March 24, 2023
Air Date: March 24, 2023
EPA and Strict PFAS Water Regulations
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The EPA recently proposed new regulations that will dramatically lower the amount of PFAS chemicals that can be present in drinking water. PFAS are associated with health concerns including cancers and reproductive issues. Melanie Benesh from the Environmental Working Group tells Host Bobby Bascomb that the move is a huge win for public health. (12:48)
Beyond the Headlines/ Peter Dykstra
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LOE contributor Peter Dykstra shares with host Jenni Doering new research that found plastic bags scouring the deepest parts of the ocean floor. Also, a huge Sargassum seaweed mass is making its way toward the Florida coast just in time for Spring Break. And in the history books, the 52nd anniversary of Tokyo Electric Power Company opening the ill-fated Fukushima nuclear reactors which later were the source of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. (05:13)
Greenwashing Energy from Plastic
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So-called “chemical recycling” is a greenwashing term used for incinerating plastic, according to critics including Veena Singla with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She tells Host Jenni Doering that “chemical recycling” is contributing to climate change and poor air quality for many marginalized communities. (11:17)
Insects Need More Protection
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Roughly three quarters of the world’s insect species are inadequately protected, even in conservation areas. To help insects, which are important pollinators and the base of many food chains, Scott Black of the Xerces Society tells Host Bobby Bascomb that even small areas of protected habitat can make a big difference. (07:04)
Mapping the Seafloor to Predict Coastal Flooding/ David Levin
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The topography of the coastal seafloor has a lot to do with how much flooding coastal areas will experience during hurricanes. As reporter David Levin reports, a team of scientists is working on a new technology to create more accurate seafloor maps in the Gulf of Mexico. (10:10)
HOSTS: Bobby Bascomb, Jenni Doering
GUESTS: Melanie Benesh, Scott Black, Veena Singla
REPORTERS: Peter Dykstra, David Levin
BASCOMB: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.
BASCOMB: From PRX this is Living on Earth
I’m Bobby Bascomb
DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering
The Biden administration proposes tough new limits for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
BENESH: This is a really significant win for public health. Drinking water is known to be a major source of exposure to PFAS and if we have less PFAS in our drinking water we will have reduced risk of developing some of those very serious health concerns that are associated with exposure to PFAS chemicals.
BASCOMB: Also, mapping the ocean floor near hurricane-prone coastal areas to better predict storm surge.
WHITESBURG: The way the water depth varies from offshore to the coastline is a very important factor and the height of the water at any location during a hurricane storm surge. The shallower the water the higher the surge.
BASCOMB: That and more this week on Living on Earth – Stick Around!
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston this is Living on Earth. I’m Jenni Doering.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.
PFAS “forever” chemicals can be found nearly everywhere in the environment and in our drinking water. This class of more than 9000 chemicals are commonly found in a wide range of household products and possibly in the PVC pipes used to deliver water to many homes and businesses. Scientists have long warned about the health concerns associated with PFAS exposure, everything from cancers to reproductive issues. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on the amount of these chemicals allowable in drinking water. A 2-billion-dollar investment from the bipartisan infrastructure law will help utilities comply with these strict regulations, which are widely hailed as a victory for public health. Melanie Benesh is Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group and joins me now for more. Melanie, welcome to Living on Earth!
BENESH: Thank you so much for having me.
BASCOMB: Can you give us a quick overview please, of EPA has proposed PFAS drinking water regulations,
BENESH: The EPA took the very historic step of proposing drinking water regulations for six different PFAS. And what the EPA did is proposed limits called maximum contaminant levels of four parts per trillion. So a very small amount for PFOA and PFOS. And then for the other for PFAS the EPA use something called a hazard index. And this is a tool that the EPA uses to address cumulative risks for mixtures of chemicals. And so the EPA takes measurements of those chemicals, weighs them against health base values that the EPA has assigned to those chemicals, and then adds them up to see whether or not it's safe. And this is really an acknowledgement by the EPA, that there are risks from being exposed to combinations of chemicals that many of these chemicals are structurally similar. They have similar health effects on the human body. And so even if an individual measurement might be safe, being exposed to the combination of those chemicals might not be safe. And so that's why they structured their drinking water that way.
BASCOMB: So these are really miniscule amounts of these PFAS chemicals that the proposed regulation would cover in drinking water. I think that probably said something about how dangerous they are. What are the public health concerns with PFAS and drinking water? And how might this proposed regulation affect public health?
BENESH: Absolutely, this proposed regulation is confirmation from the EPA that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels. As you say they are miniscule amounts. And they are associated even at those low levels with some pretty serious health concerns including some kinds of cancers like kidney and testicular cancer, developmental and reproductive harms, like preeclampsia, lower birth weights, lower sperm counts, reduced fertility, and immune harms, including making our vaccines less effective. And so this is a really significant win for public health. Drinking water is known to be a major source of exposure to PFAS. And if we have less PFAS and our drinking water, we will have lower exposure to these chemicals and therefore reduced risk of developing some of those serious health concerns that are associated with exposure to PFAS chemicals. And so if this regulation becomes final, it will reduce the risk of disease. It will save lives. It is an important win for public health
BASCOMB: And the scientific community has known for quite a while that PFAS chemicals pose a risk to public health. Why is the EPA taking this action now?
BENESH: That's right, scientists have really been sounding the alarm on these chemicals for years. And I think the reason that we're seeing action now is because communities have really stepped up and have really demanded more action from the government. We know a lot more now about how widespread these chemicals are. We know a lot more now about just how many communities have these chemicals in their drinking water. And the science has also advanced to show that these chemicals are risky and toxic at ever lower levels. And so, as that pressure has been mounting, I think we're finally seeing the actions from the EPA.
BASCOMB: Now to be clear, a few states around the country have created regulations to address PFAS in drinking water. How do the proposed EPA regulations compare to the state regulations that are already in place?
BENESH: There are 10 states that have final or interim drinking water limits for some of the PFAS that are covered by the EPA is proposed regulation. All of those states have higher limits than what the EPA has proposed. Because the federal limit sets a floor, those states will have to lower their limits to align with what the EPA is recommending if the EPA regulations become final.
BASCOMB: Now PFAS is a class of chemicals that includes more than 9000 individual chemicals. This proposed regulation applies to just six. Why those six in particular?
BENESH: That's right, these six PFAS chemicals are part of a larger family of chemicals called per and poly floral alkyl substances or PFAS. These are some of the most notorious PFAS chemicals. They have been shown to show up with some frequency in drinking water systems. And their health effects are particularly well documented and well studied. And in some cases, the EPA has developed toxicity values based on peer reviewed studies and the EPA own peer reviewed work, identifying the toxic effects of these chemicals. And so, these are six chemicals that I think the EPA felt very comfortable regulating. But one thing that I will say is that even though the maximum contaminant levels or MCLs is only applied to these six PFAS, the Safe Drinking Water Act is a technology driven statute. And so, the way that drinking water utilities will comply with the new regulations when they go into effect is likely by installing technology that will filter these six PFAS chemicals out of the water. But that technology, which will be designed to capture chemicals, like PFAS, won't limit itself to those six chemicals. They're not going to choose the six PFAS and let the other PFAS slip by. And so I think it's likely that the technology upgrades that we will see as a result of this regulation will address a lot more PFAS and will result in overall reductions of PFAS pretty significantly across the class of chemicals in drinking water.
BASCOMB: Can you tell us more about the technologies that will be used to remove the PFAS from the water?
BENESH: Sure, the good news is that there are a couple of off the shelf technologies that are already widely available, many of which have been used by drinking water systems for years, sometimes to treat chemicals other than PFAS. I think the most popular of these is a technology called granular activated carbon. But there are also technologies like reverse osmosis and anion exchange that are also effective at treating PFAS down to very low levels.
BASCOMB: And then what will happen to the concentrated chemicals once they're removed from the drinking water.
BENESH: Under the current system, I think a lot of that leftover waste from the treatment process is either sent to incinerators or put in landfills hopefully in a hazardous waste landfill. But neither of those are particularly good solutions. There is a lot of promising research happening for development of new destruction and disposal technologies. Most of that is still at the lab scale. But there is a lot of federal and private money that is going into researching these destruction methods. Many of them are showing a lot of promise. And so I'm hopeful that in a few years, we may see better methods for disposing of or destroying of PFAS waste in a way that's not harmful to the environment.
BASCOMB: Well, this is obviously a great first step in terms of public health and you know, making our drinking water safer, but as long as these chemicals are still being made, they can still be found in the infrastructure that's carrying our water. You know, it seems like a never-ending problem. Is there any talk of looking upstream and regulating the chemicals that companies can use to begin with?
BENESH: I'm so glad you asked because this is a burden that really shouldn't fall on our drinking water utilities. It shouldn't fall on ratepayers. We should not be putting so much PFAS into the environment in the first place. And it is really the polluters who are releasing PFAS into the environment who are contaminating sources of drinking water, who should be responsible for cleaning up their own mess. And so there should be more emphasis looking upstream from those sources of drinking water to make sure that those facilities also have to take action to filter their water before they discharge it or to capture their water or do whatever they can to prevent those further releases into the environment so that we're not stuck in this ever-ending cycle. Furthermore, the EPA has said that it is going to develop industry wide limits on the amount of PFASS that can be discharged from certain industries like chemical manufacturers and metal finishers. But the EPA has not proposed any deadlines for final action. The EPA has decided to ignore other sources of potential PFAS contamination like electronics manufacturers leather tanners and plastic molders and hasn't given an indication of when it might regulate other industries like landfills or textile mills. And so the EPA really needs to accelerate the pace at which it's looking at this industrial discharges issue.
BASCOMB: PFAS are found in so many things other than drinking water. I mean, you can find it in everything from cookware and food packaging to dental floss and toilet paper. How significant is exposure to PFAS via water as compared to you know, these other household products? And is there anything to suggest the government may look at these other sources of exposure, you know for future regulations.
BENESH: All of those sources of exposure really matter. The EPA estimates that for most people drinking water is only about 20% of your exposure. For those exposures from consumer products, it's really important to look at the ways that we're using PFAS and eliminate the uses that we simply don't need. And states have really been leading way in banning some of these uses. Many states have banned the use of PFAS and food packaging, PFAS in firefighting foam and PFAS in cosmetics as well as in apparel and other goods. The federal government is also taking some steps to use its purchasing power to limit what they're buying. So the Biden administration issued an executive order at the end of 2021. And in that executive order directed the government to try to purchase more products that are not made with PFAS. And no administration has really done more than the Biden administration to finally address the risks from toxic chemicals like PFAS.
BASCOMB: Well, what's next for this proposed regulation?
BENESH: So one of the reasons that it has taken the EPA so long to propose this regulation is that the process under the Safe Drinking Water Act is not a quick process. And so while this is a pivotal historic step that the EPA has taken and actually proposing these regulations, a few things still need to happen before they become final. The EPA will open a docket and will accept public comment on these regulations, these proposed regulations for about 60 days, and then must finalize them by September of 2024. The EPA certainly can and should move faster than that, though, so we may see those regulations final before then. And then within the regulation will be a compliance period, so that utilities have time to upgrade their infrastructure, install whatever new technologies, they need to make sure that they can comply with those very low maximum contaminant levels. And that compliance period is usually between three and five years.
BASCOMB: Melanie Benesh is Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group. Melanie, thanks so much for your time today.
BENESH: Thank you so much for having me.
- Washington Post “EPA proposes rules to limit ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water”
- From the Living on Earth archives: “DuPont in Sticky Situation Over Teflon Chemical”
- Learn more about the proposed rules from EPA
- About Melanie Benesh
[MUSIC: Roy Hargrove, “Strasbourg / St. Denis” on Earfood, Groovin’ High]
DOERING: Coming up – Greenwashing plastic and the false promise of so-called chemical recycling. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Sailors for the Sea and Oceana. Helping boaters race clean, sail green and protect the seas they love. More information @sailorsforthesea.org.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Roy Hargrove, “Strasbourg / St. Denis” on Earfood, Groovin’ High]
BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.
DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.
It's time now for a look beyond the headlines with Living on Earth contributor Peter Dykstra. He's on the line from Atlanta, Georgia. Hey, Peter, what do you got for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Hi, Jenni we're gonna do an ocean trifecta. In Hakai magazine, which is a great source of information about our impacts on the ocean. They're looking at plastic pollution in the very, very depths of the ocean, specifically, a study in the Philippine trench, off the Philippine Islands, the third deepest ocean area. And what they found there, just like what's been found in other deep ocean areas, is plastic, plastic bags, other plastic waste at the very bottom of the deepest parts of the ocean floor.
DOERING: You know, we're used to seeing plastic trash floating around and blowing around here on the land and maybe at the beach but what kind of an impact is it having all the way down there?
DYKSTRA: Well, here's one thing. And obviously, we don't have all our information in yet from the very limited studies of what lives and thrives and dies in the ocean floor that deep. But scientists have observed plastic bags, sort of barreling across these deep ocean areas pushed by very, very strong currents. And it's believed that when plastic bags dragged themselves along the deep, deep sea floor, they could plow nutrients under. We do know that nutrients that make it to the ocean floor in darkness are pretty rare. The biggest source of them is the decomposition of bigger pieces of potential food near the surface, they dropped down to as much as 10,000 meters in the Philippine trench and if they're plowed under, that makes it even harder for the marine life that's down there to feed and survive.
DOERING: Wow. So reshaping the seafloor itself, not to mention breaking into smaller and smaller pieces all the time and becoming microplastics that some of those critters probably ingest. So Peter, I think you mentioned we have another ocean based story this week.
DYKSTRA: Yeah, this is something that's been making the rounds on TV news in the last couple of weeks and that's the gigantic mass of seaweed that is reportedly closing in on Florida. This is Sargassum, and it's been out there forever. It's bigger this year and has generally been bigger in recent years. But Sargassum is a form of weed that reaches beaches and decomposes and when it decomposes, it kinda has a bathroom smell to it. And Sargassum is arriving on Florida's East Coast right now. On the West Coast, is a red tide that's forming as it often does in Florida and elsewhere in warmer waters. And the other thing that's invading Florida at the same time is spring break.
DYKSTRA: And those three may not add up to pleasant circumstances.
DOERING: Probably not. Well, Peter it sounds like maybe you have experience with this stinky seaweed.
DYKSTRA: Yeah, every year it's in the mid-Atlantic, but it can reach us far on one end as the water Southwest Africa and then into the Gulf. But I've seen and smelled over the years Sargassum arriving in late summer, the beaches of Cape Cod. Not every year but some years. That Sargassum has huge ecological benefits out in the ocean. It provides sort of a nesting area for young sea turtles, and other pelagic, meaning ocean going fishes, to survive and feed and grow. It's gotten bigger in recent years, probably due to the amount of nutrients that go into the ocean waters from major rivers as a result of farm chemicals. Those are encouraging a lot of algae and weed growth, and it could change the ocean ecology even more than it has already.
DOERING: Hmm. Well, what do you have for us from the history books this week, Peter?
DYKSTRA: Well this one has a little ocean tag on it as well. March 26, 1971 the Tokyo Electric Power Company opened the first of six reactors at Fukushima north of Tokyo, and 40 years later that six-reactor complex was the site of meltdown among the reactors when it was swamped by an Ocean Tsunami that was in turn caused by a 9.0 more or less magnitude earthquake. Fukushima, then joined Chernobyl as a symbol of concern about the risks of nuclear power generation.
DOERING: Indeed, well thank you Peter. Peter Dykstra is a contributor for Living on Earth. Thanks and we'll talk to you next time.
DYKSTRA: All right Jenni thanks a lot talk to you soon.
DOERING: And there's more on these stories on the Living on Earth website that's LOE dot ORG.
- Hakai Magazine “Plastic Bags Are Leaving Their Mark on the Deep-Sea Floor”
- AP News “A 5,000-mile seaweed belt is headed toward Florida”
- The Japan Times “Japan marks 12 years since quake and tsunami prompted Fukushima crisis”
[MUSIC: Julian Lage “Nocturne” on Arclight, Mack Avenue Records II, LLC]
DOERING: Any type of recycling seems like a win for the environment, part of the green holy trinity of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” But not all recycling is created equal. So called “chemical recycling” of plastic waste often doesn’t actually recycle at all. Skeptics say it usually amounts to greenwashing for waste incineration which creates a health hazard for communities near incineration facilities. Nonetheless, chemical recycling plants are popping up across the country claiming to be part of the solution to our plastic waste crisis. For more I spoke with Veena Singla, a Senior Scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says that along with “chemical recycling”, the industry has come up with other terms to greenwash this polluting industry.
SINGLA: I've heard a whole host of creative names. I think my favorite is plastics renewal, which sounds like plastics are going to a spa and getting facials?
DOERING: Yeah. Sounds nice. How is chemical recycling different from normal recycling.
SINGLA: The way plastic that gets recycled today, if it does get recycled, is by mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling is different from these chemical recycling technologies. In that it's pretty simple. The plastic is cleaned, and shredded up, and then that can be turned into new plastic products. So it's pretty straightforward. That's what's happening today, we all know that most plastic unfortunately does not get recycled. But the amount that does get recycled, it's mechanical recycling, that's doing the job. And we know that it does work for certain kinds of plastic. Now chemical recycling, it's a lot more complicated. So you still have the same first part of that process of, you know, putting the plastic in your bin. It gets sorted. It gets sent to the facility, but then many different things can happen. It might be turned into fuel; it might be turned into new plastic; it might be turned into chemicals. So there's many more steps in the so called chemical recycling than mechanical recycling.
DOERING: So you say this is not actually recycling? Can you explain that for me? I mean, I understand that there's different processes involved. But if a company says that they're taking this plastic, and they're gonna turn it into some new, wonderful plastic, what does that mean? And what does that not mean?
SINGLA: So recycling is when you're taking waste, putting it back into new products, it's reducing the demand for virgin resources and making new plastic. That's why recycling is a good thing. Now, some of these chemical recycling technologies or processes, what comes out the other end is not used to make new plastic or make new plastic products. That's why I say it's fake recycling sometimes, because it's used as a fuel. It's burned for energy. And that's energy recovery. It's not recycling, and you don't get the benefits of recycling of closing that loop, and reducing the demand for resources to make new plastic.
DOERING: Right, that sounds a lot more like what we're already doing with a lot of our plastic wastes now is sending it either to landfills or actually incinerating it. And, you know, sometimes incinerators do capture some of that as energy when they burn it. But it's essentially just taking this waste, not having to stick it in the landfill.
SINGLA: That's exactly right, these chemical recycling processes that are creating fuels, it's like delayed incineration. It's just another kind of incineration, where the plastic is taken in and, using high heat and pressure, it's broken down and turned into these fuels. But it's eventually burned. So it has all the same issues as incineration, and that when you burn the fuels, you're creating harmful greenhouse gases and air pollution.
DOERING: What are some of the chemicals that are emitted from these so called chemical recycling, maybe we could call them fake recycling, as you said, from these plants?
SINGLA: Yes. What we found when we went to look at the so called chemical recycling facilities in the US is, one there's a lack of transparency and information publicly available about these facilities, what processes they're using, what chemicals they're using, and what their emissions actually are. We were able to find some information from EPA databases, the Environmental Protection Agency databases, and state permit information. What we found across the board is that these facilities are allowed to admit a variety of harmful air pollution, air pollution, like particulate matter that is harmful to people's lungs and heart health. toxic air pollutants like heavy metals, lead, other chemicals like benzene that are known cancer causing chemicals and they're harmful to the developing fetus. We found that these facilities were allowed to release this air pollution based on their state air permit data. We also found that a number of these facilities are generating large quantities of hazardous waste. So, one facility in Oregon created almost 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste in one year alone.
DOERING: And where are some of these so-called chemical recycling, or these fake recycling plants located and what are the communities that surround them?
SINGLA: We found these so-called chemical recycling facilities in states across the US, some on the West Coast, some in the South, some in the Midwest, but what they had in common is they're located in communities that are disproportionately low income, or people of color, or both. And this was seven out of eight of the facilities that we looked at. They're being cited in communities that are historically and currently marginalized and generally burdened by more sources of environmental pollution and social stressors. This raises major environmental justice concerns.
DOERING: What about regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency, you know, what proposals would companies have to go through in order to actually get one of these plants built?
SINGLA: So some of these chemical recycling technologies are currently subject to Clean Air Act regulation. And the specific technologies in question are called pyrolysis and gasification. And these are not new technologies. They've been around for decades, many years. And they're classified as incineration under the Clean Air Act because they use high heat and pressure to break down inputs, whatever kind of wasted is whether it's plastic or something else, and burn a lot of those inputs to power the process. It takes a lot of energy. And these are the same processes that we are seeing are used to turn plastic to fuel, so that fake recycling. And what has happened is that there was a proposal in the previous administration to change this Clean Air Act regulation, and no longer call a pyrolysis and gasification, these specific kinds of chemical recycling, no longer call them incineration, basically exempt them from the Clean Air Act. And this is a major concern. These technologies need to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. We're seeing, as I mentioned, that these facilities do release harmful air pollution. And the Clean Air Act helps impose common sense safeguards to limit such pollution. And we've been pushing the current administration to withdraw that proposal. It, unfortunately, hasn't happened yet.
DOERING: So just to be clear, that proposal was put in place under the previous administration, the Trump administration and now, Biden administration has not yet revoked that.
SINGLA: That is correct. One important thing to note here is that the plastics industry has been successful in changing state laws to ease the way for these so-called chemical recycling facilities. And what they've done is made these facilities subject to less safeguards and regulation than they otherwise would have been. And we're seeing proposals for new facilities in the states where these laws have passed.
DOERING: So you mentioned it takes a lot of energy to turn old plastic waste into new materials or fuel. What's the carbon footprint of chemical recycling plants?
SINGLA: This is a great question. And what we're seeing is that some of these chemical recycling technologies have enormous carbon footprints. So for the two I mentioned, specifically pyrolysis and gasification, that are considered incineration, there was a recent study out from Department of Energy authors that found that pyrolysis and gasification used about 10 to 100 times more resources and had about 10 to 100 times more impact compared to mechanical recycling, that traditional kind of recycling. So it's really having major pollution and carbon footprint impacts.
DOERING: Veena Singla is a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thank you so much. Veena.
SINGLA: Thank you, Jenni. It's been a pleasure
DOERING: We reached out to the Product Stewardship Institute, a policy advocate and consulting nonprofit*, for a statement. CEO Scott Cassel responded in part:
Chemical recycling is a term that encompasses many technologies, one of which is pyrolysis, which typically produces fuel. Our state and local government members consider pyrolysis as disposal. They don’t want to burn more materials; they want to return them to the circular economy.
To read their full statement go to the Living on Earth Website, loe dot org.
*Editors Note: A previous version of this transcript incorrectly called PSI an industry Association.
- NRDC “Recycling Lies: “Chemical Recycling” of Plastic Is Just Greenwashing Incineration”
- Learn more about pyrolysis
- Beyond Plastics “Is Chemical Recycling Greenwashing?”
- NPR “Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse”
- Statement from Product Stewardship Institute on Chemical Recycling
[MUSIC: Roy Hargrove, “I’m Not So Sure” on Earfood, Groovin’ High]
DOERING: Coming up – New Research finds roughly three quarters of insect species are not adequately protected. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth. Stay Tuned!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Friends of Smeagull the Seagull and Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife. It’s all about the wildlife right next door to you! That’s Smeagull, S - M - E - A - G - U - L - L, SmeagullGuide.org.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Roy Hargrove, “I’m Not So Sure” on Earfood, Groovin’ High]
DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb
A recent study published in the journal One Earth found roughly three quarters of the world’s insect species are inadequately protected even in conservation areas. Researchers overlayed the distribution of nearly 90,000 species of insects onto maps of protected areas and found that nearly 2,000 insect species are afforded no protection at all. That means the task of creating habitat to help insects thrive, so they can pollinate our crops and provide the base of many food chains, must fall to local parks, municipalities and homeowners. Scott Black is the executive director of the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation. He says the study is key to our understanding of how to better protect these keystone species.
BLACK: It's an important study because to address the insect conservation crisis, natural areas really need to be part of the picture. The study clearly showed that there's this mismatch, that we don't have insects in the areas that are best suited for them to live long and fruitful lives. And that has to be a key part of our conservation efforts: to have more protected areas for insects, but not just insects. I think that we need a focus on protected areas for all animals, and we need to take insects into account. And that will provide this wonderful hub where we can have habitats radiate out and connect to other protected areas.
BASCOMB: Well, how do we know that insect populations are in trouble? What's the latest data?
BLACK: The latest data is really disconcerting. A paper came out–or actually, an entire issue of the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences–and it found that where studied, insects are declining at one to two percent a year. Which means over the course of 30 years, that's a 25 percent decline. Pretty much wherever we study, we're seeing declines in these animals.
BASCOMB: Well, what are the threats to these insect populations? What's causing this dramatic and concerning decline?
BLACK: A colleague of mine coined the term death by a thousand cuts, and it isn't dissimilar from what is happening to other wildlife. The key issue is likely habitat loss. We tend to grow our crops and live our lives by removing all of the natural habitat. We don't take care of our neighbors, our wildlife neighbors, very well. Then we've got habitat degradation. So you've got outright loss, and right next door you might have over mowing or over grazing or invasive species. So no habitat, marginalized habitat, then we use a lot of pesticides. So pesticides, especially insecticides, they're a key issue in the decline of these animals. And then you add to that many other issues like, we're spreading diseases by moving commercial bumblebees and honeybees across the landscape, where–have too many lights which affect moths and things like fireflies. And then you overlay that with climate change, which is really driving decline in a lot of species, and you can see, it's a hard world out there for an insect as well as for really all wildlife on the planet.
BASCOMB: Now insects have to be the most biodiverse animal group on the planet. Why is that biodiversity important? Why is it important to protect, you know, as many different species as we can?
BLACK: So insects are the most biodiverse group of animals on the planet, and over 80 percent of all animals on the planet are insects. And what this means is that insects, because they're so diverse, have filled niches in almost every terrestrial and freshwater environment. And so what that means is that these animals are driving systems. Pollination, almost 80 percent of our plants need an animal to pollinate it, and it's almost always an insect. They actually are really important for controlling, often non-native pests, cleaning up waste from cows and other livestock, and then as food for wildlife, such as birds and fish. I like to use grizzly bears or brown bears as an example. Brown bears are insect obligate animals. They feed mostly on salmon; that salmon would never make it to the ocean had it not had small insects to feed on when it was little. Their second major food source is berries. Those berries would not form without the pollination, likely from bees that pollinated these plants.
BASCOMB: How should we be protecting insects differently than, you know, vertebrates, or mammals, or any other animal that we're concerned about?
BLACK: A lot of it is the same but there are some unique things about insects that make them in some ways easier to conserve, and in some ways harder to conserve. They're hyperdiverse. We don't know that much about many of these insects. There are a million described species. Compare that to 40,000 described mammal species. But on the other hand, many of these insects need very small spaces. So we can do conservation at a scale that works in a park or even sometimes in yards and very small spaces for insects. So harder in some respects and easier in some respects. The other cool thing about insect conservation is that we can address climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time. Xerces focuses on something called nature-based climate solutions. The idea is to plant climate adapted plants, create climate resilient habitats. These habitats actually capture carbon, and they provide for biodiversity. So it's really a win-win.
BASCOMB: What conservation strategies do you think will actually work for insects? I mean, what should we be doing differently?
BLACK: The neat thing about these animals is that we know what to do in many cases. And we know that it works. Studies have shown that where we focus on conservation efforts, we can see increases in diversity and abundance of insects over a relatively short timeframe. Then it just comes down to protecting the habitat that remains, restoring habitat that's been either removed or marginalized. We need to move away from the heavy use of insecticides, and we really do need to deal with climate change.
BASCOMB: Scott Black is the executive director of the Xerces Society. Scott, thank you so much for your taking the time with me today.
BLACK: Thank you, Bobby. Have a wonderful day.
- Grist | “More than 75% of global insect species not adequately protected”
- Find the study here
- Eight simple actions that individuals can take to save insects from global declines
- Learn more about the Xerces Society’s ongoing citizen science projects
[MUSIC: Julian Lage “The Layers” UMG Recordings]
DOERING: The Gulf Coast of the US is often in the crosshairs of huge storms and hurricanes but the damage from those storms can vary dramatically from place to place. In September of 2022, for instance, Hurricane Ian pushed more than 7 feet of water into Fort Myers, Florida but just a few miles north Tampa weathered the storm with minimal damage. The topography of the ocean floor has a lot to do with how storm surge affects coastal areas, but it can be tricky to accurately map that part of the ocean. Now a team of scientists is taking up the challenge. Reporter David Levin has been digging into the new technologies being used and has this story.
MALLOY: Let's go. Fuel pumps on, lights on.
LEVIN: At a small airport in St. Petersburg, Florida Pilot Greg Malloy runs through his checklist. He's getting ready to fly over the nearby beaches with a device called LIDAR fixed to the belly of the plane. It's short for laser detection and ranging, and it'll make a continuous 3d scan of the coast and the ocean floor nearby, providing a map of its contours.
MALLOY: Clear prop [not sure] [Engine noise] back engage.
LEVIN: Malloy is working with the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies are COMIT a group of researchers at the University of South Florida who are developing quicker, more efficient and more timely ways of charting offshore waters. Having accurate maps of the seafloor is critical for shipping, transportation, fishing, disaster response, but the problem is no single technology can give you the information you need for a detailed map. Satellites can't see the bottom of the water's murky and research ships can't navigate the shallows. Even Greg Malloy's his aircraft has limits, it can scan hundreds of miles of coastline in a single pass but if the water is too deep or too cloudy, it can't sense and map the seafloor. COMIT is trying a different approach. They want to combine lots of technologies all at once to create a super detailed map. It's a technique called a nested survey.
MALLOY: And so what we're doing is trying to fill in the gaps that one technology has with the strengths of another technology.
LEVIN: Steve Murawski is an oceanographer at the University of South Florida.
MURAWSKI: And also, I'm the director of the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies.
LEVIN: Today, he and the COMIT team are trying this nested approach for the first time. They're pulling data from satellites, airborne LIDAR, and a new high-Tech system [SFX]. In a cluttered workshop on the other side of St. Petersburg, the COMIT team is testing an electric motor, on a vehicle that looks like a huge stand up paddleboard. It's sixteen feet long, four feet wide, and it's got a bright yellow tarp covered in solar panels. It goes by a few different names.
HERMAN: An uncrewed surface vessel is sort of the most common term, drone is nice because it's not quite so many syllables and I call it a boat because everybody knows what a boat is.
LEVIN: Jigger Herman is co owner of SeaTrack the company that built this robotic boat. Both he and Murawski think that machines like this one could be essential for collecting intricate maps of the coast in the future. They're nimble, they're autonomous, and they can go places most other vehicles can't.
HERMAN: Our boat is nice in that it's well suited to very shallow water.
LEVIN: That means it can get into every coastal nook and cranny. And with its sensitive onboard sonar, it can record the bottom in incredible detail, filling in any gaps on LIDAR maps made by aircraft. But first Herman needs to tell the boat where to go.
HERMAN: It's going to be doing the northbound line, it's doing that first line right in front of you.
LEVIN: In a nearby classroom, the COMIT team has built a makeshift control room. Two huge flat screen TVs take up the entire wall showing maps, GPS coordinates and live feeds from a boat sonar device. Herman sits nearby surrounded by six more monitors. Four of them display live video feeds from the boat and the other two shows software he uses to program its path through the water.
HERMAN: I can see all the health and all the status of what the boats doing, how fast it's going, where it's headed and then from here, I can load new missions and change the mission depending on what the survey requirements are.
LEVIN: The team is also sending a small chase boat behind the robot to make sure things go smoothly and to keep bystanders from getting too close.
LEVIN: A few miles from the airport I'm standing at the edge of a wide channel flanked by thick mangroves. Flocks of pelicans and seagulls hover nearby is the team on loads the yellow survey boat from its trailer. Steve Murawski is sitting on an inflatable zodiac next to the dock. As the robotic boat sets off, he put his clothes behind it keeping an eye on its progress and sure enough, it attracts plenty of curious onlookers.
You know, it's a beautiful day a bunch of people out recreational boating there's a couple of kayakers that are you know are in the channel and the robot is about ready to go swimming by them, that'll freak him out right [LAUGH].
Murawski says he doesn't mind answering a few questions about the survey. After all, he's got plenty of his own about the seafloor. As we round a bend in the channel, it's easy to understand why. The waters quickly go from a crystal clear to an opaque blue and the bottom just disappears to the naked eye. Despite being only a few miles from Tampa details about the seafloor here are pretty sparse. So you think it's never been mapped in detail?
MURAWSKI: Not in detail, no, no way. This is a first timer. You know it's too shallow for the normal surface craft and too murky for aircraft and so yeah. we're blazing a new new trail here.
LEVIN: This is exactly the sort of place where sea tracks robotic boat is meant to shine. Although it's hard to tell from the surface, the bottom here rises and falls dramatically forming underwater hills of sand and sediment and shifting currents can actually push those hills around, leaving them in unexpected places. I'm sitting in the bow of the chase boat and we're surrounded by sandbars just under the surface of the water. You can see the waves breaking over them and they extend maybe a half a mile offshore. In rough weather, these things would be pretty dangerous for boats.
WEISBERG: I like to say anybody with a sailboat on the West coast of Florida, if they ever tell you that they never ran aground they're either lying or they've used their boat, because there's so many shores that no matter how careful you are, at some point you're gonna rub up against the bottom.
LEVIN: Bob Weisberg says that even on a good day, shifting sandbars can be a big problem for navigation. He's a physical oceanographer with Herman and is working on how to determine where sediments go after a storm. In addition to stranding boats, unexpected changes in the bottom could create issues back on shore. If large amounts of sediment move around during a hurricane Weisburg says it could steer more water inland at specific pinch points. Based on information collected by Coleman he's building a powerful computer model that can tell which areas might be in danger when the next big storm hits.
WEISBERG: So the way the water depth varies from offshore to the coastline is a very important factor and the height of the water at any location during a hurricane storm surge. The shallower the water the higher the surge.
LEVIN: He'll have plenty of data to sort through between airborne LIDAR and sonar data from SeaTracks. robotic boat, the team is collecting a huge amount of new information.
HOMYER: I'm gonna give you a down and back one more. Yep, I gotta make this I gotta make the down.
LEVIN: Back in the control room, Matt Hommyer is sitting right next to Jigger Herman watching the boat’s sonar feed as it comes in real time. It can instantly track where the vehicle has been and what's left to explore.
HOMMEYER: Basically, we've got some we've got some gaps here and they're in really important places because this is one of the main areas where water gets from A to B between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.
LEVIN: Hommeyer is a Technical Operations Manager with COMIT and he's their resident mapping specialist. As soon as he gets data from the robotic boat, he can render it into a stunning and incredibly accurate 3D map of the seafloor. What are we looking at over here by the way?
HOMMEYER: So that's a barge right there. The barge is about 200 feet long. We got a little shipwreck here 50, 60 feet long.
LEVIN: As he zooms in on each of these features, tiny details start to appear. The stout walls of the barge, the curving bow of the shipwreck.
HOMMEYER: So that's your 3D point, there's a very boat look and shape. [LAUGH]
LEVIN: Data from the boat sonar is so detailed, it even picks up the ghostly image of animals swimming underneath it.
MULTIPLE SCIENTISTS: Oh my God, that is so cool! Looks like a manatee.
LEVIN: COMITS main goal was getting this level of detail about the bottom quickly and efficiently. Given their technique speed and its relative low cost compared to other methods, it could eventually become the norm and ocean mapping and in the process provide a much better picture of the ocean as a whole. Again, Matt Hommeyer.
HOMMEYER: Getting more eyes and ears on the ocean more often is going to really expand our understanding of this system, that's just hopelessly complex. The more we can fill in those gaps with actual information and measurements rather than educated guesswork, I think is really going to advance our understanding of the resources and the ecosystems and everything that we care about.
LEVIN: With the work that COMIT team is doing, scientists could answer some long-standing questions about the coastal sea floor while helping protect the people who live there. If seafloor maps like these get easier and cheaper to create that could have an impact not just in Florida, but in coastal regions worldwide.
DOERING: Reporter David Levin’s story was made possible with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
[MUSIC: Julian Lage “Presley” on Arclight, Mack Avenue Records II, LLC]
BASCOMB: Next week on Living on Earth the microplastics all around us.
SIMON: I call it the "Pig Pen" effect, so Pig Pen from the Peanuts comics: this perpetual swirling aura of dirt and grime. We are doing the same thing with microfibers. So two-thirds of clothing is now made out of plastic. I don't think very many people realize that. So, polyester, nylon: that's all plastic. It's very soft plastic, but it comes apart: both when it's being washed in the washing machine, but also as we're walking through the environment.
BASCOMB: And every day we're breathing in these plastic microfibers with unknown health consequences. That's next time on Living on Earth.
DOERING: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.
Our crew includes Fern Alling, Naomi Arenberg, Paloma Beltran, Iris Chen, Josh Croom, Swayam Gagneja, Mark Kausch, Mark Seth Lender, Don Lyman, Jusneel Mahal, Louis Mallison, Aynsley O’Neill, Sophia Pandelidis, Jake Rego, El Wilson, and Jolanda Omari.
BASCOMB: Tom Tiger engineered our show. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram at livingonearthradio. And you can write to us at comments at loe dot org. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I’m Bobby Bascomb.
DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering. Thanks for listening!
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