EarthTalk® | September 2016


Dear EarthTalk: I find it hard to believe that Flint, Michigan is the only city or town in the U.S. with lead contamination of its water system. Has anyone looked at where else this could be a problem? — Jason K., Clearwater, FL

A new analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 18 million Americans live in communities where water systems contain unsafe levels of lead. In “What’s In Your Water: Flint & Beyond,” NRDC reports that 5,300 different water systems across the country either shirked responsibilities to treat their water supplies to reduce lead levels, failed to monitor water supplies for lead, or neglected to report unsafe lead levels to the public or regulators. “These violations were recorded because the systems were not doing everything that they are required to do to protect the public from lead issues,” added NRDC.

“Imagine a cop sitting, watching people run stop signs, and speed at 90 miles per hour in small communities and still doing absolutely nothing about it-knowing the people who are violating the law…,” said Erik Olson, NRDC’s health program director. “That’s unfortunately what we have now.”

Even more surprising to NRDC is the fact that Flint didn’t even show up as having violations for lead in the EPA’s database, illustrating “the serious problem of underreporting and gaming of the system by some water supplies to avoid finding lead problems, suggesting that our lead crisis could be even bigger.”

Of course, Flint is far from the only metropolitan area with contaminated water supplies. Researchers believe thousands of water supplies across the country have been “gaming” the system for decades, with the EPA turning a blind eye to the situation.

“Cheating became something you didn’t even hide,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher credited with exposing water supply management issues in Washington DC and later Flint, recently told CNN. Some of the most common “bad practices” by water supply managers include testing only homes that are unlikely to have high levels of lead, asking residents to “pre-flush” their taps, and taking water samples slowly to reduce lead levels.

For its part, the EPA says that individual states are responsible for the majority of drinking water enforcement actions and should continue to be “the first line of oversight” of drinking water systems. The agency adds that “many of the drinking water systems that NRDC cites in its analysis are already working to resolve past violations and return to compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

So what’s to be done? According to NRDC, fixing Flint-with both emergency relief and long-term infrastructure and systemic improvements-should be priority number 1. Beyond Flint, NRDC says that the EPA should be taking a hard look at the rest of the country’s water infrastructure, removing lead service lines and fixing other water problems, especially in underserved communities.

To find out if your community is affected, check out NRDC’s interactive map showing which communities’ water systems were in violation of the EPA’s “lead action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) and which have failed to monitor or report on lead levels.

Contacts: NRDC’s “What’s In Your Water: Flint & Beyond,”; EPA, Photo Above: According to a new report from NRDC, 5,300 different water systems across the country either shirked responsibilities to treat their water supplies to reduce lead levels, failed to monitor water supplies for lead, or neglected to report unsafe lead levels to the public or regulators. Credit: Ricky Romero, FlickrCC.

Hawaii genetically engineered crops
Hawaii has become ground zero for testing and trials of genetically engineered crops, and environmentalists worry about the implications for ecosystems throughout the islands and beyond. Credit: Ian MacKenzie, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why do environmentalists consider Hawaii “ground zero” in the fight against genetically engineered crops? — Michael Van, Poughkeepsie, NY

Most of us think of beaches, surfing and luaus when we think of Hawaii. But the constantly warm and moist climate actually provides some of the most productive land in the world with a never-ending growing season. As a result, Hawaii has become a major player in commercial agriculture, and is frequently used to test new farming techniques.

Large agricultural companies moved in on this productivity by using Hawaii for trials of new genetically engineered (GE) crops. Monsanto and DOW Chemical both produce huge numbers of genetically modified seeds in Hawaii for distribution around the world. Some of Hawaii’s more common GE crops include corn, sugarcane, and papaya, among others.

But not everyone appreciates how widespread GE crops are in Hawaii. Many local Hawaiians are upset that their homeland, otherwise a natural paradise, is used for such risky activities. Most GE crops are designed to resist intensive chemical pesticides that kill most other plants. Around the state, vulnerable populations including kids and the elderly have suffered the effects of this type of chemical exposure resulting from the over-spraying of pesticides.

These issues aren’t unique to Hawaii. People all over the world are increasingly wary of GE products, even as the chemical companies insist they are safe. However, the information on long-term effects is still inconclusive. Consumers want to know what’s in their purchases. Chemical companies are denying them this right by refusing to label those products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Unfortunately, the state of Hawaii has hesitated to enact any legislation banning some of their most lucrative business ventures. Responsibility has fallen to the counties. Three Hawaiian counties initiated ordinances and moratoriums against additional GE crops and pesticide use in 2014. However, large companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sued to prevent these measures from being implemented, temporarily postponing these bans. While they did win their initial suit in late 2014, the counties have appealed the decision through the federal 9th circuit court of appeals in a trial which started this past June. The cases hinge on the concept of preemption, i.e. does the county legislation conflict with state rulings? The counties believe that the state’s acceptance of genetically engineered products does not mean that the counties cannot implement their own harsher regulations.

Whichever way the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decides will set an important precedent. If the court decides the federal law allowing GE products preempts the rights of the Hawaiian counties, any future GE bans would likely experience a similar ruling. However, the converse is also true. The judge allowing the counties to construct their own regulations regarding genetic engineering would pave the way for other counties and states to do the same. The cases will hopefully be resolved before the end of 2016. Safe to say, Hawaiians, chemical and agricultural companies and the rest of the nation will be watching.

Contacts: DOW Chemical,; Monsanto,; Syngenta,

Colonizing Mars
Colonizing Mars might be our best hope if humans ruin or outgrow Earth. Credit: Kevin Gill, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: How far along are we on efforts to support large numbers of people on the moon or other planets if our population gets too big or we ruin the environment here on Earth? — Barbara Christie, Hull, MA

As the human population swells and global warming compounds other environmental problems here on Earth, the notion of colonizing other planets is more appealing than ever. While we are far from being able to support human communities elsewhere in the solar system and beyond, environmentalists are increasingly interested in space exploration as one potential solution to our own earthly woes.

Mars is by far the most promising planet in the solar system on which we could support substantial human life. Currently, Mars is a desolate desert, but the so-called “red planet” once contained liquid water and perhaps harbored life. Many of the elements we depend upon to support life here on Earth, including carbon, silicon, iron and even frozen water, are present on Mars, giving researchers hope that one day some of us could hopscotch through space and set up shop there.

The first challenge of colonizing Mars is transportation. The furthest a manned mission has ever gone to date is the moon, and Mars is 140 times further away. Currently the biggest hurdle is the cost of spaceflight. But a new breed of private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have invested in making launching more efficient by streamlining manufacturing and even reusing rockets. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, claims he can reduce the cost of spaceflight 100-fold.

The best concrete plan for landing humans on Mars is called Mars Direct. Designed by aerospace engineer and Mars Society founder Bob Zubrin, this plan was rejected by NASA because it failed to fully utilize new technologies such as the International Space Station. Zubrin thinks we could get ourselves to Mars for only $55 billion, which seems like a bargain compared to the $250 billion figure suggested for a Mars landing back in 1969 after our first moon landing.

The most immediate problem for human habitation on Mars is the severe temperature. The average temperature on the surface of the red planet is -67° Fahrenheit compared to the balmy 61° here on Earth. Elon Musk suggests there are two ways to overcome this obstacle. The fast way would be by dropping nuclear weapons on Mars’ poles, while a slower solution would entail emitting huge amounts of carbon into the Martian atmosphere much as we are doing on Earth but to a larger extent. In theory, this carbon seeding plan would cause the atmosphere to grow and eventually shield much of the radiation that would otherwise be harmful to Martians. Since carbon dioxide is the main gaseous nutrient consumed by plants, it’s possible that many plants could thrive on Mars. Without competition, plants could take over the planet and put oxygen into the atmosphere, eventually making it possible for humans and other animals to populate Mars without oxygen masks.

There are still problems with colonizing Mars, however. Its low gravity would corrode human bones and giant storms rage across the currently barren planet. In sharp contrast, Earth is rich in resources and water, making it naturally habitable for plants and animals. Addressing the problems here on Earth will likely be easier than escaping them by fleeing to Mars or other planets.

Contacts: NASA,; Blue Origin,; SpaceX,; The Mars Society,

fusion reactor
The EU, US, China, India, Korea, Russia and Japan have all contributed to the ITER fusion reactor currently under construction in southern France.
Dear EarthTalk: What is fusion energy and why are environmentalists so bullish on it? — Mickey Brent, Milwaukee, WI

Nuclear fusion may be the most promising energy source that most of us have never heard of. Scientists first discovered fusion as a potential energy source in the 1930s and have been quietly working on it ever since. Only recently, given societal pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels, has fusion started to capture the attention of the media and policymakers-and now researchers are hoping the process can become a key source of safe, clean, reliable energy in the near future.

Nuclear fusion is the fusing of two atoms into one. Fusion is very different from fission, in which atoms are split in half. Although both emit energy, fusion emits much more. Fusion takes an immense amount of heat and pressure and is the reaction that happens inside of stars, including our own sun. The temperature at the center of the sun is around 15 million Kelvin (27 million degrees Fahrenheit)! Scientists have achieved temperatures of around 100 million degrees inside experimental fusion devices but have yet to make the process net energy positive. The issue with doing reactions at such high heats is that the heated substance cannot touch anything or the container will melt. Therefore, fusion reactions are done in a donut of floating plasma, suspended by magnetic fields.

When compared to other energy sources, fusion energy seems like it might be our best bet in the long term. Compared to fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, fusion is wildly more efficient and no more dangerous. Fusion is three to four times more efficient even than nuclear fission, without the downsides such as the risk of nuclear meltdown or dirty bombs. While nuclear fission requires uranium to function, fusion reactors only require deuterium, which occurs naturally in seawater, and tritium, which can be produced through a reaction of deuterium and lithium. These low raw material costs cause fusion to be considered a potential source of limitless energy. Due to the low radioactivity of fusion, even in the case of an explosion, radioactivity would be contained to the reactor site. Fusion reactors’ small input and extremely high output have made them a popular idea.

So what are the drawbacks of nuclear fusion? Or is it the perfect energy source? Most critics of fusion energy point to the timeline as its greatest weakness. The majority of projections see 2050 as the first year fusion reactors could be commercially available. This is too late for fusion energy to solve our current energy crisis. Some environmentalists claim that funding for fusion energy could be better spent on renewable sources such as solar and hydro that give us clean energy now. Another concern with fusion is public opinion. People tend to be wary of anything nuclear, if only because of the incredible devastation of nuclear bombs. While nuclear fusion is far safer than fission, many activists in France, for example, are protesting all forms of nuclear energy.

The biggest fusion energy project in the world is called the ITER which means “the way” in Latin. ITER is located in Southern France and funded by the European Union, the U.S., China, India, Korea, Russia and Japan. ITER will be a fusion reactor used for research and is currently under construction. Current plans are for ITER to be ready for the first test of plasma by 2025. The main other research on fusion energy is being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Though commercial fusion reactors are far from a reality, the abundant raw materials and high safety, paired with enormous energy output, make it an outstanding possibility for the future.

Contact: ITER,

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