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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: I was appalled by the pollution haze I saw on a recent visit to Acadia National Park in Maine, and was told by a ranger that it was from smokestacks and tailpipes hundreds of miles away. Is anything being done to clear the air in Acadia and other natural areas where people go to breathe fresh air and enjoy distant unobstructed views?
—Betty Estason, via e-mail

Pollution haze in some of our national parks, which emanates from urban and industrial centers sometimes hundreds of miles away, has been a problem for decades despite a 1977 Congressional order calling for these areas to be free of the unhealthy air plaguing cities. Pictured: haze pollution in Acadia National Park, Maine

© iStockPhoto

This pollution haze, which emanates from urban and industrial centers to the south and west, has been a problem at Acadia National Park and elsewhere (e.g. Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and Voyageurs national parks) for decades despite a 1977 Congressional dictum calling for the nation’s greatest natural treasures—known as “Class 1” areas—to be free of the unhealthy air plaguing cities. The haze is caused when tiny pollution particles absorb and/or scatter sunlight before it reaches the ground, reducing the clarity of what we see. According to the National Park Service (NPS), which is working with other agencies and state governments to help remedy the situation, “Some types of particles, such as sulfates, scatter more light than others, particularly during humid conditions,” reports the NPS.

Of course, the pollution in the air causing the haze is also not good for our health or the environment. “Exposure to very small particles in the air has been linked with increased respiratory illness, decreased lung function, and even premature death,” reports the NPS. Also, the most common particles, nitrates and sulfates, contribute to acid rain, which renders some water bodies unsuitable to support aquatic life.

Analysts with the Mid-Atlantic/North East Visibility Union (MANE-VU), a regional planning agency with representation from all Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states as well as two tribes and four federal agencies, calculated that 100 miles in visibility should be the norm throughout these regions but that 40-60 mile visibility is typical today because of pollution. They also warn that haze can reduce visibility to just a few miles at times. The fact that these problems exist in natural areas hundreds of miles from the sources of pollution is particularly troubling to environmentalists, park visitors and seekers of fresh air.

In November 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to finalize requirements for states to create haze pollution clean-up plans—those first called for in 1977. These plans will require the worst polluters to install “Best Available Retrofit Technology” (BART) to clean up particulate pollution.

But a recently proposed addendum would allow 28 eastern U.S. states to avoid direct compliance, since they are already required to cut emissions through the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR). “While the emission trading program created by CSAPR will result in significant air quality benefits for many eastern states, it will not require some of the most egregious polluters of iconic Class I national landscapes to clean up their pollution to the same level that would be required under BART,” reports the National Parks Conservation Association, which would like to see EPA drop its proposed BART rule exemption.

Readers can do their part by using less energy and making sure some of the power offered by their utilities comes from renewable sources. And stay away from haze-prone locales on humid days when conditions are ripest for the formation of particulate pollution and the negative health effects that can come with it.

CONTACTS: EPA; MANE-VU; National Parks Conservation Association.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: I couldn’t believe my ears: “genetically engineered mosquitoes?” Why on Earth would they be created? And I understand there are plans to release them into the wild?
—Marissa Abingdon, Sumter, SC

According to Greenpeace, many whale species are down to around one percent of their estimated former abundance before the days of commercial whaling. Pictured: Minke whale on a stick, at the Sea Baron restaurant in Reykjavik Harbour area, Iceland.

Photo © Thjurexoell

Yes it’s true, genetically engineered mosquitoes, which were bred in the lab to transmit a gene during the reproductive process that kills their offspring, have already been used on an experimental basis in three countries—the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil—to counteract the quickly spreading mosquito-borne viral infection dengue fever. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 100 million cases of humans infected with dengue fever—which causes a severe flu-like illness and can in certain instances be fatal—occur annually in more than 100 tropical and sub-tropical countries.

The British company behind the project, Oxitec, is focusing initially on dengue fever, given that the particular virus which causes it is only carried by one sub-species of mosquito. This makes the illness easier to target than malaria, for instance, which is carried by many different types of mosquitoes.

Oxitec first released some of the genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Island in the Caribbean in 2009, much to the surprise of the international community and environmental advocates, many of whom are opposed to genetic engineering in any of its forms due to the unknown and unintended side effects that unleashing transgenic organisms into the world could cause.

In Brazil, where the largest experiments have been carried out to date, the government is backing a new facility designed to breed millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes to help keep dengue fever at bay.

Dengue fever isn’t considered to be a big problem in the U.S. as yet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most of the dengue fever cases showing up in the continental U.S. are among those who have travelled to sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world. Still, WHO reports that the incidence of dengue fever in the U.S. has increased some thirty-fold over the last half century.

A proposal by Oxitec to test its transgenic mosquitoes in the Florida Keys has some locals upset. In April 2012, the town of Key West passed an ordinance prohibiting the release of the mosquitoes pending further testing on possible implications for the environment. In the meantime, Oxitec has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a patent on their mosquito and permission to release them in the U.S.

Some 80,000 people have signed onto a campaign on the Change.org website calling on the FDA to deny Oxitec’s application. Mila de Mier, the Key West mother who launched the campaign, is concerned about the potential consequences of releasing an experimental organism on a delicate ecosystem.

“Oxitec’s business goal is to sell genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States,” said de Mier. “…we’ve already said we don’t want these mosquitoes in our backyards, but Oxitec isn’t listening.” More definitive scientific study is needed, she says, that looks at the potential long-term impacts.

CONTACTS: Oxitec; Change.org.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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