty line—and fish, primarily bonga, accounts for half of the country’s animal-protein needs.

After Golden Lead was fined, in 2019, it stopped releasing its toxic effluent directly into the lagoon. Instead, it ran a long wastewater pipe under a nearby public beach, dumping waste directly into the sea. Swimmers soon started complaining of rashes, the ocean grew thick with seaweed, and thousands of dead fish washed ashore, along with eels, rays, turtles, dolphins, and even whales. Residents burned scented candles and incense to combat the rancid odor coming from the fish meal plants, and tourists wore white masks. The stench of rotten fish clung to clothes, even after repeated washing.

Jojo Huang, the director of the plant, has said publicly that the facility follows all regulations and “does not pump chemicals into the sea.” The plant has benefited the town, she told The Guardian.

In March 2018, about a hundred and fifty local shopkeepers, youth and fishermen, wielding shovels and pickaxes, gathered on the beach to dig up the pipe and destroy it. Two months later, with the government’s approval, workers from Golden Lead installed a new pipe, this time planting a Chinese flag alongside it. The gesture carried colonialist overtones. One local called it “the new imperialism.”

An aerial shot of the Chinese fishing ship in Gambian waters. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
An aerial shot of the Chinese fishing ship in Gambian waters. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

Manjang was outraged. “It makes no sense!” he told me, when I visited him in Gunjur at his family compound, an enclosed three-acre plot with several simple brick houses and a garden of cassava, orange, and avocado trees. Behind Manjang’s thick-rimmed glasses, his gaze is gentle and direct as he speaks urgently about the perils facing Gambia’s environment. “The Chinese are exporting our bonga fish to feed it to their tilapia fish, which they’re shipping back here to Gambia to sell to us, more expensively—but only after it’s been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics.” Adding to the absurdity, he noted, is that tilapia are herbivores that normally eat algae and other sea plants, so they have to be trained to consume fish meal.

Manjang contacted environmentalists and journalists, along with Gambian lawmakers, but was soon warned by the Gambian trade minister that pushing the issue would only jeopardize foreign investment. Dr. Bamba Banja, the head of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, was dismissive, telling a local reporter that the awful stench was just “the smell of money.”

Global demand for seafood has doubled since the nineteen-sixties. Our appetite for fish has outpaced what we can sustainably catch: more than eighty per cent of the world’s wild fish stocks have collapsed or are unable to withstand more fishing. Aquaculture has emerged as an alternative—a shift, as the industry likes to say, from capture to culture.

The fastest-growing segment of global food production, the aquaculture industry is worth a hundred and sixty billion dollars and accounts for roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. Even as retail seafood sales at restaurants and hotels have plummeted during the pandemic, the dip has been offset in many places by the increase in people cooking fish at home. The United States imports eighty percent of its seafood, most of which is farmed. The bulk of that comes from China, by far the world’s largest producer, where fish are grown in sprawling landlocked pools or in pens offshore spanning several square miles.

Aquaculture has existed in rudimentary forms for centuries, and it does have some clear benefits over catching fish in the wild. It reduces the problem of bycatch—the thousands of tons of unwanted fish that are swept up each year by the gaping nets of industrial fishing boats, only to suffocate and be tossed back into the sea. And farming bivalves—oysters, clams, and mussels—promises a cheaper form of protein than traditional fishing for wild-caught species. In India and other parts of Asia, these farms have become a crucial source of jobs, especially for women. Aquaculture makes it easier for wholesalers to ensure that their supply chains are not indirectly supporting illegal fishing, environmental crimes, or forced labor. There’s potential for environmental benefits, too: with the right protocols, aquaculture uses less fresh water and arable land than most animal agriculture. Farmed seafood produces a quarter of the carbon emissions per pound that beef does, and two-thirds of what pork does.

An open-air fish market in Gambia. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
An open-air fish market in Gambia. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

Still, there are also hidden costs. When millions of fish are crowded together, they generate a lot of waste. If they’re penned in shallow coastal pools, the solid waste turns into a thick slime on the seafloor, smothering all plants and animals. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels spike in surrounding waters, causing algal blooms, killing wild fish, and driving away tourists. Bred to grow faster and bigger, the farmed fish sometimes escape their enclosures and threaten indigenous species.

Even so, it’s clear that if we are to feed the planet’s growing human population, which depends on animal protein, we will need to rely heavily on industrial aquaculture. Leading environmental groups have embraced this idea. In a 2019 report, the Nature Conservancy called for more investment in fish farms, arguing that by 2050 the industry should become our primary source of seafood. Many conservationists say that fish farming can be made even more sustainable with tighter oversight, improved methods for composting waste, and new technologies for recirculating the water in on-land pools. Some have pushed for aquaculture farms to be located farther from shore in deeper waters with faster and more diluting currents.

The biggest challenge to farming fish is feeding them. Food constitutes roughly seventy per cent of the industry’s overhead, and so far the only commercially viable source of feed is fish meal. Perversely, the aquaculture farms that produce some of the most popular seafood, such as carp, salmon, or European sea bass, actually consume more fish than they ship to supermarkets and restaurants. Before it gets to market, a “ranched” tuna can eat more than fifteen times its weight in free-roaming fish that has been converted to fishmeal. About a quarter of all fish caught globally at sea end up as fish meal, produced by factories like those on the Gambian coast. Researchers have identified various potential alternatives—including human sewage, seaweed, cassava waste, soldier-fly larvae, and single-cell proteins produced by viruses and bacteria—but none is being produced affordably at scale. So, for now, fish meal it is.

The result is a troubling paradox: the seafood industry is ostensibly trying to slow the rate of ocean depletion, but by farming the fish we eat most, it is draining the stock of many other fish—the ones that never make it to the aisles of Western supermarkets. Gambia exports much of its fish meal to China and Norway, where it fuels an abundant and inexpensive supply of farmed salmon for European and American consumption. Meanwhile, the fish Gambians themselves rely on for their survival are rapidly disappearing.

An aerial shot of a Gambian fishing boat with Gambian fishermen. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
An aerial shot of a Gambian fishing boat with Gambian fishermen. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

In September 2019, Gambian lawmakers gathered in the stately but neglected hall of the National Assembly for an annual meeting, where James Gomez, minister of the country’s fisheries and water resources, insisted that “Gambian fisheries are thriving. ” Industrial fishing boats and plants represent the largest employer of Gambians in the country, including hundreds of deckhands, factory workers, truck drivers, and industry regulators. When a lawmaker asked him about the criticisms of the three fish-meal plants, including their voracious consumption of bonga, Gomez refused to engage. “Boats are not taking more than a sustainable amount,” he said, adding that Gambian waters even have enough fish to sustain two more plants.

Under the best circumstances, estimating the health of a nation’s fish stock is a murky science. Marine researchers like to say that counting fish is like counting trees, except they’re mostly invisible—below the surface—and constantly moving. Ad Corten, a Dutch fishing biologist, told me that the task is even tougher in a place like West Africa, where countries lack the funding to properly analyze their stocks. The only reliable assessments of fish stocks in the area have focused on Mauritania, Corten said, and they show a sharp decline driven by the fish-meal industry. “Gambia is the worst of them all,” he said, noting that the fisheries ministry barely tracks how many fish are caught by licensed ships, much less the unlicensed ones. As fish stocks have been depleted, many wealthier nations have increased their marine policing, often by stepping up port inspections, imposing steep fines for violations, and using satellites to spot illicit activity at sea. They also have required industrial boats to carry mandatory observers and to install monitoring devices onboard. But Gambia, like many poorer countries, has historically lacked the political will, technical skill, and financial capacity to exert its authority offshore.

Still, though it has no police boats of its own, Gambia is trying to better protect its waters. In August 2019, I joined a secret patrol that the fisheries agency was conducting with the help of an international ocean conservation group called Sea Shepherd, which had brought—as surreptitiously as it could—a one-hundred-and-eighty-four-foot ship called the Sam Simon into the area. It’s equipped with extra fuel capacity, to allow for long patrols, and a doubly reinforced steel hull for ramming into other boats.

In Gambia, the nine miles of water closest to the shore have been reserved for local fishermen, but on any given day dozens of foreign trawlers are visible from the beach. Sea Shepherd’s mission was to find and board trespassers, or other vessels engaged in prohibited behaviors, such as shark finning or netting juvenile fish. In the past few years, the group has worked with African governments in Gabon, Liberia, Tanzania, Benin, and Namibia to conduct similar patrols. Some fisheries experts have criticized these collaborations as publicity stunts, but they have led to the arrest of more than fifty illegal fishing ships.

Sea Shepherd speedboats next to a Chinese fishing vessel in Gambian waters. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
Sea Shepherd speedboats next to a Chinese fishing vessel in Gambian waters. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

Barely a dozen local government officials had been informed about the Sea Shepherd mission. To avoid being spotted by fishermen, the group brought in several small speed boats at night and used them to spirit a dozen heavily armed Gambian Navy and fisheries officers out to the Sam Simon. We were joined on the patrol by two gruff private-security contractors from Israel, who were training the Gambian officers in military procedures for boarding ships. While we waited on the moonlit deck, one of the Gambian guards, dressed in a crisp blue-and-white camouflage uniform, showed me a music video on his phone by one of Gambia’s best-known rappers, ST Brikama Boyo. He translated the lyrics of a song, called “Fuwareyaa,” which means “poverty”: “People like us don’t have meat and the Chinese have taken our sea from us in Gunjur and now we don’t have fish.”

Three hours after we embarked, the foreign ships had all but vanished, in what appeared to be a coordinated flight from the forbidden waters. Sensing that word about the operation had gotten out, the Sam Simon’s captain changed plans. Instead of focusing on the smaller unlicensed ships close to land that were mostly from neighboring African countries, he would conduct surprise at-sea inspections of the fifty-five industrial ships that were licensed to be in Gambian waters. It was a bold move: marine officers would be boarding larger, well-financed ships, many of them with political connections in China and Gambia.

Less than an hour later, we pulled alongside the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010, a hundred-and-thirty-four-foot electric-blue trawler streaked with rust, operated by a Chinese company called Qingdao Tangfeng Ocean Fishery, a company that supplies all three of Gambia’s fish-meal plants. A team of eight Gambian officers from the Sam Simon boarded the ship, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. One officer was so nervous that he forgot the bullhorn he was assigned to carry. Another officer’s sunglasses fell into the sea as he leaped onto the deck.

Onboard the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 were seven Chinese officers and a crew of four Gambians and thirty-five Senegalese. The Gambian marine officers soon began grilling the ship’s captain, a short man named Shenzhong Qui who wore a shirt smeared with fish guts. Below deck, ten African crew members in yellow gloves and stained smocks stood shoulder to shoulder on either side of a conveyor belt, sorting bonga, mackerel, and whitefish into pans. Nearby, the floor-to-ceiling rows of freezers were barely cold. Roaches scurried up the walls and across the floor, where some fish had been stepped on and squashed.

I spoke to one of the workers who told me his name was Lamin Jarju and agreed to step away from the line to talk. Though no one could hear us above the deafening ca-thunk, ca-thunk of the conveyor, he lowered his voice before explaining that the ship had been fishing within the nine-mile zone until the captain received a radioed warning from nearby ships that a policing effort was under way.

Ian climbs down into Sea Shepherd speedboat filled with Gambian Navy and fisheries officers. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
Ian climbs down into Sea Shepherd speedboat filled with Gambian Navy and fisheries officers. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

When I asked Jarju why he was willing to reveal the ship’s violation, he said, “Follow me.” He led me up two levels to the roof of the wheel room, where the captain works. He showed me a large nest of crumpled newspapers, clothing, and blankets, where, he said, several crew members had been sleeping for the past several weeks, ever since the captain hired more workers than the ship could accommodate. “They treat us like dogs,” Jarju said.

When I returned to the deck, an argument was escalating. A Gambian Navy lieutenant named Modou Jallow had discovered that the ship’s fishing log book was blank. All captains are required to maintain log books and keep detailed diaries that document where they go, how long they work, what gear they use, and what they catch. The lieutenant had issued an arrest order for the infraction and was yelling in Chinese at Captain Qui, who was incandescent with rage. “No one keeps that!” he shouted.

He was not wrong. Paperwork violations are common, especially on fishing boats working along the coast of West Africa, where countries don’t always provide clear guidance about their rules. Fishing-boat captains tend to view log books as tools of bribe-seeking bureaucrats or as statistical cudgels of conservationists bent on closing fishing grounds.

But the lack of proper logs makes it almost impossible to determine how quickly Gambia’s waters are being depleted. Scientists rely on biological surveys, scientific modelling and mandatory reports from fish dealers on shore to assess fish stocks. And they use log books to determine fishing locations, depths, dates, gear descriptions, and “fishing effort”—how long nets or lines are in the water relative to the quantity of fish caught.

Jallow ordered the fishing Captain to steer his ship back to port, and the argument moved from the upper deck down to the engine room, where the Captain claimed he needed a few hours to fix a pipe—enough time, the Sam Simon crew suspected, for the Captain to contact his bosses in China and ask them to call in a favor with high-level Gambian officials. Jallow, sensing a stalling tactic, smacked the Captain in the face. “You will make the fix in an hour!” Jallow shouted, grabbing the Captain by the throat. “And I will watch you do it.” Twenty minutes later, the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 was en route to shore.

Over the next several weeks, the Sam Simon inspected fourteen foreign ships, most of them Chinese and licensed to fish in Gambian waters, and arrested thirteen of them. Under arrest, ships are typically detained in port for several weeks and fined anywhere from five thousand to fifty thousand dollars. All but one vessel was charged with lacking a proper fishing-log book, and many were also fined for improper living conditions and for violating a law that stipulates Gambians must comprise twenty per cent of shipping crews on industrial vessels in national waters. On one Chinese-owned vessel, there weren’t enough boots for the deckhands, and one Senegalese worker was pricked by a catfish whisker while wearing flip flops. His swollen foot, oozing from the puncture wound, looked like a rotting eggplant. On another ship, eight workers slept in a space meant for two, a four-foot-tall steel-sided compartment directly above the engine room and dangerously hot. When high waves crashed onboard, the water flooded the makeshift cabin, where, the workers said, an electrical power strip had twice almost electrocuted them.

A mix of Senegalese and Gambian workers targeting bonga fish to make into fishmeal and living in squalid conditions working on a Chinese fishing boat. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
A mix of Senegalese and Gambian workers targeting bonga fish to make into fishmeal and living in squalid conditions working on a Chinese fishing boat. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

Back in Banjul, one rainy afternoon I sought out Manneh, the local Gambian journalist and environmental advocate. We met in the white-tiled lobby of the Laico Atlantic hotel, decorated with fake potted plants and thick yellow drapes. Pachelbel’s Canon played in an endless loop in the background, accompanied by the plinking of water dripping from the ceiling into half a dozen buckets. Manneh had recently returned to Gambia after a year in Cyprus, where he had fled after his father and brother had been arrested for political activism against Yahya Jammeh, a brutal autocrat who was eventually forced from power in 2017. Manneh, who told me that he hoped to become President one day, offered to take me to the Golden Lead factory.

The next day, Manneh returned in a Toyota Corolla he had hired for the difficult drive. Most of the road from the hotel to Golden Lead was dirt, which recent rains had turned into a treacherous slalom course of deep and almost impassable craters. The trip was about thirty miles, and took nearly two hours. Over the din of a missing muffler, he prepared me for the visit. “Cameras away,” he cautioned. “No saying anything critical about fish meal.” Just a week before my arrival that some of the same fishermen who had pulled up the plant’s wastewater pipe had apparently switched sides, attacking a team of European researchers who had come to photograph the facility, pelting them with rocks and rotten fish. Though they opposed the dumping and resented the export of their fish, some locals did not want foreign media publicizing Gambia’s problems.

We finally pulled up at the entrance of the plant, five hundred yards from the beach, behind a ten-foot wall of white corrugated metal. An acrid stench, like burning orange peels and rotting meat, assaulted us as soon as we got out of the car. Between the factory and the beach was a muddy patch of land, studded with palm trees and strewn with litter, where fishermen were repairing their boats in thatched-roof huts. The day’s catch lay on a set of folding tables, where women were cleaning, smoking, and drying it for sale. One of the women wore a hijab dripping wet from the surf. When I asked her about the catch, she shot me a dour look and tipped her basket toward me. It was barely half-full. “We can’t compete,” she said. Pointing at the factory, she added, “It all goes there.”

The Golden Lead plant consists of several football-field-size concrete buildings, and sixteen silos, where dried fish meal and chemicals were stored. Fish meal is relatively simple to make, and the process is highly mechanized, which means that plants the size of Golden Lead need only about a dozen men on the floor at any given time. Video footage clandestinely taken by a fishmeal worker inside Golden Lead reveals the plant is cavernous, dusty, hot, and dark. Sweating profusely, several men shovel shiny heaps of bonga into a steel funnel. A conveyor belt carries the fish into a vat, where a giant churning screw grinds it into a gooey paste, and then into a long cylindrical oven, where oil is extracted from the goo. The remaining substance is pulverized into a fine powder and dumped onto the floor in the middle of the warehouse, where it accumulates into a ten-foot-tall golden mound. After the powder cools, workers shovel it into fifty-kilogram plastic sacks stacked floor to ceiling. A shipping container holds four hundred bags, and the men fill roughly twenty to forty containers a day.

Near the entrance of Golden Lead, a dozen or so young men hustled from shore to plant with baskets on their heads, brimming with bonga. Nearby, standing under several gangly palm trees, a forty-two-year-old fisherman named Ebrima Jallow explained that the women pay more for a single basket, but Golden Lead buys in bulk and often pays for twenty baskets in advance—in cash. “The women can’t do that,” he said.

A pile of fishing nets next to Gambian fishermen and their vessels. (F&#xe1;bio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)
A pile of fishing nets next to Gambian fishermen and their vessels. (Fábio Nascimento / The Outlaw Ocean Project)

 

A few hundred yards away, Dawda Jack Jabang, the fifty-seven-year-old owner of the Treehouse Lodge, a deserted beachfront hotel and restaurant, stood in a side courtyard staring at the breaking waves. “I spent two good years working on this place,” he told me. “And overnight Golden Lead destroyed my life.” Hotel bookings have plummeted, and the plant’s odor at times is so noxious that patrons leave his restaurant before finishing their meal.

Golden Lead has hurt more than helped the local economy, Jabang said. But what about all of those young men hauling their baskets of fish to the factory? Jabang waved the question away dismissively: “This is not the employment we want. They’re turning us into donkeys and monkeys.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the tenuousness of this employment landscape, as well as its corruption. In May, many of the migrant workers on fishing crews returned home to celebrate Eid just as borders were closing down. With workers unable to return to Gambia and new lockdown measures in place, Golden Lead and other plants suspended operation.

Or they were supposed to. Manneh obtained secret recordings in which Bamba Banja, of the Ministry of Fisheries, discussed bribes in exchange for allowing factories to operate during the lockdown. In October, Banja took a leave of absence after a police investigation found that, between 2018 and 2020, he had accepted ten thousand dollars in bribes from Chinese fisherman and companies, including Golden Lead.

On the day that I visited Golden Lead, I made my way down to the sprawling beach. I found Golden Lead’s new wastewater pipe, which was about 12 inches in diameter, already rusted, corroded and only slightly visible above the mounds of sand. The Chinese flag was gone. Kneeling down, I felt liquid flowing through it. Within minutes, a Gambian guard appeared and ordered me to leave the area.

The next day I headed to the country’s only international airport, located an hour away from the capital, Banjul, to catch my flight home. My luggage was light now that I’d thrown away the putrid-smelling clothes from my trip to the fish-meal plant. At one point during the drive, as we negotiated pothole after pothole, my taxi driver vented his frustration. “This,” he said, gesturing ahead of us, “is the road the fishmeal plant promised to pave.”

At the airport, I discovered my flight had been delayed by a flock of buzzards and gulls blocking the only runway. Several years earlier, the Gambian government had built a landfill close by, and scavenger birds descended in droves. While I waited among a dozen German and Australian tourists, I called Mustapha Manneh. I reached him at home, in the town of Kartong, seven miles from Gunjur..

Manneh told me he was standing in his front yard, looking out on a litter-strewn highway that connects the JXYG factory, a Chinese fish-meal plant, to Gambia’s largest port, in Banjul. In the few minutes we had been talking, he said, he had watched ten tractor-trailer trucks rattle by, kicking up thick clouds of dust as they went, each hauling a forty-foot-long shipping container full of fish meal. From Banjul, those containers would depart for Asia, Europe, and the United States.

“Every day,” Manneh said, “it’s more.”

Later stage cancer cases indicate skipped screenings, missed diagnoses

Tribune Publishing

Kaitlin Schroeder, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio     March 25, 2021

 

Mar. 25—Local physicians said they are seeing patients being diagnosed with cancer at later stages in a sign that some cases were missed in a disrupted pandemic year.

Elective procedures, including preventative screenings for common cancers like breast, colon and lung cancers, were suspended in Ohio early in the pandemic in an effort to conserve personal protective equipment.

“We actually closed down our breast centers for about six weeks for for screening exams, based on the mandate from the governor,” said Dr. Meghan Musser with the Kettering Breast Evaluation Center. “So that put off thousands of mammograms for women that we attempted to reschedule throughout the rest of 2020.”

But coupled with fear from patients about potential exposure to COVID, Musser said that led to an additional level of delay for patients to come in.

“There’s a segment of the population that is really just still trying to stay away from us,” said Dr. James Ouellette, surgical oncologist with Premier Surgical Oncology and physician lead for the oncology service line for Premier Health.

As vaccination distribution spreads, Ouellette said that will help things continue to improve.

One national analysis published in July 2020 indicated preventative screenings had plummeted.

Epic Health Research Network found 285,000 breast cancer screenings, 95,000 colon cancer screenings and 40,000 cervical screenings were missed between March 15 and June 16, which represent deficits of 63%, 64%, and 67% relative to screenings expected based on the historical average.

Data for the study was pooled from 60 organizations and 9.8 million patients.

“Even in the summer and fall, I felt like we were seeing more advanced cancers show up,” Ouellette said.

He said some of the problem was also fear leading people with cancer delaying hospitalization until there was no other option.

Some people associate elective procedures with things like cosmetic surgeries, Ouellette said, but that term also includes cancer screenings, which are still important for a person’s health.

“Public understanding and the health care understanding of words like elective didn’t match. I think it took us a little bit of time to to really realize that, and I don’t know if we’ve corrected all that communication,” he said.

Generally breast cancer screenings are recommended for women ages 40 and older, though some women may qualify for earlier screenings.

Musser said that the hospital’s centers have taken many steps to keep centers as safe as possible during the pandemic and people are welcome to call with questions if they aren’t sure about coming in.

“The appointments are only 15 minutes, we get you in and out of our breast center as quickly as possible,” Musser said.

Organic farming must grow to reach green goals, EU says

Organic farming must grow to reach green goals, EU says

Kate Abnett                             March 25, 2021

 

European Union flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

 

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission on Thursday said it would expand financial and policy support to help achieve a goal for a quarter of Europe’s farmland to be organic by 2030.

Agriculture produces roughly 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions and is on the front line of climate change impacts, with record heat-waves and prolonged droughts reducing some European crop yields.

Organic farmland, which restricts chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified organisms, has expanded by more than 60% over the last decade in the European Union, to nearly 9% of the bloc’s agricultural area.

The Commission on Thursday outlined plans to speed up this expansion and stir demand for organic products, which it said would help the EU reach its goal to eliminate net emissions by 2050. Reaching a 25% organic share of farmland this decade would also protect bees and biodiversity, the Commission said.

Agriculture emits nitrous oxide from the use of artificial fertilizers, while livestock produces potent planet-warming methane.

By curbing fertilizers, organic farming can cut emissions, although it does not necessarily tackle emissions from livestock, and lower crop yields associated with organic farming can mean more land is required, denting potential emissions savings.

The EU will spend 49 million euros ($57.94 million) on promoting organic products this year, 27% of its total budget for promoting EU agricultural products at home and abroad.

The Commission said the EU’s farming subsidy program, which is being reformed, will offer farmers 38-58 billion euros over 2023-2027 for eco-schemes, including organic production.

Organic food and farming organization IFOAM welcomed the EU plan as “a new era for the transformation of our food systems”.

Farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca said in a statement further policies and product innovation would be needed to ensure organic farmers can fend off weeds and pests.

The EU is developing mandatory sustainability requirements for the public procurement of food, which could integrate organic products into school meals or public canteens.

Brussels said national measures, such as removing reduced tax rates on pesticides, could also make organic food less expensive relative to non-organic food.

($1 = 0.8457 euros)

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; editing by Barbara Lewis)

Do Your Vaccine Side Effects Predict How You’d React To COVID-19?

Do Your Vaccine Side Effects Predict How You’d React To COVID-19?

Seraphina Seow, On Assignment For HuffPost             
People have had varying reactions to the COVID-19 shot, which experts say is normal. (Photo: aquaArts studio via Getty Images)
People have had varying reactions to the COVID-19 shot, which experts say is normal. (Photo: aquaArts studio via Getty Images)

 

We’re more familiar now with the possible side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine interacting with our immune system. Experts stress post-shot issues like fatigue and fever mean the vaccine is working (as long as they aren’t indicative of an allergic reaction).

So, what does this mean for those of us who have no side effects?

We asked vaccine experts to give us the rundown on what side effects mean and whether their severity predicts how effective your immune response will be to the COVID-19 virus.

First, a recap on what causes COVID-19 vaccine side effects.

COVID-19 vaccine side effects are either a physical manifestation of your body’s immune response ― which is the case for most people ― or an allergic reaction, said Jesse Erasmus, acting assistant professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Erasmus said the side effects you have from a shot typically depend on the type of vaccine technology that’s used to create the immunization (for example, messenger RNA, or mRNA, is the type of technology the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots use) and how those components interact with your immune system.

In terms of the coronavirus shots, “all the vaccines that are currently in emergency use authorization have very similar side effect profiles,” said Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and principal investigator for Moderna and Novavax Phase 3 vaccine clinical trials at the Ponce de Leon Center clinical research site in Atlanta.

Scroll back up to restore default view.

 

Kelley thinks the COVID-19 shot side effects mainly stem from the body responding to the spike protein the vaccine introduces to the immune system, which helps it recognize (and then fight off) the spike protein on the coronavirus should it enter the body.

When it comes to allergic reactions to the vaccine, which are rare, a hypothesis for mRNA vaccines is that people may be allergic to a component called polyethylene glycol, a common food additive, Erasmus said.

Why do some people have worse side effects than others?

Based on people’s experiences, it appears that some have worse reactions to the shot than others. But scientifically there aren’t any confirmed reasons for this yet.

“There aren’t really any distinguishing factors that would predispose one individual having more side effects versus the other,” said Richard Dang, a pharmacist and assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California. “The only thing we’ve seen in the clinical data so far is that younger individuals seem to experience side effects at higher rates than older individuals, and we see that in the real world as well.”

There have been reported cases in which those who previously had the virus endured harsher side effects after they received their vaccines.

“Anecdotally, it does appear that people who may have had COVID-19 before their vaccine do tend to have those longer duration of symptoms,” Kelley added. “But we’re still gathering additional scientific data to really support this.”

Does the severity of side effects have anything to do with how well your body will fight COVID-19 if exposed?

Though it is a valid question, more studies need to be conducted to unpack what the severity of side effects actually mean, said Anna Wald, an infectious diseases physician and researcher in COVID-19 vaccine trials at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.

But Erasmus, Kelley and Wald all say the effectiveness of the vaccine is unlikely to be determined by how severe your side effects are.

“Remember that most people have mild or no side effects in the clinical trials [for the mRNA vaccines], and yet the vaccine was still found to have 95% effectiveness at protecting them from illness,” Wald noted.

Make sure to rest and take fever reducers if your COVID-19 vaccine side effects are bothering you. (Photo: Westend61 via Getty Images)
Make sure to rest and take fever reducers if your COVID-19 vaccine side effects are bothering you. (Photo: Westend61 via Getty Images)
Whether you develop mild or severe side effects, it’s important to know what to do.

Bottom line, the benefits of the vaccines outweigh the side effects. Getting the shot means protecting yourself against severe disease, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

If you do encounter side effects, there are a few things you can do. At the time of the vaccination, ask the person vaccinating you who best to contact (and how) for follow-up care should you need it, Dang said. You should also wait 15 to 30 minutes at the vaccine site after you receive the shot to make sure you don’t have any severe allergic reactions.

Usually, if you’re experiencing the immune system-related side effects, like fatigue, headache or fever, Kelley said, you can take a pain or fever reducer, such as Tylenol, then take a nap if you’re able. Make sure to stay hydrated and take it easy when you’re feeling off as well.

These issues will likely resolve in one to four days at the most, Kelley said. Anything lasting longer warrants a check-in with your doctor or at the place where you received your vaccine. You should seek emergency care or call 911 if you’re having difficulty breathing or significant swelling.

You can also register and report some of your side effects on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s V-safe program, Dang said. V-safe sends you daily, then weekly, text messages to see how you’re doing and if you’re experiencing any reactions. If you report severe reactions, it flags the CDC to check up on you further.

Remember that side effects are typically a very normal part of getting the COVID-19 vaccine ― and we’ll be in a lot better place on the other side of the shots.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.