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“Epidemic” of Premature Births is Increasingly Linked to Air Pollution

16,000 preterm births a year are linked to fine particulate pollution, costing the US $4.33 billion annually

One in 10 babies in the United States is born prematurely, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm birth is the leading cause of death for children under five and is linked to numerous health problems that persist throughout life. Many factors can contribute to preterm birth but air pollution – particularly fine particulate pollution – is increasingly being linked to the incidence of premature birth in the US and elsewhere around the world. According to a study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, the annual economic costs of the nearly 16,000 premature births linked to air pollution in the US each year has reached $4.33 billion.

Smog over LAPhoto by Steven BussSmog over LA. A growing number of studies have linked particulate pollution with low birth weight and preterm birth.

These costs stem from both direct healthcare expenses and costs associated with lifelong health problems. “Preterm babies who survive often face a life of health complications, including chronic disease, asthma, cognitive and motor problems and psychological impairments,” explains Linda Franck, chair of family health care nursing at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that such economic estimates are reported and suggest that considerable health and economic benefits can be gained through reductions in outdoor air pollution exposure in pregnancy,” write lead study author Leonardo Trasande and colleagues at New York University.

“For a long time we’ve known that air pollution contributes to cardiovascular disease in adults and to asthma and other respiratory conditions in children,” explains Trasande, New York University School of Medicine associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine and the study’s lead author. Now a growing number of studies have linked particulate pollution with low birth weight and preterm birth. These studies look both at where preterm births are occurring and also how air pollution can adversely affect pregnancy through inflammation, stress, and other biological mechanisms.

There is also increasingly precise information showing where particulate pollution is occurring. This includes information collected by US states and by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Using such data about air pollution and the number of premature births per county in a year, Trasande and colleagues were able to estimate how many preterm births could be …more

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The Sad Tale of an Osprey Held for Ransom in Haiti

TenTen’s plight reveals the unexpected perils faced by migrating birds and the unanticipated consequences of poverty

In early February as Haitians took to the streets of the capital city of Port-au-Prince in violent protest against the government, a quieter political drama of international consequence unfolded in a far away village in the Central Plateau where a man held a migrating raptor for ransom hoping it would be his ticket out of the country.

TenTen, the captured ospreyPhoto shared on social mediaThe osprey's captor initially mistook it for an eagle — a well-known symbol associated with the United States, and hoped to use it as his ticket out of Haiti.

The man and his neighbors mistook the bird, an osprey, for an eagle — a well-known symbol associated with the United States even in this remote village. The bird carried particular weight because it had a metal band on its leg that listed an eight-digit number — 788-10910 — and had “Washington, D.C.” inscribed on it.   

“They’d assigned guards to this bird. Everyone wanted a piece of this bird and thought they were going to get a reward because it was a bald eagle,” said Kelly Crowdis, a Port-au-Prince-based American veterinarian who traveled from the capital — driving for hours, taking two boats, and walking more than two-and-a half miles — to examine the bird after she heard about it.

Local police and politicians, representatives from Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture  and many others tried to no avail to take custody of the bird, but the villagers and the bird’s captor would not surrender the bird.

“They thought because the bird had a band on it that it had a specific owner,” Crowdis told me over the phone from Port-au-Prince. “You can’t blame them. We tried to explain to the people and the entire community that this was a migratory bird.”

The osprey did not have an owner, exactly, but the number on its band did lead to clues about its origin. It was banded in 2001 as a nestling in Massachusetts under a federal permit belonging to one Norman Smith, who works for Mass Audubon.  

Reached by phone, Smith said the osprey belonged to an ongoing study begun 35 years ago in which more than 6,000 birds were given unique tracking numbers. This particular bird was banded in the last week of June of 2001 at …more

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Taiji Whale Museum Convicted of Discrimination Against Westerners

Japanese court finds museum at fault for blocking entry of Australian anti-dolphin hunt activists

In a major blow to the Taiji dolphin slaughter, a Japanese court in Wakayama Prefecture has ruled that the Taiji Whale Museum, owned and operated by the town government of Taiji, discriminated against Westerners by denying them entry to the museum. Western supporters of ending the annual Taiji dolphin slaughter, made famous by the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, have sought entry to the museum to assess the status of captive dolphins held there that are caught in conjunction with the bloody drive hunts.

Photo of Angel at Taiji Whale MuseumPhoto by Angel Melody Angel is one of the dolphins on display at the Taiji Whale Museum.

Sarah Lucas, CEO of Australia for Dolphins, joined with her father, the late Alastair Lucas, in bringing the lawsuit against the Taiji Whale Museum when they were forbidden entry to the museum. Instead, they were shown a cardboard sign explaining that “anti-whalers” were not allowed into the museum. This violates the Japanese constitution, according to the court, because the museum is open to Japanese people without constraint. AFD was awarded 110,000 yen (about $972 US). Japanese lawyers for the Taiji Whale Museum did not bother to attend court for the verdict.

“This win proves the Taiji Whale Museum, the institution at the heart of the dolphin hunting trade, behaved illegally,” said Lucas. “It also shows the Taiji dolphin hunts are not above the law, which means the Japanese legal system can be used to end the cruel dolphin hunts for good.” 

“The Taiji Whale Museum is the world’s largest broker of captive dolphins, caught in the bloody dolphin drive hunts,” said David Phillips, director of Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), which supported the lawsuit. “We are extremely pleased that the court found the Taiji Whale Museum in violation of Japanese law. It is time that this so-called museum stop lying to the Japanese public about their insidious role in the slaughter of dolphins that occurs just around the corner from the museum.”

The lawsuit was initiated in part in support of Angel, an albino bottlenose dolphin, who was swimming in the Pacific Ocean off Taiji in January 2014 with her mother when dolphin hunters ripped her from her mother’s side and from her pod. Her mother was killed in a mass slaughter so violent it made global headlines and …more

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Growing Connections to our Food

How gardening brings us closer to our food, homes, and communities

One Saturday night in early spring, after a glass of cheap wine, I had a revelation. I was standing in my kitchen doing dishes, and in the window was a rotting basil plant that I had bought at a local grocery store. It was dead.

Photo of gardenPhoto by Todd Petit It was one of the joys of my morning to go outside, coffee in hand, and see the morning sun for the first time as I cared for these plants.

In the flurry of work, graduate school assignments, lesson planning and housework of the week before, I had neglected it. I hadn’t taken it out of its plastic packaging; I hadn’t transplanted it into a pot, in which it might have had a chance of thriving in my kitchen window. As I stood there doing dishes, I thought about my carelessness. I also thought about the herbs I had grown in my garden the past summer, and how I had taken the time to carefully harvest and store them. Those herbs had all been put to good use. 

As an educator, I have more free time in the summer, time I like to spend gardening. Last summer, I had planted seedlings in the raised bed my husband and I had built with bricks in our front yard, and they had bloomed quickly and profusely in the moist, summer air of the Pacific Northwest. I had nurtured them with compost and watered them, lovingly, every day. It was one of the joys of my morning to go outside, coffee in hand, and see the morning sun for the first time as I cared for these plants.

We ate them with our meals — I had only to go out the front door and pick whatever I needed to spice up our dinner. Oregano and basil contributed to delicious homemade pasta sauces, and parsley spiced up salsas, slaws, and salads. I also grew lavender, tarragon, thyme, and mint. We ate these herbs along with the tomatillos, tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers growing alongside them in our modest garden. And when the growing season was over, at the first frost, I clipped the herbs, brought them inside, tied them, and hung them up to dry. 

For Christmas gifts, I mixed the herbs with essential oils and …more

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Is Whale Shark Ecotourism Really Eco-Friendly?

Swimming with whale sharks, a popular tourist activity, is raising concerns about impacts on the world’s largest fish

Big fish are big business on Isla Mujeres. Aside from its traditional offers of sun, sea, and sand, this 2,000 foot-wide island off the coast of Cancun has garnered a reputation for being a hub of Mexican whale shark tourism.

Photo of Whale SharkPhoto by Janey A whale shark in Oslob, Philippines, where guides have come under fire for feeding whale sharks and encouraging interaction between people and the large fish.

The opportunity to swim with the largest fish in the world was one that I didn’t want to pass up, so when I was traveling last September, I made a point of delaying my journey into the heart of Mexico to go searching for sharks. Once on the island, every hostel, dive shop and bar seemed to offer whale shark tours, and it’s no wonder: at around $120 per head, there is serious money to be made in this game.

But the night before my planned tour, I was wracked with self-doubt. What kind of ecotourism was this, where the opportunity to see such majestic creatures was offered in the same breath as a deck chair rental or a fruity cocktail? How could tour companies offer “guaranteed sightings” of one of the most enigmatic denizens of the ocean? Most importantly, what effect was this having on the sharks?

In the end, I backed out, but I was unusual in this respect. Every year, Roddrigo Sidney, owner of Cancun Whale Shark Tours and self-styled “Whale Shark Daddy” says he takes more than 3,000 tourists out on the water to see these enormous fish. His is just one of many official and unofficial whale shark tourism companies operating in the area.

“Some days, there are up to 100 boats going out with 10 people per boat,” he says. “It’s a bit crazy.”

The reason tourists flock to Isla Mujeres to see whale sharks is their sheer concentration off the coast. During the summer season, these solitary fish gather in large numbers to feed on dense blooms of plankton that appear in the Caribbean waters. Such congregations are not unique to Mexico, however, and similar tourist economies have developed at other hotspots in Mozambique, Honduras, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

With such natural splendor at their disposal, it’s unsurprising that entrepreneurial locals have seized the …more

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The Ongoing Travesty of the Secretly Abducted Swaziland Elephants

It’s Not Only “Animal Rights Activists” or “Extremists” Who Care

I recently wrote an essay called “The Stolen 18: Swaziland Elephants Secretly Shipped to U.S Zoos to Avoid Legal Challenge.” However, it turns out that only 17 elephants were shipped, because according to the zoos one had died in December, but this too was kept a secret.

I learned about this secret transfer in an anonymous email sent to me by a very courageous and compassionate person. I thought that others who are also working on stopping the shipment of the elephants also received the same email, but I discovered they did not. I shared it, keeping the sender’s identity confidential, and this got the ball rolling from a number of different people and global media (please see, for example, “US zoos secretly fly 18 elephants out of Swaziland ahead of court challenge“ and “To save rhinos, half of this African country’s elephants are being airlifted to U.S. zoos“).

baby elephant hangs out with parentphoto by Chad Rosenthal, on FlickrAfrican elephant populations are already severely threatened due to poaching, trophy-hunting and habitat loss. Wildlife biologists estimate that unless there’s a serious intervention to save them, within 10 years there will be no African elephants left in the wild.

You can read much more about this underhanded transport here because many people are deeply concerned, not only animal rights activists. Michael Harris, Director of the Wildlife Law Program for Friends of Animals, had previously filed a complaint against the transport of the 18 elephants that the zoos were trying to avoid. According to this article, the hearing for these animals was scheduled for March 17 in Swaziland. But the elephants were shipped out before the hearing could take place.

According to a CNN report: “On arrival, five were transferred to the Dallas Zoo under police escort. The remaining 12 are the newest residents of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.” The report said that “the zoos defended the transfer, saying the animals were set to be killed to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities. The country is also undergoing a drought. ‘It escalated to a rescue mission last fall due to this state-of-emergency drought,’ said Gregg Hudson, president of Dallas Zoo.”

African elephant populations have declined …more

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‘New Conservationists’ Push for Logging to Prevent Wildfires

Critics speculate there’s another reason for firing up the chainsaws: biomass energy

The Nature Conservancy’s Russ Hoeflich might not like the spotlight, but he’s among the vanguard of a new conservation movement hoping to move beyond conflicts with the timber industry to find common ground on forest management.  

Abandoning the long-time environmentalist focus on wilderness, “new conservationists” such as Hoeflich want to strike a balance between natural ecosystems and people by creating “working landscapes,” where only limited forms of extraction are allowed.

Photo of Deschutes National ForestPhoto by Oregon Department of Forestry Logging in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon.

Over his 27 years as director of the Oregon Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Hoeflich helped reinvent the role of conservationists by allying with the timber industry to promote restoration logging in both public and private forests. Hoeflich has made ample use of his smarts and charisma in an effort to alert the public and elected officials to what he calls the “ever degrading forest condition” of national forests, Bureau of Land Management tracts, and industrial timberlands, thanks to high-grade logging, livestock grazing, and wildfire suppression.

These unhealthy forests, according to Hoeflich, are at high risk of devastating wildfires, which threaten ecosystems and human communities alike. His solution is the expansion of “fuel reduction” logging to restore forest health, protect homes from burning, and provide a source of renewable “biomass” energy. 

In 2014, Hoeflich’s focus shifted from Oregon to the US as a whole, as he took on the role of vice president and senior policy advisor for the $6 billion organization’s Restoring America’s Forests Program, the main goal of which is to “accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration.” Hoeflich certainly has his work cut out for him, what with Forest Service estimates that up to 82 million acres of national forests are in need of restoration. 

However, not everyone’s on board with the new conservationists’ agenda. Some forest ecologists, hydrologists, and more traditional, wilderness-centric conservationists contend that groups like The Nature Conservancy aren’t helping the forest, but instead are doing the bidding of the timber and bioenergy industries by inflaming fears of natural wildfire and “greenwashing” logging as restoration. Far from a forest remedy, they see this “log the forest to save it” mentality as a major threat to the nation’s carbon-storing forests, one of our best …more

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