EHN’s top environmental stories of 2014

Posted by Christine, January 2, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

A warning from our feathered friends; water woes in California, Ohio and West Virginia; concerns about chemicals in food and cosmetics … it was a busy 2014.

Chesapeake Bay Program
Ospreys were one of many bird species highlighted in our Winged Warnings series.

The biggest stories of 2014 are going to set the stage in 2015. We see these developments on the horizon: bolstered research and tracking of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; states leading the charge on bans on neonicitinoids, a class of pesticides linked to bee colony collapse; and heightened focus by scientists on emerging contaminants in our water.

The biggest stories of 2014 are going to set the stage in 2015.The year began with headlines about Russia’s polluted Olympic village and a massive chemical spill in West Virginia. It ended with delegates from 200 countries taking steps to commit every country on the planet to reducing fossil fuels.

UN Photo/Mark Garten
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima Peru last month.

We were there to bring you these and the thousands of other stories in between. Every. Single. Day.

Yes, we’re tired.

Our team aggregated more than 70,000 stories in 2014 and filled in some gaps from our own newsroom along the way.

One of the gaps: The health of the planet’s birds, and what that says about humanity’s health and future. Our Winged Warnings series, launched in August and led by veteran environmental health journalist Marla Cone, revealed shrinking seabird colonies in the North Atlantic, mercury-polluted birds struggling with their songs, flame-retardants in gulls, twisted beaks, scrambled brains and plenty more.’s reporters also wrote the latest on phthalates, BPA, flame-retardants, pesticides … but our newsroom also delved into ham, pollution-detecting jewelry, illicit drugs, a whale whisperer, seals, ‘gators and frogs. That’s right – we can have fun too.

Heck – we even had our first story en Español. Estamos internacional!

A look back

Perhaps the biggest environmental story of 2014 broke the second week of January. Some 300,000 residents of Kanahwa Valley in West Virginia awoke to no drinking water and a fouled Elk River after a coal-processing chemical leaked from a tank. They spent weeks scrambling for clean drinking water and information.

University of Kentucky

Federal officials seemed as confused as residents. Thankfully West Virginia had Ken Ward Jr. (left), a reporter at The Charleston Gazette and one of the most prolific journalists in Environmental Health News’ archives, to ask the tough questions.

In early 2014, some 300,000 residents of Kanahwa Valley in West Virginia awoke to no drinking water and a fouled Elk River.That was just the beginning in a year of water woes. North Carolina had a sludgy spill in the Dan River in February, which in part spurred the first federal coal ash waste regulations last month. August was Toledo’s turn to lose its drinking water supply, as water around the city’s intakes on Lake Erie turned to toxic algal soup. Then 11 million gallons of a copper sulfate acid solution contaminated a tributary of the Sonora River, leaving about 25,000 people in Mexico without water.

California spent the year battling a relentless drought, and in the Middle East water became a tool for terrorist groups.

We had our usual steady diet of stories about scary chemicals that go by esoteric names and acronyms – like BPA. Industry and the Food and Drug Administration continue to say levels in the environment are safe. Meanwhile evidence that it’s not good for us kept mounting: In 2014 we saw new research linking BPA to higher blood pressure, lung problems, breast and prostate cancer, child obesity, anxiety and depression, and infertility. Yet in December, U.S. regulators declared BPA is safe at current levels in food and OK for use lining cans and other food containers.

East Eco Blog/flickr
BPA-free may not mean impact-free for people’s health.

That gap between what the research says and regulators declare will continue to generate headlines in 2015. But here’s the kicker: Replacements industry has sought as demand for “BPA-free” products soars may not be so good for us, either. Expect to see more information about those chemicals in this year.

Phthalates, used widely in vinyl and fragrances, made headlines, too, as research linked the compounds to lower IQs, impaired fertility, child asthma, premature births, obesity and diabetes.

In October the EPA added BPA, seven phthalates and two flame-retardants to a list of chemicals that could be headed for regulations. But don’t hold your breath. Assessments for the chemicals will begin … wait for it … in 2017.

What else was hot? Food. There were stories every week to raise the blood pressure of those mired in the GMO controversy, regardless of what side of the argument you’re on. And health professionals keep warning about increasing antibiotic resistant bacteria, causing many to look at the antibiotics finding their way into our food.

The EPA added BPA, seven phthalates and two flame-retardants to a list of chemicals that could be headed for regulations. But don’t hold your breath. Assessments for the chemicals will begin in 2017.Oh and energy. So much energy.

The coverage, controversy and expansion of fracking remained, culminating with the first statewide ban by a natural gas-rich state announced by the Cuomo administration in New York last month.

The administration cited the multiple studies out last year that pointed to air and water and health concerns.

And ol’ King Coal dominated the headlines too, with no signs of slowing down. President Obama remains at odds with Congress over his proposed rule on climate carbon pollution from existing power plants, which mandates the plants cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Republicans have vowed to delay or block the bill this year as the Grand Ol’ Party takes Senate control.
In November, the United States and China announced a pledge to reduce fossil fuels.

And beyond our borders news about China’s persistent air pollution (and efforts to curb it) trickled out all last year. In a big announcement prior to the UN climate meetings in Lima, the U.S. and China announced a non-binding pledge to reduce fossil fuels.

And we saw a sharp uptick in stories coming out of India toward the end of 2014.

Unfortunately, it also was a year of loss.

Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away in January. He may be best known for wondering “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, but also will be remembered as an environmentalist who fought for decades to clean the Hudson River.

And just last month the environment lost one of its greatest allies: Theo Colborn, a scientist, activist and co-author of Our Stolen Future (along with Dianne Dumanoski and Pete Myers, founder of Environmental Health News and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences), which brought endocrine disruption science into the mainstream almost two decades ago.

Theo Colborn – scientist, activist and author – passed away in December.

Yes there was the sad and bad. But there was some good, like when 7,000 people got some closure in the largest pollution settlement ever. Or when scientists told us the ozone layer was recovering.

And, of course, there was the weird. (Really Copenhagen … a bicycle hearse service? Portland is getting out-Portland’d)

Here are a couple topics to watch for in 2015:

• Antibiotic resistance. President Obama unveiled a national effort to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria in October. As part of the five-year effort, seven Cabinet agencies are looking into antibiotic overuse and misuse – keep an eye out for federal reports, stories trickling in and a potential backlash from Big Ag.

Matt Zwiernik
DDT may still be killing birds in Michigan, but there are a bunch of new compounds contaminating our air and water.

• The plight of the honeybee continues, but the role of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids remains controversial. Adding to the criticism is new research that suggests they may hurt other land and aquatic creatures too. Ontario is planning rules to reduce use of neonics, which are already under moratorium in Europe. Look for more ban attempts in 2015 – there have already been rumblings in Minnesota, Colorado, Maine and Washington state.

• From DDT in Michigan to PCBs in the Hudson River, legacy pollutants still haunt some communities, but look for increased coverage of some of the newer compounds such as toothpaste ingredient triclosan, and all the drugs — from birth control to Prozac — showing up in our water. Wastewater companies and scientists are still wrapping their heads around impacts and solutions to these emerging contaminants.

• Taking control of the Senate this month, Republicans are going to push for passage of the Keystone XL pipeline – setting up a contentious congressional battle this month. But plummeting global oil prices may change the economic sense of pulling oil out of the tar sands, which is not cheap.

We had a 21 percent increase in aggregated environmental health stories last year compared to 2013. Our system isn’t perfect (but still feel free to send me an email saying “your system’s not perfect!”) – however, it does indicate a continued interest in covering the environment and reflects the increasing diversity in sources doing so.

We had a 21 percent increase in aggregated environmental health stories last year. The commitment to environmental reporting was evident in some of the excellent projects we saw, such as the Seattle Times’ “Sea Change” (began in 2013 but continued into 2014), the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “Dark Side of the Strawberry” about pesticides, and in some of the dogged reporting by people like Tom Henry at the Toledo Blade and Ken Ward Jr. at The Charleston Gazette who both worked tirelessly for their readers during disasters.

We are changing at Environmental Health News. But so are the media landscape, the field of environmental health and the world. And we’re going to keep pace. We will be more nimble and more in tune with what you want from us.

What isn’t changing is our mission of bringing you the most important environmental health news and information.

Thank you for reading and cheers to 2015.

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