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Tennessee River Microplastic Soup Shocks Scientists

Looking north from the top of Lookout Mountain over the Tennessee Valley, the Tennessee River winds through the city of Chattanooga, March 31, 2018 (Photo by GT Photos) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Looking north from the top of Lookout Mountain over the Tennessee Valley, the Tennessee River winds through the city of Chattanooga, March 31, 2018 (Photo by GT Photos) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee, October 11, 2018 (Maximpact.com News) – Dr. Andreas Fath, professor of medical and life sciences at Germany’s Furtwangen University, broke a world record in 34 days this summer by swimming all 652 miles of the Tennessee River, from its headwaters in Knoxville, Tennessee, to its mouth in Paducah, Kentucky.

He was determined to perform the first comprehensive analysis of the Tennessee River’s water quality, and his swim turned out to be the most extensive interdisciplinary water quality survey ever conducted of North America’s most biologically diverse river.

Breaking world swimming records is familiar territory to Dr. Fath, who in 2014 broke the world record for speed swimming the Rhine River from the Swiss Alps through Germany to the North Sea.

In 2014, Fath and his team of scientists analyzed the Rhine for more than 600 substances and found that concentrations of persistent pollutants increased as they moved downstream.

“We found the great blockbusters in the Rhine,” Fath says, “from artificial sweeteners to residues of dishwasher tabs.” This means that many substances we use in our everyday lives survive wastewater treatment and end up in waterways.

Nicknamed TenneSwim, Fath’s second swim for science revealed the high concentration of microplastics in the Tennessee River, summer 2018 (Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium) Posted for media use.

Nicknamed TenneSwim, Fath’s second swim for science revealed the high concentration of microplastics in the Tennessee River, summer 2018 (Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium) Posted for media use.

This summer, Dr. Fath was able to compare the Tennessee River’s water quality to what he found in Germany’s Rhine River four years ago.

The levels of some chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, were lower in the Tennessee than in the Rhine.

The Tennessee River appears cleaner than the Rhine in some ways. When Fath emerged from the Tennessee after 34 days of swimming, he was free of infections, despite swimming with open wounds. By comparison, during his 2014 swim of the Rhine, Fath became sick with nausea and diarrhea from an infection.

Fath and his team found large quantities of microplastics in the Rhine. But the high levels of microplastic pollution in the Tennessee River set all his alarm bells ringing.

Fath collected samples from the Tennessee River with microplastic concentrations 8,000 percent higher than those found in the Rhine.

The levels of microplastic on the surface of the Tennessee were also 80 percent higher than in China’s Yangtze River, which a recent study found to be the source of 55 percent of all river-borne microplastic entering the ocean.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters in diameter. They easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in rivers and eventually in the oceans, posing a potential threat to aquatic life.

Aquatic birds and animals can mistake microplastics for food. Ingesting the tiny particles can prevent some species from consuming their natural prey, leading to starvation and death. Microplastics also have been found to cause reproductive complications in oysters.

Pollutants such as pesticides and manufacturing chemicals can adhere to microplastic particles and bioaccumulate in aquatic life, according to Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana that has amassed one of the largest and most diverse global microplastic pollution datasets, called the Global Microplastics Initiative.

“I did not expect such high levels of microplastics. Therefore, we triple-checked the results,” Fath says of the Tennessee River. “By looking for a reason, we rather quickly made a plausible guess.”

Despite the similar length of the Rhine and the Tennessee, he says, the dramatic difference between the levels of microplastic is likely due to differing approaches to waste management and recycling.

Analysis of Fath’s water samples from the Tennessee River suggests the primary source of microplastic pollution there is not from microbeads, minute plastic spheres found in many cosmetic products and a primary source of microplastic pollution worldwide.

Instead, Fath says the high levels are a byproduct of decomposition from large plastic waste in landfills.

“In Germany, plastic waste is collected separately, and then it’s combusted, recycled or exported to other countries like China, Vietnam, Thailand or Malaysia,” he says. “In the states bordering the Tennessee River, plastic waste is going to landfills. More than 100 million straws each day are going to landfills.”

“Once the land is filled with plastic waste, it breaks up, step by step, with the help of microorganisms, ultraviolet light and mechanical forces,” says Fath. “At the end of the day, the plastic is flushed into rivers as secondary microplastic.”

River-borne microplastic is a major contributor to microplastic in the oceans.

Overlooking the Tennessee River at Signal Mountain, October 18, 2016 (Photo by csm242000 Photography) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Overlooking the Tennessee River at Signal Mountain, October 18, 2016 (Photo by csm242000 Photography) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

“By some measures the Tennessee River appears to have fairly good water quality. The high levels of microplastic particles are the real shocker,” says Dr. Martin Knoll, professor of geology and hydrology at Sewanee: The University of the South.

“A major contributing factor must be the abundant plastic waste we all see on roadsides,” said Dr. Knoll. “This plastic can easily make its way underground through the porous limestone and quickly move into the river.”

If the rate of microplastic entering the oceans is left unchecked, scientists predict there could be more plastic particulate than fish in the oceans by 2050.

One of Fath’s many sponsors is the Tennessee Aquarium, situated on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, and a member of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership. This consortium of 22 aquariums was formed last year to take the lead in combating microplastic pollution by eliminating single-use plastics in their operations and encouraging similar lifestyle changes in their visitors.

“We hope that, through our own efforts to stem the tide of microplastics, all of our guests will look for ways they can join us in reducing the amount of plastics in our aquatic environments,” says Dr. Anna George, the Tennessee Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education. “The solution to plastic pollution is in our hands.”

Given the levels of microplastics and the presence of industrial chemicals that have been outlawed in Europe for years, the Tennessee River is not healthy for the aquatic species that live in the waterway and its many tributaries.

“Based on the findings, it is not a healthy river at all,” Fath says. “The microplastic concentration, together with the chemical cocktail found in the river, is not a good combination for aquatic life in the Tennessee River.”

More than 1,400 aquatic species live in waterways within a 500-mile radius of Chattanooga. The Tennessee River and its many tributaries are inhabited by more than 230 fishes. There are more than 100 freshwater mussels, and more than 70 crayfishes – 90 percent of all American mussels and crayfish species.

The watershed holds more than 150 turtle and more than 50 salamander species – 80 percent of North America’s salamander species and half its turtle species. Many communities rely on the Tennessee River for drinking water, including Chattanooga, Knoxville and Huntsville.

Fath says the ecological damage to the Tennessee River could still be curbed. He suggests implementation of a treatment step in sewage plants to reduce the release of trace substances and legislation to reduce and control release limits for industries, agriculture and hospitals.

To curb the pandemic of microplastic pollution, he suggests encouraging wider scale adoption of recycling programs and a nationwide reduction in the use of single-use plastic items like shopping bags and straws.

“Plastic is a smart and important material in industries with a lot of economic benefits,” Fath says. “We appreciate its durability, but it is madness to use this non-degradable material for packaging of articles which are only used for minutes or hours. If we do not change that, we are going to wrap up the world with plastic.”

Featured Image: The Tennessee River as it flows through Chattanooga, Tennessee, April 3, 2010 (Photo by csm242000 Photography) Creative Commons license via Flickr


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World Leaders Pledge Pollution-free Planet

Assembly participants have fun with the #BeatPollution sculpture in front of the conference venue. December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

Assembly participants have fun with the #BeatPollution sculpture in front of the conference venue. December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

By Sunny Lewis

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 7, 2017 (Maximpact.com News) – “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe,” said Dr. Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Costa Rica’s minister of environment and energy and the president of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly.

“The science we have seen at this assembly shows we have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes,” said Gutiérrez.

More than 4,000 heads of state and government, ministers, business leaders, UN officials, civil society representatives, activists and celebrities gathered at the summit in Nairobi, which ran for three days, through December 6.

They committed to a pollution-free planet, with resolutions and pledges promising to improve the lives of billions by cleaning up air, land and water.

Government ministers called for “rapid, large-scale and co-ordinated action against pollution” on Wednesday, capping the UN Environment Assembly with a strong commitment to protect human health and our common environment from an existential threat.

For the first time at a UN Environment Assembly, environment ministers issued a declaration. This declaration said nations would honor efforts to prevent, mitigate and manage the pollution of air, land and soil, freshwater, and oceans, which harms our health, societies, ecosystems, economies, and security.

“We the world’s ministers of the environment, believe that every one of us should be able to live in a clean environment. Any threat to our environment is a threat to our health, our society, our ecosystems, our economy, our security, our well-being and our very survival,” they said in a declaration after the three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The declaration committed to increasing research and development, targeting pollution through tailored actions, moving societies towards sustainable lifestyles based on a circular economy, promoting fiscal incentives to move markets and promote positive change, as well as strengthening and enforcing laws on pollution.

Environmental leaders, from left: Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and UNEA President Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica, take a selfie for the #BeatPollution campaign. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

Environmental leaders, from left: Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and UNEA President Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica, take a selfie for the #BeatPollution campaign. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

A large part of the impact from the assembly comes from global support. UN Environment’s #BeatPollution campaign hit almost 2.5 million pledges during the event, with 88,000 personal commitments to act.

If every promise made in and around the summit comes is fulfilled, 1.49 billion more people will breathe clean air, 480,000 kilometers, or around 30 percent, of the world’s coastlines will be clean, and US$18.6 billion for research and development and innovative programs to combat pollution will come online.

The assembly also passed 13 non-binding resolutions and three decisions. Among them were moves to address marine litter and microplastics, prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism.

“Today we have put the fight against pollution high on the global political agenda,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “We have a long struggle ahead of us, but the summit showed there is a real appetite for significant positive change.”

“It isn’t just about the UN and governments, though,” said Solheim. “The massive support we have seen from civil society, businesses and individuals – with millions of pledges to end pollution – show that this is a global challenge with a global desire to win this battle together.”

Chile, Oman, South Africa and Sri Lanka all joined the #CleanSeas campaign during the Nairobi summit. Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India, promised to implement a ban on single-use plastic products from January 1, 2018, step up the separation and recycling of waste, and set the goal of freeing its ocean and coasts of pollution by 2030.

There are now 39 countries in the #CleanSeas campaign.

Colombia, Singapore, Bulgaria, Hungary and Mongolia joined 100 cities that were already in the #BreatheLife campaign, which aims to tackle air pollution. Every signatory has committed to reduce air pollution to safe levels by 2030, with Singapore promising to tighten fuel and emissions standards for vehicles, and emissions standards for industry.

The global momentum comes not a moment too soon, as the UN Environment report, “The Executive Director’s Report: Towards a Pollution-Free Planet,” sets forth.

Overall, environmental degradation causes nearly one in four of all deaths worldwide, or 12.6 million people a year, and the widespread destruction of key ecosystems. Air pollution is the single biggest environmental killer, claiming 6.5 million lives each year.

Exposure to lead in paint causes brain damage to 600,000 children annually.

The seas already contain 500 dead zones with too little oxygen to support marine life. Over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning the fields where food is grown and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people.

There is also a huge economic cost of pollution. A recent report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says that welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at over US$4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2 percent of global economic output.

Curbing pollution is vital to protecting the natural systems that not only underpin the livelihoods of billions of people, but also sustain all life on Earth, wrote Executive Director Solheim in his report. “Biodiversity is under threat as never before.”

“Animals and plants, including species vital to many poorer communities, are suffering from the effects of pollution, including from the vast amounts of untreated waste emanating from households and industry. The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is having severe unintended effects, decimating the populations of beneficial insects such as bees and destroying the ecosystems of rivers and lakes and creating hundreds of coastal ‘dead zones’ devoid of fish,” wrote Solheim.

Pollution is not a new phenomenon nor is action to counter it, wrote Solheim. But now, he points out, “there is a need – and an opportunity – to dramatically step up our ambition.”

Science is delivering great advances in our understanding of pollution and its impacts on people, economies and the environment. Citizens are more aware than ever before of how pollution developing the technology to tackle these problems at all scales, from local to global. Financiers are increasingly ready to support them, while international bodies and forums, including the United Nations, stand ready to help channel this momentum and turn it into firm action.”

And firm action is built on a firm foundation of funding.

Solheim advocates “system-wide action to transform the economy,” building circularity and resource efficiency into production processes and supply chains.

The market for environmental goods and servicesm including pollution control, is expected to grow to more than US$2.2 trillion by 2020, Solheim said.

“Opening markets for these goods and services will allow international trade and investment, stimulate innovation, reduce costs and make pollution technologies more accessible to developing countries. Ecosystems can be harnessed to provide

many pollution control and management services.

“As consumption rises and populations grow, pollution increases,” wrote Solheim. “We need to find a way to live well and live lightly. All parts of society have a role to play.”

As the assembly closed on Wednesday, Solheim said the event was an “astonishing success.”

The challenge now is “how do we translate that into real changes in people’s lives. That is what matters,” Solheim said at the closing news conference. He identified plastic pollution, air quality and chemicals as priority areas for immediate action.

Download the Ministerial Declaration here  and the final resolutions here.

The next UN Environment Assembly is expected in two years’ time.


Featured Image: Participant in the UN Environment Assembly carries her message with her, December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy UN Environment) posted for media use

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