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A busy week for news!
A human toll - more on paraquat and Parkinson's disease, plus other selections from The New Lede, my little journalism endeavor with the Environmental Working Group
If you missed last week’s edition of this Unspun, be sure you don’t miss the “Paraquat Papers” story, and check out the secrets revealed in 50 years of corporate documents (Read all about it here.)
And this heart-tugging companion piece:
A human toll- paraquat users blame Syngenta for Parkinson’s disease
When Illinois farmer Ron Niebruegge was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 55, he was certain it must be a mistake. Niebruegge had always been healthy and active, someone who loved horseback riding and taking his wife dancing on weekend nights.
But a dizzy spell and a fall in 2007 led him to visit a neurologist, and then another. Both doctors agreed that the little things Niebruegge had started to notice – a left arm that didn’t seem to work quite right, some stiffness in his joints – were undeniable signs of the onset of Parkinson’s, a progressive debilitating brain disease for which there is no cure.
Now 70 years old, Niebruegge lives a very different life: The horses he loved have been given away and the horse trailer sold. Dancing is a thing of the past; Niebruegge struggles simply to walk across a room. He uses a cane but falls so frequently and unexpectedly that he fears leaving home.
One recent fall left him with a dislocated shoulder that required surgery. And his wife of 49 years has transitioned from dance partner to caregiver.
Niebruegge is far from alone. More than 8 million people globally suffer from what scientists see as the fastest growing neurological disorder in the world. And while scientists see multiple toxins as potential causes, one pesticide popular with farmers across the US has been prominently linked to the disease: a weed killer called paraquat that has grown in use over recent decades.
The longtime manufacturer of paraquat, Syngenta AG, along with Chevron USA, the successor to a former US paraquat distributor, are now being sued by thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers. The plaintiffs claim scientific studies show that exposure to paraquat can cause, or significantly increase the risk of, Parkinson’s disease, but rather than warn users, the companies prioritized paraquat sales over human health. (Read the rest of the story.)
Also in The New Lede last week:
Utah tribe wants polluting uranium mill closed
This Saturday the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southeastern Utah is planning a rally to protest the last functioning uranium mill in the United States. The tribe says the White Mesa Mill, which sits on sacred ancestral tribal lands, has been polluting the environment and jeopardizing the health of local communities for decades.
“We keep fighting and fighting to get it to either shut down or get it to move,” said Michael Badback, a tribal member and longtime White Mesa resident.
More than 700 million pounds of radioactive waste from across the US are buried in the White Mesa Uranium Mill’s waste pits, according to a report by Grand Canyon Trust. And the site may soon become a dumping ground for radioactive materials from around the world, with waste streams from Canada, Japan, and Europe approved for shipment to the mill.
While the mill was designed to accept crushed uranium ore from mines, it can also accept waste streams as long as they contain uranium or thorium.
“Really what we have is a uranium mill that’s essentially functioning as a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility without being regulated like one,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust. “It’s accepting this sort of stew or cocktail of materials that has all kinds of other components in it. We don’t have any other facility in the United States that has this particular mix in its waste pits, so we don’t really know how these things interact and what they might do together.”
Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that the mill was in violation of the Clean Air Act, with one of its waste ponds not properly covered with water to reduce toxic radon emissions. A flight over the mill in July by the organization Ecoflight suggests a second pond may also be exposing hazardous materials. (Read the rest of the story.)
PFAS contaminating 83% of tested waterways, study finds
Clean water advocacy groups said this week that they have found toxins linked to cancer and other health problems in more than 80% of tested waterways around the United States, adding to the growing body of evidence about the pervasiveness of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS.
Results of the study, which was carried out by the nonprofit organization Waterkeeper Alliance, were released Tuesday. The group said PFAS toxins were detected in 95 of 114 waters tested, and some samples were found to contain levels of PFAS thousands of times higher than the levels considered safe for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)
Maryland, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida were among the states with the highest number of water samples containing PFAS.
The results “demonstrate that existing laws are inadequate for protecting us,” said Marc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance.
The study is the first nationwide surface water quality survey to measure PFAS, and probably the most extensive survey of PFAS presence in surface waters that has ever been conducted in the US, according to the group.
One type of PFAS known as PFOA is considered a likely human carcinogen. Another type, PFOS, is known to accumulate in humans and cause liver damage and birth defects in lab animals. Both were detected in 69% of samples.
The report noted that PFOA was detected above the EPA Interim Health Advisory Level of 0.004 ppt in samples taken in waterways located in 26 states and D.C. The highest level detected was 847 ppt in a sample from Kreutz Creek, Pennsylvania. PFOS was detected above the EPA advisory levels in 28 states and D.C. The highest level detected was 1,364.7 ppt in a sample from Piscataway Creek, Maryland. (Read the rest of the story.)
Endangered Species Act failures offer “cautionary tale”
A key US conservation law lacks the resources to help most imperiled species fully recover, according to a study published October 12.
The study suggests that the failures of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which remains one of the strongest conservation measures in the world, stem from insufficient funding and a tendency to offer protection too late, when population sizes have already severely diminished.
While thousands of species have been listed by the ESA since it was passed in 1973, only 54 have recovered to the point where they no longer require protection.
“For decades, the agency that is primarily responsible for operationalizing the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, has been starved for resources,” said Erich Eberhard, a researcher at Columbia University and an author of the study. “As a result, we are slow to give species the protections they deserve, typically waiting until they are extremely rare, with very small population sizes, and thus at extreme risk of extinction.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs more resources to be able to process petitions more quickly and get species listed sooner,” he added.
The findings may offer lessons for the upcoming United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which will convene in December with the intent to finalize a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The framework would help conserve the estimated one million plant and animal species at risk for extinction worldwide due to human activities.
“Our paper is showing the ESA as a bit of a cautionary tale,” said Eberhard. “You can have really ambitious goals, you can have the tools for conservation, but you need to back it up.” (Read the rest of the story.)
New study says more than 57,400 US sites have PFAS contamination
Scientists have identified more than 57,400 sites in the United States that can be presumed to be contaminated with toxins linked to cancer and other health problems, according to a study published on Wednesday.
The sites identified by the analysis include 49,145 industrial facilities, 4,255 wastewater treatment plants, 3,493 military sites, and 519 airports. A map of the sites is publicly available on a PFAS Project Lab website.
PFAS, an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of thousands of chemicals commonly used to make such things as food packaging, cookware, fabrics, paints, and fire-fighting foams. Exposures to some types of PFAS have been linked to a range of adverse human health issues, including certain types of cancer, birth defects, and reproductive issues.
To identify areas of potential PFAS contamination concern, researchers pinpointed three types of sites: those where aqueous film forming foam, a PFAS-containing fire suppressant, had been discharged; sites where PFAS are used in manufacturing or industrial processes; and sites where PFAS-containing waste is handled. The researchers then validated their model of presumed contamination sites with sites known to be contaminated.
In the study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers from Northeastern University and Whitman College said attempting to accurately track PFAS contamination is challenging.
“PFAS contamination at these locations is very likely,” Alissa Cordner, senior author on the paper and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab, said in a press release.
State agencies vary in their abilities to accurately test for PFAS due to differences in testing costs, expertise, and time and resource constraints, the researchers said. As a result, they write, the amount of sites known to be contaminated is an underrepresentation of actual contamination, and far more sites can be presumed to contain PFAS. (Read the rest of the story.)