The Flint Water Crisis

Flint water crisis

Unsafe levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water supply has led to an ongoing water crisis in the city. (Photo credit: Bill Pugilano/Getty Images)

In April 2014, the fateful decision to switch the city of Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River was made. The results of this decision were disastrous and the repercussions continue to affect the city’s citizens today.

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Breathing Badly in Beijing

Beijing pollution

The air quality is Beijing qualifies the city as one of the most polluted in the world. (Photo credit: beijingstory/E+/Getty Images)

Very few people who watched the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will forget the pageantry and spectacle of the event. Prior to the competition, however, a great deal of news coverage focused on the cleanup efforts that the Chinese government made to clean up the air surrounding Beijing. [Read more…]

The Environmental Price of Gold

open-pit gold mine

Open-pit gold mines change an environment significantly. (Photo credit: Corbis)

In January 2013, the price of gold reached over $1,660/ounce, up from just over $400/ounce just ten years earlier. The high price of gold has led to a global rush for the precious yellow metal. But the true price of gold, paid in damage to ecosystems and compromised health of miners, their communities, and possibly the global population, is little reported. If more people knew the true price of gold, it would quickly lose its luster.

Few people are aware that metal mining is the top polluter of all the world’s industries. Mines are often in remote areas, out of public view. However, in 2010, an estimate 3.93 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released from metal mines. And don’t forget the huge displacement of earth itself necessary for these large mining operations.

The gold deposits that are mined from the earth today are not big, shiny nuggets that can be panned from a stream. They are tiny deposits distributed across vast areas of rock. Today’s processing methods, combined with the high gold price and lack of accountability for cleanup, make the extraction of such small amounts of gold financially worthwhile to gold companies.

Now that much of the gold in the United States has been depleted, U.S. gold companies and those of other developed countries have moved on to other countries, including Ghana and Peru. Some countries have little regulation regarding gold mining. Others, like Peru, have strict mining laws, but lack enforcement.

The method of extraction used by large-scale gold mining companies is called open-pit mining. The process is similar for many types of metals. In open-pit mining, mountain-sized portions of land are blasted and the rubble piled into masses, some as tall as a 30-story building. As much as 60 tons of rock may be destroyed to yield just a single ounce of gold. One crater produced by a gold mine operation in Utah is two and a half miles wide and a mile deep! It can literally be seen from space.

After blasting, natural substances in the rock, including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, copper, and lead, enter the environment in quantities much higher than those found naturally. Sulfur in the blasted rock forms sulfuric acid once it is exposed to air and water. Sulfuric acid is commonly known as the pollutant found in acid rain. However, the acid waste from mining, known as AMD (acid mine drainage), is 20-300 times more concentrated than acid rain. AMD travels to streams and rivers where it kills aquatic life for miles.

Once in the environment, the substances become a permanent part of ecological cycles. In this way, substantial lead and mercury have entered human food webs. Both mercury and lead are well-known neurotoxins. Fish in northern California are still contaminated from AMD even though a mine there shut down 50 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land just in the U.S. alone have been similarly affected from past gold mines. The full impact of AMD on ecosystems and human health is not yet known. However, in a recent study of thousands of fish from hundreds of streams across the U.S., mercury was found in every single fish.

To extract the gold from the rock pile, the ore undergoes a process called leaching. In leaching, a solution containing the poison cyanide is sprayed over the rock piles. Cyanide binds to gold ions, carrying them to the base of the heap over the course of a few months, where the gold and solution is collected in pipes. Some mines use several tons of cyanide a day. The cyanide solution can leak, joining the minerals and sulfuric acid in the pollution of ground and surface water.

The semi-solid mixtures of rock and liquid waste that are left after gold has been removed are called tailings. Although they continue to accumulate, no good method of disposing tailings exists as of yet. Tailings are often bulldozed into dams, but the dams can fail. Sometimes tailings are dumped into rivers, changing their flow and killing wildlife. Such “riverine tailing disposal” practices have been banned in most developed countries but still happen illegally and continue to occur in developing countries. Other mines dump tailings directly into the ocean, devastating coastal ecosystems. Newer practices involve pumping tailings deeper into the ocean so as to avoid coral reef communities. These practices, however, may do more to hide problems from view than prevent them.

Gold mining also consumes an incredible amount of energy and fresh water. It is estimated that as much energy is used in gold mining as would supply over 25 million average American homes for a year.

In addition to the large-scale mining of gold, the phenomenon of small-scale gold mining has exploded globally. About 25 percent of the world’s gold presently comes from small-scale mining. This type of mining, known as “artisanal mining” is happening in some of the poorest corners of the world, often illegally, by people with few other options for employment.

The methods used in artisanal mining are even cruder than those of large-scale mining. In a process known as amalgamation, gold is extracted from silt by heating it with mercury. Sometimes amalgamation is done by families, even children, in their own homes, using the same pots they use for cooking. When mercury enters the food chain, it bioaccumulates. Like the other pollutants of gold mining, once mercury has entered an ecosystem, it doesn’t go away.

More to Explore

No Dirty Gold Campaign

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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In 1997, Charles Moore had just finished a sailing race in Hawai’i and decided to take a different route traveling back to California than most sailors do. He sailed through a region that is sometimes known as “the doldrums” due to the region’s light winds. More scientifically, the area is called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG). A gyre is an area of circulating currents that is usually very calm at its center. Moore sailed through the eastern region of the NPSG. He might have expected some slow travel though the area, but what he didn’t expect was to be surrounded by pieces of plastic floating in the water. His discovery of what is now known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” led Moore to dedicate his life to educating people about the role all of us play in literally trashing the oceans.

Moore isn’t the only person interested in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since its discovery, scientists around the world have taken notice. This region has few big mammals or predatory fish, but it is rich in phytoplankton and zooplankton. It also contains what amounts to millions of pounds of trash, most of it plastic. To make matters worse, there is more than one patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of both the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawai’i and California and another, the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Japan and Hawai’i. Running between the two patches is a thin, 6,000 mile current called the Subtropical Convergence Zone. This zone acts like an interstate highway, carrying trash along the current to the two gyres that make up the eastern and western garbage patches.  The Subtropical Convergence Zone, unlike the garbage patches, is rich in many types of sea life. In addition, there is also a garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, there are five or six major gyres in the world’s oceans, so it is likely that there are even more garbage patches out there.

Where is all this garbage coming from? Some comes from the fishing industry. Abandoned fishing nets are dangerous to sea life and are estimated to make up about 10 percent of the trash in the oceans. Somewhere around another 10 percent is from the shipping industry. Accidents at sea cause entire shipping containers full of goods to be overturned into the ocean. The world’s military ships and recreational boaters are to blame for a percentage of the garbage too. But much of the trash comes from land. The 2011 tsunami in Japan has added to the ocean debris. Beachgoers that leave behind trash and belongings in the sand also are to blame. And all of the plastic that we use, from laundry detergent bottles and toothbrushes to grocery sacks, typically gets tossed into a landfill. Winds blow and carry trash into streams and rivers, or blow out of garbage trucks and eventually blow offshore. It can take six years for trash from the west coast of the United States to make it to the Western Pacific Garbage Patch. It takes about a year for trash from Asia to reach the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. Regardless of the time at sea, plastic does not disintegrate. Microbes, which are responsible for biodegrading most materials, do not consider plastic as food. Plastic does, however, photodegrade. That means it breaks down in the sunlight. Most non-plastic trash will settle down to the ocean floor. Plastic, however, floats and is carried along the currents, exposed to the sun all the while.

Because the plastic breaks down in ever-smaller pieces, by the time it reaches the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, most of it is no longer identifiable. The garbage patches cannot even be seen from aerial photos, because the pieces are so small and many float below the surface of the ocean. This aspect also makes cleaning up the patches almost impossible. The currents change with the seasons, making even the size and shape of the garbage patches hard to measure and their locations tough to pinpoint. Scooping up the plastic with nets would also remove at least as many plankton as plastic pieces from the ocean, and plankton are the foundation of the marine food chain. In fact, seabirds such as albatrosses often think the plastic is plankton or other food, and they feed it to their chicks. Many thousands of albatross chicks are killed every year by ingesting large amounts of the tiny pieces of plastic. The plastics can also contain hazardous toxins from the colorants and plasticizers used to produce them. They also absorb toxins already in the ocean, concentrating them and introducing them to our food supply when we eat fish that has eaten plastic. Science has many questions yet to answer about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other marine garbage patches, but everyone is clear on one point. Plastics do not belong in our oceans.


1. Any attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch would be extremely costly and almost impossible. Also, no country wants to be solely responsible for the task since the trash is not within the boundary of any nation. What actions can every person take to prevent more trash from making it to the ocean, even if they do not live by a coast?

2. There have been claims that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is larger than the United States, while other researchers claim that the actual trash accumulation is closer to 1 percent the size of Texas. What are factors that make the garbage patch so hard to measure?

3. Scientists studying the Atlantic Garbage Patch were surprised at research findings that it has not increased in size since the mid-1980s. What are factors that might explain it has remained the same size for the past 30 years?  What are possible factors in their research methods that might make these results inaccurate?

4. Another effect of having tiny bits of plastic floating on and near the ocean’s surface is that it blocks out the sunlight for the phytoplankton, possibly threatening their populations and lowering the amount of global oxygen available. What could be the effects of a significant decrease in phytoplankton on marine food chains? Use specific examples in your answer.

5. Before the plastics break down into tiny pieces, they still cause many hazards to sea life. What hazards might trash such as plastic bags and soda rings cause to sea turtles, seals, and other sea life?

6. Some scientists feel that the claims by other researchers about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are exaggerated. What would be the possible danger to exaggerating findings to the public in order to get their attention?

More to Explore

Why is the world’s largest landfill in the Pacific Ocean?
Demystifying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”

The World’s Largest Dump: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Drowning in Plastic: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Twice the Size of France
What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?

Points of View: Pipelines and Oil Sands

oil sands

Oil sands are mixtures of oil, clay, sand, and water. Many large deposits of oil sands are located in Canada.

The world needs oil. Oil is best known for its use as a fuel, but it also is used to make plastics, lubricants, and many chemicals. For decades, oil has been inexpensive and has been treated as an almost inexhaustible resource.

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Society and the Environment: Gold from Ghana

Geologists and miners inspect core samples at an underground gold mine in Obuasi, Ghana.The world market price of gold rose from $260 to $1,730 per ounce between 2001 and 2012. Most people don’t think about it, but the environmental and social consequences of this price increase have been substantial. This is especially true in countries where many people live in poverty. The situation in Ghana illustrates the complex interplay of societal and environmental processes that can lead to local crises or, alternatively, show cause for …hope.

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Society and the Environment: Killer Smog

killer smog

This historical photo captures the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, as it is enveloped in smog at noon on Saturday, October 28, 1948.

For the residents of the small Monongahela Valley town of Donora, Pennsylvania, living with the smoke that billowed from the local zinc smelter was an everyday occurrence— until October 26, 1948. On that night, a temperature inversion and an absence of wind began to trap a deadly mixture of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and metal dust that would hang in the valley air for five days. Over that period of time, 20 residents lost their lives and 7,000 other residents—about half of the town’s population—suffered some form of respiratory problems.

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