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In The News: PAHs, POPs, and Hydrocarbons In Our Air and Water

Hey, readers! For our blog blurb this week we’ll be looking at some interesting environmental discoveries made last week during the end of February. We’re also going to be talking about POPs (persistent organic pollutants) other than PCBs, as our team is currently at the Emerging Contaminants Summit in Westminster, CO this week!

Be sure to stop by our table at the stay tuned in tomorrow for our upcoming blog post on harmful POPs including PAHs, DDTs, and dioxins.

A writing published in the International Journal of Epidemiology last week explained that beachfront sea swimmers are much more likely to contract illness after swimming than those who stick to the shoreline. The findings were gathered from nearly samplings across nearly two dozen studies of shoreline waters in the UK, US, Norway, and Spain. Co-author of the research, Dr. Anne Leonard from the University of Exeter Medical School, said, “I think there is a perception in high income countries like the UK that the risk of experiencing illness following bathing in the sea is negligible, but what we found is that there is a significant increase in the chances of getting sick.”

A sign posted outside the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, CA advising beach-goers against swimming in sewage-contaminated ocean water. (source: San Diego Union Tribune, AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

While the data published in the research is unable to give a specific percentage in the chance of sea swimmers to get sick, it was found that swimmers were 86% more likely to fall ill after sea swimming than those who opted to remain on the shore. Of twelve separate studies, swimmers were 44% more likely to exhibit symptoms of diarrhea and 27% more likely to report stomach illness. A large portion of seagoing swimmers are also at higher risk for contracting illnesses relating to the E. Coli bacteria, as well as urinary tract infections.

The studies done mentioned that this reported increase of contracting illness from swimming in seawater is largely due to the presence of microorganisms from pollution due to “farm run-off and sewage.” This further exemplifies pollution issues in maritime waters we’ve discussed in prior posts, including last week’s blurb which centered primarily on plastic and microplastic pollution in oceans.

Refocusing efforts on POPs and contaminants with adverse effects to human and ecological health, one Virginia Tech professor has reportedly found a way to track reactions between carbon-based compounds and the air. Dr. Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz says the general focus of his work, “is to study the chemistry of how those tens of thousands of compounds interact with each other and change with time.”

Air pollution is a concern in communities downwind of manufacturing complexes and power plants. (source: CBC News, Antara Foto/Wahdi Setiawan via Reuters)

Carbon-based compounds are some of the oldest and most versatile chemical structures found in our Universe. Because carbon-based molecules are often versatile in makeup and structurally sound, they are able to change their chemical formula over time while retaining certain properties. One example of how carbon-based compounds change upon hitting the atmosphere are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, otherwise known as PAHs. PAHs have dozens of different chemical structures, but all consist of one or more molecules consisting entirely of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

PAHs are often found within carbon and/or hydrogen-rich gases. They can also be produced by burning fuels such as wood or coal which release gases high in carbon. As such, many manufacturing plants and industrial mills with high-temperature furnaces produce a greater quantity of carbon-rich gases, therefore increasing the chance of finding PAHs within the discharge of these gases.

Exhaust stacks from manufacturing and power plants produce vast amounts of carbon and hydrogen-rich gases. (source: Green And Growing)

Dr. Isaacman-VanWertz believes that his work may help allow scientists and communities to better understand how carbon-based compounds and pollutants released from power and manufacturing plants may change over time, allowing us to better understand what specific pollutants and POPs may affect communities downwind from the source.

Continuing on the topic of hydrocarbons, scientists at the University of York, with aid from scientists in Colorado and Oslo, have provided research stating that global levels of hydrocarbons found in our air and atmosphere may have been previously underestimated by as much as 50%. The data evaluated came from some twenty separate global observatories.

Professor Lucy Carpenter, co-author of the study from the Department of Chemistry at the University of York said, “If ethane and propane are being released at greater rates than we thought, then we also need to carefully re-evaluate how much of the recent growth of methane in the atmosphere may also have come from oil and natural gas development.”

Global emissions from vehicles contribute to total atmospheric levels of pollutants, including hydrocarbons. (source: Union of Concerned Scientists, USA)

The unintentional emissions that escape when fossil fuels are extracted, distributed and combusted are mixed with nitrogen and oxides from sources such as power plants and vehicle emissions. When combined, this forms ozone which makes up a large portion of hydrocarbons in the lowest levels of Earth’s atmosphere: the troposphere.

The second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, the stratosphere, “is desirable,” however, “ground level ozone has damaging consequences for ecosystems and human health.”

By properly understanding the extent of hydrocarbon contamination in the lower layers of atmosphere, scientists will be able to more accurately predict the effects it has on human health, predominantly in urban cities, as well as suburban and rural areas “known to be on the edge of the limits of safe exposure.”

Be sure to check the ecoSPEARS blog tomorrow, Wednesday March 7th, as we dive into more detail and science surrounding PAHs and other POPs.

As always, it doesn’t always matter where the answer to the world’s contamination issues begin – the solution comes from all of us.

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For more information on the articles mentioned in this post, please click the following links:

International Journal of Epidemiology

Dr. Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz’s Research

Natural Geoscience and Global Levels of Hydrocarbons

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