What China Can Teach America About Clean Air by Daniel K. Gardner – Project Syndicate


Every year, more than four million people around the world die prematurely from breathing dirty air. In China alone, the number of deaths attributable to air pollution exceeds one million annually. That figure may not come as a surprise; after all, we are routinely treated to images in the media of thick, sooty smog enveloping Beijing, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities. But America’s air kills, too – and it is getting a lot less attention.

2013 MIT study estimated that poor air quality accounts for 200,000 early deaths in the United States each year, more than the number killed by car crashes and diabetes (other studies have put the number lower, closer to 100,000). Yet, while China today is aggressively tackling its air pollution problem, the US is rolling back air-quality protections in the name of economic growth – an ill-conceived strategy that will have a devastating impact on human health.

Ever since the publication of Harvard’s “Six Cities” study in 1993, scientists and public-health officials have been aware of the links between mortality and fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 (airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). When people inhale PM2.5, microscopic solids and liquid droplets of dust, dirt, organic chemicals, and metals can travel deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Research over the past 20 years has tied PM2.5 to a range of adverse health outcomes, including asthma, acute bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks, and cardiorespiratory diseases.

We know, too, where most PM2.5 comes from: power plants, heavy industry, and motor vehicles. During fossil-fuel combustion, carbon dioxide, the world’s most prevalent greenhouse gas, is emitted into the air, along with particles of incompletely combusted solids and gases (mainly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) that react chemically in the atmosphere to form fine particulate matter.

Knowing the killer pollutant and its sources, the US Environmental Protection Agency, under the 1990 Clean Air Act, issued new standards to reduce PM2.5 levels. The EPA estimates that between 1990 and 2015, the national concentration of particulate matter fell by 37%, and that in 2010, some 160,000 premature deaths were averted as a result of the regulations. In short, despite a considerable number of deaths still linked to dirty air, the US had, until this year, been heading in the right direction.

Now, however, US President Donald Trump has promised to create “unbelievable prosperity” by discarding regulations intended to reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, lowering or eliminating fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and dismantling the EPA. He has also vowed to repeal limits on fracking, open up more public lands to coal mining, and expand oil and gas production in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that such measures would actually produce prosperity for the entire country, and not just for the fossil-fuel industry. What price, as a country, is the US willing to pay? How many early deaths per year are too many?

There are alternatives that don’t require a zero-sum tradeoff between economic growth and human health. And, ironically, one place to look for inspiration is China.

Holding up China as a model to emulate might seem absurd. After all, its PM2.5 levels are considerably higher than in the US, and consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal, is far greater. But Chinese policymakers are taking vigorous steps to reverse course, free the country from its dependence on fossil fuels and create a future-oriented economy powered by clean energy and green technology – one that places China at the forefront of the global economy.

Today, China is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, with outlays in 2015 totaling $103 billion, more than double US spending of $44 billion. Of the planet’s 8.1 million jobs in renewable energy, 3.5 million are in China, whereas fewer than one million are in the US. Persuaded that clean energy is good for the environment and the economy, China has committed $367 billion through 2020 to the development of renewable power sources – a level of investment that is expected to generate 13 million jobs.

China is also looking beyond its borders, by exporting the expertise it has developed in renewable energy and supporting technologies. In 2016, China invested tens of billions in renewable energy projects in Australia, Germany, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Likewise, to rein in pollutants from motor vehicles, China’s government has made adoption of electric vehicles a high priority, setting a target of five million on the country’s roads by 2020. To promote sales, buyers are exempted from sales and excise taxes ($6,000-$10,000 per vehicle). And, anticipating the eventual replacement of conventional motor vehicles globally, the authorities are providing generous subsidies for domestic manufacturing.

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Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to turn back the clock, by betting on the resuscitation of a dying – and deadly – fossil-fuel industry. Describing a transition to electric vehicles as a job killer, Trump has advocated ending federal subsidies that encourage domestic development, manufacture, and purchase, such as the $7,500 federal tax credit for consumers.

China’s dependence on fossil fuels has left it in a deep environmental hole, but its leaders are determined to climb out. The US, on the other hand, is literally digging its own grave. With as many as 200,000 Americans dying prematurely every year, economic hubris must not be allowed to trump the search for solutions – wherever they may be found.

There’s Now Very Strong Evidence We Really Are Killing Our Bees


Two industry-funded studies have finally provided sound evidence that vastly popular pesticides called neonicotinoids are horrible for the pollinators that keep our food production system running.

We’ve suspected for a while that these pesticides might be affecting bees, but it’s a tricky subject to study in the lab, where bees might be given unrealistically high doses of pesticide. Now scientists have conducted the largest-ever field trials in Europe and Canada, and the news is bad.

 

Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. They are chemically similar to nicotine, the compound that plants in the nightshade family have evolved to protect themselves from pests.

Invented in the 1980s, neonicotinoids quickly became a popular crop treatment because they are systemic, which means they circulate through the whole plant and kill bugs as soon as they feast on the crop. And because they linger in the plant’s system, one application – sometimes just on the seeds – can be plenty to offer long-term protection.

But these attractive properties for farmers are what makes neonicotinoids such a concern for bee welfare, because a systemic insecticide easily makes its way to the nectar and pollen of a flowering plant.

To measure this potential harm, a team of European researchers established 33 sites growing rapeseed in Germany, Hungary and the UK. These were randomly assigned to either be treated with one of two choice nicotinoids, or none at all.

The team looked at honeybees and two wild bee species – bumblebees and solitary bees. Results differed between locations and species, but overall they discovered that honeybee hives were less likely to survive over winter, while the wild bees reproduced less.

It’s not that the pesticides directly kill bees, the scientists note. Instead, it appears that low-level exposure makes them more vulnerable, especially if there are other environmental factors or diseases already affecting the hive.

 “Neonicotinoid applications are thus a kind of reproductive roulette for bees,” biodiversity researcher Jeremy Kerr notes in a related perspectives article in Science.

The huge study was actually largely funded by the pesticide industry itself. The companies Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta put up US$3 million for the trial, and both have panned the scientists’ conclusions that it would be better to restrict neonicotinoid use.

But these are important results nonetheless, and are likely to inform the European Union’s upcoming decision on a potential blanket ban of these pesticides. A temporary ban has already been in place since 2013.

“Our results suggest that even if their use were to be restricted, as in the recent EU moratorium, continued exposure to neonicotinoid residues resulting from their previous widespread use has the potential to impact negatively wild bee persistence in agricultural landscapes,” the researchers write in the study.

And that’s not even all.

Another field study by researchers in Canada was published in the same issue ofScience, also showing negative effects on bees.

The team studied honey bees that either lived close to neonicotinoid-treated corn fields, or far away from agriculture. The results suggested that chronically exposed bees had lower life expectancies and poorer hygiene conditions in the hive.

Additionally, they also discovered that bees collected pollen tainted with the pesticides, but this pollen didn’t even come from the treated crops themselves.

“This indicates that neonicotinoids, which are water soluble, spill over from agricultural fields into the surrounding environment, where they are taken up by other plants that are very attractive to bees,” says one of the researchers, Nadia Tsvetkov.

The work done by both teams goes a long way to demonstrate that we really are contributing to the worldwide bee decline, way more dramatically than we’d like to admit.

“It’s reached a point where it’s just not plausible to keep denying these things harm bees in realistic studies,” bee researcher Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex told Daniel Cressey at Nature News.

“I’d say it’s the final nail in the coffin.”

China is building first ‘forest city’ of 40,000 trees to fight air pollution


Picture: STEFANO BOERI

In the wake of President Trump’s decision to remove America from the Paris Climate agreement, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little negative about the future of the planet.  

With reports of huge cracks appearing in the Antarctic ice, fears that preventing the two degree heating of the planet might be a pipe dream, and the world’s food supplies at risk – everything looks and sounds grim.

Fortunately though, there are some good news stories on the horizon; with many of them coming from China. The country has been leading the way when it comes to ‘green living’ in recent years, with the government announcing it had completed construction of the world’s largest floating solar farm. Now, in an attempt to curb the production of toxic gasses, the country is continuing to pave the way (so to speak) with the construction of one of the world’s first ‘forest cities’.

Designed by Stefano Boeri, who you might remember also designed two vertical skyscraper ‘forests’, the city is currently under construction in Liuzhou, Guangxi Province.

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Once completed, the new city will reportedly host 30,000 people and – thanks to the abundance of trees and plants – will absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2, 57 tons of pollutants per year and produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen annually.

The city will achieve these rather impressive figures thanks to roughly a million plants from over 100 species, as well as 40,000 trees being planted in facades over almost every surface imaginable.

The new Liuzhou Forest City will connect to the existing Liuzhou via a series of fast rail services and electric cars; it will also reportedly house a number of schools and two hospitals. There are also plans to make the city self-sustainable with regards to power, thanks to geothermal and solar energy resources.

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Mr Boeri’s website states:

The diffusion of plants, not only in the parks and gardens or along the streets, but also over building facades, will allow the energy self-sufficient city to contribute to improve the air quality (absorbing both CO2 and fine dust of 57 tons per year), to decrease the average air temperature, to create noise barriers and to improve the biodiversity of living species, generating the habitat for birds, insects and small animals that inhabit the Liuzhou territory.

 

It’s hoped that this stunning looking creation will be completed by 2020.

FATTENED, GENETICALLY ENGINEERED ALGAE MIGHT FUEL THE FUTURE


THE FUTURE OF fuel is green, slimy, and reeks of fish. “Fish smell like fish because fish eat algae,” says Imad Ajjawi, a geneticist at the synbio company Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, CA that grows those smelly photosynthesizers.

This algae is also fatty, which probably isn’t a word you’d typically associate with the goopy, mucky organism. But scientists like Ajjawi have spent decades dreaming about algae this fat. Because fat is essentially oil, fatty algae could be the world’s most successful fuel crop. Ajjawi and his colleagues spent nearly a decade tweaking an algae genome so it produces more than twice as much fat than wild versions of the same species, and Monday they described their efforts in an article published in Nature Biotechnology.

Algae are similar to plants, in that they need nutrients, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to survive. If you starve them of nutrients—think nitrogen, phosphorous—they start storing energy. Rather than grow and divide, the algae go into a quiescent state and build up fatty lipids. “This is so when they do get their nutrients again, they can rapidly use those lipids to grow and divide,” says Eric Moellering, a biologist, co-author, and colleague of Ajjawi’s at Synthetic Genomics.

Scientists have known about this for decades. In the late 1970s, in response to an oil shortage, the Department of Energy launched its Aquatic Species Program. Originally, the program was focused on using algae to produce hydrogen fuels, but by the mid-1980s its scientists were working on converting the organism’s lipids into fuels like diesel. They found they could trigger fat production by starving the algae of food. The problem with that is, the algae would soon stop growing. The key was the elusive “lipid trigger,” some gene or combination of genes that would promote fat accumulation without sacrificing growth. Alas, the DOE shuttered the Aquatic Species Program in the mid-1990s, partly because it failed to find the lipid trigger.

In 2005, Craig Venter founded Synthetic Genomics as a lab to capitalize on some of his breakthroughs in genome research. One of Venter’s big ambitions for the company would be succeeding where the DOE, and many other companies, had failed: in developing algae capable of producing fuel on an industrial scale. Venter imagined city-sized fields of algae out in the Arizona desert. In 2009, Synthetic Genomics partnered with Exxon Mobil, and the algae project sprung forward.

The project started by collecting algae samples from around the world, to find which species was naturally the best fit. They settled on Nannocholoropsis gaditana, which was already known as a promising industrial candidate. Years passed cataloguing every detail of the organism’s biology. All the while, the team was experimenting, trying to crack the connection between lipids and growth. By 2014, they hadn’t gotten far enough. Venter went back to Exxon and pushed them to reset the program. “We needed to hunker down to the fundamentals and look across the entire genome,” says Rob Brown, the senior director of genome engineering at Synthetic Genomics and leader of this program.

Nannocholoropsis has 9,000 genes. And they sequenced the whole lot, right at that moment of starvation, when the organisms entered their lipid-producing frenzy. Among them, they found 20 lipid trigger candidates. Then they used Crispr-Cas9 to knock out each one individually, and see how that affected the algae’s lipid production and growth. Again and again, their results came up null.

One gene in particular—called ZnCys—gave them very strange results. “We had these template Excel files that we would populate with all the data, which we would convert into charts,” says Ajjawi. Those charts measured how efficient the algae was at converting carbon into lipids. “A normal conversion in wild type algae was about 20 percent, so I had set Y axis to maybe 30 percent,” he says. But when he loaded the data for ZnCys, the chart was blank. “I thought, why is it missing?” But the data wasn’t missing, it was literally off the chart: a 55 percent conversion.There was still a problem, though: Those algae with knocked-out ZnCys genes were stunted. “Lipid production isn’t just a function of yield, it’s how fast the cells grow,” says Ajjawi. Crispr-Cas9 was too blunt a tool. So they turned to another method, called RNA interference. “If you think of Crispr as an on and off switch, RNAi is the dimming function,” says Ajjawi. Using it, they were able to fine tune their mutant algae until they grew at about the same rate as wild algae—but with more than double the lipid production.

ZnCys turned out to be a master regulator, which means it creates proteins that tells other genes when to turn on and off. The DOE’s Aquatic Species Program was just a little too ahead of its time to discover and control this tool. At the time the program shut down, sequencing a single genome still cost millions of dollars, and nobody had figured out how to edit and tweak genes with Crispr-Cas9 or RNAi.

So that’s it, guys. The end of drilling for fossil fuels, and a new age of combustible energy created by organic matter that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere.

Record scratch.

Not so fast. “Before we take this technology outdoors, there are still many questions about how it will perform,” says Ajjawi. For one, taking the algae outdoors will expose it to disease, predators, and other outdoorsy things. Also, they aren’t quite sure how the algae will grow under natural light conditions. And before the algae gets deployed industrially, the EPA will probably want to make sure it meets its environmental regulations.

Finally, this is just one species of algae. “In the long term, people recognize that, just like crops for food, there’s going to need to be more than one crop out there acclimated to different environments,” says Moellering. If algae is really going to be the future of fuel, more of it will need to fatten up.

CHEMICAL FROM PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES FOUND THROUGHOUT OCEANS


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Although plastic has long been considered indestructible, some scientists say toxic chemicals from decomposing plastics may be leaching into the sea and harming marine ecosystems.

Contrary to the commonly held belief that plastic takes 500 to 1,000 years to decompose, researchers now report that some types of plastic begin to break down in the ocean within one year, releasing potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and other chemicals into the water.

“Plastics in daily use are generally assumed to be quite stable,” chemist Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University in Japan said in a press release. “We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future.” Saido presented the work Wednesday at the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

Several noxious plastic byproducts, including BPA and a substance called styrene trimer, have been detected in small quantities in the ocean, but Saido says this is the first time anyone has shown a direct connection between decomposing plastic and the hazardous chemicals. Both BPA and components of styrene trimer have been shown to disrupt hormone function and cause reproductive problems in animals.

 The Japanese researchers devised a method to simulate the breakdown of a hard plastic called polystyrene at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the lab, and they compared the chemical byproducts from their experiment with what they found in water and sand from the Pacific Ocean. Based on the speed of plastic decomposition and the amount of drift plastic found along the coasts of Japan, the scientists concluded that noxious chemicals in the water are probably coming from the breakdown of polystyrene, which is used to make Styrofoam.
 But not all researchers are convinced the lab experiment accurately reflects what’s going on in the ocean. “Polystyrene is actually heavier than seawater, so before it ever chemically breaks down or degrades, it may be sinking to the bottom,” said ocean researcher Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who was not involved in the study. Because temperatures are much lower at the bottom of the ocean and there’s very little light to cause photodegredation, Moore said it’s unlikely that the plastic would break down once it sunk.

“Food doesn’t even biodegrade at the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “There is so little activity going on down there.” In addition, Moore said ocean temperatures across most of the world are much lower than the 30 degrees Celsius the researchers used in their lab simulation.

Even if polystyrene breaks down in some regions of the ocean, pollution expert Joel Baker of the University of Washington questions whether the amount of chemicals released would be significant compared to the vast size of the ocean itself. “There’s a little bit of hyperbole going on here,” Baker said. “There’s no question that there’s too much plastic in the ocean, and we should try to reduce that. But whether it’s an important source of chemicals for the ocean is much less clear.”

But regardless of whether its chemicals leach into the water, the sheer volume of plastic floating in the sea makes it a major polluter, Moore said. Discarded plastic junk makes its way from gutters and storm drains into rivers and streams, and eventually flows into the ocean, where it gets trapped by currents and creates vast regions of plastic soup. On a voyage back from Hawaii in 1997, Moore discovered a floating island of garbage larger than the state of Texas, which has since been dubbed “The Great Garbage Patch.”

Plastic poses the biggest threat to marine animals that confuse garbage with dinner and end up digesting large quantities of polystyrene. Even if polystyrene isn’t decomposing in the water, Moore said it could be breaking down in the digestive tracts of fish and marine mammals. “Every size of organism,” he said, “every creature in the food web in the ocean, from the smallest filter feeders to the largest whales, is consuming plastic.”

PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES MIGHT HAVE POISONED ANCIENT CALIFORNIANS


YOU’VE HEARD THE PSA: Recycle that plastic water bottle, or else archaeologists will be digging it up thousands of years from now. What you probably haven’t heard is that archaeologists are already digging up plastic water bottles that are thousands of years old.

This not evidence of time travel. These bottles aren’t clear, and they don’t have labels. They’re pitch black—made by indigenous tribes who coated large, woven bulbs with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Scientists have known about these bottles for years. But what they hadn’t considered was whether these plastic bottles contributed to the declining health in some old societies, like the Native American tribes that once lived off the coast of California. Skeletons dating back thousands of years evidence a mysterious physical decline. A new study, published today in the journal Environmental Health, measured the toxicity of making plastic from oily bitumen, and of storing liquid in the bottles.

Modern water bottles aren’t that different, really. But frozen, reused, even microwaved, there’s not much risk of the liquid in them leaching enough harmful molecules—BPAs, DEHA, PET—to cause health problems. These ancient plastics are a different story, however. Bitumen is basically asphalt. Yes, basically the same stuff (when mixed with rocks, sand, and aggregates) that is used to pave roads. It’s dense, viscous or semi-solid when cool, but turns into a malleable slop when heated up. It also releases chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, known to cause cancer (cigarettes, burning wood, and other smoky sources produce PAHs) and other health problems.

California’s Channel Islands sit a few miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Like the mainland, they are dry. “They are also one of few places in North America where you find a more or less continuous population in the Americas, at least until the Industrial Age,” says Sabrina Sholts, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. “The earliest evidence we have of of people on these islands comes from about 13,000 years ago.” One of the outstanding mysteries about these island-dwelling tribes—collectively called the Chumash—is why their overall health began to decline, beginning around 5,000 years ago.

Skeletal remains dating back to that time start to exhibit poor bone quality, reduced stature, smaller skulls, and bad teeth. Now, lots of things can cause these issues. Some researchers posit that malnutrition, poor sanitation, infectious disease, and lack of resources brought about by increased population on the islands might be the culprits. But Sholts developed a different hypothesis.

 On certain beaches in Southern California, you have to watch your step to avoid stumbling on a nasty little ball of tar. Some come from the oil rigs offshore, but these balls have actually been washing ashore for thousands of years, the result of submarine seepage. This is bitumen, and for thousands of years Native Americans in this region had used it to build boats, make weapons, and craft water bottles. Sholts went to graduate school at UC Santa Barbara, and she recalls that one of her colleagues working with bitumen advised her early on to wear gloves and a mask to handle the stuff. She had recently learned about how Native Americans in this region had stored water in bitumen bottles. “I became uncomfortably curious, and not sure how strongly I should consider this as a factor in some of the changes I had seen in the skeletal record,” she says.

After getting her PhD and a job at the Smithsonian, she took the opportunity to explore that curiosity. She conscripted a colleague, Kevin Smith, to recreate the bottle-making process. Smith is an archaeologist at UC Davis who has permits to do work on the Channel Islands—much of which are protected.

To make a Chumash-style plastic bottle, you start by weaving a bottle-shaped basket. Then you combine bitumen and pine pitch in an abalone shell. You have to melt them together, but you don’t place the abalone directly onto the fire. Instead, you roast some pebbles in a fire until they are piping hot. Remove the pebbles, place them in the abalone, and stir them around until the the mixture is wet, hot, and bubbly. Finally, use a stick to paint the molten bitumen over the bottle-shaped basketry.

For scientific accuracy, Smith collected his materials from the islands—the plants for the basket, the pitch, the bitumen, even the pebbles. The only modern interlopers—besides Smith himself—were a cardboard windscreen and a mass spectrometer to measure that ominous white smoke.

Next came the environmental assessment. As everyone in this Dr. Oz-ified society knows, plastic bottles pollute whatever is put in them. So after the bottles cooled (the team made two of them, each with a different bitumen-to-pitch ratio), Smith and Sholts shipped them off to colleagues in Sweden. They filled the bottles with water, let them sit for two months, and analyzed the results. The results: accumulations of naphthalene, phenanthrene, and acenaphthalene, all of which are compounds with known toxicity.

The Chumash also likely ate food off bitumen-coated objects. So the Swedish cohort also filled the bottles with olive oil to test whether toxins would leech into lipids. (Of course, the Chumash didn’t have olive oil, but it’s a serviceable proxy for the fatty fish and marine mammal meat that comprised the Chumash diet.) “If you want to measure uptake directly, you need to have soft tissue,” says Sholts. “We were looking to get a baseline measurement of what the fat could do.”Toxic Soup: Plastics Could Be Leaching Chemicals Into Ocean

The air sampling showed that the smoke produced while making one of these proto-plastic bottles had a much higher concentration of toxins than cigarettes. The water had very low concentrations of the toxic compounds. The olive oil took up way more PAHs, but the researchers noted that the olive oil they bought had detectable PAHs in it before they put it in the bottle.

Transporting water—in bottles, through pipes—has always been tricky business. It’s not just a matter of using a material that doesn’t leak. Water is the universal solvent. Given enough time, and the right pH, it will dissolve just about anything. Sometimes this means leaching toxins from substances strong enough to contain the leaks, like the lead from Flint’s pipes.

According to Sholts’ study, the bitumen those Chumash islanders used to make their bottles didn’t leak enough chemicals into their water to account for their skeletal problems. The ones who made the bottles did, but Sholts points out that they probably weren’t making the bottles frequently enough to accumulate dangerous levels of the toxins in their bodies. However, she says this study was limited by the fact that they had to do everything by proxy—they only had Chumash skeletons to go by. “It’s hard to say how much of any chemical exposure would induce health problems,” she says. “It’s dependent on dose, duration, and when in the person’s life they were exposed.” She says the field also needs more research on how to detect toxic organic compounds in bone. Toxicologists mostly concerned themselves with the recently dead, so much of the published research only looks at toxin uptake in soft flesh. “Bones are all I have,” she says.

Exposure to Ozone Kicks Up Chances of Autism 10-Fold in at-Risk Kids


“The increase in risk is striking.”

Having a higher number of copies of genes has been shown to raise the risk of a child developing autism, as has early exposure to various pollutants in the mother’s environment.

Researchers have now shown that when these two factors are combined, an individual has 10 times the chance of developing the condition, demonstrating the importance of stepping beyond the question of nature versus nurture and looking at the bigger picture.

The analysis by a team led by scientists from Pennsylvania State University is one of the first to examine genetic differences across the whole genome in conjunction with environmental factors surrounding an individual as it develops.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) covers a variety of behaviours involving social interactions and communications, presenting with degrees of severity.

“There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of genes involved and up until now – with very few exceptions – these have been studied independently of the environmental contributors to autism, which are real,” says Penn State researcher Scott B. Selleck.

Those genes can affect numerous functions in the brain, potentially affecting a bunch of different neurological circuits that influence anything from social interactions to eye contact.

The question on just how heritable autism is has long been debated, with some early twin studies estimating as much as 90 percent of the condition is the result of genes passed down from parents.

Other researchers suggest the environment shares more of the blame, with the consensus now hovering around 50 percent genetics, 50 percent environment.

This new study shows how complicated the story just might be when it comes to such complex neurological conditions.

“Our team of researchers represents a merger of people with genetic expertise and environmental epidemiologists, allowing us for the first time to answer questions about how genetic and environmental risk factors for autism interact,” says Selleck.

Research involved 158 children with autism who were selected through a previous study, and 147 controls who were closely matched in age and demographic.

The team examined a feature called copy-number variations (CNVs); sequences that have been duplicated at least once to form repeats through the genome.

Previous research on individuals with ASD has already shown a higher tendency for their genomes to contain more CNVs than the rest of the population, and that the more of these repeats an individual has, the lower their measures of social and communication skills.

In addition to the subjects’ genetic variations, the team analysed their family’s residential history, comparing the addresses with data on air quality from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality System.

“This allowed us to examine differences between cases of autism and typically developing controls in both their prenatal pollutant exposure and their total load of extra or deleted genetic material,” says researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto from University of California Davis.

Each risk factor on its own – larger numbers of CNV and high amounts of particulate in the air – was found to elevate the risk of autism, in line with previous research.

Once they started to combine the figures, one result in particular stood out.

Ozone, as one of the pollutants examined, hasn’t previously been considered a hugely significant risk factor for ASD.

The gas, consisting of three oxygen atoms, is formed from other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which react in the presence of sunlight. Those molecules are generally released in vehicle exhaust, industrial processes, and electrical utilities.

The effect of ozone on those with high CVN numbers ramps up the chances of developing the condition, more than either would account for on their own.

Compared with those the bottom quarter of CNV numbers, and the bottom quarter of ozone exposure, there is a ten-fold risk of developing autism for those in the top quarter for both measures.

“This increase in risk is striking, but given what we know about the complexity of diseases like autism, perhaps not surprising,” says Selleck.

While the study didn’t analyse the cause, the researchers did speculate that ozone could increase the number of reactive oxygen species, such as peroxides, that are known to cause stress to cells and damage DNA.

It’s possible that having more variations of genes responsible for certain autism-related functions could open individuals to more oxidation damage.

The researchers acknowledge their sample size was relatively small, and since ozone occurs in conjunction with numerous other pollutants, there could be confounding factors that need to be pulled apart. It also doesn’t point at a single cause, instead hinting at one way a number of key genes could be affected by the environment.

Still, given the complexities of the condition, the study does show how variables we’ve previously dismissed might be working in combination.

“It demonstrates how important it is to consider different types of risk factors for disease together, even those with small individual effects,” says Selleck.

The Number of Deadly Heatwaves Will Only Keep Rising, Experts Warn


Majority of the world population could be exposed by 2100.

One of the consequences of a warming planet is more heatwaves, and more heatwaves that are hot enough to kill. Those deadly heatwaves are set to keep growing in number, according to a new study.

Researchers compared projected temperatures with data from past heatwaves and found that a massive 74 percent of the world’s population could be exposed to potentially deadly heatwaves by 2100, if carbon gas emissions continue to rise at the current rates.

If the nations of the world successfully cut back on the amount of carbon getting into the atmosphere, we’re still looking at 48 percent of the people on the planet dealing with heatwaves that can kill in the next 80 years or so, according to the team from the University of Hawaii.

They also put together a web app showing how the situation could get worse as temperatures rise across the globe.

“We are running out of choices for the future,” says lead researcher, Camilo Mora. “For heatwaves, our options are now between bad or terrible.”

“Many people around the world are already paying the ultimate price of heatwaves, and while models suggest that this is likely to continue, it could be much worse if emissions are not considerably reduced.”

For the study, the team combed through 30,000 relevant references in publications from 1980 to 2014 to find information about deadly heatwaves of the past, including the 2003 European heatwave that claimed 70,000 lives and the 2010 Moscow heatwaveresponsible for around 10,000 deaths.

From their data the researchers picked out 783 deadly heatwaves covering 164 cities and 36 countries, using them to identify a temperature and humidity threshold beyond which heatwaves start to become killers.

The threshold varies from place to place, and depends on the way temperature combines with humidity and other factors like wind speeds, but the experts say people have died in temperatures as low as 23°C (73.4°F).

At the moment, about 30 percent of the world’s population gets exposed to heatwaves beyond this threshold for 20 days or more every year, the researchers say, but much worse could be to come.

For humans, our core body temperature needs to be around 37°C (98.6°F), otherwise problems start happening – problems that can be fatal if the body temperature goes much higher.

And it’s the most vulnerable people on the planet who don’t have the shelter or the technology to protect themselves from the heat.

Atmospheric scientist Daniel Mitchell, from the University of Oxford in the UK, wasn’t involved in the research but thinks it leaves out some relevant factors that contribute to mortality rates, such as city design and available medical support.

“There are lots of things that can lead to mortality that have nothing to do with the climate,” he told Kendra Pierre-Louis at Popular Science.

However, Mitchell does agree that the study brings up some necessary points and is “a good step in the right direction”.

According to Camilo Mora we’re going down a path “that will become increasingly dangerous and difficult to reverse” if we don’t start making serious cuts in our production of greenhouse gases.

“Actions like the withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a step in the wrong direction that will inevitably delay fixing a problem for which there is simply no time to waste,” he says.

Source: Nature Climate Change.

Earth Just Passed 410 PPM CO2 Levels for the First Time in Human History


IN BRIEF

Earth just crossed another dangerous threshold in relation to climate change: an atmospheric carbon dioxide reading of 410 ppm. This is just more evidence that a concerted, global effort is needed for the health and survival of our planet.

Breaking Dangerous Records

On April 18, Earth breached its latest climate change milestone. For the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were measured at 410 parts per million (ppm). The Keeling Curve, a University of California San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography program, recorded the milestone at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This was a sobering moment for scientists, albeit hardly surprising.

Since last year, when our planet’s dangerous new normal atmospheric CO2 levels were 400 ppm, scientists have warned the public that the next milestone of 410 ppm was coming.

Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off.“We’re in a new era,” Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps Institution’s CO2 Program told Yale Environment 360 at the time we passed this milestone. “And it’s going fast,” Keeling added. “We’re going to touch up against 410 pretty soon.”

There is nothing uniquely significant about the numbers 400 or 410, but they offer points of comparison to scientists. “These milestones are just numbers, but they give us an opportunity to pause and take stock and act as useful yard sticks for comparisons to the geological record,” University of Southampton paleoclimate researcher Gavin Foster explained to Climate Central in March.

Via Keeling Curve

Beating Back The Tide

Now, more than ever, it is critical for all countries to work together to achieve a greener world. While natural factors like El Niño have driven more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past two years, these new records are mostly driven by humans burning fossil fuels in tremendous amounts and, in turn, creating record amounts of carbon dioxide.

“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) atmospheric scientist Pieter Tans told Climate Central. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”

Our Warming World: The Future of Climate Change [INFOGRAPHIC]

Recognizing the importance of taking action to stop climate change, scientists and laypeople across the United States marched for science on Earth Day, April 22. Addressing the crowd in San Diego, Keeling declared: “The climate change debate has been over for decades.”

Recent research shows that the global energy supply must be only 25 percent (or less) dependent on fossil fuels by 2100 to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Various countries are taking action to meet their own goals that are in accord with these global guidelines. China, for example, has introduced a cap on coal and will peak coal emission by 2030. Germany will ban combustion engines by 2030. Here in the U.S., high-profile advocates for the environment have funded a 20-year clean energy fund to the tune of $1 billion.

Britain recently set a record the world was happy to see: it had its first coal-free power day in 135 years. Now is the time for a concerted, worldwide effort, and hopefully we’ll start seeing more positive records.

Source:futurism.com

Your tap water contains fluoride, aluminum, lead, chloride, chlorine and lithium. Use cilantro to purify water


By using natural cilantro, however, you can purify your water to make it safe to drink in a 100% natural way.

Many people use plastic water filters to to remove undesirable things from tap wtaer, but using cilantro is a more natural, purer way in which to do this.

Tap water has been known to include chlorine, fluoride, and different amounts of dissolved minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium, chlorides, sulfates as well as the metals iron, manganese, copper, aluminum, nitrates, insecticides and herbicides.

Scarier still, some tested tap water has shown traces of pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics and mood stabilizers, proving you never really know what could be in your water each time you turn on the tap.

Although found only in traces, heavy metal accumulate in your body if not flushed out, and can lead to serious health problems further down the line. Accumulative heavy metals have been linked to Parkinson’s disease and even Alzheimer’s.

Cilantro is so effective at removing these toxins because chemicals bind to cilantro, extracting themselves out of the water when they come into contact with it. It’s like nature’s own water filter.

Douglas Schauer from Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, Indiana has been studying the effects of cilantro as a water purifier.

He said “The organic toxins we can take care of pretty easily with a number of different methods, but the only way to really get rid of those heavy metals is to treat them with filtering agents like activated charcoal, but those types of materials are kind of expensive. They are a little expensive for us to use, but they are very expensive for the people living in that region.”

Use a hanful of cilantro into about every 2 litres of water you wish to use to ensure cleaner, better water.