Slow-Motion Ocean: Atlantic’s Circulation Is Weakest in 1,600 Years

If hemisphere-spanning currents are slowing, greater flooding and extreme weather could be at hand

Slow-Motion Ocean: Atlantic's Circulation Is Weakest in 1,600 Years

In recent years sensors stationed across the North Atlantic have picked up a potentially concerning signal: The grand northward progression of water along North America that moves heat from the tropics toward the Arctic has been sluggish. If that languidness continues and deepens, it could usher in drastic changes in sea level and weather around the ocean basin.

That northward flow is a key part of the larger circulation of water, heat and nutrients around the world’s oceans. Climate scientists have been concerned since the 1980s that rising global temperatures could throw a wrench in the conveyor belt–like system, with possibly stark climatic consequences. Sea levels could ratchet upward along the U.S. east coast, key fisheries could be devastated by spiking water temperatures and weather patterns over Europe could be altered.

Such concerns had been quelled over the last decade as climate models suggested this branch of the ocean’s circulatory system was not likely to see a rapid slowdown, which would slow any consequences. But two new studies, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggest the recent weakening spotted by ocean sensors is not just a short-term blip, as some had thought. Rather, it is part of a longer-term decline that has put the circulation at its weakest state in centuries. The results imply climate models are missing key pieces of the puzzle, and that ill effects could be on their way.

Which pieces might be missing, though, could determine how worrying this trend is. If models are not sensitive enough to the changes going on in the North Atlantic, “that sort of puts the warning flag a little higher,” says Thomas Delworth, an ocean and climate modeler at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was not involved in the research.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and the subpolar gyre, where ocean waters cool when the AMOC weakens. Credit: Nature

Running AMOC

The warm, salty waters of the tropical Atlantic cruise northward along the eastern U.S. before darting toward northwestern Europe (giving the British Isles a climate far balmier than Newfoundland at a similar latitude). As that segment of ocean flow, known as the Gulf Stream, pushes north, it cools and becomes denser and eventually sinks, forming the so-called deepwater that flows back southward along the ocean floor toward Antarctica.

This cycle, called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), plays a key role in moving heat around the planet as well as nutrients throughout the ocean. It also helps draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the sea. In the Pacific Ocean equatorial heat is transported north and south toward both poles. But in the Atlantic “the heat is moving northward throughout the whole Atlantic Ocean,” says David Thornalley, a paleo-oceanographer at University College London and co-author of one of the new studies. The resulting heat imbalance between the Northern and Southern hemispheres determines several large climatic features, such as the latitude at which a key tropical rain belt is located, which impacts water supplies, precipitation for agriculture and the health of tropical ecosystems.

As global temperatures rise with the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the AMOC could be disrupted by an influx of freshwater from increasing precipitation in the North Atlantic and the melting of sea ice and glaciers on land. The added freshwater lowers the water density in the zone where deepwater forms, backing up and weakening the overall flow of the AMOC like a clogged sink. That slowdown means less heat is transported northward, leading to cooler ocean temperatures in a region below Greenland, and warmer temperatures off the U.S. east coast. That warming leads to higher sea levels along the coast and raises sea temperatures where economically valuable cold-loving species like cod and lobster live.

There are some indications the cold spot below Greenland can alter atmospheric patterns in a way that channels warm air over Europe, increasing the likelihood of sustained summer heat waves, says Levke Caesar, a PhD student at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and co-author of the other new study. The changing ocean temperatures from an AMOC slowdown could also potentially help lock in colder winter conditions over the eastern U.S., PIK’s Stefan Rahmstorf, a co-author of the same research, has posited, although the evidence there is not clear.

Until a little more than 10 years ago scientists did not have any direct measurements of the AMOC to see how it was actually responding to climate change. The deployment of the RAPID array of instruments (short for the U.K and U.S.–sponsored Rapid Climate Change program) across the Atlantic Basin has allowed that data to slowly trickle in, and “they’ve been revealing it is undergoing weakening,” Thornalley says. But the brief window of data offers no longer-term perspective. When that first data came in, scientists thought the weakening could be a temporary change resulting from the natural ups and downs of the climate, but were aware it could be part of a much longer decline.

Clues from the Past

To help resolve the uncertainty, the teams involved with the new studies turned to what are called paleoclimate markers, which capture past changes in Earth’s climate to see how these recent changes fit in. Thornalley and his colleagues used sediment cores collected from the ocean floor along the U.S. east coast to reveal how deep ocean currents linked to the AMOC have changed over time; stronger currents deposit larger grains of sediment. They also looked at tiny creatures fossilized in sediment cores—some of which had thrived in colder conditions, others in warmer ones—to see how ocean temperatures changed as the AMOC waxed and waned in strength. Caesar and Rahmstorf’s study used direct measurements of ocean temperatures going back to the late 19th century.

The two studies came to broadly similar conclusions: The AMOC is in a very weakened state—the most anemic it has been in the last 1,600 years, according to Thornalley’s results.

The studies differ on the timing of when that weakening began. Thornalley’s record, which spans those 1,600 years, suggests it started at the end of the little ice age, a period from about A.D. 1350 to 1850, when solar and volcanic influences depressed temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere and glaciers and ice sheets expanded. As the little ice age ended and temperatures warmed, ice melted and freshwater flooded into the North Atlantic. The results suggest the current state of the AMOC is the weakest it has been over that whole long record. Whether today’s state is just a continuation of that reaction or whether global warming has also started to chip in is not clear, he says. Caesar, meanwhile, put the turning point toward a weaker AMOC in the mid-20th century, suggesting it is due to the influence of human-caused warming. Her team’s record, however, does not extend as far back.

The two results are not mutually exclusive. Both records show broadly similar patterns in decline. “We think it’s quite remarkable that all the evidence is converging,” Thornalley says. But pinpointing the timing of the weakening trend would give better clues as to what is driving it as well as how quickly it is happening and how rapidly we might expect to see some of the resulting climate impacts.

Already, Thornalley says, it is clear the Gulf of Maine has its warmest temperatures in the last 1,600 years. There are also “tantalizing glimpses” of more rapid sea level rise along the U.S., he says.

The researchers are curious why climate models seem to be missing something in the AMOC process. They do not capture this past behavior and significant weakening. If the results of these studies bear out, Delworth says, it is possible the models are not sensitive enough to the changes in ocean freshwater that are happening or they are not factoring in all of the important changes that have impacted the circulation. A 2017 study that looked at what would happen if climate models did factor in that melt saw it caused a sharper response from the AMOC than had otherwise been suggested.

The greater cause for concern would be if models are incorrectly capturing the sensitivity of the system, Delworth says, because it means scientist have been underestimating how quickly the AMOC might respond. “It really depends on why the models don’t match the paleo results,” he says.

While modelers work to figure that out, Thornalley and others are trying to expand the paleoclimate record to see if the pattern they found shows up at other sites throughout the Atlantic and if they can extend it farther back in time. They are also looking for signs of how much freshwater may have triggered the weakening at the end of the little ice age.

Moving forward, the RAPID instruments will slowly help tease out the AMOC’s behavior. “It’s just that we have to wait a couple of years,” Caesar says, by which time some impacts may already be happening.


Your Rubber Ducky Is a Disgusting Biohazard, Loaded With Potential Pathogens

The nightmare is real.

It’s one of the happiest-looking, most unassuming objects in your home. It exists only to float and create smiles. But behind the buoyant facade lies a dirty, dangerous secret.

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New research reveals rubber ducks have a dark side that’s both figurative and literal, with scientists discovering these seemingly wholesome toys act as incubators for potentially pathogenic bacterial and fungal growths – which cling to the duck’s inner cavities in a mucky biofilm of filth.

Surprised? We probably shouldn’t be.

After all, we know we’re continually surrounded by bacteria traps in our daily lives, and items we associate with cleaning are actually the most unclean of all.

338 rubber duck bacteria trap 3(Eawag)

But it’s particularly unsettling to find out the rubber ducky is of these questionable objects, because it occupies a special place in our homes.

Unlike the rudimentary kitchen sponge – devoid of character or presence – rubber ducks are something we associate with happiness, laughter, innocence.

Children play with them, squeeze water out of them, even put them in their mouths.

In the new study, scientists led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology collected 19 real bath toys from Swiss households, and mimicked real-world conditions for six separate new toys, exposing them to clean and dirty bath water, mixed in with things like soap, human body fluids, and bacteria.

This cohort – rubber (actually plastic) ducks, crocodiles, and other bathtime toys – may have started out squeaky clean, but they didn’t stay that way for long.

338 rubber duck bacteria trap 3(Eawag)

After 11 weeks of simulated household use, all the toys were bisected in the lab, revealing between 5–75 million cells per square centimetre in the biofilm lining their inner surfaces.

Fungal species were detected in almost 60 percent of the real bath toys and in all the new toys exposed to dirty water, and potentially pathogenic bacteria were found in 80 percent of all the toys.

The results might sound disgusting, but in actuality, exposure to these microbial communities is kind of a mixed bag, the researchers say.

“This could strengthen the immune system, which would be positive,” explains microbiologist Frederik Hammes, “but it can also result in eye, ear, or even gastrointestinal infections.”

338 rubber duck bacteria trap 3(Eawag)

Ultimately, the team says more research needs to be done to figure out how potentially dangerous these bacterial and fungal biofilms could be – especially to children – and advise the potentials may be mitigated by cleaning toys after bathtime, by boiling and drying them, to minimise their capacity for incubation.

Or, you could look for bath toys that don’t have a squeaky hole that sucks in water, although, as the team highlights, this has its own drawbacks.

“The easiest way to prevent children from being exposed to bath toy biofilms is to simply close the hole,” they conclude, “but where is the fun in that?”

Fossils Reveal an Ancient Climate Catastrophe, And We Need to Pay Attention

Scott Wing had spent more than a decade in the badlands of Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, most of it thirsty, sunburned, and down on his hands and knees, digging endlessly through the dirt.

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But he had never found anything like the fossil he now held in his hand – an exquisitely preserved leaf embossed on beige rock. Wing let out a jubilant laugh as he uncovered a second fossil and then a third. Each leaf was different from the others. Each was entirely new to him.

And then he started to cry.

This was exactly what he’d been searching for. When these strange fossils formed 56 million years ago, the planet was warming faster and more dramatically than at any point in its history – except the present.

Recounting the moment recently in his office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Wing recalled the uneasy reaction of the field assistant with whom he’d been hiking. The young man looked understandably nervous that his supervisor was shedding tears over a handful of rocks.

“I said, ‘You just have to realize, I’ve been looking for this … since you were a kid. I’m unreasonably happy right now, but I’m not crazy,'” Wing chuckled. “So, that was the first really good set of plant fossils from the PETM. It was definitely a moment that I won’t forget.”

scott wing at bighorn basinScott Wing at Bighorn Basin (Laura Soul/The Washington Post)

The PETM is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum – an ungainly name for the time that’s considered one of Earth’s best analogues to this era of modern, human-caused global warming. In a matter of a few thousand years, huge amounts of carbon were injected into the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise between 5 and 8 degrees Celsius.

The rapid climate change disrupted weather, transformed landscapes, acidified oceans and triggered extinctions. It took more than 150,000 years for the world to recover.

If history is allowed to repeat itself, the consequences for modern life could be similarly long-lasting – which is why Wing is so determined to understand this ancient climate catastrophe.

“To me, it doesn’t lead me to be fearful,” Wing said. “It leads me to feel responsible. It leads me to feel that we need to be more informed.”

The first major evidence for the PETM was uncovered in the early 1990s by scientists looking at the transition from the Paleocene, the epoch after the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the Eocene, when modern mammal orders first emerged.

There was something strange about the thin band of sediment that represented the boundary between these two epochs: its ratio of carbon isotopes – different forms of the same element – was skewed.

Further research revealed that something between 4 trillion and 7 trillion tons of carbon – the rough equivalent of the planet’s entire current reserve of fossil fuels – had flooded the atmosphere in this period. It came from the decomposed remains of ancient algae and plants, so it contained a larger amount of carbon-12 – the isotope that is preferred for photosynthesis.

This “spike” in carbon-12 served as a marker of the PETM and allowed researchers to start tracking the effects of this sudden climate shift in rocks and fossils around the world.

Chalk deposits at the bottom of the ocean began to dissolve as carbon dioxide made seawater more acidic. Fossils of tiny, deep sea-dwelling creatures showed evidence of an oxygen shortage – a sign that the water was getting warmer.

Everywhere in the ocean, creatures adapted to the changed environment, or else they died out.

On land, mammals got smaller and smaller. Ancient ancestors of horses, tiny to begin with, shrunk 30 percent to the size of house cats. Abigail Carroll, a paleoclimatologist at the University of New Hampshire, said this was probably an adaptation to the warmer weather: Smaller bodies are easier to keep cool.

Weather also got wilder. Geologists have uncovered huge rocks that were carried long distances by intense floods – something that happens when dry spells are followed by extreme rains.

And then there are the plants in Wing’s collection at the National Museum of Natural History. Before the PETM, fossils suggest, Wyoming looked more like Florida – a lush, subtropical forest shaded by stately sycamores, silvery birches and waving palm trees.

But as the world warmed, the Bighorn Basin transformed. The fossils Wing finds from this period belong to plants that typically grow in hot, arid places even farther south – spindly bean plants and relatives of poinsettia and sumac.

These plants must have migrated north when the weather changed, following their preferred environment to ever higher latitudes.

A swarm of ravenous herbivores apparently followed. Many of Wing’s fossils are perforated with bite marks left behind by insects more numerous and diverse than the ones that preceded them.

The source of all this mayhem remains uncertain. Some have suggested the flood of carbon that set off the PETM came from volcanic eruptions or even a comet impact.

But the most popular theory suggests that reservoirs of solid methane buried in seafloor sediments were released when the ocean’s temperature and chemistry changed. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, short-lived but harder-hitting than carbon dioxide.

Once it set global warming in motion, the rising temperatures may have triggered the release of even more methane and unlocked additional carbon sources – wildfires, shifting ocean currents, soil microbes that breathe out greenhouse gases – in a chain reaction that changed the planet.

To scientists today, many of the phenomena observed during the PETM will feel familiar – so familiar “it’s almost eerie,” Wing said.

Humans burning fossil fuels have produced the same kind of carbon isotope spike researchers find in 55-million-year-old rocks. The ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic and it’s losing oxygen – changes that are already triggering die-offs.

The world has witnessed dramatic weather extremes – deadly heat waves, severe storms, devastating droughts. In response to these shifts, plants and animals are showing up in new places at unusual times. There’s even evidence that some species, such as birds called red knots, are getting smaller as a result of the warmer climate.

Still, the past is an imperfect predictor of what might happen as the modern world continues to warm. For one thing, Earth on the eve of the PETM was already much hotter than it is today. With the poles unfrozen and the sea levels high, ancient creatures didn’t have to worry about the effects of melting ice, as we do today.

And the pace at which we are changing the climate outstrips anything in the geologic record. The carbon surge that set off the PETM unfolded over the course of as long as 5,000 years. At our current rate, humans will produce a comparable surge in a matter of a few centuries.

“In all the major ways it’s more perilous now than it would have been then,” Wing said.

But for scientists trying to predict our future peril, the PETM is an invaluable reference.

Jeff Kiehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, uses research by Wing and others to test models of the interplay between carbon and climate.

“We don’t have data for the future but we do have data from the past,” Kiehl said. “This is where Scott’s work … has played a critical role.”

Data from the PETM and other times of global warming can be used to answer the questions that haunt modern climate scientists: How much will the Earth warm if atmospheric carbon doubles? What will happen to the world’s water as a result? How long will it take for things to return to normal?

This week, Wing and his colleagues at the Smithsonian have gathered 17 experts for a symposium on ancient climate. Over the course of two days, they will try to reconstruct a timeline of Earth’s temperature and atmospheric carbon levels since complex life began roughly a half-billion years ago.

“Science has finally gotten us to a point where we have some idea of what the consequences are of the things that we do,” Wing said.

“Now the question is, can we use that knowledge in something that starts to approach a wise way?”

Light pollution is altering plant and animal behaviour

Light pollution can be problematic for animals like the Cory’s shearwater. Image credit – Airam Rodríguez (Estación Biológica de Doñana CSIC), licensed under CC BY 4.0

You could call it fatal attraction. Drawn by artificial lights in our brightening night-time world, animals find their lives in peril.

Fledgling birds disorientated by lights can collide with human structures on the ground and then get hit by cars, or become more vulnerable to predation, starvation or dehydration. Or newly hatched turtles may set out in the opposite direction to the sea, exposing themselves to similar dangers.

And our skies are getting brighter. A recent study found that our planet’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by about 2% each year between 2012 and 2016, while already lit areas brightened at the same rate.

‘Global growth in lighting at that kind of level is quite profound,’ said Kevin Gaston, a professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter, UK. ‘We know that lighting is getting steadily worse.’

Researchers say one big problem has been a lack of awareness about light pollution. That is growing, but in the meantime, certain factors are potentially heightening its impact.

For example, white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been swiftly replacing traditional outdoor lighting such as yellow sodium street lights because of their higher energy efficiency. But because they emit light across a broad part of the visible spectrum, LEDs can affect a wider range of photosensitive cells in different organisms.

‘The negative consequences of light pollution are as unknown by the population as those of smoking in the 80s.’

Professor Oscar Corcho, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain

In a project called ECOLIGHTS FOR SEABIRDS, which ran from 2014 to the end of 2016, researchers found that the threat to fledgling shearwaters of being grounded on Phillip Island in south-eastern Australia was higher from broader-spectra metal halide and LED lights than from sodium lights. This suggests that using certain types of lights in different areas could be used to limit the effects on these birds.


Separate studies on the Spanish island of Tenerife found that half of the Cory’s shearwater fledglings grounded around lights were within 3 kilometres of their nest sites and tended to be from inland colonies.

Dr Airam Rodríguez, a postdoctoral researcher at Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, who worked on the project, said that knowing such information makes it easier to do things such as arrange safe corridors between breeding colonies and the ocean.

Many effects of light pollution on such seabirds have been poorly understood before, because of factors such as their breeding in remote locations and the fact they need to be tracked at night. Advances in technology are helping though, with the team using miniature GPS trackers and nocturnal high-resolution satellite imagery to follow the birds’ routes.

Dr Rodríguez said his team is now using GPS to look in more detail at what happens to birds rescued after being grounded by lights during their first days out on the ocean. He would also like to look more into the physiology of their eyes to find out which wavelengths the birds are more sensitive to.

Another little-known facet has been how much artificial lighting affects whole communities of organisms rather than just individual species, but recent research shows the effects can be significant.

As part of a project called ECOLIGHT, which finished last year, researchers set up 54 outdoor experimental environments, known as mesocosms, at the University of Exeter. These took the form of mesh-covered containers that held different combinations of plants, invertebrates and types of lighting, or were unlit. From this, they discovered that lighting seemed to suppress the flowering of the trefoil Lotus pedunculatus, and, in turn, the pea aphid population that feeds on them.

The team found similar effects in an experiment with bean plants and aphids.

Container-based experiments at the University of Exeter showed that lighting seemed to suppress the flowering of pea and bean plants and affected the aphid population that feeds on them. Image credit - James Duffy

Container-based experiments at the University of Exeter showed that lighting seemed to suppress the flowering of pea and bean plants and affected the aphid population that feeds on them. Image credit – James Duffy


Prof. Gaston, who was principal investigator on ECOLIGHT and also used field experiments to investigate the impact of light pollution, said: ‘This leads to the conclusion that lighting is having pretty pervasive ecological impacts. The effects are exceedingly widespread and are shaping the way that communities are structured – which was something that people hadn’t observed before.’

He also pointed to other research showing that bud burst in trees can happen a week earlier in the brightest compared with the darkest areas. ‘When we’ve discovered these kinds of things for climate change and they’ve shifted by about a week, we’ve said that’s profoundly worrying,’ he said.

His team is now looking more into the impacts of different intensities and colours of lights to build a more detailed picture.

In addition, they are scouring through images of Earth photographed by astronauts on the International Space Station so they can map how the colours of lights are changing as cities introduce more white LEDs.

Prof. Gaston explained that satellites are effectively colour-blind to the shift to white light, so using the pictures that astronauts take is a good way to track this, with about half a million pictures taken at night between 2003 and 2015.

This work complements the Cities at Night project, a citizen science initiative that gets help from volunteers to classify, locate and georeference these pictures.

A composite image of the Earth at night shows changes in light intensity between 2012 and 2016 including, for example, rapid electrification in India. Image credit - NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

A composite image of the Earth at night shows changes in light intensity between 2012 and 2016 including, for example, rapid electrification in India. Image credit – NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Also involved in Cities at Night is the STARS4ALL project, coordinated by Oscar Corcho, a professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain, which acts as a platform to raise awareness of the issues involved in light pollution and inspire further research and better planning in lighting programmes. It seeks to engage people through methods such as games, broadcasting of astronomical events and a citizen-sensor network of low-cost photometers for people to measure light pollution in their area.

‘The negative consequences of light pollution are as unknown by the population as those of smoking in the (19)80s,’ said Prof. Corcho. ‘It’s still a very difficult problem to understand. Light pollution does not have the same immediate effects over animals as other forms of pollution.’


Prof. Corcho said that one of STARS4ALL’s main aims this year is to run a petition on its website to ask for more overarching regulation to avoid light pollution at an EU level. STARS4ALL will collect signatures from citizens and hopes to present the petition in Brussels by the end of the year.

He says the good news is that there are easy fixes. ‘There are good technology options. For instance, there are types of lamps that could be used that are both respectful to the environment in terms of light pollution and at the same time as energy-efficient as white LEDs.’ He cites PC amber LEDs, for example.

If we move to solve these issues, there might well be an added bonus for us all. ‘As an indirect result… our recommendations for public lighting may result in having more populated places where we can see more and more stars in our sky,’ said Prof. Corcho.

People Aren’t as Safe From Lead as Thought: Study

Long-term, low-level lead exposure may be linked with more than 256,000 premature deaths from heart disease in middle-aged and older Americans each year, according to a new study.

The researchers analyzed data from 14,300 people in the United States, covering nearly 20 years. All participants had a medical exam and a blood test for lead at the start of the study.

The findings revealed a link between low-level exposure and increased risk of premature death. Lead exposure has been associated with hardened arteries, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, according to the researchers.

“Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults currently aged 44 years old or over in the USA, whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began,” said study lead author Dr. Bruce Lanphear. He’s a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

Historical exposure occurs from lead present in the environment because of past use in fuel, paint and plumbing. There’s also ongoing exposure from foods, emissions from industrial sources and contamination from lead smelting sites and lead batteries, the researchers explained.

“Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations,” Lanphear said.

But efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure is still vital, he said.

“Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have ‘safe levels,'” Lanphear said. Rather, he said, it “suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the USA, particularly from cardiovascular disease.”

The findings were published online March 12 in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Stemming the risk requires a range of public health measures, Lanphear said in a journal news release, such as “abating older housing, phasing out lead-containing jet fuels, replacing lead-plumbing lines and reducing emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities.”

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, wrote an editorial published with the study.

“A recurrent theme in lead poisoning research has been the realization that lead has toxic effects on multiple organ systems at relatively low levels of exposure previously thought to be safe,” Landrigan wrote. “A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized.”

Lead Is Far Worse Than We Know

Story at-a-glance

  • Nearly 535,000 children have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health; 24 million homes still have lead-based paint and contaminated house dust; and nearly 5,300 water systems in the U.S. are in violation of lead and copper rules
  • Researchers analyzed 20 years of data from a nationally representative sample of over 14,000 people, finding a strong correlation between blood lead levels and cardiovascular disease and premature death
  • Adults and children experience negative health effects from lead exposure leading to neurological damage, endothelial dysfunction and cardiovascular disease
  • Reduce your exposure and monitor your health by having lead-based paint professionally eliminated, having your home water tested and your and your children’s blood lead levels measured

By Dr. Mercola

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1 nearly 535,000 children between 1 and 5 years of age, have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health; 24 million homes contain lead-based paint and elevated levels of contaminated house dust. Costs to the community for lead poisoning in children include up to $53 billion in additional health care costs, tax revenue losses up to $35 billion, special education costs up to $146 million and the direct cost of crime, estimated at $1.7 billion.2

According to the CDC, there is no known identified safe blood lead level for children or adults.3 Children exposed to lead have an increased risk of damage to their nervous system, brain and cognitive development, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems.

Although lead is a well-recognized neurotoxin, the U.S. has not paid close attention to exposure over the years. In fact, in 1923 the country introduced leaded gasoline, which triggered near unfathomable repercussions for the global community. Recent research published in the Lancet Public Health Journal found lead levels in adults are strongly correlated with a higher risk of death from cardiovascular complications.4

Study Demonstrates Lead Is a Serious Threat to Children and Adults

Researchers gathered 20 years of data using a nationally representative sample of over 14,000 adults enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1988 and 1994.5 Each of the participants underwent medical testing, including quantifying lead levels in their blood. After analyzing the data, researchers discovered a link between low-level exposure to lead and increased risk of premature death.6

In the past, lead exposure had been associated with high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis. Researchers point out historical exposure to lead is based on past use of lead-based gasoline, paint and plumbing. Ongoing exposure from food, industrial emissions and water toxicity may also affect blood lead levels in younger children. Lead author of the study, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, commented:7

“Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults currently aged 44 years old or over in the USA, whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began … Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations.”

Although scientists have known the toxic effects of lead exposure for centuries, the number of people affected by the cardiovascular effects were surprising, even to the researchers. In the initial 14,000 respondents, 4,400 had died by 2011. From this the researchers calculated approximately 18 percent of deaths could have been prevented by reducing blood lead concentrations to 1.0 micrograms per deciliter.

The researchers extrapolated from the data more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. every year could be linked lead exposure from all sources.8 Nearly 250,000 of those are the result of cardiovascular disease and 185,000 are related to coronary artery disease. These numbers are nearly 10 times greater than the current estimates of deaths related to lead in adults. Lanphear goes on to say:9

“Nobody had even tried to estimate the number of deaths caused by lead exposure using a nationally representative sample of adults. But if we’re underestimating the impact of lead exposure on cardiovascular disease mortality and other important outcomes beyond IQ, then it might have a big impact on the way we make investments in preventing lead poisoning exposure …

When you start looking at the risk across the entire range of people exposed, all of a sudden the number of affected people balloons. Mostly it’s a numbers thing — there are so many people in the low- to moderate-risk groups that, as long as there are some risks with low-level exposure, many more people are going to die or develop heart disease.”

Brain Cells and Blood Vessels

The scientists included deaths from multiple causes and not just those from heart disease. They found higher blood lead levels were tied to more than 410,000 deaths in the U.S. annually, which was 10 times more than was previously estimated and close to the 480,000 smokers who die every year.10 While smoking, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet are contributors to cardiovascular disease, environmental factors may also have an impact on increasing your risk of heart problems.11

Although the most recent study has identified an unexpected number of people affected by lead poisoning and cardiovascular changes, previous research has demonstrated the effect lead has on endothelial cells and in crossing the blood-brain barrier. The cellular effect of lead in the brain occurs as it disrupts the blood-brain barrier and triggers encephalopathy and edema, primarily in the cerebellum.12

Infants are at greatest risk for developing cognitive impairments, but adults are also at risk of lead intoxication with higher blood lead levels. Lead-induced hypertension and cardiovascular disease is the result of several disruptions to the endothelial system. Chronic lead exposure promotes oxidative stress and limits nitric oxide availability, which in turn reduces flexibility of the endothelial wall.

Each of the following factors raises the risk for hypertension, endothelial dysfunction, arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. As these changes also occur in the endothelium within the brain, they may possibly have an impact on cognition and risks for dementia in the elderly. Other research has demonstrated that lead:13,14

Generates superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, which in turn reacts with nitric oxide and produces peroxynitrites Stimulates vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation and phenotypic transformation
Disturbs vascular smooth muscle calcium signaling Modifies vascular response to vasoactive antagonists
Raises plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 production Suppresses proteoglycan production
Causes endothelial injury Impedes endothelial repair
Inhibits angiogenesis Promotes inflammation

Your Water Supply May Increase Your Risk of Contamination to Multiple Poisons

In a study gathering data from over 30 years, researchers found nearly 8 percent of Americans were drinking water that violates health standards.15 The study was the first to assess nationwide violations in drinking water quality, looking at violations in 17,900 community water systems. In any given year from 1982 to 2015, when data was collected, between 9 and 45 million people were affected.

More than 600,000 observations were made over the life of the study and were more likely to occur in low-income areas using public-owned water systems. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates water quality, but each state has different reporting mandates. Erik Olson, health program director at Natural Resources Defense Council, which analyzed the EPA’s data for its report, characterized the effect of the report:16

“Imagine a cop sitting, watching people run stop signs, and speed at 90 miles per hour in small communities and still doing absolutely nothing about it — knowing the people who are violating the law. And doing nothing. That’s unfortunately what we have now.”

According to the report, more than 5,300 water systems are in violation of lead and copper rules, yet states took action on only 817 cases and the EPA took action in just 88 cases.17 Even worse, the report revealed the EPA was aware many municipalities used loopholes to avoid detecting high lead levels, which means many more communities may be exposing their residents to potentially dangerous levels of lead.

Following an effort to save money, in August 2015, Virginia Tech scientists discovered Flint, Michigan’s, tap water was contaminated with lead at dangerously high levels. One woman reported her water tested 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, nearly seven times greater than the EPA’s limit of 15 ppb.18

Between 2014 and 2015, 87 people in Genesee County, Michigan, where Flint is located, contracted Legionnaires’ and 10 died. It was considered one of the worst outbreaks of Legionnaires’ in U.S. history.19 According to the county health director Jim Henry, state officials had blocked the CDC from investigating the outbreak.

Henry suspected Flint River water right from the start, but CDC protocols require an invitation from state officials. County officials requested help from the CDC, but they never showed up because state officials never issued the prerequisite invitation. Such extreme problems with water quality are not exclusive to Flint, as the EPA has not made their water testing and treatment standards into enforceable regulations.

This has left cities and states to police themselves. Yanna Lambrinidou, assistant professor in the science and technology studies department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who advised the EPA on changes to federal water standards, commented on the possibility of another emergency, such as Flint, Michigan:20 “Do I expect more Flints to happen? I think it’s very, very possible. I worry tremendously about water in other cities.”

Leaded Gasoline Poisoned the Public

In this short video you’ll discover the history of how lead came to be added to gasoline, despite being one of the best known poisons from as early as 2,000 years ago until occupational poisonings occurred during the industrial revolution. For nearly 80 years, lead was used in gasoline, polluting the air children and adults breathed.

Although other less toxic solutions to an engine knock problem were available, lead was chosen as an additive to gasoline since it was the most profitable, and allowed the oil industry to control both the product and their profits. The push to remove lead from gasoline began with the work of the late Clair Patterson, Ph.D, a former geochemist for the California Institute of Technology.

He worked on the Manhattan Project, but is best known for his pioneering work in 1963 to establish the age of the Earth as 4.5 billion years old. He accomplished this by analyzing certain isotopes of lead. However, he struggled with conflicting results in his research until he realized the problem was caused by environmental lead pollution. It wasn’t until he analyzed an ancient pristine ice core sample taken from Greenland that he found the source of the problem.

He was able to determine ice layers corresponding to specific eras in time, such as the Roman era, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of leaded gasoline in the mid-1920s. In the core sample beginning in the 1920s he noted a major spike in lead concentrations. He was the first who fully appreciated lead gasoline had polluted every last corner of the globe. As a result, people worldwide were exposed to lead pollution with very serious health consequences.

Despite massive efforts to discredit him, Patterson pursued the elimination of lead from gasoline. The first hurdle was cleared in 1975 when the U.S. mandated the use of unleaded gasoline to protect catalytic converters. However, it was another 11 years before his persistence caused the complete removal of lead from all gasoline in the U.S As a result, blood lead levels in Americans dropped by nearly 80 percent by the late 1990s.

Strategies to Avoid Lead Exposure

Lead in the blood is typically measured using micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or ppb. In the past, the CDC used levels of 40 mcg/dL as acceptable concentrations.21 This was reduced to 10 mcg/dL in the early 1990s, and then 5 mcg/dL in the mid 2010s. However, despite creating thresholds, the CDC cautions no safe level of lead has ever been identified.22 Lanphear commented on the necessity to remove lead contamination completely, saying:23

“Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have ‘safe levels.’ [Rather it] suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the USA, particularly from cardiovascular disease.”

The issue of preventing lead poisoning is a pressing matter, whether you have young children in your home or not. Adults are also adversely affected by lead contamination, including neurological dysfunction and cardiovascular damage. Harvard Medical School offers the following suggestions to protect yourself and your family against lead exposure:24

  • Was your home built before 1978? If so, get it inspected to determine whether it has any lead paint
  • Lead paint removal should be done by a certified professional to ensure safety. The dust is highly toxic. For more information on this, see the EPA’s “Lead-Based Paint Activities Professionals” page25
  • Get your water tested for lead
  • Be mindful of the fact certain household objects may also contain lead. For information about lead-containing products and recalls, see the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s website26
  • Get your child and yourself tested for lead. Ideally, all children should be tested at ages 1 and 2, and again at ages 3 and 4 if you live in an older home. It’s also recommended to test your child’s level whenever there’s concern about exposure. A level of 5 mcg/dL or higher is considered dangerous

The fast-melting Arctic is already messing with the ocean’s circulation, scientists say


Between the Labrador and Irminger Seas: the southern tip of Greenland, photographed during a GEOMAR survey in 2016.

Scientists studying a remote and icy stretch of the North Atlantic have found new evidence that fresh water, likely melted from Greenland or Arctic sea ice, may already be altering a key process that helps drives the global circulation of the oceans.

In chilly waters on either side of Greenland, the ocean circulation “overturns,” as surface waters traveling northward become colder and more dense and eventually sink, traveling back southward toward Antarctica at extreme depths. This key sinking process is called convection. But too much fresh water at the surface could interfere with it, because with less salt, the water loses density and does not sink as easily.

In the new research, Marilena Oltmanns and two colleagues at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, found that following particularly warm summers in the remote Irminger Sea, convection tended to be more impaired in winter. In some cases, a layer of meltwater stayed atop the ocean into the next year, rather than vanishing into its depths as part of the overturning circulation, which has sometimes been likened to an ocean “conveyor belt.”

“Until now, models have predicted something for the future … but it was something that seemed very distant,” said Oltmanns, the lead scientist behind the research, which was published this week in Nature Climate Change.

“But now we saw with these observations that there is actually freshwater and that it is already affecting convection, and it delays convection quite a lot in some years,” she continued.

One caution is that this is an observational study, not a prediction for the future — and Oltmanns said “nobody really knows” how much freshwater is enough to significantly slow or shut down the circulation, which is technically called the “Atlantic meridional overturning circulation,” or AMOC. Still, it suggests that key processes that have raised long-standing concern are already happening.

To collect the data, Oltmanns and her team ventured by ship out into the Irminger Sea to the southeast of Greenland. There, they read data from ocean moorings that take measurements of the character of the waters in key regions of ocean convection. The researchers now have a 13-year record to draw upon from this area.

In winter, cold air chills the northward-flowing surface water in this region enough to cause it to become denser and sink. But meltwater interferes with and delays this process because, lacking salinity, it is less dense and less prone to sink.

In the high meltwater years, the ocean is also just warmer overall, the study found. That also delays the onset of convection, because it is harder for the ocean surface layer to lose enough heat to sink, Oltmanns said.

Either way, these processes create a situation in which meltwater may not sink entirely below the surface — instead, it can linger. This then creates the possibility that, lasting through the winter, it could join with even more meltwater the following summer.

The study found that in one year, 2010, 40 percent of fresh meltwater managed to linger in the Irminger Sea over winter and into the next year.

“It means that if there is less time for convection, there is less time to remove the freshwater from the upper layer,” Oltmanns said. “And in spring, the new freshwater comes. And it is possible that there is a threshold, that if there is a lot of freshwater that stays at the surface, and mixes with the new freshwater from the new summer, it suddenly doubles, or increases a lot, and the next winter, it’s a lot more difficult to break through.”

Again, it’s important to underscore that there are no predictions in this study about when these processes would reach such a threshold or cause a major switch to a new regime. Climate change simulations have generally found that while global warming should indeed weaken the Atlantic overturning circulation, that should play out gradually — but scientists acknowledge that these simulations are not necessarily complete.

That’s why data gathering, as in the current study, also matters a great deal.

“As we explore the crucial impact of freshwater discharge from Greenland and other venues on the ocean circulation, this paper represents an important piece in the puzzle,” said Marco Tedesco, a Greenland expert at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, who was not involved in the study.

The research highlights the growing attention being paid to the crucial ocean circulation in question, which is responsible for bringing warm ocean water northward and, therefore, warming higher latitudes and Europe, in particular. It has long been considered a potential weak spot in the climate system because of the possibility that a change here could trigger dramatic changes in a short time.

Scientists have reported the circulation is in a weakened state and has been since 2008. The reduction in strength has been by about 15 percent, David Smeed, a scientist who studies the strength of the circulation at Britain’s National Oceanography Center in Southampton, told The Washington Post this year.

But what’s behind changes this region is less clear, with some scientists saying that we’re already seeing the role of climate change, others saying that what’s going on in the North Atlantic is mainly the reflection of a cyclical phenomenon affecting the oceans and atmosphere — and many suggesting it’s a combination.

“These decadal variations are likely superimposed on a longer declining trend related to increasing greenhouse gases,” said Tom Delworth, an expert on the North Atlantic with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an email to The Post this year. “However, in terms of explaining AMOC behavior over the coming decades, the relative role of increasing greenhouse gases may well increase relative to natural variability.”

That sounds pretty gradual — but the new study is saying the change doesn’t necessarily have to be.

“There might be a threshold that is crossed, and it’s harder to get back to where we were before,” Oltmanns said. “It’s possible.”

China’s Own Rust Belt Faces Economic Decline

Why you should care

Because America’s Midwest isn’t the only struggling Rust Belt.

Echo Zhang has long given up on moving back to her hometown in northeast China to be closer to her aging parents. There simply aren’t any jobs.

“In Beijing I see new technologies changing the city continuously,” the 39-year-old engineer says. “But when I go back to Jilin, it’s like stepping back in time — it’s developed so slowly.”

Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, the three provinces of northeast China, were once the pride of the country’s planned industrial economy. But they have been among the worst hit by the scaling back of traditional heavy industries such as coal and steel and by the long-term decline in its state-owned enterprises. The northeast’s contribution to the gross domestic product almost halved to 7 percent in 2016, from 13 percent in 1980.

[The battle over the future of the northeast] is a proxy debate for the choices facing China, between market-orientated reforms or state-driven industrial policy.

Andrew Batson, China research director, Gavekal Dragonomics

As China’s economic growth slows, economists warn that bad loans and loss-making “zombie” companies are concentrated in trouble spots such as the northeast. One of its three provinces, Liaoning, last year suffered the first official recession in China since 2009, shrinking by 2.5 percent.

“The northeast’s decline is a major risk to the Communist Party’s goal to deliver a moderately prosperous society,” says Kathryn Rand, a former political officer at the British Embassy in Beijing. “This is a particular concern given the northeast’s geopolitical importance bordering North Korea and Russia, where economic and social stability is seen as essential to maintaining the status quo.”

Beijing has sought to revitalize the region by subsidizing the state-owned agricultural, steel and petroleum enterprises that dominate the northeastern economy, but this strategy has come under fire from some of the country’s most prominent economists.

“A strategy that expands the output of enterprises that are not viable is a strategy that goes against comparative advantage,” Justin Yifu Lin, a former World Bank chief economist, wrote last year.

He proposed a switch in state support to sectors in which the region enjoys advantages over the rest of the country, such as labor-intensive light industry, which would benefit from the region’s relatively cheap wages, and tourism. Hu Shuli, founder of business magazine Caixin, responded that the region should “shed its big-government mindset” and allow private business to flourish.

Andrew Batson, China research director at the Gavekal Dragonomics consultancy, says the battle over the future of the northeast “is a proxy debate for the choices facing China, between market-orientated reforms or state-driven industrial policy.” Government pledges to allow the private market to flourish are at odds with continued state subsidies for government enterprises, and locals are increasingly vocal about the failure of local officials to enact market-driven policies.

While three-quarters of Chinese graduates chose to work in their home regions last year, according to the Beijing-based consultancy Mycos, the figure was less than half in the northeast. About 1.8 million are estimated to have left the northeast in the past decade.

“I have no hope for a ‘northeastern revival,’” says Hao Xuesong, a property developer, back in Jilin city for a school reunion. His pessimism is shared by former classmates, who say the northeast’s sluggishness is the result of its officials being too “left” — bureaucratic, rigid and wedded to the old ideal of the planned economy. The bureaucracy is also riddled with corruption, according to a former Liaoning civil servant who now works for a multinational company in Shanghai. She says she left “because I couldn’t find a suitable job” in the civil service.

“I think the problem is not that getting a promotion is difficult; the problem is it’s not transparent,” she says. “I don’t have the social connections to secure a job in state-owned banks or even local commercial banks. Private companies in Liaoning are less well paid.”

The northeast has also struggled to attract investors. It was the only region in China in which private fixed-asset investment fell from 2016–2017. Ma Jiantang of the Chinese Academy of Governance told a recent government conference that many entrepreneurs believed “investment should not cross the Shanhai Pass,” a section of the Great Wall of China that divides the northeast from the rest of the country.

Zhang Lihua, director of tech company Changchun Boli, also acknowledges that the northeast is at a competitive disadvantage. “There’s a good foundation for growth here, if we can make reforms. But the southern provinces compete aggressively for talent and companies, and the northeast is some way behind.”

Lu Xiaomeng, assistant professor at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance at Jiao Tong University, who grew up in the northeastern city of Harbin, is confident private investment will slowly rise. But this can happen only if the power of the state-owned enterprises is curbed. “The problem of SOEs’ influence is a nationwide issue,” she adds. “It’s just that SOEs dominate the northeastern economy. My hope is the private sector can thrive.”

5 Photos That Show Just How Much The EPA Website Has Censored Climate Change

Last year, on January 19th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began removing key references to climate change from its website. Now, over a year later, the information is still conspicuously missing.

Thankfully, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) has carefully documented the overhaul and removal of all government documents, webpages and websites regarding climate change – not to mention significant language changes to the information that still exists.

While several other agencies, like the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of State, have also removed or significantly reduced climate web content, under administrator and climate denier Scott Pruitt, the EPA has removed the most.

The most drastic changes at the EPA came one day before the People’s Climate March, when the agency made substantial alterations to its climate change website.

Now, when you try to access the EPA climate change web page, it merely reads “This page is being updated.” Plus, the climate change tab is now entirely removed from the EPA homepage.

Before 1Screenshots and red underlines in the sections are by TIME.

According to a statement from the agency, these changes are being made to the website to better “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt.”

After the overhaul, the agency provided archived screenshots of the older pages in order to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. However, some pages which were entirely removed, like the “Student’s Global Guide to Climate Change”, were not included in EPA archives.

Screen Shot 2018 03 05 at 1.31.35 pm

“The EPA’s notice that an overhaul was in progress did represent some degree of transparency, yet it failed to note which domains and pages were being removed or altered,” reads the EDGI report.

“Moreover, it was posted the same day that the overhaul began, preventing stakeholders from being able to download and archive valuable pages and information.”

One of the many websites removed last year was the “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments” website, which contained 380 pages of information.

About three months after this website was removed, a new website titled “Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments” was launched. On the new page, over 200 pages of information were omitted, including references to and descriptions of climate and change change.

Screen Shot 2018 03 05 at 1.33.23 pm

While many of the links contained within the climate change subdomain still exist, they are notoriously difficult to find, buried within pages and pages of government material. Meanwhile, other pages have simply been deleted.

For instance, if you search the term “climate change” on, it produce around 5,000 results. In the past, a similar search would have produced closer to 12,000 results.

Apart from burying and deleting information, the agency has also drastically changed the information available. For instance, a map that detail the regional affects of climate change has now been replaced with a far less-detailed version.

Of the 56 states and territories on the new EPA map, only 19 bother to mention climate change, and out of 19 links, only 8 are functional.


Still, many American states and cities are not letting the federal government get away with such censorship.

Concerned by the lost climate information, for instance, Chicago has copied old EPA web pages over to the city’s own website.

A banner on the site states that “while this information may not be readily available on the EPA’s website, in Chicago we know climate change is real. We are joining cities around the country to make sure citizens have access to information on climate change.”

Alongside Chicago, 14 states and territories have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, which represents a pledge to uphold the Paris accord and reduce emissions, and 382 cities have joined the Climate Mayors, promising similar sustainable practices.

“Censoring scientific data doesn’t make its threats any less real, it hides the problem from the American people so the Trump administration can wage a dangerous assault on public health safeguards that protect all Americans,” Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator under President Obama told TIME.

“It is beyond comprehension that they would ever purposely limit and remove access to information that communities need to save lives and property.”

Are Tomorrow’s Fuel Cells Made of Paper? This Engineer Thinks So

Because his fuel cells are cheaper, easier and cleaner than conventional batteries.

Where others might look at substances like urine, blood and sweat and cringe, Juan Pablo Esquivel sees untapped sources of energy. Not for powering large engines but rather to produce small amounts of electricity that could play a vital role in the burgeoning telemedicine market. Today Esquivel, a 35-year-old electronics engineer, is developing miniature paper-based fuel cells at the National Centre of Microelectronics (CNM) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (AUB), with an eye toward using them to power disposable diagnostic devices.

As we stroll the corridors of CNM, Esquivel explains the difference between typical lithium or alkaline batteries and what he’s developing: Unlike what you might use in a flashlight or computer keyboard, fuel cells require a supply of energy from an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity. This type of power source has been tested to generate energy for cars and mobile phones, but Esquivel, who started his career at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in his native Mexico, is among the first to do this work on a micro scale.

A lithium battery, a fuelium battery and a power pad photo pablo esparza

A lithium battery, a Fuelium battery and a power pad.

Not only does his approach open up the range of possible uses for these tiny fuel cells, but it also sidesteps the environmental impact from regular batteries. “We develop small, nontoxic, inexpensive fuel cells and batteries that don’t need to be recycled and could be thrown away with no ecological impact,” he explains with a Mexican accent laced with Iberian Spanish expressions.

Born in Guadalajara, Esquivel moved to Barcelona in 2005, having fallen in love with the city while doing a college backpack tour through Europe. When it was time to apply to Ph.D. programs, he was intrigued by the work being done at CNM, among the most advanced labs of its kind in Southern Europe. It proved to be the right fit: In 2013, he was named by MIT to the list of the 10 most innovative Mexican researchers under 35.

“Esquivel is like Cristiano Ronaldo, and, like Ronaldo, he’s playing for an excellent team. That’s why he gets results,” jokes Antonio Martínez, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

They stopped focusing on hydrogen, methanol and ethanol as the only energy sources for fuel cells and started looking at bodily fluids.

The Mexican researcher confesses that he’s long been obsessed with “making things cheaper, simpler and easier.” Once his team had developed the paper-based batteries, they wanted to find a universal, everyday use for them. So Esquivel and Neus Sabaté, his thesis adviser and “scientific soul mate,” shelved their academic journals and turned instead to considering what people and the market needed.

They focused on portable, disposable diagnostic tests, such as for pregnancy, glucose and infectious diseases, that use small amounts of energy. Those devices, they noticed, rely on lithium button batteries to supply the energy necessary to analyze the samples and to display the results. But, in contrast to watches or remote controls, single-use diagnosis tests get discarded after having used less than 1 percent of their batteries’ charge — an “ecological aberration,” in Esquivel’s words.

Juan pablo esquivel holding a paper based battery photo pablo esparza (1)

Juan Pablo Esquivel holding a paper-based battery, an eco-friendly power source for single-use applications.

That was the moment that Esquivel and his colleagues connected the dots: “What if we used the samples [of saliva or blood] to feed a small fuel cell that would generate the electricity needed for the analysis and to display the results?” They stopped focusing on hydrogen, methanol and ethanol as the only energy sources for fuel cells and started looking at bodily fluids as materials capable of triggering an electrochemical reaction — and generating electricity.

Digging further, they reached two important conclusions: First, they could build their power sources using paper as the base material to transport the fluids by capillary action; and second, these power sources could be integrated, thanks to printed electronics technology, with other electronic components such as sensors and display screens to produce self-powered devices.

In 2015, with patent in hand, Esquivel, Sabaté and Sergi Gassó — who joined as a business partner — founded Fuelium, with seed money from their personal savings, funding from the Repsol Foundation startup accelerator program and grants from the Spanish government and the European Commission. The company aims to translate the outcome from their lab work for the portable diagnostic tests market, a sector Esquivel values at $1.8 billion. While he sees a clear path to market for Fuelium, he acknowledges that breaking in will be a heavy lift: Getting out of the lab is “a big challenge for a quite disruptive technology like ours,” he says. Two years since launch, Fuelium has grown to a staff of five and signed its first contract.

Emmanuel Delamarche, manager of precision diagnostics at IBM Research in Zurich, agrees that portable devices have become a “very hot area,” both in scientific and economic terms, with a trending away from remote, centralized labs and toward portable diagnostic tools that deliver faster results. “Eighty percent of the world’s population needs this kind of technology because they don’t live next to a clinical lab,” Delamarche explains.

Sabaté, who has worked with Esquivel for 12 years, is impressed by her partner’s creative mind and willingness to experiment. “He never says no to an idea,” she says, “no matter how crazy it is.”

Crazy or not, Esquivel is already working on a new idea: developing what he calls the “power pad,” which he hopes will lead to the first fully biodegradable paper-based battery. It’s an ambitious play for a “tiny, sustainable and clean” source of energy, he admits — but it’s a project, he adds with a smile, that lets him “have fun on the way.”

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