New report names the world’s top 10 toxic hotspots
In a new report released by Green Cross Switzerland and the US-based Blacksmith Institute, ten cities recently received an unflattering distinction: They pose the world’s most toxic threats to human health.
Photo by Stanislav Lvovsky
Ranging from an e-waste site in Ghana, to an artisanal gold mining region in Indonesia, to a cluster of tanneries in Bangladesh, these “Top Ten Toxic Threats” highlight a global struggle with toxic pollution. The sites were chosen from a growing list of more than 3,000 toxic sites worldwide identified by the Blacksmith Institute. They were selected on the basis of the toxicity of pollutants present, pathways to exposure, and the number of people at risk.
Toxic pollution can cause serious damage to human health. It’s a known cause of cancer, cognitive impairment, organ damage, and respiratory problems. Globally, toxic pollution is estimated to threaten the health of 200 million people.
“Pollution has a health toll comparable to HIV, malaria or tuberculosis,” says Dr. Stephan Robinson, unit manager for Water and Legacy at Green Cross Switzerland. “But while… there are global programs with billions of US dollars to roll [these threats] back, there are not yet similar initiatives to fight pollution.”
“Informal battery smelting is by far the biggest issue in our database [of 3,000 toxic sites],” says Bret Ericson, senior program director at the Blacksmith Institute. And artisanal gold mining is the second biggest issue worldwide.
In Dzerzhinak, Russia, which is included on the toxic 10 list, the consequences of a long history of chemical manufacturing and improper waste disposal has been particularly grim: The life span for local residents there is 47 years for women and 42 years for men. In the Niger River Delta in Nigeria, about 7,000 oil spills since 1976 have led to increased levels of cancer and respiratory disease among residents as well as markedly higher incidences of illness among local children.
Toxic sites are most common in low- and mid-income countries where mining and manufacturing industries are prolific, environmental regulations are lax, and funding for environmental remediation is scarce. “By and large, high-income countries have dealt with this problem,” says Ericson. “[In the United States] we take it for granted that we have an EPA.”…more
Want GMO labeling? Then drive a wedge between Big Food and Big Ag.
They’re still counting the votes in Washington, but it appears that people in the Evergreen State have voted down Initiative 522, a measure that would have required a label for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. (Mail-in ballots could turn the tide, but it seems unlikely.) Food system reformers look to be 0-for-2 in their efforts to require GMO labeling, having lost a similar referendum last year in California. A defeat in Washington would force “good food” activists to step back and reevaluate their strategies for creating a more transparent food system. Among other takeaways from the latest food fight, it seems to me there is a key lesson embedded in the 522 experience: If you want GMO labeling, then find a way to drive a wedge between Big Food and Big Ag.
Figures via Maplight.
Like California’s GMO labeling measure that was on the ballot last year, the fight over Washington’s 522 was characterized by massive campaign spending. According to figures compiled by the watchdog group Maplight, supporters and opponents of the initiative raised close to $30 million to fund their efforts, making the 522 campaign the most expensive ballot initiative in the Washington’s history. Most of that money poured in from out-of-state, as partisans on both sides turned Washington into a proxy battleground for the larger contest over the kind of food we eat, and how much we know about that food. Not surprisingly, the industrial food interests vastly outspent (and therefore out-advertised) the folks fighting for greater food transparency. Dr. Bronner’s, the Organic Consumer Association and fellow travelers raised $7.7 million in support of GMO labeling, while Monsanto, DuPont and others raised almost three times as much, about $22 million, to defeat the measure.
The important story here revolves around who, exactly, gave to the GMO-labeling opposition. Along with Monsanto and DuPont, some of the top donors to the “NO” campaign are Dow Agroscienes, Bayer, and BASF. All of these companies are major seed producers that have a direct stake in genetically modified crops. All five are members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. These seed and chemical companies comprise much of the roster of Big Ag’s usual suspects.
Now look at the rest of the NO donors, …more
Industrial Ag interests push back against nearly two decades of successful peasant-led agroecological farming
At a small experimental farm 15 miles southeast of Fidel Castro’s suburban residence on the outskirts of Havana, Dr. Fernando Funes-Monzote, a renowned agronomist and new farmer, is for the first time paying his workers based on total sales rather than a predetermined salary.
Photos courtesy Fernando Funes
“Everybody is a little nervous, but this is necessary to prove that this type of farm can be sustained,” he says.
Funes’ farm, eight hectares of land that he has owned since 2012, is a living testament to his faith in small-scale production. His project, called La Finca Marta, aims to demonstrate that farms based on biodiversity and intensive management can thrive in a rapidly changing economy, producing high quality products without the need for transgenic crops or mechanization.
Funes exudes an electric energy, pulling weeds as he walks around the farm, calling out the scientific name of pollinating insects and pointing out new seedlings of his 35 crop species that have been dispersed by the wind. The farm is a melting pot of agroecological techniques. Near a worm compost bin, a small herd of goats are clearing the undergrowth of a coconut orchard, fertilizing the paddock at the same time. Twenty beehives produce eight different types of honey that change in flavor and color depending on the availability of carefully managed wild flowers. Next to an open-air library featuring agronomy texts, two dense beds of mint are nearly ready to be sold to restaurants that market ‘organic’ mojitos in the Capital. A few turkeys underneath a portable wire netting are being given a trial run to see if they will provide targeted pest relief and soil improvement.
Funes’ effort to start a new farm is driven in part by the socialist state’s piecemeal efforts to liberalize its economy. With Raul Castro to step down in 2018 and the US embargo weakening, Cuba has taken baby steps away from the Marxist ideal, ceding state control to a variety of private sectors like transportation, food milling and processing, real estate, and, most notably, agricultural production.
“My goal with this project is to learn the cycles of economics, including micro cycles of supply and demand of restaurants and families,” says the …more
Local residents join with Harvard students to ask university to be a better neighbor
Timber plantations owned by Harvard University may be harming northern Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands and the communities in the wetlands region, according to a report recently published by the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition and the Oakland Institute. Emilio Spataro, the president of the NGO Guardians of the Iberá, first alerted the Responsible Investment Coalition to the environmental threat posed by the plantations. The pine trees “have transformed the region into a green desert,” Spataro says. “It’s green because there are trees, but there’s nothing else. Animals go through the plantations and find nothing to eat, so there are no animals. And there are no plants.”
Photo by Miguel Vieira
Harvard is the sole owner of both EVASA (the Argentinean Green Companies Corporation) and the Las Misiones Corporation, two companies run by the same manager and which together own 87,884 hectares of land in the Iberá Wetlands region, of which 39,417 hectares are planted as a monoculture pine plantation. The university has invested $50.9 million in the plantations and reaps huge financial rewards from the harvests. According to one estimate, timber plantations in Argentina offer annual returns between 10 and 20 percent per year.
But Sam Wohns, a member of the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition and the primary author of the report on the wetlands, says the economic returns have come at a high environmental and social cost. The plantations have reduced biodiversity and groundwater in the region and have led to the forced migration of the young people of nearby communities to Argentina’s cities.
The Iberá Wetlands are located in a semi-tropical region in the Corrientes Province of northern Argentina. One of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, the wetlands cover more than two million hectares (nearly 5 million acres, or roughly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park). According to Emilio Spataro, of Guardians of the Iberá, the wetlands comprise various ecosystems, including lagoons, scrubland, and savanna, and are home to more than one quarter of all the flora and fauna species native to Argentina. For hundreds of years, small agriculturalists —who, to this day, speak an indigenous language, Guaraní, and not Spanish, among themselves — have lived …more
What happens to all the plastic that spins off a line trimmer?
The scourge of single-use plastics is, at this point, well understood by most people. All of that food packaging, the lids on to-go coffee cups, straws, pens, disposable razors – the plastic from these sources and many others must go somewhere, that somewhere usually being the ocean. While enlightened companies adopt compostable packaging, consumers try their best to sort their trash appropriately and recycle as much as possible. Of course, some actors aren’t so responsible: From the standpoint of a retailer or manufacturer, the best possible kind of plastic item would be one that seems to disappear magically.
The unsurpassed champion at such a sleight-of-hand has to be the weed whacker. During the course of normal operation, a weed whacker’s plastic line abrades into such small pieces that they become almost invisible. And this itself is part of the problem – because it’s hard to address an issue that you can’t see. But it’s time to start noticing line trimmers and the plastic pollution they routinely spew.
Also known as line trimmer or weed eaters (a brand name, but often used generically), these tools are used by landscapers, highway crews, homeowners, and almost anyone who wants to cut grass and weeds. They are handy machines, likely to be found in almost any suburban garage or tool shed. The actual number of string trimmers is hard to pin down, but one website puts the figure at 90 million worldwide. A 2004 article in Consumer Reports said the big box stores were selling 10 million string trimmers a year. Sales like this are not surprising, given how easy to use and inexpensive the machines are.
They are also multifaceted polluters by their very design. When they came on the market in the early 1970s, the pollution from their small engines was obvious. Since then the immediate air pollution has improved. But they are still significant sources of neighborhood noise pollution, a problem they share with their equally ubiquitous cousins, leaf blowers.
The most serious pollution problem associated with the string trimmer, however, may be the easiest to overlook – it has to do with the nylon …more
If you haven't stocked up yet, try a local store
When I was a kid, I loved Halloween (okay, honestly, I still do). Like most kids, I loved it for the candy, and I always went for the chocolate: Hershey Bars, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and so much more.
Photo by Jeff Turner
But for me, the very best candy was from Hebert's, the local candy shop that's been in my hometown in Massachusetts for nearly a century. Their "store" is a big old house, which they call the Candy Mansion and it was packed wall to wall with every sort of candy, all of it homemade. I remember it seeming like Willy Wonka's factory when I was a kid; it was larger than life.
Sadly, I won't find Hebert's candies where I live now. In fact, you have to make a real effort to find any local candy at Halloween. That's because over 99 percent of Halloween candy is made by just three mega-companies.
That's right. For all the types of little, individually wrapped chocolates you see on the shelves at Halloween, 99.4 percent of it is made by just 3 companies: Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé. Those are your only choices — and that really is scary.
Food & Water Watch’s research team has found this trend throughout the supermarket, not just in the candy aisle. Across the board, our food is being produced by fewer and fewer companies, despite all the brands that we see on the shelves. This is a serious problem. When just three companies control virtually all of our candy (or any other category of food), the choices we make are just an illusion. Those companies have all the power over what we eat.
Want to avoid genetically engineered ingredients? Good luck.
Do you prefer real sugar over high-fructose corn syrup?They don't care.
Are you trying to create a better world by supporting the right businesses when you shop? That only works if you have several options to choose among — and increasingly, you don't.
That's why we're challenging the unchecked power of these corporations this Halloween. If we want to change the system, first …more
A year after Sandy struck the north-east US, a view from Staten Island, the hardest-hit New York borough
I remember the water coming from the ocean," says Anna Maglione-Buono.
"And the thing I remember most is that I was very guilty that the kids were in the house with us. I was not scared for me and my husband. I was more scared for the children."
Photo by Tommy Miles
A year ago, as hurricane Sandy approached America’s north-east, Maglione-Buono, 49, was in her home in South Shore, just 200m from Staten Island’s eastern coast. As the ocean rose amid the howling winds, water washed up over the beach and began to lap at Father Capodano Boulevard, the expressway at the top of Maglione-Buono's street.
The Buono family had decided to stay at home, despite their area being classed as evacuation zone A – the most likely to be dangerously affected. They could remember similar warnings about hurricane Irene a year earlier. That storm had come to nothing. Maglione-Buono said that by the time she realized this one was different, it was too late to leave. As the hurricane lashed Staten Island, her son Nicholas, 19, ran out with a neighbor in an attempt to reach the family's car and get to higher ground.
"They came running back saying that the water was coming,” Maglione-Buono told The Guardian in an interview on Staten Island, almost a year to the day since the storm hit.
"Behind them was a wave of water following them. When they got to the front steps, the water came from the corner, hit the building, made a big splash, and then it was non-stop. It literally was an ocean coming at us."
The Buonos’ street dips downhill away from the beach. The water gushed down the road and within minutes their home, a two-story, three-bedroom 1930s house, was flooded. The water rose to 7ft high in their ground floor. The family watched it creep up the stairs as they huddled in a bedroom, occasionally glancing out onto the street, where water was rising outside their neighbors’ homes.
Down the block, Patty Chiaramonte, 49, and her son Alex April, 21, had also ignored the warnings. They were in their kitchen as the storm approached.
“We were in the room about to eat dinner and we hear the back door open,” April remembered. “Then …more