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Water pollution by toxic elements is a major economic and environmental concern, and mercury is one of the most poisonous of the elements to be released into the environment by industry. Mercury exposure can cause severe ill health. Efficient, simple and convenient methods to remove mercury from industrial and other waste streams and drinking water are essential. This study successfully trialled a new technique, using magnetised multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs), to remove mercury from waste water.
Small streams are important refuges for biodiversity, yet knowledge of the effects of agricultural pesticides on these freshwater bodies is limited. Researchers have used national monitoring data to determine the number of small streams in Germany where regulatory acceptable concentrations (RACs) of pesticides are exceeded. An analysis of data covering almost 500 pesticides and over 2 000 small streams suggests that agricultural land use is a major contributor of pesticides to streams. Overall, RACs were exceeded at 26% of sampled streams, and exceedances were 3.7 times more likely if a stream was near agricultural land. This finding may have implications for environmental monitoring and agri-environmental measures.
Environmentally persistent free radicals: what do we know about this newly recognised class of pollutants?
The most important findings from over a decade of research into environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs), a new class of environmental pollutants, are presented in a recent review. These toxic particles could be partly responsible for some of the health problems, such as asthma, associated with particulate matter (PM) exposure. The researchers issue a warning that some engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) could increase levels of EPFRs in the environment.
Tiny polyester fibres, which are washed into rivers, lakes and seas every time we do our laundry could cause more harm to animals than plastic microbeads, finds a new study. The researchers looked at the effect of microbeads and fibres on a small crustacean called Ceriodaphnia dubia, which lives in freshwater lakes. They found that although both types of plastic were toxic, microfibres caused more harm. Both microplastics stunted the growth of the animals, and reduced their ability to have offspring; microfibres, however, did this to a greater degree, and also caused noticeable deformities in the crustacean’s body and antennae.
A new study has examined the toxic effects of silver nanoparticles on plants. Using a range of spectroscopic and imaging techniques, the researchers demonstrate how silver nanoparticles can reduce the growth of wheat, as well as interfere with genes that help the plant deal with pathogens and stress.
‘Cooling-off effect’ causes public perception of novel environmental technology to improve over time
Researchers have published a paper providing evidence that a ‘cooling-off effect’ can lead to increased public acceptance of new environmental technologies over time. The scientists analysed survey results from over 1 000 respondents in Germany, using solar radiation management (SRM), a controversial climate-engineering technique, as a test case. They found that, following a cooling-off period of either one month, 12 months, or 18 months, acceptance of SRM increased significantly — and that the longer the cooling-off period, the larger the increase. These findings have far-reaching implications, both for the deployment of SRM and for climate policymakers seeking to more accurately measure the public acceptability of novel interventions.
A new study has looked at the potential of green infrastructure to compensate for the effects of soil sealing generated by urban development. It investigates how green roofs and permeable paving could contribute to flood mitigation in southern Italy. Using a hydraulic model technique, the researchers found that, in this particular urban case, green roofs were more effective than permeable paving. Policies to promote the adoption of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) by the private sector could thus prove more effective under certain circumstances, and policymakers should look at ways to promote SUDS where suitable.
Analysis of the operation of a novel, micro-scale anaerobic digester has shown that this technology could provide a useful means of processing food waste in urban areas. The study found that the digester, located in London and fed mainly with local food waste, avoided 3.9 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, while providing biogas for cooking, heat and power. Anaerobic digestion on this scale could play a part in reducing the amount of food waste that goes to landfill1 and contribute to the circular economy.
A new study has investigated the movement of antibiotic resistance genes between farm animals, soil and water in Finland. The results show that many of these genes are spread from animals to the soil through manure application; however, these genes do not appear to persist in soil. The study suggests that practices that minimise the use of antibiotics, as used in Finland, may lead to lower levels of clinically relevant resistance genes in agricultural soils.
Are concentrations of certain critical metals and metalloids increasing in the environment due to their use in new technologies?
A recent study has assessed the environmental impact of a group of technology-critical elements (TCEs) — niobium (Nb), tantalum (Ta), gallium (Ga), indium (In), germanium (Ge) and tellurium (Te) — that, to date, have been relatively under-researched. The researchers reviewed published concentrations of these elements in environmental archives and evaluated trends over time in surface waters. Overall, they found no evidence that the rising use of these elements in modern technologies is causing environmental concentrations to increase on a global level. These findings are relevant to future policy discussions regarding the source, usage and presence of less-studied TCEs, particularly in relation to critical raw metals.
The move towards smart mobility systems in cities across Italy, specifically in relation to public transport systems (including cycle infrastructure, and cycle and car-sharing schemes) has been assessed in a new study. The researchers say significant progress has been made in light of new guidelines imposed by the European Union, which is often linked to financial investment, as well as the capacity of city planners to implement changes.
Researchers have developed a new model that highlights how agricultural practices impact on water availability in the wider landscape. The model, AquaCrop-Hydro, could be used to inform agricultural management decisions and policy related to water and land use, to ensure best allocation of water resources. Such tools are not only useful currently, but will be especially important in future in areas where climate change impacts on water availability and affects crop productivity.
A technique called reflectance spectroscopy is the subject of a new literature review focusing on the use of this tool to study the effects of air pollution on vegetation. In particular, the researchers suggest that the technique could be more widely applied in the Mediterranean region, to study the effects of climate change and air pollution, which will be detrimental to crop growth as well as other vegetation. It could also be used as a more general biomonitoring technique for assessing pollutant levels in the environment.
New research has shown that flooding of soils contaminated with arsenic, which may occur as sea levels rise due to climate change, could lead to the mobilisation of this toxic element in the environment. The study shows that arsenic is more stable in soil flooded with saltwater, compared to river water, as salt stabilises mineral oxides and could inhibit microbial activity. However, microbes that transform arsenic into water-soluble forms may adapt to saline conditions, and the risk of arsenic entering waters due to rising sea levels should receive further attention.
An inventory of carbon footprints has been developed for 177 regions across 27 EU Member States. The map is the first to quantify greenhouse gas emissions associated with household consumption across the EU. It reveals significant regional differences based on income, household size and urban versus rural living.
New tools for improved river assessment and monitoring are likely to inform future management strategies
Sustainable river management is increasingly informed by hydromorphological stream assessments — evaluations and classifications of stream conditions which account for both hydrological (the movement, distribution and quantity of water) and geomorphological (the processes and forms deriving from the interactions of water and sediment movement) features. In order to provide a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of river character and dynamics, scientists have developed three novel methods. Together, these tools represent a promising technique for conducting collaborative assessment and monitoring of river conditions in Europe.
An investigation into the attitudes of Canadian soil-remediation experts has shown that they tend to prefer conventional remediation methods over phytoremediation — which relies on plants to clean soils — despite evidence that the latter can have advantages. The researchers behind the study highlight that this ‘status-quo bias’ poses a barrier to the uptake of novel technologies such as phytoremediation, and that scientists may need to find different ways of disseminating evidence to increase the use of new techniques among practitioners.
A new study aimed at increasing knowledge of indoor air quality (IAQ) in recently built or refurbished office buildings has found that levels of pollutants are mostly within World Health Organization (WHO) air-quality guidelines, however they vary between seasons. In addition, some levels of particulate matter were found to exceed WHO guideline values. The OFFICAIR project was funded by the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme.
Researchers in Spain have analysed waste water to calculate levels of exposure to phthalates in individuals. The calculations showed that levels of four types of phthalate exceeded safe daily limits in some of the sites studied, with levels of exposure in children being of particular concern. Using the results of waste-water analysis in this way can identify areas where action may need to be taken to lower exposure.
The majority of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) identified until now are banned or restricted around the world owing to concerns about their harm to ecosystems and human health. However, this is not the end of the story; even long-banned POPs still linger in the environment; others are still in use and are being directly emitted; and new POPs may be identified for which we have limited information. This Future Brief from Science for Environment Policy presents recent research into POPs’ potential impacts, the levels and future outlook for POPs in the environment and humans, and how we can reduce our use of POPs.