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January 2024

The Impact of Pollution

The Impact of Pollution

            Robert A. Levine

Every society and culture has been guilty of polluting their local areas of work and habitation, with some societies defiling more extensive regions or the world itself. As humanity has advanced scientifically, industrially and technologically, with more goods produced and longer lives, the amount of pollution has increased dramatically. Progress and pollution appear to go hand in hand. It is only recently that small numbers of people have realized the dangers of pollution and how the destruction of the environment and various ecosystems are bad for the planet and ultimately bad for humans. Some of these people have become organized into environmentally friendly groups who are ardently working to save endangered species and ecosystems and preserve the planet. The general public does not seem aware of how pollution and contamination can damage the world and affect them.

According to an American Lung Association report in 2022, over a third of United States residents were impacted by unhealthy air. However, this report was issued prior to the extensive Canadian and American wildfires in the spring and summer of 2023 which considerably downgraded air quality in much of America. It was noted that over 63 million Americans faced daily spikes in lethal particle pollution, the most in a decade, with California the hardest hit. Air pollution, like all pollution is rising annually in America and worldwide.

Poor air quality is a major factor in the causation of numerous illnesses, both from chemical pollution and wildfire smoke. The common pathway for many of the diseases is an increase in inflammation. Air pollution encompasses particles of varying sizes and from varying sources as well as a range of gases that serve as irritants when inhaled. While pulmonary, coronary and brain afflictions are most common, virtually every bodily organ can be affected, with rates of cancer also increased. Chronic exposure to atmospheric pollution is more frequently seen in impoverished neighborhoods, underdeveloped nations and in certain industries where pollutants are regular byproducts.

            Several decades ago, the term ‘exposome’ was conceived to capture all the compounds to which we are exposed that can affect our health, whether dietary or environmental. Our genomes play a large role in determining our risk of many diseases or causing diseases, and exposomes are also involved. Scientists trying to calculate the impact of exosomes upon us, run blood and urine tests to look for chemicals or their breakdown products formed by the enzymes in our bodies. Special laboratories take blood samples and use techniques like gas chromatography, liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to assess the samples and find any chemicals or byproducts present. However, finding these compounds is not enough to know their effects upon us. Many have to be investigated and the time one is exposed to these compounds may also be important. Discovering this may be difficult to ascertain and what the safe levels of these chemicals are.

            New chemicals and compounds are constantly being invented and produced by industry, some of which may be harmful or toxic at low levels. In 2017, MIT started a collaborative project, one of roughly two dozen nationwide, labeled the Superfund Research Program (SRP) to learn the effect of carcinogens that originate from toxic sites. These teams study five areas, water, air, systems biology, mutations and genetic susceptibility, examining the environmental impacts of industrial processes. They are searching for contaminants or byproducts that may be carcinogenic. One chemical, NDMA, a manufacturing byproduct and probable carcinogen has been found in Zantac and other pharmaceuticals and can also show up in drinking water after municipal water treatment. Most of the Superfund sites are polluted with harmful compounds that are also carcinogenic, some of which have contaminated groundwater. At present, there are over 1300 Superfund sites in the U.S, of which 452 have supposedly been remediated. However, tiny amounts of many of these chemicals can impair human health in various ways, including cancer. One estimate has NDMA contaminating at least 1 percent of the U.S. water supply.

            There are many old sites in the US of toxic contaminants that are not well known to the public and are continuing to cause disease and genetic damage to exposed humans. For instance, Indianapolis contains one of the largest dry cleaning Superfund sites in the nation. Tuchman Cleaners operated a number of cleaning stores throughout the city from 1952 to 2008. The company sent the clothes to a central site for dry cleaning using perchlorethylene or PERC. This highly toxic compound was kept in storage tanks under the building where the cleaning occurred. Leakage and spills from these tanks were noted first in 1989 and by 1994, the compound was discovered in a nearby aquifer. The EPA became involved in 2011 by which time the compound had seeped more than a mile beneath a residential neighborhood and had contaminated a well supplying drinking water to the city. Yet inhabitants of the city for the most part were unaware of their exposure to PERC which is a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen.

            This is not an isolated story and similar events exposing people to dangerous chemicals, with or without their knowledge has happened in a number of areas throughout the country. Environmental damage often occurs slowly and out of sight which means the public may not recognize the dangers to which they have been subjected. City administrations may not want to publicize these hazards because of fears it may hurt investment in the city. And distance and time may keep many of these toxic legacies hidden. In the U.S. and other industrial nations, there appears to be a split among those alert to the threat of pollution and climate change, and those who want economic development full speed ahead no matter what the environmental cost may be. Many eyes are closed to the poisoning of the planet.

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The Urgent Threat of Global Warming

The Urgent Threat of Global Warming

                       Robert A. Levine    January 2, 2024

The world is totally immersed now in the wars in the Ukraine and Gaza while other problems simmer on the back burner. The sojourn of humans on Earth is transient and it is our responsibility to protect the environment and ecosystems we inherited for the generations to follow and the other species with which we share the planet. Global warming is real, dangerous and mostly of our doing, with all of the environmental changes it has wrought. And the trajectory of climate change can be halted and reversed if we take the appropriate actions. At least for now! The question is whether climate change or one of its harmful effects will reach a tipping point where all of humanity’s efforts will not be able to nullify the transformation that has occurred. Unless there is a concerted effort by the major nations on the planet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth is due to attain temperatures of about 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) above preindustrial levels by the end of the century, and possibly much higher. One would have to go back millions of years to find the planet’s temperature in that range.

        Many people and nations still refuse to accept the reality of global warming and refuse to take actions that might inconvenience them, or cause them minor financial harm; to do their part in reducing the menace of climate change. Some individuals believe themselves invulnerable to whatever transformation global warming will bring. At the same time, other individuals wonder about the morality of bringing children into a world of heightened warming, where discomfort and possible disaster are on the horizon and the endpoint is unknown.

        The research that has been done on climate change is voluminous and there is no question that global warming is occurring and likely accelerating. Attribution studies have also left no doubt that global warming is mainly of human origin caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Other attribution research has catalogued the effects global warming has had on the weather, the atmosphere, the land and the oceans and its impact on various ecosystems. Though extreme weather was seen prior to humans burning fossil fuels, never in human history has damaging weather been so frequent and devastating.

           A Pew Poll released in August 2023 revealed that many Americans refuse to accept the reality of global warming or say it is part of a natural cycle rather than man made. They refuse to acknowledge any urgency in the changes occurring on our planet and the necessary ways we must alter our behavior. Ignoring scientists who call for immediate action on our part and evidence that supports this need, they deny the role that the burning of fossil fuels has played in this crisis. In rejecting the scientists who offer evidence for global warming, the deniers claim that proponents of climate change are misguided or have ulterior motives. And the national media are not considered as credible sources for information on climate, felt to be pushing their own agendas. The deniers emphasize the need for respecting individual freedoms and choice in the use of energy. Fully 40 percent of Americans say there is no solid evidence that climate change is occurring, or that it is mostly the result of natural patterns. Only 37 percent see climate change as an urgent priority that government must address.

         The main culprit, carbon dioxide, is an odorless, tasteless gas, produced by the burning of fossil fuels for energy in automobiles, trucks, ships, planes, power plants and so forth. Fossil fuels include coal, wood, oil and gas, with coal appearing to be the greatest contributor to this problem. Other greenhouse gases also play a role, like methane and water vapor. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and radiate it back to the surface of the planet instead of allowing it to dissipate into space. Though humans have been burning wood and coal for millennia, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere started rising rapidly in the mid-to late 19th century after the industrial revolution. In the 20th and 21st centuries, CO2 escalated even more rapidly, as the human population exploded and demand for various goods and products increased, causing global warming to threaten the Earth’s ecosystems.

         What once seemed like a planetary crisis off in the future is now more of an immediate threat. Action cannot be delayed when the atmospheric heat is soaring globally, floods are overwhelming some regions while drought is a problem in other areas. Rainfall and storms are more destructive now and ocean levels are rising. There seems to be a confluence of extreme weather devastating to humankind and the environment. It is as if there were a feedback loop among these events, heightening their severity and impact. Instituting measures to adapt to climate change is necessary to protect population and property at risk, but is not an answer for the long term. Funding and effort must be directed to reducing global warming as rapidly as possible by ending fossil fuel use, and people and governments must accept that the Earth is imperiled.

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