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From toxic prisons to sand’s scarcity, good reads for the holiday weekend

At the crossroads of mass incarceration and environmental injustice, nearly 600 U.S. prisons sit near Superfund sites — and inmates are getting sick.

Sand is needed for the construction of nearly everything that uses concrete or asphalt and, with increasing frequency, to rebuild storm-ravaged coastlines and levees.
REUTERS/Erik de Castro

As we head into the holiday weekend it occurs to me to offer for your attention some of the better long reads I’ve enjoyed lately on environmental topics.

So here are four standouts on subjects ranging from environmental health hazards in U.S. prisons to the looming world shortage of sand, from the biodiversity in your gut to how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Monsanto a pass on studying probable links between Roundup and cancer in mice. All were freely available Wednesday and should be still.

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At the crossroads of mass incarceration and environmental injustice — the practice of burdening poorer and/or nonwhite communities with a disproportionate share of pollution — sits much of America’s prison system, whose population has grown more than sevenfold since the 1970s.

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Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that prison administrators sometimes turn a blind eye to environmental conditions in and around their facilities. But the findings of a new investigation by Earth Island Journal and Truthout suggest that the health-threatening exposures are neither occasional nor unusual.

In Toxic Prisons, writers Candice Bernd, Zoe Loftus-Farren and Maureen Nandini Mitra report that “at least 589 federal and state prisons are located within three miles of a Superfund cleanup site on the National Priorities List, with 134 of those prisons located within just one mile.”

Many were simply built in a hurry on sites nobody else wanted, like the medium-security prison in Pennsylvania whose proximity to a massive coal-ash dump has tainted inmates’ air and water with heavy metals and other toxins.

In Texas, arsenic contamination prompted a federal court order directing a prison to provide inmates with safe drinking water. And at prisons across California, the soil-borne fungal disease known as valley fever has been a chronic problem:

In the past decade, more than 3,500 California prisoners have become sick from valley fever and more than 50 have died from it. Though infection rates decreased significantly after 2011, to fewer than 100 cases each in 2014 and 2015, last year saw another spike with 267 prisoners infected.

In 2011, a particularly bad year, infection rates for the highest risk California state prisons were dozens of times above those in nearby communities, according to Centers for Disease Control data. Although the fungus is poorly understood, researchers suspect that out-of-town prisoners bused to the Central Valley are especially susceptible because they are not native to the region. Locals may develop some kind of immunity that shields them from the worst valley fever symptoms.

California now offers to test prisoners for immunity and to transfer vulnerable inmates to lower-risk facilities. Like most official responses noted in the article, this one was ordered by the courts. Much less has happened to safeguard the population of the SCI Fayette prison at LaBelle, Pennsylvania:

The 237-acre men’s prison began operating in 2003 on one corner of what, in the 1940s through the 1970s, was one of the largest coal preparation plants in the world, where coal from nearby mines was washed and graded. The “cleaned” coal was then shipped off to power plants and other markets, while the remaining coal refuse was dumped on and around the hilly, 1,357-acre site. By the mid-1990s, when its owners filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the site, an estimated 40 million tons of coal refuse had been dumped there. At some places the waste piled up some 150 feet.

An inmate survey conducted by a Pittsburgh prisoner advocacy group called the Abolitionist Law Center ask about their health problems and found that:

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Eighty-one percent of the 75 prisoners who responded … claimed to suffer from respiratory, throat, and sinus conditions; 68 percent experienced gastrointestinal problems; 52 percent reported adverse skin conditions; and 12 percent said they were diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. The report also noted 11 of the 17 prisoners who died at SCI Fayette between 2010 and 2013 had died of cancer.

Contacted by the reporters for comment, prison officials said the facility meets OSHA-type safety standards, without providing data to back that up.

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David Owen’s gift for juxtaposing the odd little detail with the stunningly large issue, while maintaining tone of bemused fascination, are on ample display in his New Yorker piece, “The World Is Running Out of Sand.”

He begins with the logistically massive if socially trivial effort to obtain appropriate sand for internationally regulated beach-volleyball competitions, for which ordinary beach sand is rarely sufficient (too large and variable in grain size).

An event in Toronto last year required 1,360 tons of sand to be delivered in 35 semitrailer loads. But at least it came from a few hours away. Sand for the first European Games, held in Azerbaijan two years ago, was brought by sea from southern Turkey because moving it by road would have meant crossing potential combat zones in Syria and Iraq.

Elsewhere in the world, sand is moved much greater distances at much greater cost for the construction of nearly everything that uses concrete or asphalt and, with increasing frequency, to rebuild storm-ravaged coastlines and levees.

Sand covers so much of the earth’s surface that shipping it across borders—even uncontested ones—seems extreme. But sand isn’t just sand, it turns out. In the industrial world, it’s “aggregate,” a category that includes gravel, crushed stone, and various recycled materials. Natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water, and for many uses the right kind is scarce or inaccessible. In 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” which concluded that the mining of sand and gravel “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.”

Pascal Peduzzi, a Swiss scientist and the director of one of the U.N.’s environmental groups, told the BBC last May that China’s swift development had consumed more sand in the previous four years than the United States used in the past century. In India, commercially useful sand is now so scarce that markets for it are dominated by “sand mafias” — criminal enterprises that sell material taken illegally from rivers and other sources, sometimes killing to safeguard their deposits. In the United States, the fastest-growing uses include the fortification of shorelines eroded by rising sea levels and more and more powerful ocean storms — efforts that, like many attempts to address environmental challenges, create environmental challenges of their own.

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Aggregate is the main constituent of concrete (eighty per cent) and asphalt (ninety-four per cent), and it’s also the primary base material that concrete and asphalt are placed on during the building of roads, buildings, parking lots, runways, and many other structures. A report published in 2004 by the American Geological Institute said that a typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation, basement, garage, and driveway, and more than two hundred tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it. A mile-long section of a single lane of an American interstate highway requires thirty-eight thousand tons. The most dramatic global increase in aggregate consumption is occurring in parts of the world where people who build roads are trying to keep pace with people who buy cars. Chinese officials have said that by 2030 they hope to have completed a hundred and sixty-five thousand miles of roads — a national network nearly three and a half times as long as the American interstate system.

Windowpanes, wineglasses, and cell-phone screens are made from melted sand. Sand is used for filtration in water-treatment facilities, septic systems, and swimming pools. Oil and gas drillers inject large quantities of hard, round sand into fracked rock formations in order to hold the cracks open, like shoving a foot in the door. Railroad locomotives drop angular sand onto the rails in front of their wheels as they brake, to improve traction. Australia and India are major exporters of garnet sand, which is crushed to make an abrasive material used in sandblasting and by water-jet cutters. Foundries use sand to form the molds for iron bolts, manhole covers, engine blocks, and other cast-metal objects. I once visited a foundry in Arizona whose products included parts for airplanes, cruise missiles, and artificial hip joints, and I watched a worker pouring molten stainless steel into a mold that had been made by repeatedly dipping a wax pattern into a ceramic slurry and then into sand. The work area was so hot that I nervously checked my arm, because I thought my shirt was on fire. Factories that produce plate glass — by pouring thin layers of molten silica onto baths of molten tin — can be hotter.

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Moving from global geology to the body’s internal flora, I commend Kyle Frischkorn’s tour of the microbiome in the human gut, “You Are What You Eat, And What You Eat Is Millions of Microbes,” published in Smithsonian magazine.

“Poop is nothing short of a scientific miracle,” he begins, then makes his case with a quick survey of all we’ve learned by studying fresh human samples of same. I highlight that right away because this particular article might not be the one you save to read over lunch.

Much of it deals with Rob Knight, founder of the American Gut Project, which in the last five years has enlisted 9,000 volunteers to send cash and/or fecal samples to a research team which has now used DNA analysis to “create the first census of the 40 trillion or so bacteria that call our guts their home.”

The origins of those bacteria are well understood — we’re ingesting them all day long via food and all the other things we put into our mouths, not always with full awareness. What interests the researchers is understanding what drives an amazing diversity in gut microbiomes from one belly to the next.

For the study, volunteers had self-reported their diets, with the vast majority following omnivorous diets, and less than 3 percent each identifying as “vegetarian” or “vegan.” When researchers crunched the numbers, however, they found no discernible correlations between gut communities and those with seemingly similar diets. 

In other words, the bacteria in poop were telling a different dietary story than the people making that poop. “You can be a vegan who mostly eats kale, or you can be a vegan who mostly eats fries,” Knight explains. “Those have totally different consequences for your microbiome.” Anyone can claim to be a die-hard adherent to the Paleo Diet, it seems, but the data suggested that the microbiome remembers all those midnight ice cream transgressions.

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Every time you ingest, you change the interior landscape of you. Because the bulk of bacteria in the microbiome live in the gut, when we feed ourselves, we feed them too. The chemistry of what we eat, be it fries or kale, alters the chemical landscape of the gut, making it more cozy for some and less hospitable for others. 

It gets livelier. Because microbes are everywhere — on the table, in the air, on the surface of the muffin you left out on the counter — you’re also adding new microbes to the mix. Some stroll through your body like polite tourists. Others stick around and interact with the locals. Every bite has the potential to alter the microbiome, and subsequently human health. But researchers have yet to figure out how.

Ultimately the goal is to develop scientific understanding that will help people plan the best diets to fight disease and promote higher levels of health. In the meantime, it’s an exercise in pure science that is fundamentally redefining how we think of food and bacteria:

It’s not that all food has some bacteria on it, it’s that bacteria themselves are intrinsically and unavoidably a major component of food, inseparable from proteins and vitamins, micronutrients and fat.

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For all those who still believe the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency engages in needless regulatory nitpicking and anti-business obstructionism, please have a look at Carey Gillam’s article for Environmental Health News, “Of mice, Monsanto and a mysterious tumor.”

Over the next year or so, U.S. courts will begin to wade through heaps of lawsuits challenging Monsanto Co.’s position that glyphosate, aka Roundup, poses no human health risk if used correctly.

Which is important, considering the glyphosate’s No. 1 ranking for decades now among herbicides favored by farmers, public land managers and residential applicators. Also, considering that glyphosate routinely turns up in food and in human urine samples.

Gillam’s is a history piece and its focus is on research conducted in 1983 that proved inconvenient for Monsanto, and became the focus of a concerted effort by the company and like-minded EPA regulators to minimize its significance:

The two-year study ran from 1980-1982 and involved 400 mice divided into groups of 50 males and 50 females that were administered three different doses of the weed killer or received no glyphosate at all for observation as a control group. The study was conducted for Monsanto to submit to regulators. But unfortunately for Monsanto, some mice exposed to glyphosate developed tumors at statistically significant rates, with no tumors at all in non-dosed mice.

A February 1984 memo from Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist William Dykstra stated the findings definitively: “Review of the mouse oncogenicity study indicates that glyphosate is oncogenic, producing renal tubule adenomas, a rare tumor, in a dose-related manner.” Researchers found these increased incidences of the kidney tumors in mice exposed to glyphosate worrisome because while adenomas are generally benign, they have the potential to become malignant, and even in noncancerous stages they have the potential to be harmful to other organs. Monsanto discounted the findings, arguing that the tumors were “unrelated to treatment” and showing false positives, and the company provided additional data to try to convince the EPA to discount the tumors.

But EPA toxicology experts were unconvinced. EPA statistician and toxicology branch member Herbert Lacayo authored a February 1985 memo outlining disagreement with Monsanto’s position. A “prudent person would reject the Monsanto assumption that Glyphosate dosing has no effect on kidney tumor production,” Lacayo wrote. ”Glyphosate is suspect. Monsanto’s argument is unacceptable.”

Eight members of the EPA’s toxicology branch, including Lacayo and Dykstra, were worried enough by the kidney tumors in mice that they signed a consensus review of glyphosate in March 1985 stating they were classifying glyphosate as a Category C oncogen, a substance “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Monsanto then found scientists willing to re-examine the results and conclude, essentially, that the tumors occurred for reasons other than glyphosate exposure. The company also resisted EPA’s call for a repeat of the mouse study, and the regulators’ enthusiasm for the fight began to fade.

The discussions between Monsanto and the EPA dragged on until the two sides met in November 1988 to discuss the agency’s request for a second mouse study and Monsanto’s reluctance to do so. Members of the EPA’s toxicology branch continued to express doubts about the validity of Monsanto’s data, but by June of 1989, EPA officials conceded, stating that they would drop the requirement for a repeated mouse study.

By the time an EPA review committee met on June 26, 1991, to again discuss and evaluate glyphosate research, the mouse study was so discounted that the group decided that there was a “lack of convincing carcinogenicity evidence” in relevant animal studies. The group concluded that the herbicide should be classified far more lightly than the initial 1985 classification or even the 1986 classification proposed by the advisory panel. This time, the EPA scientists dubbed the herbicide a Group E chemical, a classification that meant “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans.”