Category: Environment

Arsenic in Food Could Threaten Our Health – But It’s Not Being Regulated

rice on plate

Researchers have known for some time that the food and drink we all consume contains arsenic.

Should we be concerned? Aren’t we protected by federal regulations? Actually, no – we are not. In the US, as in many countries, the government regulates the concentration of arsenic in drinking water, but does not regulate the concentration of arsenic in any other drink or food. We have a mercury-in-food regulation; why don’t we have an arsenic-in-food regulation?

One important difference is that all of the compounds of mercury we find in food are equally toxic. This is not the case for arsenic. Although we normally think of arsenic compounds as potentially harmful, most of the arsenic we eat is harmless. Seafood, which contains by far the highest concentrations of arsenic, delivers it as arsenobetaine, an organic chemical containing arsenic that is innocuous to us humans.

How then should arsenic in food be regulated? To do that well, we need to develop better ways to determine the amounts of arsenic and other chemicals in our foods.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

These Hidden Volcanoes Erupt With the Force of Nuclear Weapons

By Robin George Andrews | May 6, 2015 1:45 pm
The 1977 eruption of maar volcano Ukinrek in Alaska. Image by Juergen Kienle

The 1977 eruption of maar volcano Ukinrek in Alaska. Image by Juergen Kienle

Volcanic eruptions produce some stunning scenes, the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile being one recent example. Calbuco fits the stereotypical image of a volcano: a large, angry mountain rising up into the sky, the same kind of volcano as Mount St. Helens or Mount Fuji. But some of the world’s most powerful volcanoes – and the second most common – are hidden from sight and can unexpectedly detonate with the force of a nuclear bomb.

Maar volcanoes are strange: they are often invisible for much of their life, before suddenly appearing in enormous explosions. They give no warning of their impending destruction. When they do erupt in a cataclysm of fire and noise, they do not rise above the ground, but instead leave a hole similar to large meteorite impact craters.

The 1886 eruption of Rotomahana on the north island of New Zealand was one such eruption. With the only warning coming from a small, insignificant earthquake in the region beforehand, a maar volcano-forming eruption suddenly occurred overnight. The resulting heat blasts and descending hot ash and lava bombs killed at least 150 people.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: volcanoes

Gold Jewelry’s Dirty Environmental Secret

By Karen Emslie | February 14, 2015 1:32 pm

gold bracelet

Gold is a modern expression of love, and every Valentine’s Day thousands of shoppers browse boutique windows full of the stuff. Over 90 countries mine the gold that is fashioned into jewelry, with China currently topping the exporter tables (though as illegal exports are rampant in some countries, exact figures are hard to pin down).

South American countries are also major gold producers, particularly Perú, which ranks variously fifth or sixth worldwide. A global gold rush over the last decade has seen a boom in South American mining. But this has led to a specific problem  it is now financially viable to extract gold deposits from areas which were previously unprofitable, such as under tropical forests, resulting in growing damage to one of the planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

This High-Tech Floating Laboratory Will Be a Spaceship for the Sea

By David Warmflash | October 29, 2014 2:40 pm
SeaOrbiter

Credit: SeaOrbiter/ Jacques Rougerie

It’s being called a starship Enterprise for the water, and not merely for its futuristic shape. SeaOrbiter, designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie, is envisioned as a high-tech moving laboratory, carrying scientists on long treks through an environment not inherently friendly to human life.

At the moment, the craft is still on the drawing board. Construction is planned to begin later this year, and if funding allows, to be completed in 2016. Initial funding has been provided by the French government, several companies, and a crowd-funding campaign.

When operational, the craft is intended to be a sort of Swiss Army knife of aquatic research. Designers say it will hunt for underwater archaeological remains and new life forms, investigate ocean chemistry, and map vast swathes of the ocean floor while providing unprecedented capability for sending aquanauts continually on deep dives.

But its concepts borrow heavily from a different kind of exploration in recent human history: space exploration. And though it may physically resemble the Enterprise, there’s a more useful comparison closer to home in the International Space Station (ISS). Like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will advance basic science. Like the ISS, technology developed for the ship will improve everyday technology here on land. And finally, like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will allow humans to live long-term in an environment never before possible – effectively expanding human colonization to new places.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Why Do Volcanic Eruptions Come in Clusters?

By Robin Wylie | September 25, 2014 3:29 pm
Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

Bárðarbunga Volcano in Iceland erupting on September 4, 2014. Credit: Peter Hartree via Flickr

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Earth seems to have been smoking a lot recently. Volcanoes are currently erupting in Iceland, Hawaii, Indonesia and Mexico. Others, in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, erupted recently but seem to have calmed down. Many of these have threatened homes and forced evacuations. But among their less-endangered spectators, these eruptions may have raised a question: Is there such a thing as a season for volcanic eruptions?

Surprisingly, this may be a possibility. While volcanoes may not have “seasons” as we know them, scientists have started to discern intriguing patterns in their activity.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

In Tanzania, ‘Living Walls’ Take Root to Protect Threatened Lions

By Richard Schiffman | July 16, 2014 10:00 am

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Elvis Kisimir is a moon-faced and soft-spoken 31-year-old Maasai with a fondness for lions. That makes him the odd man out in the East African tribe of pastoralists whose conflict with the big cats is legendary.

But Elvis has a vision for the future that’s every bit as large as the history that precedes him. That vision is the Living Wall project — an effort to radically change not just his peoples’ interactions with lions but the very way they think of the animals, which are now critically endangered in the region.

“This work is my life now,” he told me. “I want this area to be an example for the world of a functioning, healthy ecosystem where both people and wildlife live in harmony together.”

A Fierce History

The Maasai are perhaps best known for their coming-of-age ritual in which young morani warriors venture into the bush draped in bright red waistcloths, armed only with spears, to kill a lion as a traditional test of manhood. Nowadays, however, this practice is on the wane. Maasai adolescents — like their peers elsewhere in Africa — tend to be more adept with soccer balls and video games than they are with spears and the ancient art of tracking carnivores through the open bush.

That was certainly true of the young Elvis. Aside from occasionally hearing their roars at night, he had little contact with lions growing up in a village on Tanzania’s Maasai Steppe. His first encounter with the king of beasts came from a video about their social life, which his tour-guide father brought home with him one day.

It was not exactly a case of love at first sight. The big cats appeared scary and alien, a relic of the wild Africa that Elvis and his Christian forebears (his grandfather was one of the first Maasai to be baptized) had presumably left behind them.

Still, his curiosity was aroused. When Elvis asked his Maasai elders about lions, they spoke of the respect with which the species was regarded in their culture: though they were hunted, at the same time lions were deeply admired as embodiments of independence, courage, canny intelligence and majestic strength.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, Ecology

The Scientific Complexity in a Seemingly Simple Snowflake

By Daniel Tammet | January 21, 2014 12:19 pm

snowflakesOutside it is cold, cold — ten degrees below, give or take. I step out with my coat zipped up to my chin and my feet encased in heavy rubber boots. The glittering street is empty; the wool-gray sky is low. Under my scarf and gloves and thermals I can feel my pulse begin to make a racket. I do not care. I observe my breath. I wait.

A week before, not even a whole week, the roads showed black tire tracks and the trees’ bare branches stood clean against blue sky. Now Ottawa is buried in snow. My friends’ house is buried in snow. Chilling winds strafe the town. The sight of falling flakes makes me shiver; it fills the space in my head that is devoted to wonder. How beautiful they are, I think. How beautiful are all these sticky and shiny fragments. When will they stop? In an hour? A day? A week? A month? There is no telling. Nobody can second-guess the snow.

The neighbors have not seen its like in a generation, they tell me. Shovels in hand, they dig paths from their garage doors out to the road. The older men affect expressions both of nonchalance and annoyance, but their expressions soon come undone. Faint smiles form at the corners of their wind-chapped mouths. Granted, it is exhausting to trudge the snowy streets to the shops. Every leg muscle slips and tightens; every step forward seems to take an age.

When I return, my friends ask me to help them clear the roof. I wobble up a leaning ladder and lend a hand. A strangely cheerful sense of futility lightens our labor: in the morning, we know, the roof will shine bright white again. Hot under my onion layers of clothing, I carry a shirtful of perspiration back into the house. Wet socks unpeel like Band-Aids from my feet; the warm air smarts my skin. I wash and change my clothes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: water

Georgia’s Own Doomsday Stonehenge Monument

By Guest Blogger | September 9, 2013 3:01 pm

By Jill Neimark

georgia guidestones

“Planned genocide has begun,” read the Facebook entry on one of the groups I browse daily. The link: a picture of five monoliths looming like an American Stonehenge over a lush and lonely hill in remote Elberton, Georgia. I was only an hour away at the time, and decided to visit them in person.

The nearly twenty-foot granite slabs, known as the Georgia Guidestones, have sparked controversy around the world – praised by Yoko Ono, defaced by conspiracy theorists, featured on the History Channel, and the subject of the conspiracy web series Guidestones. The monument – five upright stones topped by a capstone – weighs nearly 240,000 pounds and is inscribed in eight languages with ten instructions for humans post-apocalypse. Three decades after being erected, the monument’s true purpose is still being argued, and its quasi-commandments can seem either sincere or satanic.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Fracking Poses a Risk to Our Water Supply

By Guest Blogger | May 17, 2013 11:01 am

by Richard Schiffman

The recent boom in fracking has turned America into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, almost overnight.

Proponents say that this burgeoning industry has ensured U.S. energy independence for years to come, and created a more climate-friendly alternative to dirtier-burning fuels like coal and gas. It has arguably also hastened the demise of the coal industry, as power plants switch in large numbers to the cheaper gas, resulting in U.S. CO2 emissions sinking to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. And with less smog-producing particulates and deadly mercury in the air, we can hope that respiratory illnesses like asthma may begin to decline.

But fracking poses its own risks. While our air has been getting cleaner, opponents argue that America’s water has been getting dirtier as the result of the hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking uses lots of water—up to seven million gallons for every well drilled—which is mixed together with sand and a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals, then blasted a mile into the earth to the shale formations where the natural gas is located. This high pressure stream shatters the rock and releases the gas, which geysers up to the surface to be recovered.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What’s Behind Bee Die-Off? U.S. and Europe Disagree

By Guest Blogger | May 7, 2013 2:16 pm

by Richard Schiffman

Bees are dying all over the world, and nobody is sure why it is happening. Up to 40 percent of U.S. beekeeper hives failed to survive the past winter, making this the worst season so far on record. In part this was the result of a mysterious and growing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive.

Agricultural production is beginning to take a hit from the loss of bees. In California’s Central Valley at the end of February, there weren’t enough commercially bred bees to pollinate all of the 800,000 acres of almond trees. Some desperate almond farmers actually flew in the precious insects from Australia to service their trees. Almonds aside, fully one out of every three bites of food that we eat were produced with the help of insect pollinators.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: bees, pesticides
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