California pushes ahead with its new pesticide-reduction plan
By Pam Strayer and Carey Gillam
Amid mounting evidence of the risks some synthetic pesticides pose to human and environmental health, California regulators this week were pushing ahead with a recently announced “roadmap” aimed at transitioning the state to more sustainable options for managing weeds and insects,
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), in partnership with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), held two public webinars on Thursday seeking to explain the details of the plan – and bolster support for it – as the state nears the March 13 close of the public comment period on the proposal.
State officials announced the plan in January, saying the goal is to eliminate the use of “high-risk pesticides” by 2050 to “better protect the health of our communities and environment, while supporting agriculture, food systems and community well-being.”
That message was underscored in Thursday’s event: “The evolving science about risks and impacts from certain pesticide uses on our health and our environment, which too commonly impacts communities already overburdened by other environmental hazards, point to the importance of accelerating this system-wide shift,” Clare Mendelsohn deputy secretary for public policy at California Environmental Protection Agency, said in the evening webinar.
State officials say the Sustainable Pest Management (SPM) plan is visionary and will significantly overhaul harmful agricultural practices in the state, helping protect farmworkers and others put at risk through exposure to pesticides known to be harmful to human health.
CDFA Secretary Karen Ross has said that once implemented, the recommendations would “ensure an abundant and healthful food supply, protect our natural resources, and create healthy, resilient communities.”
But some say the plan falls short in many respects, and that faster and more aggressive actions are needed to protect and enhance soil health, adapt to climate change, and protect human health.
Chemicals in toilet paper are clogging up our bodies
What we flush down the toilet could be making us sick, according to a new study.
According to research published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, toilet paper could be a significant source of the toxic “forever chemicals” in wastewater. The findings raise public health concerns since wastewater and its by-products are frequently spread on agricultural fields to help grow crops.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a class of chemicals used for their waterproofing and stain-resistant properties. They have been linked to certain cancers, reproductive problems, and developmental issues.
Scientists have known for years that wastewater is a slurry of PFAS from all different sources — soaps, makeup, and residues on clothing can all contain PFAS, which is washed down the drain every time someone showers or washes their clothes. But though PFAS are used in toilet paper manufacturing, toilet paper’s contribution to PFAS contamination in wastewater has been under-studied, according to the paper’s authors.
EPA announces $250 million for states, local communities to fight climate pollution
By Shannon Kelleher
The Biden administration announced Wednesday that is offering $250 million in grants for states, cities, tribes, and territories to further US goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, promoting clean energy, and supporting environmental justice.
The grants, which will be administered through the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mark the first wave of funding for states and local communities from the $5 billion Climate Pollution Reduction Grants (CPRG) program, a part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Later this year, EPA plans to announce $4.6 billion in competitive grants to implement projects that recipients begin planning now.
“The climate and clean energy investments in [the Inflation Reduction Act] will drive, and in fact are already driving, new economic growth and creating good, high-paying jobs by reinvigorating American manufacturing, strengthening our clean energy supply chains, and building a clean energy future that will benefit all of us,” Kristina Costa, a deputy assistant to the president, said at at a press briefing.
States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico will be eligible to receive as much as $3 million in climate planning grants. The 67 most heavily populated US metropolitan areas will each be eligible for $1 million in grants, while the territories of Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are each eligible for up $500,000 and tribes are eligible for a total of $25 million.
“We know that eligible states, local governments, territories, and tribes are at different starting points in planning to address the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change,” Janet McCabe, EPA deputy administrator, said at the briefing. “This funding can be used to start work on a brand-new plan or to enhance work on an existing plan.”
California researchers link popular weedkiller to health problems in young adults
By Carey Gillam
Children exposed to a weedkiller commonly used in farming, as well as on residential yards and school playgrounds, appear to be at increased risk for liver inflammation and metabolic disorders in young adulthood and more serious diseases later in life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The research, which was conducted by several California scientists and health researchers, including from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, is the latest of many studies linking glyphosate herbicide to human health problems.
Glyphosate is better known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products as well as scores of other weedkilling brands sold around the world. The chemical is considered the most widely used herbicide in history, and residues are commonly present in food and water, as well as in human urine.
Monsanto and Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto in 2018, maintain that Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed, and say the weight of scientific evidence demonstrates that safety. But more than 100,000 people in the US have alleged exposure to the weedkiller caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Many independent scientific studies have linked glyphosate to cancers as well as liver disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems.
In the new study, researchers tracked 480 “mother-and-child duos” who live in the Salinas Valley of California, a key agricultural area, analyzing levels of glyphosate weed killer used in the area and levels of the weedkiller present in the urine of the mothers while they were pregnant and in the children as they grew. They also took into account levels of a degradation product of glyphosate known as AMPA in the urine of the study subjects. The researchers then assessed the liver and metabolic health of the children at the age of 18.
They concluded that higher levels of glyphosate residue and AMPA in urine in childhood and adolescence were associated with higher risk of liver inflammation and metabolic disorders in young adulthood. In addition, they found that agricultural use of glyphosate near participants’ homes from birth and up through age five was associated with metabolic disorders at age 18. Metabolic disorders in youth can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and liver disease later in life.
Both metabolic problems and liver disorders are increasing among children and young adults, according to the study.
Across state line from East Palestine, repeated air permit violations at a petrochemical plant
By Dana Drugmand
On the afternoon of February 13, just 10 days after the Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a Shell petrochemical plant located less than 30 miles away in Pennsylvania began flaring and spewing black smoke into the air for several hours. The polluting plume and fiery orange flare raised alarm among local residents and watchdog groups that have been monitoring the facility, which began full operations on November 15, 2022. It was not the first time the plant had flared since coming online, but the large plumes of black smoke and lack of an immediate response from the company, let alone an advanced warning, added to mounting concerns about the plant’s ability to operate safely and in compliance with its own air permit.
The February 13 flaring incident started around 3:30pm. About an hour had passed before Shell posted an update on Facebook explaining that elevated flares are a safety response to equipment malfunctions, adding that flaring was “expected to continue through the evening as equipment is returned back to normal operation.” Shell has yet to submit an official malfunction report for this incident, which violates legal prohibitions on visible emissions from the plant’s flares and incinerators.
Shell’s 386-acre facility, located on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near the town of Monaca, is the largest plastics production plant in the Northeast and Shell’s largest petrochemical facility outside of the Gulf Coast. The plant uses a process called “cracking” to convert the natural gas liquid ethane into the petrochemical ethylene, a building block for fossil fuel-derived plastic production.
Since announcing the commencement of operations in November, the Shell Polymers Monaca facility has experienced repeated malfunctions and emergency flaring episodes and has continually violated the conditions of its state-issued air permit. In its first 100 days the plant has submitted at least seven malfunction reports to state regulators and has received three Notices of Violation from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“Shell’s illegal pollution, continued flaring events, and atrocious disregard for environmental regulations in just its first 100 days of operations pose an unacceptable risk to workers and communities living near the petrochemical complex,” Anais Peterson, petrochemical campaigner at Earthworks, said in a statement.
As a result of the multiple malfunctions and flaring events, the plant is emitting excess carbon pollution and other pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). On the day the facility opened there was a malfunction resulting in estimated excess emissions that included 721 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and approximately 2 tons of VOCs, according to the company’s malfunction report submitted a month later. Even before the plant came online, it reported numerous malfunctions and experienced elevated emissions. On December 14, the Pennsylvania DEP issued Shell a Notice of Violation for excess VOC emissions. As the notice indicates, the facility’s reported VOC emissions for the 12-month period ending in October 2022 were 662.9 tons, which exceeds the 516.2-ton limit conditioned in Shell’s permit.
In debate over new “healthy” food labeling rules, researchers propose novel metric to guide consumers
By Shannon Kelleher
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should redefine how it measures “healthy” food as it sets new rules governing the claims manufacturers make on product labels, a nonprofit research group asserts.
The Heartland Health Research Alliance (HHRA), an organization that studies the health effects of food and farming, recently submitted comments to the FDA calling on the agency to adopt a metric HHRA has developed that conveys a food’s healthiness in a single, color-coded number. This metric, called “NuCal,” aims to capture the relationship between a food’s essential nutrients and its caloric content, according to HHRA.
“There are a lot of people whose daily diet is grossly deficient in multiple essential nutrients despite the fact that they think they’re buying perfectly healthy food because a lot of it’s packaged as healthy for you,” said Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and policy expert who serves as executive director of HHRA. Benbrook said NuCal could help consumers make purchasing choices that lower their risk for obesity, diabetes, and other diseases.
The scoring system focuses on the essential nutrition value found in individual foods rather than food groups.
“What we wanted to do was to try to lay out… a system that has a much greater chance of delivering to consumers [a clear and compelling] message about what’s healthier and what’s not,” he said.
The HHRA proposal comes in response to a plan by the FDA to revise the rules that define food products that can be labeled as “healthy.” Products labeled “healthy” would need to meet certain food group benchmarks recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Food products would also need to follow limits for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
If the FDA’s proposed definition is adopted, water, avocados, nuts and seeds, certain oils, and fatty fish such as salmon would qualify for labels bearing the “healthy” claim. White bread and highly sweetened yogurts and cereals, which qualify as “healthy” now, no longer would.
The FDA says it will thoroughly review comments before announcing a finalized definition.
Wisconsin residents clash over influence of hunting groups on conservation
By Grace van Deelen
Tracking and killing bears, wolves, and other animals in Wisconsin may be getting easier for hunters after recent rule changes to the state’s advisory process – moves that underscore clashes underway in many states between conservation groups and pro-hunting interests.
The rule changes in Wisconsin limit the resolutions an advisory group can present to the state’s department of natural resources, upsetting citizens who fear that protections for wildlife are weakening as pro-hunting interests gain ever more power.
In the latest skirmish, the advisory group has been blocked from recommending to the state resolutions that would have prohibited the use of dogs for wolf hunting and the use of chocolate bear bait. They also are blocked from putting forward a resolution that would have required hunters to register their bear-baiting sites.
Residents and advisory group members say the changes infringe on the democratic process, shutting out non-hunters from important decisions, and allowing harmful hunting practices to continue.
“By making these changes, they are really showing just how desperate they are to cling to the status quo,” said Amy Mueller, a volunteer with the Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental organization.
According to Mueller, the advisory group membership is disproportionately made up of members of pro-hunting groups, such as the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, an organization “dedicated to the future of hunting, fishing, trapping and the shooting sports.”
Rob Bohmann, chairman of the advisory group – known as the Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) – did not respond to a request for comment.
Citizens elect delegates to the WCC to advise the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on how to “responsibly manage Wisconsin’s natural resources for present and future generations.”
A near-daily disaster; hazardous chemical accidents common across US
By Carey Gillam
Amid fears about the toxic chemicals released in the East Palestine train derailment, public officials have clamored to reassure community members that the resulting contaminated air, water and soil is being cleaned up, and their tiny Ohio town made safe.
In a recent press conference, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lamented the toll taken on the residents there, saying “no other community should have to go through this.”
But an analysis of a combination of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by nonprofit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening regularly across the country. One data set shows incidents occurring, on average, every two days.
“These kinds of hidden disasters happen far too frequently,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration. Stanislaus led programs focused on the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites, chemical plant safety, oil spill prevention, and emergency response.
In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, there were more than 30 incidents recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, roughly one every day and a half. Last year, the coalition recorded 188, up from 177 in 2021. The group has tallied more than 470 incidents since it started counting in April 2020.
The incidents logged by the coalition range widely in severity but each involves the accidental release of chemicals that pose potential threats to human and environmental health.
In September, nine people were hospitalized and 300 evacuated in California after a spill of caustic materials at a recycling facility. In October, officials ordered residents to shelter in place after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant in Louisiana.
In November, more than 1,100 gallons of firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals spilled out of a US Navy storage facility in Hawaii where a prior fuel leak had already contaminated drinking water and made some people ill. Also in November, more than 100 residents of Atchinson, Kansas were treated for respiratory problems and schools were evacuated after an accident at a beverage manufacturing facility created a chemical cloud over the town.
Among multiple incidents in December, an explosion at a biodiesel plant in Iowa injured 10 people and forced the evacuation of many others, and a large pipeline ruptured in rural northern Kansas, smothering the surrounding land and waterways in 588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil. Hundreds of workers are still trying to clean up the pipeline mess at a cost pegged around $488 million.
Evidence mounts linking air pollution to Parkinson’s disease
By Grace van Deelen
New research adds to evidence that people living in areas with high air pollution are at a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder.
The research found a nationwide association between incidents of Parkinson’s and annual average particulate matter air pollution, also known as PM 2.5. Researchers found that at the highest annual exposure level, participants were 25% more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, compared to those with the lowest exposure.
The findings are expected to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s meeting in April and published in the journal Neurology. The work was funded by grants from the US Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
“It’s a very compelling story that we see,” said Brittany Krzyzanowski, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute and lead author on the new study.
Researchers used data from over 22 million Americans, 83,674 of whom had reported a Parkinson’s diagnosis. They analyzed that data alongside geographical data showing the amount of PM 2.5 in the atmosphere. PM 2.5 is a type of air pollution that comes from vehicle exhaust, forest and grass fires, and other industrial processes, meaning that communities near highways and industrial areas are most likely to have high exposure.
The link between the disease and PM 2.5 has been suggested in numerous other studies, including a 2022 review of existing research that found air pollution to be “an emerging risk factor in the development of Parkinson’s disease.”
As well, a 2018 study of more than 2 million Ontario adults found that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 was associated with a 4% increase in instances of Parkinson’s, while a 2020 study of 63 million US adults found an association between PM 2.5 exposure and hospitalization for Parkinson’s.
Postcard from California: Governor targets oil companies over high gas prices
Last June, a Chevron station in downtown Los Angeles charged $8.05 for a gallon of regular gas. At another Chevron station In the coastal village of Mendocino, the price that month hit $9.60.
In a summer when US gas prices spiked to their highest level ever, those were extreme outliers, and they soon came down. But as they have for years, Californians continue to pay higher gas prices than in any other state except Hawaii.