Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Climate change will affect the distribution and diversity of marine organisms

Climate change will force marine organisms towards the poles, but would they be safe there? 

Human activities such as emissions from the use of fossil fuels, rampant urbanisation, deforestation, and modern agricultural practices, are all altering the earth’s climate in an unprecedented scale. Climate change not only occurs in the land, but also in water bodies. Studies have indicated that since the 1950s, the amount of heat stored in the ocean (ocean heat) has increased considerably. Besides, ocean temperatures have increased throughout the world since the advent of the twentieth century, with the past three decades recording the highest temperatures since the measurements began.

 A major consequence of increase in ocean temperatures is the corresponding decrease in dissolved oxygen levels. This phenomenon is predicted to significantly disturb marine ecosystems. Recent research by a group of American and German scientists revealed the consequences of oceanic climate change on a range of fish and crustacean species in the North Atlantic with different levels of tolerance towards heat and oxygen levels. The researchers'  climate models predict substantial warming and deoxygenation throughout most of the upper ocean by the end of this century which in turn will affect the distribution  of marine  creatures. Their studies reveal that warming of water and oxygen depletion would force the organisms to migrate towards the pole due to deficiency of the original native waters to sustain their energy requirements. The scientists predict that even the waters towards the pole would have reduced oxygen levels, meaning the survival of the migrants could be precarious even there. Furthermore, this movement could alter the ecosystems in the polar waters due to many factors including competition from the migrants which may alter species ecologies.

Deutsch C, Ferrel A, Seibel B, Pörtner HO, & Huey RB (2015). Ecophysiology. Climate change tightens a metabolic constraint on marine habitats. Science (New York, N.Y.), 348 (6239), 1132-5 PMID: 26045435

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Pesticides Kill Wildlife in India

Media reports from India indicate that the carcasses of 5 tigers found dead  between  2012 to 2015 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh between the period  were found to contain organochlorine pesticides notably DDT. It is thought that the tigers consumed  pesticide laced carcasses  of dead animals  which were used as  baits which resulted in their death. Some of the tiger carcasses were found to lack nails, forelimbs and whiskers. Tiger parts are used for local occult practices and also have a lucrative market in Tibet and China.

Precious wildlife like this are killed either intentionally or unintentionally by pesticides. Pesticides are used  by  poachers who illegally trade animal parts. Pesticides are also used by  irate farmers who lose their livestock due to the wild carnivores for  taking ‘revenge’  . Sometimes, wildlife stray into fields and crop estates and unknowingly consume crops laced with pesticides resulting in debilitation and death.

5 years ago, two tiger cubs were killed in Ranthmabore NationalPark by villagers who allegedly killed the tigers by baiting them with goat laced with the deadly pesticide Aldrin in ‘revenge’ of the tigers killing their cattle.

Often wildlife is killed accidentally such as when they consume crops laden with pesticides. In 2011, deaths of two pregnant elephants and other animals in tea estates around Kazinranga  national park in  Assam  was reported . The park is home to the Indian one horned rhinoceros  and about 50 per cent of the endangered  Asiatic wild water buffalo.  The elephants had been killed by eating insecticide laced grass in the tea gardens outside the confines of the national park. This highlighted serious problems in the area . Tea estates are sprayed with pesticides, which drifts into the nearby areas onto the grass and waterways. Wild herbivores and domestic livestock that feed on the grass contaminated with pesticides often die. The deaths however do not end there though. Scavengers including vultures that feed  on the carcasses of the animals are then exposed to the pesticides  which in turn results in more deaths.

Earlier in April of this year, an elephant was found  outside the forest area in Mankarai, Tamilnadu suffering from severe ulcers in and around its mouth, which prevented it from feeding . Wildlife conservationists  attributed this to the consumption of corps laden with pesticides by the hapless animal.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Why we should worry more about the poor during extreme heat events?

The month of May is generally the hottest time of the year in India. This time it has been unbearable. Certain parts of India are suffering from extreme heat - soaring temperatures (40C to 50C) have been reported in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi, and Maharashtra resulting in more than 1000 deaths in less than one week, and the numbers continue to rise. Alarmingly, this is not a rare occurrence. Higher peak temperatures and longer periods of heat waves are becoming increasingly common in many parts of the world  as it does in India where it seem  to be recurring with regularity.2014 witnessed high temperatures in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Odissa. Similarly in 2013, 2012, and 2011, heat wave gripped many parts of the country with  2014 the hottest year on record in India.

Records from the National Climatic Data Centre indicate that the average global temperature across land surfaces was 1.68°C (3.02°F) above the 20th century average of 3.2°C (37.8°F). The Earth's surface temperature has shown accelerated warming during the last two decades due to the cumulative effects of human activities in the past 50 years, which have altered the atmosphere’s chemical composition by the accumulation of greenhouse gasses that trap heat. Exploitation of our forests and unrestrained development have led to deforestation resulting in the removal of trees-our planet's  natural heat moderators. Rampant urbanisation has led to increased temperatures due to urban heat islands. When tree cover is replaced by concrete buildings that naturally absorbs heat and retains less water, temperatures rise concomitant with the rise of urban sprawls.

Consequently human activities lead to extreme heat events - weather that is different from the usual, is abnormally hot and humid, and sustained over longer periods. Extreme heat events are increasingly being reported in many parts of the world in recent years often resulting in heat-related illnesses and deaths and  disproportionately affects the poor in developing countries.

 The casualties in the ongoing  Indian heat wave are largely  construction workers, elderly and the homeless.
Why are the poor affected more?

Lack of access to drinking water

In developing countries, people living in poverty generally have poor access to clean drinking water. Extreme heat events often goes hand -in-hand with general water shortage which limits the amount of water available to the poor contributing to severe dehydration. 

Inadequate shelter from heat 

Often the poor live in dwellings that lack adequate protection from heat, with many urban poor living in makeshift houses in slums devoid of  heat alleviating devices such as electric fans.

Occupational exposure to heat 

Whilst the advice during extreme heat events is to stay indoors, away from the heat, many poor engage in outdoor manual work for sustenance, often in urban areas where temperatures are higher which makes them increasingly prone to sunstroke and dehydration. Regardless of the danger posed by outdoor work in extreme heat, they are forced to labour in potentially lethal conditions, ironically, to survive.

Limited access to healthcare

The poor lack access to healthcare for heat-related illnesses which sometimes leads to fatal consequences.

Vulnerable elderly

Increased age (65 and over)  is a primary risk factor for heat- related illnesses regardless of socio-economic status, but the elderly poor are adversely affected to the greatest extent. This is due to the restricted ability of the older people  to change their physical environment and  their limited ability to access facilities such as water, re-hydration drinks, and medical aid, that local authorities might provide during times of extreme heat events.Additionally the elderly poor may have untreated health conditions like cardiovascular diseases and kidney diseases which predisposes them  to heat-related illness and death 

Homeless marginalised

Homeless people are highly vulnerable to heat -related illnesses due to a plethora of reasons – Often there is a high prevalence of untreated physical and mental illnesses, substance dependence, and mental health issues all of which contributes to their susceptibility. They may be less likely to take effective precautions from heat and may have poor access to medical help . Further, they may have no place to take shelter during periods of extreme heat.

 How can we help the poor before and during an extreme heat event?

  • The authorities must generate extreme heat event management plans far in advance, detailing how the poor would be taken care of during extreme heat events
  • Alert the poor using awareness campaigns before an impending extreme heat event so that they are prepared, can take precautions, and know what to do to protect themselves.

The points below can be used as a guide in generating extreme heat event management plan.

  • Make provisions for water, re-hydration solutions, and food aid to reach the poor
  • Provide emergency medical camps where the poor can seek medical aid. Additionally take  medical care to the point of need using mobile clinics- to the homeless and the elderly who may not visit the medical camps 
  • Provide emergency heat refuges  where the poor can take relief from heat. In times of extreme heat events large public outdoor spaces like stadiums and parks could be adapted to provide shelter from the sweltering heat.
  •  Provide financial relief that would help the poor to refrain from outdoor manual labour until the extreme heat events passes  .
  •  Provide appropriate clothing, sun hats, umbrellas to provide shade etc.

With increase in global temperature, extreme heat events will continue to reappear regularly. Nevertheless, virtually all of the extreme heat- related illnesses and deaths can be prevented by taking appropriate measures to ensure that the public stays safe during an extreme heat event, and that absolutely should include the poor.

Authors of this post - Ruth Stephen and Tim Whallett

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Plastic carrier bag tax in the UK- A step in the right direction

Plastic bag pollution is a grave issue  that threatens our environmental health . We have covered the potential damages inflicted by plastics in some of our earlier posts Most plastic bags are non-biodegradable with an incredibly long life (approximately 300 -1000 years). Consequently they are ubiquitous. Discarded plastic bags often end up on trees or in the waterways where they affect wildlife. They have even been found in remote and pristine areas such as the Arctic and the Antarctic. 

Despite being  recyclable,  a large proportion of plastic bags end up in land fills. In the UK, plastic bags are not collected by the local authority for recycling, even though some supermarkets (especially the larger stores) have collection points. In the US only 12% of plastics belonging to the category including bags, sacks and wraps was recycled. Additionally, littering causes plastic bags to end up in places where they are a big menace.  In  aquatic environments where some discarded plastic bags end up,  they have been found to form dangerous bands around the necks of waterfowl and animals such as seals, dolphins, and turtles. Plastic bags are also often mistaken for food by fauna. Even the bio-degradable plastic bags that dissociate into pieces with time, are not truly degradable. During the decaying process , they are easily ingested by larger fauna causing morbidity and mortality. They can also be  eaten by smaller aquatic fauna including zooplankton; additionally, these bags degrade  in the water releasing toxic chemicals that leaches into the waterways- regardless of the means, they enter humans through  the food chain.

Last year the coalition government  in the UK confirmed plans  to levy  a 5 pence tax on single-use plastic carrier bags from 5 October 2015. The tax generated would be used to support charities. However, the charge on plastic bags would only apply to supermarkets and larger stores. A 5 pence tax has already been in use since 2011 and 2013 in other regions of the United Kingdom such as Wales and Northern Ireland respectively.A clear message from places all over the world where such taxes are implemented is the concomitant reduction in the usage of plastic bags upon tax introduction. In other words, whilst repeated messages to reduce use of plastic bags are ignored by us, taxes catch our attention. Simply put, we do not like to pay for the usage of plastic bags and will resort to other means when penalties are imposed.  In Northern Ireland, since the implementation of the 5 pence tax, plastic bag usage has declined by 80%.

With the advent of the 5p tax, more of us will be using reusable bags just like this eco-savvy shopper (Photo:R Stephen)

Figures published by the Waste and Resources Action Programme  show that 8.3 billions of plastic bags were  distributed in UK shops in 2013 which is an awful lot of plastic bags.
Many stores and supermarkets in the UK already have incentives for reducing the use of plastic bags. As early as 2007, Marks and Spencer started charging 5 pence for every standard food carrier bag (the store still gives away small plastic bags for free), with profits going to support charities such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Marine Conservation Society, and education projects in primary schools to promote marine life awareness. M&S also sells ‘Bag for Life’ bags, which are made of 100% recycled materials which would be replaced free charge  by the store when it wears out and would itself be  recycled. When the plan started M&S gave such bags for free. I have one of those still in use.

The legislation in England is a right step and  'every little counts',  but should also  be extended to cover other sources of plastic bag pollution such as retail stores currently exempted by the 5 pence tax. On a positive note, many shops have already started selling reusable bags and it is not uncommon to see customers using these for shopping.It is best to use reusable cloth/jute bags instead of reusable plastic bags.The damage inflicted by plastics is colossal and efforts should be made to eliminate the indiscriminate use of  these materials from all avenues as much as it is possible.

More shops have started selling reusable bags in the UK.(Photo-R Stephen)

This shopper is using a plastic bag  from elsewhere to shop in Tesco supermarket. (Photo-R Stephen) 

The question arises as to what to do with the plastic bags that we have lurking around in our houses. Firstly, reusing them as many times as possible is a good start. when it comes to the time, it can no longer be used, take it to your supermarket- many of  the larger stores have facilities for recycling not only plastic bags but also other  plastic packaging. If your store doesn't have a plastic bag recycling facility, request for one. you might be successful, especially as supermarkets have a commitment towards corporate social responsibility.

It is not uncommon to  find plastic bags littering  many of our streets, particularly our cities, where they are not only unsightly but dangerous due to the perils described above. Fixed Penalty Notices for littering exist in the UK , but it seems to be seldom enforced.Similar fines exist for owners of dogs who do not clean up the dog mess in public places. Signs like the one in the figure below are good deterrents, when coupled with the presence of dog wardens doing lightning -patrols in  the area .


Our streets should be provided with more signs that clearly convey the penalties of plastic bag littering . This could markedly help in our efforts towards curbing plastic bag litter. Awareness messages that encourage people to take their plastic bag litter home should be conveyed. The Tory party's election manifesto promises  to 'review the case for higher Fixed Penalty Notices for littering'.  It will be interesting to see whether the new government follows through with its promise in the coming days. Enforcing stricter penalties for plastic bag littering would be yet another step towards our goal of preventing plastic bags from being erroneously dispersed.

When it comes to plastic bags the following slogan is apt:
Replace, Reduce , Reuse and Recyle 
Replace plastic bags with Reusable bags ideally cloth/jute bags
Reduce  use of  plastic bags
Reuse plastic bags that you have as much as possible
Recycle plastic bags in appropriate collection points 

Monday, 18 May 2015

‘Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink’ – Safe drinking water and Adequate sanitation are indispensable for eradicating Cholera
What has Cholera to do with environment? Absolutely everything!  In this post, we look at why clean water and safe sanitation is essential for eradicating this dreadful disease from our planet.

Access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation could eradicate cholera. (Image - Sam Stephen)

Cholera, an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or liquids contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, elicits the same fear today, as it did in the past. Although cholera has affected populations throughout history, the first recorded pandemic was in 1817 starting from South East Asia where it had been endemic. From there it spread globally. A dangerous disease, it affects children and adults, killing patients within hours. Malnourished children or HIV infected individuals are at a greater risk of death if infected. WHO figures indicate 3–5 million Cholera cases per year and 100000–120000 deaths.  

A big concern during the recent earthquake in Nepal was that cholera could strike as it remains endemic in that country today. Elsewhere in the world, an outbreak of cholera has been ongoing in Haiti since the earthquake in  2010 where  it has killed over 8000 Haitians, and  resulted in hospitalizing of over  600,000s and has also spread to the neighbouring country of Dominican Republic. Although epidemics such as this gains media coverage, in many parts of the developing world cholera cases continue to be reported occasionally but in smaller numbers and goes unnoticed globally often peaking during favourable conditions such as rainy seasons and drought seasons. In the rainy seasons, water and food often gets contaminated with wastes that spill out from faulty sanitation systems. The drought season  brings a different set of problems - people have to survive on very limited water which is often contaminated. Additionally, people are malnourished which makes them more prone to infectious disease including cholera.

Profuse watery diarrhoea is the main symptom of cholera. Diagnosis is made by the presence of V. cholerae-like organisms microscopically with a conclusive diagnosis by isolation and identification of V. cholerae from stool samples. Once infected by cholera, the patient requires immediate treatment as time is of the essence between life and death. Treatment primarily includes prompt rehydration through which lost fluids and electrolytes are  replaced using an Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS).  Approximately half of the cholera patients could die without rapid rehydration. Although most people can be helped with this treatment alone, severely dehydrated people may also need intravenous fluids. In children suffering from cholera, zinc supplementation can significantly reduce the duration and severity of diarrhoea. Antibiotics are also recommended for all patients who are hospitalized and the medication choice determined based on local antibiotic susceptibility patterns where it is used in parallel with aggressive rehydration therapy.

Using the right antibiotic/antibiotics is very important as bacterial strains that are resistant to drugs have been reported. In a recent study, researchers studied all available Vibrio cholerae  isolates collected from major outbreaks in the Democratic republic of Congo  during 1997–2012, and found loss of sensitivity to leading antibiotics over time. Additionally they found spread of fluoroquinolone-resistant strains. In a 2013 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Waldman, Mintz and Papowitz  offered recommendations on how cholera can be effectively controlled. Whilst giving due credit to the current developments in cholera control in the medical arena - use of  antibiotics, treatment procedure, and  use of an improved two-dose oral cholera vaccine which had success in pilot trials, they importantly presented  a lasting solution for  prevention of the disease taken from the pages of the history books - Safe sanitation and clean drinking water eliminated cholera in North America and Northern Europe and this is the route for eradication of the disease, the authors proposed.

The  United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - General Comment 15, para.2. says "The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses". However, the problem is that what  most of us take for granted-clean water and access to sanitation, is inaccessible to  an estimated 1.8 billion people world-wide who  are forced to drink water that is faecally contaminated,  and 2.4 billion people  who do not have access to any type of improved sanitation facility (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme forWater Supply and Sanitation figures). Sources of water in many parts of the world are tainted often by human activities- climate change effects, environmental pollution, and lack of sanitation.

Guaranteeing clean water, and improved sanitation is a difficult proposal complicated by a glut of hurdles which are technological, societal, behavioural, political and economical to name the main ones. Cholera, Waldman et al  said in their NEJM article  ‘is as much a symptom as a disease’. It is ‘a symptom of insufficient investment' by the global development community in offering access to safe water and improved sanitation for the marginalised.  'Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, crucial for sustainable development and crucial for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals', Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General said in2007 referring to the global targets to slash poverty, illiteracy, disease and other social ills by 2015 collectively known as the Millenium DevelopmentGoals. It appears that we still have miles to go.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that was first published in entitled -The long term solution for controlling cholera extends beyond antibiotics and vaccines : History books provide answers.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere) by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Miwanda B, Moore S, Muyembe JJ, Nguefack-Tsague G, Kabangwa IK, Ndjakani DY, Mutreja A, Thomson N, Thefenne H, Garnotel E, Tshapenda G, Kakongo DK, Kalambayi G, & Piarroux R (2015). Antimicrobial Drug Resistance of Vibrio cholerae, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Emerging infectious diseases, 21 (5), 847-51 PMID: 25897570 Waldman RJ, Mintz ED, & Papowitz HE (2013). The cure for cholera--improving access to safe water and sanitation. The New England journal of medicine, 368 (7), 592-4 PMID: 23301693


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