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Observing the Environment Degrades It: Antarctic Research Stations and Persistent Organic...


I spent the day off leafing electronically through some back issues of one of my favorite journals, Environmental Science and Technology and came across an interesting paper that caught my eye concerning leaching of certain halogenated persistent organic pollutants from the McMurdo and Scott Research Stations in Antarctica.

A link to the article is here:

An Antarctic Research Station as a Source of Brominated and Perfluorinated Persistent Organic Pollutants to the Local Environment (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (1), pp 103–112)

A great deal has been written in the scientific literature in recent years about these classes of compounds, and no blog post could do the subject any justice, but the paper gives a nice brief overview of the issues for anyone unfamiliar with the risks these now ubiquitously distributed compounds entail. Quoting from the text:

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are typically anthropogenic chemicals and ubiquitous global contaminants. They share properties of persistence, toxicity, bioaccumulation potential and propensity for long-range environmental transport (LRET).1−3 As such, POPs are recognized as posing a threat to environmental and human health and are subject to the Stockholm Convention on POPs that aims to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, these compounds from the environment...

...Human activity in Polar regions, particularly the Antarctic, is undergoing rapid changes and is dramatically increasing.6,7 Easier access to both North and South Polar regions has resulted in enhanced research activity, as well as increasing tourism and marine resource exploration and extraction. Most Antarctic research bases are located in ice-free areas close to the coastline.8 These areas are also of great ecological significance. Because of this, and the fact that background POPs levels are generally relatively low, any consequent local contamination can have a disproportionately large effect on biota. Research bases have already been shown to be sources of PAHs and heavy metals along with Legacy POPs, such as PCBs.9−12...

...Alongside the increasing scale of human activity in Polar regions, the list of industrial and consumer chemicals that satisfy the classification criteria of a POP continues to grow. These factors result in an increased potential for POPs to be directly introduced to the local environment as fresh emissions from consumer products, including electronic equipment, textiles and furnishings, many of which contain POPs recently annexed under the Stockholm Convention. For example perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and its salts together with perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride have been added to Annex B (Restriction) and the penta- and octa-commercial mixtures of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) to Annex A (Elimination).

These fluorinated and brominated compounds have different physicochemical properties and hence different industrial and commercial uses. Perfluoroalkyl acids for example are generally manufactured as their salts15 such as perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) that are amphiphilic with low volatility. Such compounds have been extensively used as waterproofing or wetting agents, in many nonstick or polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon) containing products as well as in fire-fighting foam.15 They may also be formed in situ from degradation of volatile precursors such as fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs).16 FTOHs are used extensively as intermediates in the manufacture of poly- and perfluoroalkylated substances (PFASs), have been identified
as residual compounds in consumer products such as stain repellents and other surfactants, and are known to have their own detrimental environmental and health effects.17,18 PBDEs on the other hand are hydrophobic and commonly found in fire retardant mixtures as well as building materials, electronics and textiles.19

The potential for PBDEs to be released from remote polar research stations, due to the relatively high density of electronic equipment and increased fire prevention concerns at these locations, has been recognized.20 PBDEs21−24 and PFASs such as PFOS25,26 may be released from consumer products as these products wear and degrade. Their contrasting physicochemical properties will influence subsequent distribution. As they are persistent they can accumulate in organisms with detrimental effects, including hepato-, immune-, and ontogenetic toxicity.

Dusts within the research station, as well as surrounding soil and some organisms such as lichen, as well as wastewater discharged from the stations, were analyzed via LC/MS/MS for representative species in these classes of compounds, and the results were quite disturbing. The lower limits of quantitation (LLOQ's) for these compounds was relatively modest given the capabilities of modern mass spectrometers, the low nanogram per gram range - modern instrumentation can detect picograms per gram of many compounds of physiological import in various matrices - but in almost every case not much sensitivity was required. At McMudro, indoor dust was found to have 9,560 ng/g as a sum of the various polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants.

This concentration is almost 4 orders of magnitude found in the hair of Chinese electronic waste recycling workers (See Science of The Total Environment Volume 397, Issues 1–3, 1 July 2008, Pages 46–57) where the distribution of these compounds is of high concern and thought to be carcinogenic, as well as neurotoxic.

This is, um, disturbing.

(For a description of possible mechanisms by which PDBE's act as carcinogens, toxins, and mutagens, see New Evidence for Toxicity of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers: DNA Adduct Formation from Quinone Metabolites (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011, 45, 10720–10727))

Graphs in the original paper cited here show the gradients in soil sample concentrations of these compounds with increasing distance from the research stations.

The main sink - a very slow sink - for these compound classes is in fact, radiation, typically UV radiation or higher energy radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays. For the deliberate destruction of these molecules with lower energy ionizing radiation, UV, often catalytic amounts of titanium dioxide either pure or doped are employed, but this catalyst is undoubtedly not distributed over the antarctic surface.

Because of the still prevalent ozone hole in Antarctica - 2011 was an unprecedented year (See Nature 478, 469–475 (27 October 2011)) - we may expect a slightly higher rate of degradation, although the most prominent PBDE is PBDE-209, which during its degradation can form any of the other, potentially even more toxic PBDE's as degradants. This is small comfort.

It is notable that the stations in Antarctica are sources of many other questionable organic compounds, notably PCHs, polycyclic hydrocarbons, from leaks of dangerous fossil fuels transported to the stations.

One of the most famous laws in science, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a statement overall that attempts to view the state of something, in the case of the principle sub-atomic particles like electrons, changes it. This law surprisingly has a macroscopic correlation in environmental science.

Almost all rote objections addressed to nuclear energy rely on logical fallacies.

Anti-nukes on this website, with nearly 100%, as may be expected, being very bad thinkers use one particular fallacy a lot:

It's called ad hominem and any fool could google his or her way to thousands of websites describing this.

Here's a graphic from one of the 660,000 hits one gets for "logical fallacies," since I have noticed that many stupid people can only respond to graphics:

The Eleven Most Irritating Logical Fallacies

If I say that Ted Kaczynski "believes" in global warming - as if the verifiable fact of global warming is a "belief" - I have not proved that global warming is not occurring.

Support for nuclear power is found throughout the primary scientific literature in many places in peer reviewed articles with high impact factors. The one I cite most often Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895).

Neither of the authors are well known as right wing nut cases.

The point of the paper, which I also make often, and which is in my view irrefutable, is that we now understand that the deaths from air pollution number in the millions per year, as recently reported in the highest impact scientific journal in the world, Nature in the following paper: The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale (Nature 525, 367–371 (17 September 2015)). Since nuclear energy reduces by huge orders of magnitude the onus of this deadly air pollution, which kills every decade more people than died in World War II from all war related causes, nuclear energy saves lives.

One does not have to show support for Donald Trump in order to enter the nuclear engineering program at MIT or at UC Berkeley or Georgia Tech. One does, however, need to be an excellent student in high school and score well on high stakes exams. One needs, in order to complete a degree, to pass a rigorous program involving high level mathematics, physics, materials science and engineering course. For example here is the undergraduate requirements for an undergraduate degree from MIT in any of a number of nuclear engineering program: MIT Nuclear Engineering Undergraduate Degree Options

Nowhere in the curriculum for these degress, available only to highest levels of successful students emerging from high schools around the world, is there listed any courses in "right wing politics."

In my opinion having seen the quality of anti-nukes on this website, I doubt that there is one person among them who could pass any of the courses in the Freshman year.

Now, if I assert that 100% of the anti-nukes I have had the misfortune of confronting on this web site are ignorant, scientifically illiterate, poor thinkers, one may argue that I am engaging in an ad hominem attack. However if I point to elements of their thinking (see the Ted Kaczynski billboard above) and refute their terrible, disastrous, and frankly (since nuclear energy saves lives) deadly thinking by appeals to supportable arguments, I claim that the argument is not, in fact, ad hominem. It is merely a reasoned assertion.

Enjoy the remainder of the long holiday weekend, should one have a good enough job to have such a weekend, and not be working at say, Walmart, where even your holiday pay - if there is holiday pay - will not allow you to dream of a stupid and toxic electric car for billionaires and millionaires powered by solar cells on obscene McMansions.

Nature: China's annual air pollution deaths now stand at 1.4 million per year.

The graphic above comes from a paper in a relatively recent issue of Nature.

Nature 525, 367–371 (17 September 2015)

Some text from the paper:

Air pollution is associated with many health impacts, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) linked to enhanced ozone (O3), and acute lower respiratory illness (ALRI), cerebrovascular disease (CEV), ischaemic heart disease (IHD), COPD and lung cancer (LC) linked to PM2.5 (ref. 8). Many previous studies have been based on air quality measurements, largely focusing on urban pollution3,4,11–14. Atmospheric chemistry and transport models have been used to account for other environments, including those for which no measurement data are available15–22.

Recently, enhanced resolution regional and global models and satellite data have been applied to improve estimates of PM2.5 and O3 concentrations and their impact on air quality19–24. Here we present results obtained with an atmospheric chemistry–general circulation model, applied at high resolution to compute global air quality changes, combined with population data, country-level health statistics and pollution exposure response functions (Methods). Our calculations of air pollution related mortality are based on the method of the global burden of disease (GBD) for 2010 (ref. 5), applying improved exposure response functions that more realistically account for health effects at very high PM2.5 concentrations compared to former assessments8...

Some more details:

...We have calculated premature mortality linked to CEV, COPD, IHD and LC for adults $30 years old, and ALRI for infants ,5 years old (Table 1 and Extended Data Tables 1 and 2). Our estimate of the global PM2.5 related mortality in 2010 is 3.15 million people with a 95% confidence interval (CI95) of 1.52–4.60 million. The main causes are CEV (1.31 million) and IHD (1.08 million), and secondary causes are COPD (374 thousand), ALRI (230 thousand) and LC (161 thousand). Our global estimate of O3 related mortality by COPD is 142 (CI95: 90–208) thousand. Our total estimate of 3.30 (CI95: 1.61–4.81) million people in 2010 agrees closely with the GBD5 . This is in addition to the estimated 3.54 million deaths per year caused by indoor air pollution due to use of solid fuels for cooking and heating5. Figure 1 shows the geographic distribution and demonstrates the locations of hotspots in China, India and many of the large urban centres.

Considering the global population of 6.8 billion in 2010, it follows that the mean per capita mortality attributable to air pollution is about 5 per 10,000 person-years. Of these 5 persons per 10,000 worldwide, about 2 die by CEV, 1.6 by IHD, 0.8 by COPD, 0.35 byALRI and 0.25 by LC. The highest per capita mortality is found in the Western Pacific region, followed by the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. The combination of high per capita mortality with high population density explains the (by far) highest number of deaths in the Western Pacific, China being the main contributor (1.36 million per year)....

Of course, not one of these millions of deaths, including the deaths from lung cancer are nearly as interesting as the case of cancer recently reported in one of the Fukushima workers. This is similar to the fact that everybody talks about the reactors, but no one is interested in the 25,000 people who died in the same event from drowning in buildings and things like that. Every cancer death from any nuclear cause is worth tens of millions of deaths, because, well, we don't like nuclear energy, even though in more than half a century of nuclear operations, all of the nuclear events combined, including Hiroshima and Nakasaki will not have killed as many people as will die in the next three months from air pollution.

There are many of us in this party who are content to live (or die) with this situation while we wait, like D'Estragnon waiting for Godot, for the grand solar and wind future, even though more than half a century of jawboning about this grand future hasn't resulted in solar and wind combined producing 5 of the 560 exajoules of energy consumed each year.

It seems that we are incapable of making simple comparisons.

We should be ashamed of ourselves. Really. We deserve what we are going to get.

Have a nice weekend.

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps. (Self-Portrait)

Kehinde Wiley (1977- ), American, 2005

At the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

My cousin was a Jehovah's Witness.

She used to drop off "The Watchtower" here and there, year after year while I was growing up.

She used to call me "baby" even after I was a full grown man, because she was much older than I am, and remembered me being born and to her, I was always "the baby."

She was a beautiful woman, filled with kindness and grace, who never asked for anything from anyone, but never stopped trying to help other people. She was with me when my mother died, and I swear she kept me from going crazy, or getting arrested, or worse.

I loved her very much, my cousin.

She got cancer some years back, and died, and to be perfectly honest, if she could hand me a copy of the Watchtower once more, my heart would burst with love.

I cannot say much about her faith, except that she lived it, unlike a lot of other people I know who want to tell me about their version of God, she lived the parts of Christianity that are about service, and help, tolerance and forgiveness.

I may not be a Christian, but I miss her very much.

Elevate Me Mama.

1993, Ken Tighe, American, (b. 1959) Oil on Canvas.

Homage to Neil Welliver, 2014

2014, Mel Leipzig, (American, b. 1935, Trenton, NJ).

At the Gallery Henoch

The Rock

1944-1948, Peter Blume, (American 1906-1992, b. Modern day Belarus)

At the Art Institute of Chicago, currently on exhibit in a Blume retrospective at the Philadelphia Academy of Art Museum until April 2015.

Eternal City

1937 Peter Blume (1906-1992), American (b. Modern day Belarus)

Museum of Modern Art, New York, (Currently on display - until April 2015 - at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA)

Lament for Icarus

1898, Herbert James Draper, English, (1863-1920), Oil on Canvas

At the Tate Modern Gallery, London
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