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Why bees are dying like flies February 18, 2013

Posted by Andreas in bees, Column, Environment.
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Why bees are dying like flies

(This column was first published on 2013-02-11 at News24 here)

Bees have had a bad time of late. Ever since 1994, when French beekeepers noticed that their honeybees didn’t return home from foraging trips at alarming rates they’ve been going AWOL and dying in droves. In North America, cases of sudden mass disappearances from apparently healthy hives – referred to as colony collapse disorder (CCD) – were first reported in 2006, with some apiarists losing up to 90% of their hives. CCD has since been observed worldwide.

Over the years, investigators have implicated a number of possible culprits, including disease, genetically modified crops, an artificial diet of corn syrup among commercial bees, parasitic mites, loss of habitat or a combination of all of the above. That all changed last year, when several lines of evidence were found to strongly incriminate a single perpetrator for the mass killings: insecticides.

Now if you think like me, your first response to this revelation would be: “No shit Sherlock! They’re called insecticides; bees are insects; ipso facto the bees bite the dust.”

But it’s not that simple. You see, commercial agrochemicals go through very stringent testing procedures to make sure they’re safe. As it turns out, however, the data that these safety assessments are based on more often than not originate from the very companies that sell the chemicals. Yes, it’s the old “self-regulation” boondoggle so beloved by industries with something to hide and the governments beholden to their big budget lobbying.

So for years, these companies have been telling us that their concoctions are perfectly safe for our yellow-and-black pollinating friends. But when independent scientists started publishing their research findings in peer-reviewed publications last year, their results suggested otherwise.

The class of insecticides implicated in offing the bees is called the neonicotinoids, particularly the unpronounceable triad of imidacloprid, clothianidin (both products of German mega-firm Bayer) and thiamethoxam (sold by Swiss giant Syngenta). Since the 1990s, they have been among the most widely used pesticides, selling hundreds of millions of dollars every year and being sprayed on millions of hectares of land worldwide, including South Africa. They appear as the active ingredients not only in agricultural products but in some of the everyday garden plant treatments you buy at your local nursery as well.

So what happened in 2012?

French scientists found that thiamethoxam severely impairs the homing instinct of honeybees. Individuals dosed with small quantities were two to three times more likely to get lost on the way back to their hive than their unexposed colleagues (in case you’re wondering, the researchers glued tiny microchips onto free-ranging honeybees to track them).

– One US study found that “exposure to sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid […] causes honey bees to exhibit symptoms consistent with CCD”, while another claimed that the same chemical resulted in bees performing less of their famous waggle dance to alert others to good sources of food.

– Two groups of British scientists showed that imidacloprid hampered the food gathering ability of bumblebee workers, leading to increased mortality rates, and caused an 85% decline in the production of queens in their colonies. The effects were worse if the bees were exposed to both imidacloprid and lamda-cyhalothrin, another commonly-used pesticide.

On the basis of the mounting evidence, France, Germany, Italy and Slovakia have already banned some neonicotinoids and last month, the European Commission requested its member states to suspend the use of the three main offenders on flowering crops pollinated by bees, including maize, sunflowers, rapeseed and cotton.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Both Bayer and Syngenta vehemently deny that their “crop protection” products are linked to CCD whatsoever, blaming “unrealistic research” and an “over-interpretation of the precautionary principle”.

Even though CCD has not been reported to have had a significant impact on South African beekeeping operations (as far as I know), we should surely take heed of the accumulating scientific results documenting the detrimental effects of synthetic pesticides, especially since others have been shown to do despicable damage to frogs and other amphibians, the world’s most threatened vertebrate group.

Isn’t it time for an independent reassessment of the things we choose to douse our crops with?

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Heavy metal is bad for you February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Heavy metal is bad for you

(This column was first published on 2013-02-04 at News24 here)

I don’t have a problem with Metallica, Iron Maiden or even Ozzy Osbourne. It’s the original heavy metal villains, the chemical elements that inhabit the nether regions of the periodic table, that I’d prefer to keep out of my bloodstream. But in our industrialised world, that’s becoming ever harder.

We’ve managed to liberally spill these unhappy by-products of our machine culture all over the planet with some rather detrimental effects. Two of the nastier members of the clan – lead and mercury – have been in the news lately.

Journalists Kevin Drum and George Monbiot have summarised intriguing research which suggests a causal link between lead pollution and violent crime. This disturbing relationship is the result of the now largely abandoned use of lead in paints and petrol.

Chemical analyses of the growth rings of trees chronicle the story of the lead we’ve spewed into the air. When tetraethyl lead was introduced as a performance-enhancing additive to petrol in the early 20th Century, levels in tree rings started to rise. As the unhealthy side-effects became apparent and the practice was phased out beginning in the 1970s, measured values peaked and then declined. But we’re still dealing with the legacy.

While excessive lead exposure can result in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and kidney problems as well as many other ailments in the general population, children are most at risk, even at low levels. For them lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, growth impairments and behavioural issues including ADHD, aggressiveness and violence.

Studies have shown that in many areas, violent crime peaked about 20 years after lead pollution was at its worst as those who were poisoned by it in infancy reached maturity.

Efforts to remove lead from paints and petrol, though too late for many, were certainly effective. Which is not to say that lead pollution is a thing of the past. The Blacksmith Institute ranks lead-acid battery recycling and lead smelting as the first and second most significant global pollution problems, potentially affecting over 150 sites and as many as 3.5 million people in developing countries.

In the case of mercury we’ve only just begun to clean up our mess with a legally binding, albeit flawed, UN treaty to reign in the pollution.

From Victorian England’s famous mad hatters to well-documented pollution events at Minamata in Japan and Cato Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

According to the latest figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), artisanal small-scale gold mining is now the largest single contributor of mercury pollution in the world, accounting for around 37% of anthropogenic emissions in 2010. Next are fossil fuel combustion, predominantly by coal-fired power plants, metal and cement production, waste incineration and others.

After it’s emitted into the atmosphere, where it spreads around the globe, mercury (which is also released by natural sources such as volcanoes, hot springs and erosion) is oxidised, deposited on the earth’s surface and converted into toxic methyl mercury (MeHg) by bacteria. MeHg is bio-available, meaning that it’s absorbed into the bodies of animals that ingest it, and accumulates especially in the marine food chain with apex predators like tuna, swordfish, sharks, seals, beluga whales and polar bears ending up most contaminated.

Humans predominantly absorb mercury by eating fish and seafood – in the US, this accounts for 90% of all MeHg exposure, 40% of which just from tuna. From there a sorry litany of health defects, from brain damage to blindness, ensues. In the EU, as many as 2 million babies are born with long-term IQ deficits every year as a result of mercury poisoning.

Although the extent and impact of mercury pollution have not been exhaustively investigated in South Africa, we are certainly part of the problem. Our coal-burning power plants alone are estimated to emit 39.4 tonnes of mercury per year – not an insubstantial portion of UNEP’s estimate for annual global emissions (1960 tonnes).

Makes me wonder exactly how much mercury pollution I caused by turning on my PC this morning to write this article. One thing’s certain though: guitar-based hard rock has caused nowhere near as much damage to the planet as lead, mercury and the other toxic escapees from civilisation’s smokestack.

Fracking, climate change and greed February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
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Fracking, climate change and greed

(This column was first published on 2013-01-29 at News24 here)

The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.

In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:

a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,

b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and

c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.

Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.

A low-carbon fossil fuel?

While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.

In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of other scientists, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.

A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.

The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.

A bridging fuel?

Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.

Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources – with which we are richly blessed in SA – requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.

A weapon against climate change?

Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.

That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.

A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.