Nature, Science

Light Pollution Linked to Immune Problems in Hamster Pups

Light pollution--including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs--can have more serious effects than previously imagined.
Light pollution–including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs–can have more serious effects than previously imagined. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University, disruptions in sleep schedules are not only bad for the health of animals and people, but they can have effects which are passed on to offspring. What’s more, these problems can also be caused not just by interrupting sleep schedules, but by unnaturally light night.

To do the study, researchers used nocturnal Siberian hamsters. They exposed one group of hamsters of both sexes to a standard light day/dark night cycle, and one group to dim light at night, for nine weeks. They then mated the hamsters in four groups—mothers or fathers with dim-light exposure, both parents with exposure to light at night, and both parents with standard light exposure. After the hamsters mated, the entire group lived under standard light conditions.

The researchers found that dim light exposure had a definite influence on the offspring. Fathers and mothers seemed to pass along genetic instructions that impaired immune response and decreased endocrine activity. But it’s especially important to note that the negative changes were traced to both parents.

“These weren’t problems that developed in utero. They came from the sperm and egg,” said senior study author Randy Nelson, “It’s much more common to see epigenetic effects from the mothers, but we saw changes passed on from the fathers as well.”

While this certainly adds to the ongoing discussions of how screens are affecting us as we use them late at night, it has some other implications too. Light pollution is not a problem that has been taken very seriously in the past, despite the fact that previous research has proven that it has negative effects on animals. It has been known to interrupt animal sleep and activity patterns, and this new research has shown some specific, and negative, consequences of light pollution.

But it’s not just for animals that we should be concerned. Humans are making continued use of screens at night, often in otherwise dark rooms, which seems to be having some negative effects on our bodies. Studies have shown that it interrupts sleep and strains our eyes, but the OSU study shows that it could actually affect how genes are passed on to children.

“I think people are beginning to accept that light pollution is serious pollution and it has health consequences that are pretty pronounced—an increase in cancers, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anxiety disorders,” Nelson said. “We should be concerned about the increasing exposures to light at night from our tablets and phones and TVs.”

Environmental Hazards, Sustainability

Earth’s “Technosphere” is Terrifyingly Large

The technosphere is terrifyingly large.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Anthropocene Review is a journal that looks at the current epoch of the Earth’s history, the one in which humans have so impacted the planet as to mark it as unique from previous epochs. Although the Anthropocene concept is still rather new, it is gaining recognition, and as a byproduct comes a new term: the technosphere.

The technosphere can be compared to the biosphere, which is the system by which life on the planet interacts. The technosphere, in contrast, consists of all the stuff that humans have made: houses, airports, mines, smartphones, AOL free trial CDs, and all the garbage in landfills across the world.

While that may be an interesting concept in and of itself, it’s helpful in putting into context just how much stuff humans have made. Currently, estimates of the total weight of the technosphere come to about 30 million (metric) tons. That works out to about 50 kilos of stuff per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

That’s a lot of stuff.

The technosphere has been evolving for millennia now, but has taken on a life of its own in recent centuries. Frankly, it’s not all the good at being a thing. Where as the biosphere is incredibly efficient, with each living organism providing nutrients for other organisms at some point in its life or death, the technosphere is terrible at recycling, which is why it weighs so much. There’s no getting rid of a lot of this stuff.

The concept of the technosphere, and how terrifyingly huge it is, helps to put into context just how important it is that we get better at efficiently using the resources to which we have access. Eventually, we’re going to run out of raw materials with which to make more things, and at that point the technosphere will have crushed everything else under its weight.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards

Hooded Seals Can Pass Contaminants to Nursing Young

Hooded seals can pass contaminants on to their young.
Hooded seal pup. Photo: Shutterstock

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are man-made chemicals that have found extensive use in consumer products because they repel grease, water, and stains, and they’re heat resistant. They also pose a threat to wildlife. Since that discovery, some PFASs have been phased out of use, but not all of them, and they still work their way into food webs and, subsequently, animals.

The hooded seal is high up in its food web, eating prey that eats prey that eats prey that can get PFASs into their system, increasing the amount of the chemical that gets into the hooded seals. Now, recent research has found that mother seals can pass those contaminants on to their young, both through the placenta and through milk.

While the levels found so far are below the toxic threshold for rodents, and within the expected limits based on findings among other seals, it might be worse for the hooded seals.

Because they only nurse for three to four days, hooded seal milk is extremely rich in lipids, to which PFASs are known to bond. This explains how they manage to pass the contaminants on to their young. Scientists are still not sure what kind of developmental effects these could have on the young seals, who need to put on a lot of weight very quickly in order to survive, because that nursing period is followed by a fasting period.

While the seals seem to be okay so far, that could change, especially as young grow and ingest more prey which are contaminated with PFASs, passing them on to their own offspring. Over subsequent generations the buildup could become quite toxic.

Luckily, by realizing this now, we can begin studying it and, hopefully, learn not only more about the effects of PFASs on animals like the hooded seal, but also how we might be able to mitigate those effects.

Nature, Science

Italian Study Shows Effects of Air Pollution Over Half A Century

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

A first of its kind study in Italy has shown the direct effects of air pollution, and subsequent attempts to reduce it, on the amount of light that reaches soil. Based on daily radiation records of soil from 50 locations around Italy, the authors of the study have shown that after the early 1980s, more solar radiation reached soil on clear days than it had in the previous 30 years of measurement.

The reason for the change is the reduction of aerosols and other pollutants that took place as environmental laws changed. When they enter the atmosphere, air pollutants stagnate there and block the solar radiation coming through the atmosphere.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, there was a significant reduction—or dimming—that was most noticeable on clear days. The increase of air pollution during the 1960s and 1970s is the most obvious culprit here, as smog and other pollutants refracted light and result in less of it reached the ground. That decreased light impacted plant growth and ambient temperatures.

However, following efforts to clean up and reduce air pollution, which were initiated in the early 1980s, there has been a general increase, or brightening, on clear days. Thus, plants received more light than they had in the previous decades.

This study is the first to focus on Italy, but the findings are in line with trends reported from around the world. It gives us yet more proof of the measurable impact green initiatives have had. Looking at this study, for example, shows data-originated proof that the reduction in air pollution has an objective, measurable impact on the lived experience of plants, animals, and microbes on the Earth.

Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science, Uncategorized

Over Half of Sea Turtles Have Eaten Plastic

Sea turtles are threatened when they ingest plastic trash found in the ocean. This decaying plastic bag looks like a jellyfish and a seat turtle would consider it food.
Sea turtles are threatened when they ingest plastic trash found in the ocean. This decaying plastic bag looks like a jellyfish and a sea turtle would consider it food. Photo: seegraswiese | WikimediaCC.

According to a recent study, roughly 52% of turtles worldwide have ingested some human rubbish, generally plastic. This revelation comes quickly after a study that found 60% of seabird had also ingested plastic in some form or another.

When turtles eat garbage, it has the potential to get lodged in their gut, where it can cause physical harm, take up space within their digestive tract, or even release toxic chemicals into their tissues. The rubbish comes from the roughly 12 million tonnes of plastic that finds its way into the ocean annual.

That’s a lot of plastic and, unfortunately, a lot of it can be mistaken for food by unaware turtles. In the case of olive ridley turtles, this can be especially dangerous as these turtles have a wide distribution, and tend to feed in the open ocean where debris accumulates. They often eat jellyfish and other floating creatures and could easily mistake bits of trash for their regular prey.

The waste problem is especially severe in Australia and North America, both of which host a wide variety of sea turtles, and have large urban populations, the kind which tends to produce trash that ends up in the ocean. As such, people living on these continents have to find ways to reduce the amount of waste that makes it into the sea, beyond what efforts are already being made.

As with seabirds, the number of turtles that have ingested plastic or another type of trash is expected to continue rising as long as pollution levels stay as they are. Reduced trash means fewer animals will be in harm’s way. But researchers were sure to warn that if turtles and birds were ingesting plastic with this kind of frequency, other animals surely are as well. Although studies haven’t been performed on fish or aquatic mammals, it’s only a matter of time until we start finding plastic in their digestive tracts too.

Conservation, Green, Science, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Fullerene-Free Solar Cells Set World Record for Using Sun’s Energy

Olle Inganäs and Shimelis Admassie demonstrate solar cells on a roll. Polymer solar cells could be even cheaper and more reliable thanks to a breakthrough by researchers.
Olle Inganäs and Shimelis Admassie demonstrate solar cells on a roll. Polymer solar cells could be even cheaper and more reliable thanks to a breakthrough by researchers. Photo: Stefan Jerrevång.

Solar power is sort of the Holy Grail of energy. Since sunlight is, effectively, limitless, harnessing it would put an end to want for fossil fuels and the like. We wouldn’t have to drill or mine or frack any more.

Getting solar power to work isn’t quite that easy though, not yet at least. The big hurdle is getting solar panels that efficiently store sunlight, which can be turned into energy. That’s hard because of physics, which complicates the conversion process, makes panels expensive to produce, and takes a huge toll on the devices themselves.

A group of researchers based at Linköping University in Sweden have developed a new process to create solar cells which convert sunlight with 11% efficiency, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is pretty much the standard to which solar cells are held.

What makes these new cells such a big deal is that they are more durable than other cells because they don’t contain fullerenes, which are molecules that swell up when hit with light. They’ve been required for polymer solar cells, which are cheaper alternatives to silicon cells.

The new cells are also polymer, but don’t have to use fullerenes so they’re more efficient than other polymer cells, and they’re easier to produce to boot. These cells can be printed out in sheets, making them easier and cheaper to make and therefor that much easier for manufacturers, governments, and others to justify purchasing and using them.

The real hurdle that solar power faces is its cost-benefit analysis. It takes a lot to convince people that new technology will benefit them, and outweigh the cost of implementing it, but once you can get enough companies or governments or just investors on board, you can really push to make something like solar power widely available.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, fossil fuels, Sustainability

Fossil Fuels Could Be History in Ten Years If We Make the Effort

Biomass cakes, wood, and trash is used for this cooking fire. Over 100 million households in India use such stoves 2-3 times each day.
Biomass cakes, wood, and trash is used for this cooking fire. Over 100 million households in India use such stoves 2-3 times each day. Photo: Info-farmer | WikimediaCC.

On a global scale, shifting to a clean energy system that does not rely on fossil fuels is a difficult task. People have been arguing about it for years. Detractors often look to the past and point out how long it took to switch from wood to coal, or to get electricity up and running throughout the world.

Switching from wood to coal took between 96 and 160 years, which is a time frame that many scientists think is too long to effectively slow down global warming.

According to a new study by Professor Benjamin Sovacool of the University of Sussex, we could transition out of fossil fuels in about a decade. His argument is based on comparing those older transitions to newer, smaller scale transitions.

For example, two-thirds of Indonesia was switched from kerosene to LPG stoves in only three years, while France saw electricity produced by nuclear power rise from 4% in 1970 to 40% in 1982.

In these cases, and others, the key is government involvement and a stated goal of transitioning energy models. The examples of coal or electricity were haphazard, with the adaptation of those systems being left largely to chance, to people deciding to engage with them.

By setting out with a goal of converting to a carbon neutral system like solar power, it would be much easier to shift, since there would be direction and goals to work towards. There would also be greater support for research into such technology, which would help immensely.

Professor Sovacool also notes that our current technology is far more advanced that it was when electricity was new, or even in the 1970s for that matter. Figuring out how to make something like solar power work, and then how to implement it, would be a lot easier to pull off.