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Real Science

Human impact on the environment

Michael Rosenthal

(10/2015) This month I am going to initiate discussion of various human impacts on the environment. We all will agree that we have the potential to do damage to the environment around us, and we all agree that there are specific cases of adverse environmental impact that could have been avoided. Then, there are the situations where we disagree on whether human behavior was at fault, and, eventually, the issue of irreversible climate change.

In a previous article, we discussed the issue of the contamination of the Hudson River by PCBs . The New York Times recently published an update on its editorial page. General Electric (GE) is claiming its job is almost done, and will soon have addressed 100% of its agreed-upon responsibility in PCB cleanup of the Hudson River. This appears to be true, and the EPA has no current legal right to demand more from GE. But, there are still 136 acres of the watershed, including a stretch of the Champlain Canal, outside the agreement, that are dangerously contaminated and need PCB removal.

The Times suggests that New York State Government put pressure on GE or even go to court to force GE to do more beyond the original agreement. The inaction thus far of New York State government, the Times argues, represents the process of keeping GE in the New York economy and persuading them to move their corporate headquarters back to New York from Connecticut where it moved. We will keep an eye on this ongoing process. Meanwhile the PCB impact on fishing, boating, and hunting remains negatively powerful; PCBs have been found 200 miles down the Hudson River from the initial entry site.

Another environmental impact issue that is getting more notice is the contamination of the oceans with waste plastic. Each year, eight million metric tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans, and the amount grows yearly. This is a result of current garbage management practices. Use of plastics has regularly increased over the last 50 years, to the point that 288 million tons of plastics were manufactured around the world. There are 20 countries largely responsible for this influx of plastic into the environment. China is the leader, and the United States ranks 20th, with 11 other Asian countries, plus Turkey, Brazil and five African countries leading the list of plastic polluters. Those of us who practice recycling make a nice local impact on the problem, but the global impact is the real issue.

Now for the big one – the issue of global climate change due to human behavior and whether it is reversible. This issue is extremely controversial, because of what is at stake: the potential for permanent negative impact on the quality of life on Planet Earth. There is, of course, a huge financial interest as well. So much industry and business, especially in energy production and related industries, is directly related to climate impact.

I started out on this issue by looking at the most recent environmental report that comes with my electric bill from Potomac Edison. I have not yet chosen an alternative energy supplier under the Maryland Electric Choice Program, so my report is that of the basic service. The major energy source for my electricity in Emmitsburg is coal – 43.49 %. Gas produces 17.50 % and nuclear sources produce 34.72 %. The total renewable energy is only 4.01%!

Accompanying air emissions from combustion include a huge amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), which, while not poisonous, is a greenhouse gas which is thought to make a major contribution to global climate change. The buildup of carbon dioxide prevents heat from escaping the atmosphere and leads to global warming. The combustion of fossil fuels – any fuel containing carbon atoms, including coal, natural gas, oil, and wood, produces carbon dioxide upon combustion. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides released contribute to acid rain, which is severely damaging to the environment. In my opinion, we need more incentive and consumer education to convert our energy sources to those that have less negative environmental impact.

It is very hard for me to sort out what environmental disasters are caused by poor human choices and which are not. Many writers begin with strong biases, arguing that either we are in the process of destroying life on the planet or that natural changes occur over time that are not the result of human behavior. I believe that both factors are in play, and that we need to do everything we can to minimize the effects of environmental damage resulting from human behavior. We need to look at the studies done by respectable scientists and respected institutions that have an objective view and have no vested interest on these issues. That is not always so easy to do, and even objective, well-meaning scientists make mistakes.

Let’s look at just a specific current issue, starting close to home with the California drought. Our son is a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, so I hear a lot about this issue. California is having serious water shortages and forest fires. Is this the fault of human behavior or merely a cyclic issue of low rainfall? A vigorous argument is taking place on both sides of this issue, but meanwhile California is having an environmental crisis.

So, there are things that we know damage the environment and there are those which may damage the environment. These issues have a strong connection to corporate profit, and we have strong emotional attitudes that may or may not be scientifically supported. So, for all its worth, here’s my opinion. We should strongly support scientific study by reliable organizations, without vested interest, that look at these issues. We will find some clear answers (try to produce clean energy), some issues clearly not proven, and those that need more study. One of the hardest aspects is that no one has control over world-wide polices. Each government makes its own decisions, and there is no global policy or law to fall back upon.

Here are a few specific things that I personally feel strongly about. (1) Solar energy should be an attractive option to anyone building a new home. The cost would be negligible when dovetailed into the initial price of the dwelling. We live in a Ryan Home built in 2003-2004, and the solar option was not made available to us. A strong government program with tax incentives should be promoted to encourage people to initially install or convert to solar energy.

(2) Industry should be given financial encouragement, coupled with appropriate limiting legislation, to use earth-friendly production procedures. But, what can we do about foreign countries (like China) over whom we have no control? I’ll write on some more specific aspects of this issue in subsequent articles.

Now let’s close, with a bit of pseudoscience. There has been a great deal of promotion for the use of Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants to promote brain health, particularly to prevent cognitive decline in older people. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health, which included a study of 3500 subjects with an average age of 73, found no differences whatsoever among users of the supplements and the placebo group. So, my suggestion is to eat fish and enjoy both its taste and potential health benefits, but don’t expect these commercial supplements will keep your brain young!

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal