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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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California Startup Pays Users to Consume Less Energy
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You may know that turning off the lights when leaving a room or lowering the thermostat before bed are smart habits, but with no way to see their immediate impact, they can be hard to keep. OhmConnect is built around the premise that more people would follow through with these actions if they had a little motivation. As Fast Company reports, the San Francisco-based startup rewards California residents for their green choices with real cash.

The mission of the company is to prevent energy grids from using costly and dirty emergency power plants by encouraging customers to conserve power when demand outweighs supply. During “OhmHours,” users receive a text suggesting energy-saving practices. They can choose to opt out or agree to make an effort to lower their consumption. If their usage in the next hour is lower than the average for their home on that type of day (weekdays are compared to the weekday average; weekends to the weekend average) they receive points which can be redeemed for money. The more people participate on a regular basis, the more points they’re able to earn.

Participants in homes equipped with smart devices like a Nest thermostat or Belkin smart switches can program them to automatically consume less during those times. Nearly a fifth of the user base chooses some type of automatic response.

Someone living in a small apartment participating once a week has the potential to make $40 to $50 a year, while a family living in a larger home can earn up to $200. The California energy grid has also reaped the benefits: Since launching in 2014, OhmConnect has saved the state a total of 100 megawatts (the equivalent of not running two emergency power plants at high-demand times). California residents who get their energy through Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, or San Diego Gas & Electric can sign up to participate online. If you don’t live in the state but are interested in the service, you may get a chance to try it out soon: OhmConnect plans to expand to Texas, Toronto, and potentially the East Coast.

[h/t Fast Company]

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7 Eco-Friendly Options for Your Body After Death
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You drive a hybrid. You eat local. You recycle. But odds are your deathcare choices won’t reflect this eco-friendly lifestyle. Though it’s not likely to be discussed at a funeral, the popular methods of body disposal—traditional burial and cremation—both pose major environmental hazards.

According to the Natural Death Centre, a single cremation uses about as much gas and electricity as a 500-mile road trip. The process also emits around 250 pounds of carbon dioxide, as much as the average American home produces in about six days.

Traditional burial is arguably worse from an environmental perspective: Casket burials and the associated materials use 100,000 tons of steel and 1.5 million tons of concrete each year, as well as some 77,000 trees and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid. There is also worry that some of that carcinogenic embalming fluid eventually leaks into the earth, polluting water and soil.

Historically speaking, the only after-death options available were natural ones, but those fell out of favor in the United States with the rise of the industrial age, embalming, and the professionalization of funeral director as a career. In recent years, natural interment has made a comeback, with promises to protect the planet and pocketbook alike—green burial also happens to be more affordable, on the whole.

Here are seven eco-friendly ways to make your last act on earth a kind one.

1. THE MUSHROOM BURIAL SUIT

Humans love eating mushrooms. Coeico founder and creator of the mushroom burial suit Jae Rhim Lee wants it the other way around. She’s created a pair of head-to-toe “ninja pajamas” lined with special mushroom spores to suit—and eventually consume—a dead body. The mushrooms, she says, are specially trained to devour dead human tissue.

The human body is filled with toxins that can be returned to the atmosphere in cremation and other forms of body disposal. Mushrooms have a knack for absorbing and purifying such toxins—a process known as mycoremediation—leaving the earth cleaner than they found it. Once the tissue is broken down, according to Lee, the mushrooms transmit the nutrients from the body to an intricate network of fungi in the soil that passes the sustenance on to trees. That means your last act could be feeding the forest with your now-purified remains. It’s an appealing thought for the green at heart, even though “eaten by mushrooms” may not be exactly how they pictured going out.

2. AQUAMATION

The slightly wavy surface of blue water
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With aquamation—also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis—the body is placed in a stainless steel vessel filled with a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. A combination of rushing alkaline waters and temperatures around 350°F causes the body to dissolve in essentially the same process that happens to a body left on the earth or in a stream—only what would take months in nature takes about 20 hours in an aquamation pod. By the end, all that’s left is the skeleton, or parts thereof, which is ground up into a white powder with a pearly sheen. The remains are given to the loved ones, who may choose to scatter them like ashes or place them in a biodegradable urn. Advocates say the process emits about a fifth of the carbon dioxide of traditional cremation. Aquamation was legalized in California in late 2017, joining 14 other U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.

3. BODY FARMS

In the early 1970s, anthropologist William Bass wanted to study how bodies decompose naturally. Using donated cadavers, he created a “farm” for forensic anthropologists to study a wide array of body decomposition scenarios. What does it look like if a body rots in a swamp? If it’s eaten by maggots? Crows? Welcome to the body farm, where disturbing dreams come true.

Texas lays claim to the largest body farm in the U.S., located on Freeman Ranch at Texas State University. The body farm is responsible for massive developments in criminal science and thanatology (the study of death); it’s aided in critical discoveries including the “microbial clock”—a process by which time of death can be precisely identified by examining the posthumous microbiome.

Needless to say, the body farm is a huge win for detectives and scientists alike. People can donate their bodies to a local body farm to further research (and save a good chunk of change on interment). There are seven currently operating in the United States, with more planned soon.

4. SKY BURIAL

A vulture flying near a sky burial site in Tibet
Lyle Vincent, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In Tibet and other areas nearby, Buddhists practice a death ritual meant to encourage good karma. They take bodies to charnel grounds where vultures come to eat the flesh, offering back to the world what was taken in life: meat. It's believed that the practice encourages the dead to move along to the next life without being held back by one’s greatest attachment—their physical body. Ritual aside, it’s a practical answer due to the scarcity of wood and usable burial grounds (the rocky earth makes it hard to dig).

5. GREEN BURIAL

For those who would prefer not to be consumed by vulture nor spore, there’s a more traditional option. Green burial looks pretty much like a normal burial, accept for a few important differences. No embalming fluids or toxic chemicals of any kind can be used. The grave is often dug by hand (either by the green burial ground staff or, if they choose, the loved ones themselves). There is no cement plot. Only biodegradable caskets, such as wicker ones, can be used, or the body is simply placed in an unbleached cloth shroud. This allows the corpse to decompose naturally, returning its sustenance to the Earth. Many green burial grounds also act as wildlife refuges, creating safe spaces for animals and native plant life—families can choose from a variety of live, wild grasses and flowers to adorn the grave.

Aside from being environmentally friendly, this is a cheaper option than traditional burial considering the price tags on caskets, embalming, etc. While prices around the country vary, according to Undertaking LA—a mortuary that promotes green burial—the average funeral in Los Angeles is over $8000 not including the burial plot, whereas they offer green burial for under $7000 including the plot itself.

6. SEA BURIAL

Neil Armstrong's widow being presented with the U.S. flag during the astronaut's burial at sea
Neil Armstrong's widow being presented with the U.S. flag during the astronaut's burial at sea
NASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following in the tradition of Vikings, naval officers, and pirates alike, those who loved the ocean in life can return in death with a sea burial. In addition to the countless water-soluble urns on the market, an entire body can be set to sea in designated areas off the U.S. coast. Though some burials involve dropping an entire modified casket to the ocean floor, environmentally inclined businesses like New England Burials at Sea offer more eco-friendly (and affordable) options such as natural burial shrouds hand-sewn by New England sail makers. A full day charter takes your funeral party out to sea, facilitating the open or closed casket service before dropping the body. Companies such as Eternal Reefs can also mix cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to create artificial reefs that support marine life. Not everyone would want to sleep with the fishes, but many sailors consider it the most sacred of exits.

7. RECOMPOSING

A maple leaf on a background of compost
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Body composting, or recomposition, could be the future of green burial—at least once it’s legal. Seattle-based architecture grad Katrina Spade got a lightbulb idea in 2012: Could she create a space and method for returning bodies to the earth naturally, sans concrete, steel, and carcinogens? The answer came in the form of human composting, the process of transforming bodies into soil, naturally.

Farmers have practiced livestock composting for decades. Wood chips and moisture and breeze combine to expedite the natural process of decay into nutrient-rich soil. Spade has begun a pilot project at Washington State University with bodies pledged by elderly and terminally ill fans of her cause.

If and when human composting is legalized, the Urban Death Project dreams of a brick-and-mortar recomposing facility. Families will ceremonially lower the shrouded corpse into the recomposing vessel and cover it with wood chips as they say goodbye. As soon as 30 days later, they can collect the remains, now transformed into (roughly) a cubic yard of soil, which they could then take home and use in their garden.

BONUS: BOG BODIES

Someone wading through a soggy peat marsh, or bog, in Ireland may be in for a real surprise—a perfectly preserved, if oddly tanned, corpse from another century. Why? The peat in the marsh creates a highly acidic environment that preserves flesh. So, while the alkaline waters of aquamation will dissolve a body post-haste, the acids from the bogs give a pH akin to that of vinegar. This acts like a pickling agent, freezing the body in time—some bog bodies are dated back as far as 8000 BCE. Sphagnan, a polymer produced by decaying sphagnum moss, is largely to thank for this phenomenon because of the way it binds to nitrogen and slows the growth of bacteria. The tannins in the peat act as a brown dye giving the bodies their leathery color. OK, it probably isn’t the next big trend in green burial, but bog mummification has been naturally preserving bodies for centuries sans greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals alike.

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