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Toxic Towns: 6 Cases of Polluted Places

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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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Check Out This Online Database to See Which Chemicals Are in Your Tap Water
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One of the responsibilities of the Environmental Protection Agency is imposing limits on the amount of harmful chemicals allowed in tap water. But sometimes these regulations aren't enough: In many of parts of the country, Americans are drinking water that passes the legal test but could still pose a threat to their health. Fortunately, checking local water contamination levels is easy for anyone with web access.

As Fast Company reports, the Tap Water Database from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, non-partisan environmental health organization, provides the public with water-quality information on 50,000 utilities around the country. Visitors to the website can search for their local water facilities by state or zip code. Once they find those, they're directed to a list of chemicals that exceed the limits set by health professionals. Common contaminants like chloroform, nitrates, and trichloroacetic acid increase the drinker's risk of cancer if they're exposed to them over extended periods. Each report also includes chemicals that are present in the water supply but conform to the recommended health guidelines.

The tool is the only comprehensive and fully accessible database of its kind. Earlier in 2017, the website was updated for the first time in eight years with information collected from 2010 to 2015. But even if the data is a couple of years old, the resource is valuable to people who rely on their local utility for drinking water. This is especially true for people living in low-income neighborhoods where contamination levels tend to be highest.

Identifying the unwanted chemicals in your water can also help you get smart about purifying it at home. Different home purifiers are built to filter out different chemicals, which makes understanding the quality of your tap water before purchasing one essential. Here's our guide to picking the best water filter for your home.

[h/t Fast Company]

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8 Bizarre Places People Have Gotten Stuck
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Some days it just doesn’t pay to venture outside, particularly when you wind up the subject of a police and fire department rescue because you’ve somehow trapped yourself inside an ATM machine. Check out eight other strange environments that have ensnared bystanders and prompted emergency responses.

1. A CLAW MACHINE

A giant see-through container full of plush toys is any child’s idea of paradise, and they will attempt any means possible to inhabit it. For three-year-old Jamie Bracken-Murphy of Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, that meant crawling through the small flap from which the toys can be retrieved and finding himself lodged in a claw machine. Murphy was on display for about 10 minutes before an off-duty fireman was able to coax him back out the way he came in. Jamie’s father, Damien, expressed little surprise at his son’s predicament, saying that, "He's a very mischievous, sharp kid who's always pushing boundaries."

2. A TRAFFIC CONE

A man has a traffic cone over his head
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In 2013, a man in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England thought he’d have a bit of fun by sticking a traffic cone—otherwise known as a bollard—on his head. To his dismay, the large cone slid down over and past his shoulders, entombing him in plastic. John Waterman, a witness to the incident, captured it all on his cell phone. "It was very random," Waterman told The Telegraph. "It's not the usual thing you see in the middle of Hemel Hempstead on a Sunday lunchtime." The man stumbled around for more than two hours before anyone bothered to call police.

3. A CEMENT HOPPER

Aurora, Illinois was the site of a recent cement mix-up, when an unidentified man became trapped in a cement hopper. The worker had climbed into the machine to clean it, but found he was unable to move when residual cement on the machine's floor began hardening around his legs. It took firefighters more than two hours to extricate him from the hopper. He was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for minor injuries, but released the same day, according to the local fire department.

4. A TOILET

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In 2016, a Norwegian man named Cato Berntsen Larsen found himself in deep trouble after he tried lowering himself into a public toilet to retrieve a friend’s cell phone. The toilet’s tank was located underneath the seat, allowing enough room for Larsen to become trapped. To his dismay, the tank—which is not connected to a sewage system and is only emptied sporadically—was full of human waste. Adding to the putrid nature of his enclave, Larsen vomited and was bitten by an unknown animal: His situation did not improve until authorities were able to come and pull him out. "It was damn disgusting," Larsen said, "the worst I have experienced. There were animals down there, too."

5. A GIANT STONE VAGINA

Tourists and residents of Tübingen, Germany are quite familiar with Chacán-Pi, a giant stone sculpture of a vagina created by Peruvian artist Fernando de la Jara. The towering display sits just outside Tübingen University’s Institute for Microbiology and Virology and has attracted curious onlookers since 2001. In 2014, an unnamed American student decided to go spelunking in the 32-ton carving for a photo opportunity and became trapped, necessitating rescue by 22 firefighters. The Guardian called them “midwives” and reported that the student was “delivered by hand.”

6. A WASHING MACHINE

A man appears to be stuck inside a washing machine
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Sometimes, games of hide-and-seek can go very wrong. That was the case for a man near Melbourne, Australia in 2014, who climbed into his top-loading washing machine fully nude to surprise his partner. Unfortunately, he was unable to climb back out. Responders were able to grease him with a liberal application of olive oil and pull him out. First Constable Luke Ingram told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that, as a rule, “My advice would be for people not to climb into appliances.” The warning went unheeded by another Australian man in 2015, who found himself lodged in a front-loading machine and had to wait while rescuers disassembled the entire unit in order to free him.

7. A BABY SWING

If you’re ever challenged by your adult friends to fit into a baby swing at a public park, you can confidently say that it won’t work. That’s because a man from Vallejo, California tried it in 2011. While he managed to slide into the seat using liquid laundry detergent, he couldn’t slide back out. As his legs began to swell, his friends abandoned him overnight. He wasn’t rescued until nine hours later, when a groundskeeper heard his screams for help at 6 o'clock the following morning. "The man sustained non-life threatening injuries to his body," the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "but there’s no word yet on the condition of his ego."

8. A CHIMNEY

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There are many Santa jokes to be made, but when you’re the man trapped in your own home’s chimney for four hours, there probably isn’t a huge urge to start laughing. In late 2016, a Tucson, Arizona homeowner who had locked his keys in his home opted to retrieve them by re-entering his abode via the chimney. While it was a spectacularly bad idea, he actually almost made it: His feet were touching the floor of his fireplace before the space grew too narrow to allow for any further passage and he got stuck. Firefighters were able to pull him out from the roof, covered in soot but otherwise unharmed.

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