Highlights from the Week's News

This Week in Water™ airs on community and public radio stations nationwide and is available on podcast networks. Want environmental news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.

Painkillers Are Derived from Crude Oil—But That Could Change

July 09, 2023

New Study Shows PFAS in Nearly Half of U.S. Kitchen Taps

About 45 percent of homes in the United States have PFAS compounds, the so-called “forever chemicals” coming out of their faucets. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey tested water from kitchen sinks across the country. It is the first time the federal government has tested for the contamination and was unlike other studies or monitoring programs which focused on water treatment plants or groundwater wells.

This USGS map shows the number of PFAS detected in tap water samples from select sites across the nation. The findings are based on a USGS study of samples taken between 2016 and 2021 from private and public supplies at 716 locations. The map does not represent the only locations in the U.S. with PFAS. | Credit: USGS

PFAS chemicals have been used in a wide variety of products, including fast-food containers, non-stick cookware, and firefighting foams. They can lead to health risks such as decreased fertility, developmental effects in children, and some cancers. The chemicals get into water when waste or products containing them are disposed of or used on the ground. They can also be released into the air and end up in rivers and lakes. PFAS compounds break down very slowly and can accumulate in human and animal bodies and the environment. The researchers found that the likelihood of PFAS contamination is greater in urban areas than rural.

As Forbes magazine reports, there are thousands of different PFAS chemicals which may have varying effects and toxicity levels, and their types and uses change, making it difficult to determine their health effects.  Earlier this year, the EPA started the process to regulate the amount of the compounds in drinking water. And in June, some manufacturers of PFAS including 3M and Dupont agreed to multi-billion dollar settlements over pollution claims.

Fukushima’s Plan to Release Contaminated Water Is Approved

Japan’s plan to release contaminated water into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant got the go-ahead last week from the country’s nuclear regulator.  And while many are opposed to the plan, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the discharge, which could go on for decades, is safe.

Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Station 21 February 2007 (Fukushima, Japan) | Credit: Tokyo Electric Power Co., TEPCO

In 2011, the Fukushima plant was shut down after a massive earthquake—the largest ever in Japan—led to a tsunami with up to 20-foot waves that caused reactors to start melting down. There are already 1,000 large tanks filled with the contaminated water at the site, enough to fill 500 Olympic-sized pools. The company that runs the plant has been pumping water every day since the disaster to cool the reactors, and now they say there is not enough space to store it.  

According to the Japanese government, the water will be treated so that most radioactive materials are removed, but tritium and carbon-14 will remain. It will be discharged into the ocean through a tunnel to a point about one kilometer off the coast. Tritium and carbon-14 are radioactive and, according to the BBC, emit low levels of radiation but can pose risks if consumed in large quantities. The Washington Post reports that tritium is already discharged from other nuclear facilities around the world at levels within regulatory standards that are even higher than what is proposed at Fukushima. After a two-year review the IAEA said that Japan’s plan is in line with safety standards and its effect would be negligible.

However, the plan has met significant opposition including from China, the Pacific Islands, and Japanese fishing communities. And despite the South Korean government’s support, there is widespread opposition among South Koreans leading to protests in the streets. North Korea has called on the international community to stop the discharges. South Korea will still ban seafood products from the Fukushima region and China may impose bans on imported food from Japan.

Some scientists have said plans to release the contaminated water should be delayed until there is more known about the long-term effects of low doses and how the tritium could affect marine life. While it is unclear when the releases will begin, it could be as early as this summer.

Texas Lawmakers Stop Cities from Protecting Workers from Heat

In recent weeks, Texas has been trapped under an oppressive heat dome which occurs when the atmosphere locks in hot ocean air like a lid, leading to extremely hot and humid conditions. Many parts of the state saw temperatures hovering in the triple digits, triggering excessive heat warnings and leading to several deaths.

Climate change is contributing to more and longer heat waves in communities across the country, including western cities like Phoenix, pictured here. | Credit: Kevin Ellis/Pixabay

Unfortunately, for construction workers or people whose jobs require them to be outside, getting into the shade or sipping water when temperatures soar could become more difficult under a new law. In what critics have dubbed the “Death Star” Bill, cities and counties will not be allowed to pass regulations intended to protect workers from heat if their local ordinances go beyond state rules. Signed by Republican governor Greg Abbott in June, House Bill 2127—officially known as the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act—is set to go into effect on September 1. It will override local laws that mandate water breaks and time in the shade for people working in areas such as agriculture, business, finance, insurance, labor, property occupations, and natural resources.

Labor groups condemned the legislation as dangerous to public health and the City of Houston is suing the state calling the law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, climate scientists project that Texas summers will get hotter as the planet warms, predicting that by the end of the century the state will have three or four times as many days per year above 100F (38C) as it has today.

Painkillers from Pine Trees Instead of Crude Oil

To solve the climate crisis, we need to ditch fossil fuels pronto. Not just in transportation but also in a huge range of products—including pharmaceuticals. Yes, common painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen—they’re manufactured using chemical precursors derived from crude oil.  Scientists from the University of Bath recognized that making drugs derived from fossil fuels is not sustainable and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, so they came up with a plant-based source—pine trees.

Credit:  Deborah Austin/Creative Commons

The research team developed a method to refine biorenewable β-pinene (turpentine) the conifers produce and use it to make paracetamol (what we call acetaminophen in the U.S.) and ibuprofen. Pine trees produce more than 350,000 tons of the compound every year, and it’s also a waste product from the paper industry, so there’s plenty to go around.

The team was also able to synthesize additional precursor chemicals from the turpentine, including ones that are the basis for beta-blocker medicines and the asthma inhaler drug, salbutamol, as well as other compounds used for perfumes and cleaning products. They hope their more sustainable “biorefinery” approach could replace the need for crude oil in the chemical industry—and perhaps—make keeping oil in the ground less of a headache.

The study was published in the journal ChemSusChem.