Challenging Habitat Blog

It’s a great headline: “Plastic Is Falling From The Sky- But Where’s It Coming From?”

The answer is not so great, because most of us are contributing: rubber rubbed off our car tyres.

Read the story here:

Featured Image: “Rainbow and the rain” by Ryan Ojibway is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Saturday is burning day!

Have you ever noticed the black columns of smoke rising to the sky in rural England on a Saturday evening?

Saturday is burning day for waste that isn’t legal to burn: bailing plastic, tyres, feed and fertiliser bags, plastic gloves, udder wipes, worming tubes…who knows what else.

The local council offices, the Environment Agency and DEFRA can’t be reached on Saturday evening, so nobody can report the illegal fire while it’s burning.

And in winter, plastic waste can be burned under the cover of darkness without having to stay up late…

… just as happened last night on a farm in the valley.

I smelled the acrid plastic fumes as soon as I stepped into our orchard before dinner, a stink that brought me right back to my childhood, when my dad burned the plastic wrapping of the blocks he built our house with.

That was in the early 1970s, and while the smell should have told us that all is not well with the practice then, detailed knowledge about the toxins released from low temperature open fires are now more common knowledge than when I was a kid.

Not that I want to excuse what went on on our building site – not at all! It was common practice then and it was wrong, even then. I am saying that we should learn something and change or behaviour accordingly.

Today, someone would have to try very hard to remain ignorant of the fact that burning plastic releases harmful chemicals into the air, soil and water.

Just one example of information freely available on the internet: Alexander Cogut (2016) has published a comprehensive overview over global open burning of rubbish, and at that time, approximately 41% of global trash was ‘disposed of’ in that way.

Do we really want to tolerate this on English soil? In 2021?

Cogut’s report highlights that the open burning of waste is carried out at relatively low temperatures and for that reason, releases a variety of pollutants. The main issues are:

  • greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane
  • particulate matter, which is air pollution that can cause severe cases of respiratory disease and coronary disease
  • persistent organic pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans, all of which are known to cause cancer (carcinogens) and have been associated with causing other diseases.

Toxins are known to be particularly harmful to unborn fetuses, infants and children and can cause severe developmental damage in the young – in addition, air, soil and water pollution also damages ecosystems and wildlife.

Even if ignorance persists, ignorance is no defence in front of the law:

The Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006 classify agricultural wastes as ‘controlled wastes’ and it is prohibited to dispose of it by burning or burying. That includes, among other materials, plastic, foil, containers and even cardboard. Farmers have a legal duty to send waste off their farm, to be recycled, incinerated or go to landfill. Moreover, waste can only be transferred to authorised persons and a Waste Transfer note must be provided to show lawful disposal.

That’s a far cry from what happened last night!

Perhaps burning on site is permitted again since the UK left the EU???

Nope! Just checked gov.uk – as of today, 17 Jan 2021 there are no known changes to EU legislation related to the Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006.

I am writing here about general principles, not a single incident near where I live – that was just a trigger to get this off my chest!

Saturday is burning day all over rural England!

Update: I wonder how much plastic is used to light wood burners every day ????

Let me take you to an excursion to the origin of this blog: I started writing about my thoughts on mining and its legacy in the UK and beyond. I wrote about the soils contaminated by metal mining and how lichens and mosses start natural succession in the most challenging habitats. There were posts on the toxicity of legacy mine sites and their effect on the wider environment, especially rivers, as well as touched on social and health aspects of the industry.

Together with two colleagues1 and two MSc students2 at University of Plymouth, I have taken up this latter thread again with a scientific risk assessment for people who frequent legacy mine sites contaminated with arsenic and metals for recreation or work.

Specifically, our research focused on the mining complex of Devon Great Consols in the Tamar Valley Area of Oustanding Beauty (AONB), an area of 67 hectare that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape‘. The mining history of Devon Great Consols began in the 16th century and ended in 1985 and broke several records, including ‘largest sulfide lode in West England’, ‘largest copper producer’ in the 1850s and in the 1870s, ‘largest arsenic producer’ in the world.

The mine generated great wealth for its owners and shareholders (Stewart, 2013), which at the time, were not bound to undertake remediation upon mine closure. Yet ores below ground and great heaps of waste materials at surface remain rich in arsenic, copper, zinc, iron, tin, tungsten and a range of other metals. Sporadically, the mine was worked for arsenic, tin and tungsten up to the 1930s and the waste heaps were reworked for copper and tin in the 1940s and 1970s. The site remains heavily contaminated, as documented by many scientific publications by the British Geologic Survey and others.

The relatively recent disturbance by mining activities, car rallies (!) and mountain biking combined with the toxic nature of the material means that vast areas remain bare of vegetation. This leaves the toxic waste vulnerable to erosion by wind, rain and frost.

A substantial proportion of the 67 hectare site is less contaminated than the waste heaps and much of that is under woodland management. However, some of the work areas are close to or directly on land covered in mine waste. Moreover, the area has been opened up to the public for walking, biking, horse riding, learning and picnicking on and along a network of 25 km of trails, put in place by the Mining Heritage Project of the Tamar Valley AONB. Arsenic is still abundant on site and it is highly toxic and carcinogenic, as I detailed in a previous blog post and is a major chronic health concern in many areas of the world (e.g. Ratnaike, 2003; World Health Organisation)

The question is obvious: how safe is it today to work here or visit this place for recreation?

Our research investigated the risk to health associated with spending time at Devon Great Consols. We re-assessed general levels of contamination, what happens to arsenic in the human body when the waste material is ingested or inhaled.

We found that parts of the site accessible to the public greatly exceed soil guideline values for arsenic and that exposure of visitors and employees is greater than the dose of minimal risk to health. This led us to urge mining areas to be more thoroughly mitigated before being repurposed and opened to the public.

Our work has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Environmental Pollution“, which I have summarised for non-scientists in a related post: Arsenic Health Risk at UK World Heritage Site.

Footnotes

1 Dr Andrew Turner, Associate Professor in Environmental Science and
Mr Jamie Quinn, cartographer at the University of Plymouth, UK
2 Ms Xiaqing Chen and Mr Daniel Chester-Sterne, both graduates of MSc Environmental Consultancy at the University of Plymouth, UK

Image

MSc students at the base of Anna Maria waste tip at Devon Great Consols mine, 2018. Image by C Braungardt.

References

Braungardt C, Chen X, Chester-Sterne D, Quinn JGA, Turner A (2020). Arsenic concentrations, distributions and bioaccessibilities at a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Devon Great Consols, Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape). Environmental Pollution 264. Accessible for free of charge from the publisher until 5th July 2020 at: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1b18AzLNSVgDK
After that date, please contact me directly for an electronic copy at cbraungardt@plymouth.ac.uk

Ratnaike RN (2003) Acute and chronic arsenic toxicity. Postgraduate Medical Journal 79:391-396. [link]

Stewart RJ (2013) Devon Great Consols. A Mine of Mines. The Trevithick Society, Camborne. Obtainable from The Trevithick Society [link]

In the morning light, these little leaves, barely 4 mm across, show the pretty fan-shaped structure of the maidenhair tree I planted some years ago in my field. Simply beautiful.

Ginkgo biloba, the maidenhair tree, is a lonely species within its type (the division Ginkgophyta), was once widespread and plentiful around the globe, today only native to China.

I’m not a great fan of planting non-native trees, but for this one, I made an exception. It simply fascinates me that evidence of this living fossil’s existence has been found in rocks laid down during the Permian, 270 million years ago. The tree is extinct in the wild and its relatives were found 200 million years ago in Europe, is it’s kind of native (???).

Mine is a female tree, which makes me think I should give it a partner that bears pollen-forming structures (microsporangia)…Fruit are a delicacy in China and have medicinal uses.

Ginko biloba is a real survivor:
Some individual specimen are more than 2500 years old.
The species is highly resistant to fungus and insect attacks.
It tolerates lean soils, cold, air pollution, soil erosion…
While almost all other plants and animals succumbed to the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the second world war, except for a number of Ginkgo trees, still alive today.

If you want to know more, check out Britannica (LINK) or Deepdale (LINK) or Plants of the World online (LINK).

This little leaf promising to emerge is special! Granted, mature beech trees have been sporting green for some days now, but this little tree has had its roots in our ground for barely 2 months.

We planted a small stand of beech, sweet chestnut and oak trees to offset the rather elaborate carbon footprint I was going to accrue with my extensive travel plans this year, some of which have been cancelled already, others may follow.

Nevertheless, watching these trees grow will be a delight, I am glad they are making a start and they will do a good job, whether or not I’m contributing to the global CO2 emissions by using aeroplanes!

Update on 11 April – truly breaking through now, a branch of our new tree with our 22 year old stand of trees in the background…

One thing noticeable for its absence is traffic on roads and vapour trails across the sky.

I know that this spells hardship for the economy, business, workers, people stranded abroad and all of us wanting to connect with friends and family in person, but I can’t help appreciating the reduced noise and air pollution as a positive (if temporary) side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps, individually and collectively, we will learn something about organising work and leisure with less dependence on transportation, a more sustainable way of going about our days, that outlasts this crisis.

Monetised Fear: Canned ‘Clean’ Air

I live in a valley blessed with such clear air and low levels of light pollution that I can gaze in wonder at the Milkyway on cloudless nights. But I understand air pollution as a scientist and intuitively: I have been in some of the places named in news stories of extreme air pollution that causes countless premature deaths: Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, London, Berlin. Read More

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