Though estimates vary, roughly 53 million U.S. residents — about 17% of the population — rely on private wells, according to a study conducted in part by Environmental Protection Agency researchers. Most live in rural areas. But others are in subdivisions near fast-growing metro regions or otherwise beyond the reach of public water pipes.
While many private wells provide safe water, the absence of regulation and treatment afforded by larger municipal systems may expose some users to health risks, from bacteria and viruses to chemicals and lead, studies have found.
Risks are elevated after flooding or heavy rainfall, when animal and human feces, dirt, nutrients such as nitrogen and other contaminants can seep into wells. And experts say the threat is growing as the warming climate fuels more intense rainstorms and stronger and wetter hurricanes.
Environmental and health groups are pushing dozens of fast food companies, supermarkets chains and other retail outlets to remove PFAS chemicals from their packaging. Known as “forever chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, they have been used for decades to prevent grease, water and other liquids from soaking through wrappers, boxes and bags.
Opponents of the practice argue the packaging poses a danger to consumers as well as the environment, since the waste ends up in landfills. in compost or is incinerated where the chemicals can leach into groundwater or soil. They contend there are safer alternatives.
Several groups have maintained that many major brands use packaging with PFAS and that testing at times showed extremely high levels.
A 2017 study by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit research organization Silent Spring Institute found PFAS in almost half of paper wrappers and 20% of boxes from 27 fast food outlets. Tests by Toxic-Free Future in 2018 produced similar results. And, this year, Consumer Reports found eight restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Cava, had packaging that had more than 100 parts per million of fluorine, which indicates likely presence of PFAS.
Washington state health experts have recognized for years that climate change does and will continue to negatively impact our health. Public health agencies such as King County’s have created climate health planning documents, and in 2019 the Washington State Department of Health created a specific team related to climate health. But marrying climate and health data to figure out exactly how floods, fires and other phenomena spurred by climate change affect our bodies takes resources that have been scarce within local, state and federal health agencies.
However, the state now stands to gain more insight into these relationships, thanks to the state Health Department’s new hire: the state’s first official climate change epidemiologist. Department representatives declined to share the name of the new hire, who starts July 1.
People of color in Wisconsin are more likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution than white people, creating the third-largest disparity in the country, according to a state environmental advocacy group.
At Sweden’s urging, the United Nations brought together representatives from countries around the world to find solutions. That summit – the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm 50 years ago on June 5-16, 1972 – marked the first global effort to treat the environment as a worldwide policy issue and define the core principles for its management.
The Stockholm Conference was a turning point in how countries thought about the natural world and the resources that all nations share, like the air.
It led to the creation of the U.N. Environment Program to monitor the state of the environment and coordinate responses to the major environmental problems. It also raised questions that continue to challenge international negotiations to this day, such as who is responsible for cleaning up environmental damage, and how much poorer countries can be expected to do.
On the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, let’s look at where half a century of environmental diplomacy has led and the issues emerging for the coming decades.
The Stockholm Conference, 1972
From a diplomacy perspective, the Stockholm Conference was a major accomplishment.
It pushed the boundaries for a U.N. system that relied on the concept of state sovereignty and emphasized the importance of joint action for the common good. The conference gathered representatives from 113 countries, as well as from U.N. agencies, and created a tradition of including nonstate actors, such as environmental advocacy groups. It produced a declaration that included principles to guide global environmental management going forward.
The declaration explicitly acknowledged states’ “sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” An action plan strengthened the U.N.’s role in protecting the environment and established UNEP as the global authority for the environment.
The Stockholm Conference also put global inequality in the spotlight. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi questioned the urgency of prioritizing environmental protection when so many people lived in poverty. Other developing countries shared India’s concerns: Would this new environmental movement prevent impoverished people from using the environment and reinforce their deprivation? And would rich countries that contributed to the environmental damage provide funding and technical assistance?
First, climate change was making it clear that human activities can permanently alter the planet, so the stakes were high for everyone. The imperative was to establish a new global partnership mobilizing states, key sectors of societies and people to protect and restore the health of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Finally, while all countries were expected to pursue sustainable development, it was acknowledged that developed countries had more capacity to do so and that their societies placed greater pressures on the environment.
But while environmental diplomacy has demonstrated that progress is possible, the challenges the world still faces are immense.
Greenhouse gas concentrations are still increasing, and rising temperatures are fueling devastating wildfires, heat waves and other disasters. More than a million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, potentially leading toward the worst loss of life on the planet since the time of dinosaurs. And 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds World Health Organization guidelines for pollutants.
The next 50 years: Trends to watch
As environmental diplomacy heads into its next 50 years, climate change, biodiversity and effects on human health are high on the agenda. Here are a few newer trends that also bear watching.
Outer space is another theme, as it increasingly becomes a domain of human exploration and settlement ambitions with the growth of private space travel. Space junk is accumulating and threatening Earth’s orbital space, and Mars exploration raises new questions about protecting space ecosystems.
The 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference is an important opportunity to think about development rights and responsibilities for the future while using environmental diplomacy today to preserve and regenerate the Earth.
The Environmental Protection Agency warned Wednesday that a group of human-made chemicals found in the drinking water, cosmetics and food packaging used by millions of Americans pose a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought.
The new health advisories for a ubiquitous class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, underscore the risk facing dozens of communities across the country. Linked to infertility, thyroid problems and several types of cancer, these “forever chemicals” can persist in the environment for years without breaking down.
Some residents of Belmont County in eastern Ohio have long suffered from headaches, fatigue, nausea and burning sensations in their throats and noses. They suspected these symptoms were the result of air pollution from fracking facilities that dominate the area, but regulators dismissed and downplayed their concerns.
With the technical assistance of volunteer scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, MIT and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, local advocacy groups set up their own network of low-cost sensors. They found that the region’s three EPA sensors were not providing an accurate picture: The sensors revealed concerning levels of air pollution, and correlations between local spikes and health impacts.
Karen Wetterhahn was a rising star in 1996. She was making key advances in understanding biochemical reactions of the heavy metal chromium and how those can cause disease. She had launched a major interdisciplinary research program to understand the effects of heavy-metal pollutants in northern New England. She was serving in top administrative positions at Dartmouth College. And a program for women in science that she helped found was being emulated around the country. Then a shocking lab accident halted her trajectory: on June 8, 1997, Wetterhahn died from dimethylmercury poisoning. Her legacies remain, however. Twenty-five years later, Wetterhahn’s colleagues and those who never knew her still feel her influences on laboratory safety, the scientific method, and women in science.
People spend the vast majority of their time inside their homes and other indoor environments where they are exposed to a wide range of chemicals from building materials, furnishings, occupants, cooking, consumer products, and other sources. Despite research to date, very little is known about how exposures to indoor chemicals across complex chemical phases and pathways affect human health. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased public awareness of indoor environments and shed light on the many outstanding questions about how best to manage chemicals indoors. This report identifies gaps in current research and understanding of indoor chemistry and new approaches that can be applied to measure, manage, and limit chemical exposures. Why Indoor Chemistry Matters calls for further research about the chemical transformations that can occur indoors, pathways and timing of indoor chemical exposure, and the cumulative and long-term impacts of exposure on human health. Research priorities should consider factors that contribute to measurable environmental health disparities that affect, vulnerable populations, such as the age, location, and condition of buildings that can alter exposures to indoor chemicals.
EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program (STAR) awarded over $4 million to seven universities to advance air measurement and monitoring methods for air toxics and contaminants of emerging concern in the atmosphere.
Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), often referred to as air toxics, are a subset of air pollutants known or suspected to be acutely toxic or cause chronic human health effects, or to have adverse environmental and ecological effects. Contaminants of emerging concern are chemicals that are not commonly monitored in the environment but are present in the environment and have the potential to cause adverse human health or environmental effects. These air contaminants tend to pose greater risks in urban areas because these areas have large populations and a higher concentration of emission sources, and there is extensive evidence that minority and low-income communities are disproportionally burdened with exposures to air toxics.
The goals of this research portfolio include advancements in measurement techniques that will support state, community and Tribal air monitoring efforts to reduce exposures to air toxics and emerging contaminants of concern and to address environmental justice issues; and improved source measurement methods that can be used to quantify emissions, develop emissions inventories, inform the development of effective emission control strategies, and ultimately improve public health.