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Toxic Towns: 6 Cases of Polluted Places

Every once in a while, an environmental disaster makes big news, but the effects remain years after the headlines have faded. Here are six stories of what human activity did to mess up Mother Nature.

1. Mossville, Louisiana

Mossville, Louisiana is a predominantly African-American community on the shores of Lake Charles. It is in Calcasieu Parish, home to 53 industrial facilities, mostly petrochemical plants. These facilities release nine million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment each year (the manufacturers say 2.5 million pounds) Residents have three times the national average amount of dioxin in their bodies, which the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry does not consider a health risk. Residents say the tests are misleading, as people from all over Calcasieu Parish were tested and Mossville residents should be tested separately. The EPA has Mossville under consideration for Superfund designation.

2. Butte, Montana

Copper mining in Montana went on for a hundred years before the Anaconda Mining Company began taking ore by the method of mountaintop removal in the 1950s. They shut down operations in 1983, leaving behind a huge hole that became known as the Berkeley Pit, where heavy metals and toxic chemicals collected from the mines. The Superfund site is estimated to contain 40 million gallons of polluted runoff. No fish or plants or even insects live there, but in 1995, a microscopic extremophile called Euglena mutabilis was found to flourish in the toxic sludge. Research on the protozoan may lead us to new ways of cleaning up polluted sites. Image by Flickr user SkyTruth.

3. Picher, Oklahoma

The ground under Picher is honeycombed with lead and zinc mine shafts and tunnels. The area provided metal for bullets and other uses in the first half of the 20th century. The industry left huge piles of chat, or leftover rock containing dangerous heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and cadmium all over the community. These metals and other chemicals permeate the air as dust that settles on everything, including the lungs of the residents. Picher is the location of the Tar Creek Superfund Site. Disagreements between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) who originally sold tribal land to mining companies, has stalled cleanup efforts. The mining companies are not contributing to the cleanup, as many of them have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, while the population is dwindling, some residents continue to live and raise families in Picher. Image by Flickr user peggydavis66.

4. Love Canal, New York

In the late 19th century, Love Canal was proposed as a planned community, a "utopian metropolis". But the developer only got as far as digging a large pit before giving up due to lack of people who actually wanted to live there. In 1920, Niagara Falls bought the pit and used it for a chemical dump. The US army disposed of waste from chemical warfare experiments in Love Canal's pit. Hooker Chemical acquired the property in 1947 and continued chemical disposal. By the 1950s, it was filled with 21,000 tons of toxic waste. Hooker Chemical covered it with clay and soil and declared it sealed. They sold it back to the city of Niagara Falls, which built a neighborhood on top. Residents noticed strange smells and odd illnesses, as well as a shockingly high rate of miscarriages and birth defects. It wasn't until 1978 that the extent of the area's toxicity was revealed when an investigation by the local newspaper led to federal attention. Tests showed inhabitants of Love Canal had chromosomal damage caused by environmental pollution. Over a thousand families were relocated, and the Superfund program was born out of the incident.

5. Times Beach, Missouri

Before 1985, a little over 2,000 people lived in Times Beach, a community just 17 miles from St. Louis. To keep dust down on the dirt roads, the town hired Russell Bliss to spray oil on them. From 1972 to 1976, Bliss treated the roads, using waste oil that he had obtained from Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, a company that manufactured Agent Orange. An investigation into Bliss' practices elsewhere led to testing of the soil in Times Beach in 1982. The roads had been paved over by then, but the EPA found dioxin levels in the soil that were 300 times the level considered safe at the time. Other toxins were also found. In 1985, the town was evacuated and disincorporated. Tons of soil were incinerated over the next few years, and the site is now the home of Route 66 State Park.

6. Silverton, Colorado

Silverton lies in San Juan County, an area once dotted with gold and silver mines. Water flows from the remains of the mines, carrying heavy metals out and into streams. Local volunteers have made great strides in cleaning up the polluted streams with artificial wetlands and barricades in some mines, but ran into a roadblock in The Clean Water Act. Provisions in the law would make the volunteers, by their acts, responsible for bringing the streams completely up to federal standards. The alternative is to do nothing and let water running from the mines return to their previous pollution levels. The passage of a Good Samaritan bill that would protect those who did not cause the initial pollution from liability while cleaning it up would put the volunteers back in business. Image by Wikimedia contributor Tewy.

This list barely scratches the surface of the many toxic towns in the US. Then there are those sites in which the damage and/or danger has yet to be discovered. You can check to see where the federal Superfund sites are near you.

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Health
Watch a Tree Release a Massive "Pollen Bomb" Into the Air
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In case your itchy, watery eyes hadn't already tipped you off, spring is in the air. Some trees release up to a billion pollen grains apiece each year, and instead of turning into baby trees, many of those spores end up in the noses of allergy sufferers. For a visual of just how much pollen is being released into our backyards, check out the video below spotted by Gothamist.

This footage was captured by Millville, New Jersey resident Jennifer Henderson while her husband was clearing away brush with a backhoe. He noticed one tree was blanketed in pollen, and decided to bump into it to see what would happen. The result was an explosion of plant matter dramatic enough to make you sniffle just by looking at it.

"Pollen bombs" occur when the weather starts to warm up after a prolonged winter, prompting trees and grasses to suddenly release a high concentration of pollen in a short time span. Wind, temperature, and humidity levels all determine the air's pollen count for any given day, but allergy season settles down around May.

After determining that your congestion is the result of allergies and not a head cold, there are a few steps you can take to stave off symptoms before they appear. Keep track of your area's pollen report throughout the week, and treat yourself with antihistamines or nasal spray on days when you know it will be particularly bad outside. You can also keep your home a pollen-free zone by closing all the windows and investing in an air purifier. Check out our full list of seasonal allergy-fighting tips here.

[h/t Gothamist]

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environment
The UK Wants to Ban Wet Wipes, And Parents Aren't Happy About It
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The United Kingdom has grown determined in recent years to reduce consumption of single-use products that pollute the environment. In April, fast food restaurant fans were dismayed to hear that plastic drinking straws are being phased out; plastic cotton swabs are also on the chopping block. Now, users of wet wipes that remove makeup and clean infant bottoms are looking at a future where reaching for one of the disposable cloths may not be so easy.

The BBC reports that wet wipes containing non-biodegradable plastic are being targeted for elimination in the coming years. The wipes contribute to “fatbergs,” giant impactions of waste that can slow or block movement in sewage systems. By some estimates, 93 percent of blockages are caused by consumers flushing the wet wipes into toilets despite package instructions to throw them in the garbage.

Not everyone is backing the move, however. Jeremy Freedman, who manufactures the wipes under the name Guardpack, says that the wipes are useful to health care workers and food preparation employees. He argues their use also conserves water normally reserved for handwashing.

The most vocal critics might be parents, who use the wipes to clean their baby’s bottom following a diaper change. Sentiments like “ban the fools that flush them!” are circulating on Twitter. The UK is looking to phase out the wipes and other problematic plastic products over the next 25 years.

[h/t BBC]

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