As the panic of the Flint water crisis within the media subsides, other communities are starting to come forward to expose their own water crises. As a country, we are starting to understand that this was not an isolated incident. The products and chemicals that we wash down our drains don’t just disappear, and their accumulation is starting to catch up with us.
According to NPR reporter Hansi Lo Wang, communities in the Northeast are experiencing elevated levels of a suspected carcinogen, perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used to make Teflon pans, in their tap water. The problem with water contamination is that it impacts every aspect of life. If the water is unsafe, then so is the soil, and people can’t grow food, and the impact just expands and expands. The Pentagon is currently testing the water at 664 military sites that they believe could be contaminated with other harsh chemicals. This is an issue that impacts most communities, whether we know it at the moment or not.
On the bright side, nature has a solution. According to the Ecological Society of America, wetlands can remove 20 to 60% of metals in contaminated water. Riparian zones, or the forest growth at the edges of rivers can absorb excess nutrients and pollutants. Microorganisms can be used to break down metals or harmful chemical contaminants in water. According to NPR reporter Scott Simon, even cacti have the natural ability to filter water.
Earlier this month, Environmental Science and Technology published a study examining the effects that plastic pollutants may have on the biological systems of the ocean, and ultimately found that plastic pollution may slow down carbon storage. One of the ways that microscopic pieces of plastic are processed through the ocean is through zooplankton digestion. The zooplankton ingest microplastics, and excrete them within their faecal pellets. This process then allows the microplastics to sink with the faecal pellets and move away from the surface of the ocean and enter the marine food chain. This study is the first to examine the impact of microplastics on the zooplankton feces and the other marine life that depends on them.
The researchers found that the feces with microplastics in them are sinking much slower than uncontaminated feces, causing the movement of microplastics away from the surface of the ocean to slow down. Futhermore, the downward movement of these pellets is a significant part of the biological pump, moving carbon, nutrients and particulate organic matter into deeper waters. This process provides food for bottom dwellers, and stores carbon in the depths of the ocean. Due to the slowing of this process because of microplastic pollution, the pellets are more prone to consumption, fragmentation, or degradation along the way, therefore fewer pellets are reaching their destination, and ultimately, less carbon is being stored in the depths of the ocean.
Ultimately, much more research needs to be conducted to fully understand the complex processes that impact the ocean’s ability to store carbon, but if our plastic pollution is harming the way that our earth can combat our air pollution, we may be in bigger trouble than we thought.
Cole, Matthew et. al. “Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets”. Environmental Science and Technology. February 11, 2016.
After finishing my finals last semester, heading home for break I had only one thing on my mind: hiking. After the constant stress and stimulation of the end of the semester, I knew that what I needed to recover was not to sleep until noon for a month, but to get outside into the woods and be quiet with the world. Hiking has always been my coping strategy for life, and recently I learned why.
In December, National Geographic published an article by Florence Williams explaining the mental benefits of being in nature. Various scientists have conducted studies; some looking at brain waves, some comparing people walking in the city with people walking in the woods, and some on the mental health of citizens with access to green spaces. All studies are pointing in the same direction, that time in nature decreases stress, and less stress has a multitude of health benefits. Scientists are finding that time spent in nature not only decreases stress hormones, but decreases heart rate, improves mood, attention span, creativity, and problem solving.
Although the movement is slow, medical professionals are starting to take the nature effect into consideration, prescribing to patients that they spend more time outside. Hospitals are also incorporating nature into their design, which is helping patients heal faster.
In an age where we seem most disconnected with nature, maybe these findings are just what we need to push us back into nature. As scientist David Strayer states, “at the end of the day…we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but because of how it makes us feel.” The scientific proof might help us get into nature, but that wont be what makes us stay, the rejuvenation and joy that we find there will keep us coming back season after season.