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Living with Stifling Air Pollution in Beijing

Parents are deeply anxious about raising children in China’s smog-choked capital

It’s an unseasonably warm December morning in Beijing, and the sky is dark and brown.

In this suburban neighborhood on the south side of the city, visibility isn’t more than a dozen meters or so. A thick grey haze has enveloped the streets, like a fog machine has been hard at work to recreate the set of a 1980s horror film.

Buses with high beams shining rumble slowly through intersections, and the air smells like dirt.

Photo of Beijing PollutionPhoto by Michael davis-burchat No one is more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution than children.

A gaggle of children in blue uniforms walk with their parents to a local elementary school. Their chatter and giggles are muffled under white and pink masks. For these kids, it’s just another day in one of the most polluted cities on earth.

The shift in 1979 from socialism to the free-market rescued millions of Chinese people from grinding poverty. But liberalizing the economy came at a cost: the brutalization of China’s natural environment.

Millions of acres of the country’s farmland is so contaminated from industrial run-off that growing food crops on that land is now banned, and nearly two-thirds of China’s underground water is unfit for human contact, according to the Chinese ministry of environmental protection.

Soil and water contamination are, clearly, serious issues in China, but perhaps nothing symbolizes the country’s ecological degradation more dramatically than air pollution.

In cities like Beijing, smog has become a national embarrassment. 

Air cleanliness is measured by the amount of microscopic pollution particles ­— called PM2.5 — present in the air. The World Health Organization states that exposure to a PM2.5-level greater than 25 over a 24-hour period can be potentially harmful.

During the wintertime in Beijing, the city’s PM2.5 level regularly hovers around the 300 or 400 mark, and it’s not uncommon for it to skyrocket above 600. 

There are significant health problems linked to toxic air. A recent study by Berkeley Earth, a research organization based in California, concluded that air pollution contributes to the deaths of approximately 1.6 million people in China each year. 

And no one is more susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution than children. 

“Children are impacted in many ways [by poor air quality], but particularly …more

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View From the Edge

In Tanzania, researchers are using drones to develop a clearer picture chimpanzee behavior and human evolution

In 2003, while working as field researchers in Fongoli, Senegal, Alex Piel and his wife, Fiona Stewart, contracted the chimpanzee bug. Piel and Stewart were among the first in a long succession of researchers to be inspired by the Fongoli chimpanzees’ uniquely human behavior. For instance, the chimpanzees often sharpened sticks to spear their dinner, a mouse-sized primate called a bush baby. Also, the woodland-savanna landscape of southeast Senegal, where Fongoli is located, with its long distances between food- and water-rich forests, had caused the chimpanzees to become peripatetic – sort of like American retirees in RVs, chasing warm weather down the interstate. Such roaming behavior posed a basic yet vexing research problem: with such large and often remote territories, how do you keep tabs on the savanna chimpanzee?

Five years later, in 2008, Piel and Stewart’s work led them to the Issa Valley, in the Ugalla region of western Tanzania, where they encountered terrain similar to Fongoli’s, and chimpanzees whose ranges stretched to around 125 square miles. “In places like Uganda, the chimps’ ranges are probably about five or six kilometers,” Piel told me recently. “Here it’s a much vaster area.” That year, Piel and Stewart launched the Ugalla Primate Project, an ongoing collaborative research project focused on the chimpanzees and other primates in Ugalla. When I spoke to Piel, he and Stewart were in Arusha, in Tanzania’s north, and preparing to leave for the project’s research station, about a 900-mile drive west. The journey, normally routine, would be trickier this time. “This is our first trip with our eight-month-old,” Piel said. “Each day is an accomplishment.”  

You might notice a theme developing: Piel and Stewart–now “Drs.” Piel and Stewart – are drawn to the challenge of distance and the rewards of accomplishment. Over the past seven years, they have built the Ugalla Primate Project from a self-funded passion project to a full-time, 13-member hub for chimpanzee and other primate research collaborations. The project’s success has a lot to do with the fact that the Issa Valley is similar to what the African savanna was six million years ago. Having the ability to closely track how the region’s chimpanzees move may provide clues as to how our ancestors took their first steps. In order to lend a hand to science’s effort to …more

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FDA’s Ban of 3 Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging Comes Too Late, Say Critics

Chemicals industry has already replaced these compounds with new ones that have received little scientific scrutiny

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will ban three grease-resistant chemicals from food packaging materials like pizza box liners, microwavable popcorn bags, and sandwich wrappers. The newly banned substances all come from a family of chemicals, known as perflourinated chemicals, known to be associated with cancer, digestive ailments, and reproductive harms. 

pizza boxPhoto by Lis Ferlaperflourinated chemicals found in food packaging material like pizza box liners, microwavable popcorn bags and sandwich wrappers have been associated with cancer, digestive illness, reproductive harms

The catch? The ban only applies to perflourinated chemicals that have already largely been taken off the market, while leaving dozens of other similar chemicals on the FDA's approved list for use materials (like packaging) that come in contact with food, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental organization.

"Industrial chemicals that pollute people's blood clearly have no place in food packaging," EWG President Ken Cook said in a statement. "This is another egregious example of how, all too often, regulatory actions under the nation’s broken chemical laws are too little and too late to protect Americans' health."

The FDA's move comes at a time when there is growing public awareness of the hazards of PFOA or C8, a perflourinated chemical that DuPont used for decades to manufacture Teflon-coated pots and pans and other goods. As I reported in Earth Island Journal’s latest issue, in October 2015 an Ohio jury awarded $1.6 million to cancer survivor Carla Bartlett, the first of over 3,000 plaintiffs who have sued DuPont over C8 contamination of drinking water supplies near DuPont's Parkersburg, West Virginia plant. DuPont had been using the chemical in its products for more than 50 years even though it knew C8 was making people sick. Legal battles against DuPont over C8 have already spanned nearly two decades, and are still continuing.

Perflourinated chemicals are remarkable for several reasons. First off, they spread easily through the environment — so much so that they've already entered the bloodstream of an astonishing number of Americans. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, more than 98 percent of Americans have at least one of a dozen perflourinated chemicals, including C8, in their blood. They're also extraordinarily long lasting. Unlike many chemicals, perflourinated chemicals generally …more

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A Report from Porter Ranch

What the catastrophic Aliso Canyon methane leak teaches us about our reliance on fossil fuels

It’s early December, and I’m siting in a mega-church packed with more than 500 people. They’re here to listen to an update on the efforts to contain an enormous natural gas blowout that occurred more than a month before. Gas from the leak is being blown by prevailing winds right into their community of Porter Ranch, in Los Angeles County, CA. 

People are mad. 

Image of Aliso Canyon wellpadPhoto by Earthworks The Aliso Canyon gas well has been leaking methane since October 23, 2015 .

Hundreds of families have left their homes to get away from the rotten-egg smell of the gas, and moved into temporary homes elsewhere. Children are attending other schools further from the leak, which is spewing some 110,000 pounds of methane per hour from a broken well less than a mile from the neighborhood.  

Trust between the gas company, regulators, and community members seems absent. 

People question what else is in the gas that might have long-term health impacts. They want to know why many are suddenly reporting headaches and bloody noses.

I’m sitting in this church because my colleague Hilary Lewis and I were invited to Porter Ranch with our infrared gas-finding camera to see what this high profile disaster actually looks like. Before we arrived, the public had no access to images or video of the gas itself, as it’s invisible to the naked eye. 

We meet a local organizer in a supermarket parking lot, exit the vehicle, and even my horrible sense of smell instantly reacts to the scent of the gas more than two miles from where we stand. It’s coming from a well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, an 8,000-foot deep sandstone formation — a depleted oil field — that SoCalGas uses to hold vast quantities of gas. In fact, it’s one of the largest gas storage fields in the nation, comprising some 115 extraction and injection wells, some of which operate at pressures above 2,000 pounds per square inch — a hefty load for well casings over 60 years old. 

We hike the hills and document the gas blowing sideways and downhill into town. Later that night, we see a plume of gas at least a mile long spanning Aliso Canyon. Of all the sites I’ve shot …more

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Different Destinies at Stake in Oregon

A reflection on the men behind the siege of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters

There’s plenty to read about the Angry White Men who’ve occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Burns, Oregon. I’ve called them “Angry White Men” because that’s all I’ve seen in the hundreds of photos published since last Saturday, when the whole thing began. Calling them anything else (they’ve been called terrorists, revolutionaries, militants, patriots, jamokes, stunted halfwits, YallQaeda, etc. ) for me, is besides the point I want to make.

Cliven and Ammon BundyPhoto by Gage SkidmoreAmmon Bundy with his father Cliven Bundy at a conference. The Bundys and their band of "Angry White Men" want to ramp up all the activities that got us into this global warming jam to begin with, and spell certain doom if continued.

Yes, I believe that if these people were black or Muslim, they’d be dead and the refuge would be on fire. And, yes I believe that using deadly force to change anything is wrong-headed and doesn’t work. Do I have a solution for this? No, but it seems to me that the longer this goes and the more the men learn about how the world sees them, the more embarrassed they’ll be. Hopefully, sooner than later, they’ll  figure out how to diffuse the situation and slink away as uneventfully as possible. Hopefully, no one on either side of this does something stupid. Hopefully, the punishment they receive will be not only what they deserve, but enough to discourage them — or anyone else — from committing similar crimes against the American people.

By referring to Ammon Bundy and his camouflaged comrades as “Angry White Men” I put them into a group that, I believe, is largely responsible for much of what we see happening in the world today. Angry White Men — not all of them police — are responsible for most of the 30,000 shootings occurring in America each year. They want to control the bodies of women, as women threaten their power. Angry White Men support any war against any group made up of people who either are non-white, non-male, or non-angry. Angry White Men oppose any efforts to protect or defend any of American’s natural resources, refusing to see any value beyond financial. For Angry White Men, holding onto the last of the power they were born …more

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Hydropower Dams Threaten One-Third of the World’s Freshwater Fish

Projects’ true costs are being inadequately assessed, say scientists

Three of the world’s most important tropical river basins — the Amazon, the Congo and the Mekong — are experiencing an unprecedented boom in the construction of hydropower dams. According to a paper by more than three dozen scientists from universities, research institutions and conservation organizations around the world, which will be pubished tomorrow in Science magazine, these projects pose a major threat to biodiversity, including to one-third of all the world’s freshwater fish species. The authors say long-term impacts of tropical hydropower projects are rarely assessed adequately and call for better — and more transparent — planning that more accurately evaluates the full costs of these dams. Without this, the authors write, these projects will lead to species extinctions, as well as significant declines in fisheries and other “ecosystem services” on the world’s “mega-diverse” tropical rivers.

Photo of Belo Monte DamPhoto by Kirk Winemiller According to the forthcoming Science paper, the Belo Monte dam “may set a record for biodiversity loss” owing to its siting at a location with an exceptional number of endemic species.

While most of the 838 existing dams on these river systems are relatively small, more than 450 new dams are currently planned for the Amazon, Congo and Mekong Rivers — about 75 percent of these in the Amazon. The paper’s authors contend that those planning the dams “have generally failed to assess the true benefits and costs of large hydropower projects,” leading both to financial cost overruns and underestimation of environmental and social costs. Those costs can be high — the dams take a toll on biodiversity, and damage to fish populations can threaten food security in local communities that depend on the fisheries.

As the paper’s lead author, Kirk Winemiller, Regents Professor in Texas A&M University’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences & Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, explained via email, these three tropical river basins “contain a disproportionate amount of the world’s freshwater biodiversity, including about one third of all freshwater fish species.” Further, said Winemiller, many of these rivers' “sub-basins and tributaries contain unique species found nowhere else.”

For example, the Xingu River in Brazil, which is a major tributary of the Amazon, includes a complex of rapids that Winemiller says “provides habitat for about four dozen fish …more

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‘It’s Almost Impossible to Ethically Justify the Use of Animals in Research’

A conversation with ecofeminist Lori Gruen

Last November, the National Institutes of Health announced it would be retiring the remainder of its lab chimpanzees to sanctuaries, two years after deciding to retire all but 50. It is a decision that has many animal welfare activists thrilled, photo of a womanbut even among them, few have more reason to celebrate than Lori Gruen. A professor of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, environmental studies, and philosophy at Wesleyan University, Gruen has a special love for chimpanzees. She has researched and documented the history of chimpanzee experimentation in the United States, written prolifically on animal ethics as an academic and an animal welfare advocate, and interacted with our tree-climbing cousins at sanctuaries such as Chimp Haven in Louisiana, where apes are relatively free to pursue their own interests in forested enclosures.

As an ecofeminist, Gruen’s philosophical purview is not limited to Pan troglodytes but extends to all nonhumans, as well as women and other marginalized groups. Gruen’s work, as her website states, “lies at the intersection of ethical theory and practice.” She “is currently thinking about intersections of race, gender, and species, and, as always, chimpanzees.”

I spoke with Gruen over the phone one week after the NIH decision. With only rare interruptions from her rescued greyhound, we discussed what that decision means for chimpanzees and other animals–human and nonhuman.

Your work has touched on a variety of issues but it seems like you’ve had a special relationship with chimpanzees. What is it about chimpanzees that has drawn you to them?

Part of it has to do with the ways in which they’re really quite unique in their history of use, and also in the ways in which they [interact] with one another. I began thinking about and working with chimpanzees when I was working on questions about animal cognition and animal minds. I had, prior to that, been a little concerned that people paid too much attention to chimpanzees and not enough attention to other animals that were equally interesting. But it does seem that once you get to know chimpanzees they capture your attention so you can’t stop paying attention to them.

And the good news about that is that a lot of people have been captivated in that sense by chimpanzees and so …more

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