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March 19, 2012

Risky Business in Ventura County

Filed under: Environmental Risk — Tags: , , , , — dginsbur @ 11:27 am

Typically thought of as one of the safest regions in California, Ventura County is surprisingly home to several serious forms of environmental risk. To make matters worse, most of the county residents are not even aware of the potential dangers that surround them. Two prominent sources of environmental risk in Ventura County are the Halaco Superfund site and beach water quality.

Located in Oxnard, the Halaco superfund site has been slated as one of the worst superfund sites in the nation. With over 700,000 cubic yards of toxic metal waste remaining from Halaco Engineering’s previous smelter plant, the site has been a major threat for nearly five decades.  It is known to contain smelter remnants from aluminum, magnesium, zinc, and other scrap metals on an 11-acre parcel as well as 26-acre region of deposited wastes. Bordering the Halaco site is the Ormond Beach wetlands, a vital ecosystem as it is one of the last wetlands left in Ventura County. Additionally, it is home to a number of threatened and endangered species such as the snowy plover and California least tern.

Not only does the site pose risk for surrounding wildlife, but also for local citizens. Halaco ceased utilization of the processing plant in 2004, but the future usage of the privately owned land is unknown to the EPA. Nearby neighborhoods have notoriously been known for high incidences of cancers and other diseases by locals, but no research has been done to prove links to the Halaco site. In addition, agricultural cropland neighbors the site, which may also pose potential risk if any of the toxins leach into the soil.  Cleanup measures as well as efforts to keep the pollution on the site and out of Ventura have been attempted, but poorly executed.

The teeming agriculture in Ventura County is also cause for another concern: ocean water quality at the outlets of the Santa Clara River Watershed and the Ventura River Watershed. In the past, Ventura County has faced water quality problems related particularly to storm water runoff. During California’s rainy season, the water quality in Ventura County displays significant degradation, likely because “accumulated pesticides, herbicides, road runoff, bacteria and other assorted water pollutants are flushed out of watersheds and into coastal waters.” Water runoff during the wet season from the Halaco site is also a concern. In 2009, fisherman concerned over pollution in Ventura County pushed for new “no-fishing” spots to reduce the likelihood of catching fish with high levels of toxins, but their efforts were ignored.

In Heal the Bay’s 2010-2011 Annual Beach Report Card, 100% of Ventura County beaches tested received “A” grades during the dry season. However, during the wet season, that number dropped to 37%, and 42% of beaches received grades of C or D. No beaches received F grades during this past season, but Ventura County’s 7-year average indicates 13% of beaches receiving “F” grades in the rainy months. Unfortunately, as reported on March 8, $25,000 will be cut from Ventura’s $300,000 water quality testing budget if Obama’s 2013 budget proposal goes into effect. This would significantly reduce the frequency of testing in Ventura, which could put beachgoers at great risk of exposure. Several recent cleanup measures enacted by Ventura County, such as diversion of polluted water from some storm drains, were only possible because of federal funding, so without it, it’s reasonable to believe that future improvements will be more of a challenge.

Overall, Ventura County has its unique environmental risks, as any other area does. While they are certainly nothing to be ignored, they don’t make the area unlivable by any means. The best approach is to keep awareness of the problems in Ventura County at the forefront so that the citizens can take the proper measures to protect themselves, such as avoiding the beach after a rainstorm, and choosing to live or work further from Halaco. With adequate cleanup effort and prevention measures, Ventura County can ensure that it’s a welcoming place to be for years to come.

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Sydney MacEwen and Dawnielle Tellez Alanna are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Protective Pesky Pesticides

Filed under: Environmental Risk — Tags: , , — dginsbur @ 11:25 am

Insecticides, Biocides, Algicides, Herbicides, Rodenticides–what do all of these have in common? These terms are all part of a larger group of 34,000 pesticides, defined as “a substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.” Pesticide use in both 2006 and 2007 amounted to an estimated 5.2 billion pounds worldwide, with 1.1 billion in the United States alone. However, the use of pesticides is quite controversial and is debated from all ends of the spectrum, including health advocates, environmentalists, politicians, consumers, and the agricultural industry. It comes as no surprise that most of these pesticides are toxic–after all, that is the purpose for which they were created. The following article outlines the pros and cons to pesticide use in hopes of determining whether the risk of using pesticides is worth the benefit.

The benefits of pesticide use are extensive and provide a strong basis for pesticide advocates. First, pesticides provide the United States with huge economic profit–the industry made $12.5 billion dollars in 2007, exporting 40% of domestically created pesticides (US EPA). In addition, pesticides have saved millions of lives, eradicating many disease-carrying insects. Pesticides have also helped the forestry ecosystems by helping trees to resist disease-carrying insects like the gypsy moth. However, the largest benefit of pesticides has to do with increased agricultural yield. Worldwide, “90% of the damage sustained by crops is caused by less than 100 species of weeds, insects, fungi and microbes – all considered pests” (Food Safety Factoidz). With the use of pesticides, crop productivity increases by 20 – 50%, thereby making it possible for consumers to choose from an “abundant supply of fresh, high-quality foods that are affordable and accessible year-round” (Crop Life America). Millions of products rely on agricultural products, and without the proper use of protection, a domino-effect of damage and deficiency could lead to serious losses.

Pesticide use also has its cons that affect crops, pests, and humans all around the world. For one, although pesticides are effective in killing or repelling pests, that effect lasts very shortly as many pest species develop resistance to pesticides rapidly, and the number of resistant species has increased since pesticides were first used in the 1950s. Pesticides are also nonspecific, meaning they affect pests and non-pests wherever they are spread. Also, pesticides are mostly sprayed aerially over a field of crops and only 5% of the pesticides reach their target while the other 95% spreads out to the environment: “the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat” (“Pros and Cons,” Factoidz). Because of the increased use in pesticides, ground water sources have been contaminated, and have also caused farmers to abandon the use of crop rotations which, in turn, has increased pesticide dependence.Lastly, pesticides have caused the acute poisoning and death of millions of people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Clearly, the use of pesticides have posed a risk on humans and the environment. They have prevented the worldwide spread of disease which, many proponents argue, have saved many lives. The mass production and mass use of pesticides, however, has also threatened the environment with contamination and has threatened human, plant, and animal health through poisoning. The risk has not gone unnoticed and people are aware now that pesticide use must be reduced to minimize risk. One way proposed to reduce pesticide use is through integrated pest management (IPM) which involves mainly cultural, biological, and chemical methods and techniques collectively in farming to control pests. Exposure to pesticides must also be reduced and there are several “how-to methods” people can follow at home to minimize exposure after purchasing organic produce. Pesticides have largely remained a risk but the efforts to reduce their use and better management should be considered in order to minimize their risk to the environment.

Additional Sources:

Sergio Avelar and Caroline Smith are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

California Desalination: Economics and Water Savings Trump Environmental Debates

The pursuit of freshwater is quickly becoming a concern comparable to oil shortages. The average American uses more than 300 liters of water a day, but of all the water that exists on earth, we can only use easily accessible freshwater. That’s .3% of the earth’s water, and that isn’t a lot to work with. By 2030, exponential population growth and accompanying industrial and agriculture needs are predicted to outstrip water supply by 40%.

California, with a population of 37,690,000 is poised to have some of the worst water supply issues, particularly because most of the population is concentrated in the driest portions of the state. However, the state’s saving grace might be the very thing that induced much of its initial population growth, its 840 miles of coastline. Because of advancements in desalination technology, Californians can now utilize our access to ocean water to produce freshwater.

Desalination is not a new concept. Two methods to desalinize water are distillation and the more popular reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is a riff on the principle of osmosis, which states that water naturally moves from low to high concentrations of solutes through a membrane. Reverse osmosis utilizes external pressure to reverse the flow of osmosis, so that water moves from high to low solute concentration. External pressure comes in the form of cylindrical rotors that spin 1,200 times per minute to reduce solute concentration. The Sand City Desalination Plant, for example uses this reverse osmosis system and achieves 99% reduction of solutes. The water is then disinfected by ultraviolet light and chlorination, achieving 99.99% elimination of potentially harmful bacteria and viruses.

Due to these new technologies, the environmental concerns associated with desalination are low, especially compared to the costs of current water acquisition methods. The main way that Southern California currently attains water is through water diversion, reallocating water from lakes and rivers and diverting them into aqueducts. These often depletes lakes and rivers, negatively altering important ecosystems and potentially destroying them, as in the case of Owens Valley. The sea life that desalination plants may affect due to impingement and entrainment of animals would likely be no more seriously damaged than the organisms disrupted by extensively damming and diverting bodies of water like the Colorado River. Damming and diverting are severely detrimental to local ecosystems, harming plant and animal species diversity.

Other causes for concern for water desalinization plants are the energy usage and brine residue left after the distillation process. Environmentalists claim that brine residue can be harmful to sea life by making waters too saline for native species to survive in, but it is possible to mitigate damage. In Sand City’s desalination plant, brine solution is effectually pumped into the naturally high saline Monterey Bay. In regards to high-energy usage, desalinization plants have added energy recovery devices to increase output and decrease energy consumption by using pressure exchangers. The PX Pressure Exchanger used in Sand City recovers up to 98 percent of the energy from the stream of concentrate and uses opposing forces of fresh sea and salt-heavy waters to power a rotor that moves water around and out of the system.

These environmental concerns are not to be dismissed, but to be taken into account when considering improvements to current desalination technology. Nonetheless, the prospect of providing “drought-free” fresh water to humans outweighs the environmental costs. Desalination produces a reliable and locally available source of water, especially useful in places that experience drought regularly, just like Southern California. With looming water shortages the daily 50 million gallons produced by the potential Huntington Beach plant is a not something that Californians can afford to pass up.


Sarah Beshir and Ashley Lukashevsky are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

LA River: “The Concrete Coffin”

Filed under: Environmental Risk — Tags: , , , — dginsbur @ 11:20 am

Los Angeles, like many cities, grew along the banks of its water source (History of the Los Angeles River). After some time, the Los Angeles River proved to be a liability to Angelinos because of its extreme flooding. After a particularly vicious flood 1914, and another one in 1934. The Federal Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers curb the 52 mile river by building dams and channelizing all but 10 percent of it.

The concrete paving and straightening of the river increased the speed of the river’s flow by reducing friction between water and its channel, and by reducing the distance the water would have to travel before exiting the watershed by means of ocean. The new cement walls and bottom that lined the River ensured that the city was protected from floods but it also completely changed the river into a “concrete coffin.” (History of the Los Angeles River)

The L.A. River’s unique flora and fauna benefited the least from the development, as their habitat was completely wiped out. Before the dramatic growth and urbanization of Los Angeles, the River and its banks provided unique habitat for many plant and animal species. Flora included sycamore, alder, cottonwood and oak trees, as well as elderberry, cattail, and mugwort plants. Fauna included the now endangered yellow-billed cuckoo, steelhead trout, Pacific lamprey eel, Pacific brook lamprey eel, Santa Ana sucker, and many more species. Revitalization efforts of the river have resulted in stocking the river with non-native species for fishing, and non-native species are known to have negative effects on native ecosystems. There have also been major encroachments of non-native plant species like fennel, mustard, palm, and cocklebur. (Education…FoLAR).

The concrete paving of waterways in essence, replaces vegetative cover with impervious concrete. It lowers the capacity for absorption and infiltration of the precipitated water because de-vegetation reduces the organic matter content of the ground and replaces it with surfaces that are water cannot permeate well through, like cement (Wilson “Floods”). Vegetation is essentially a buffer between precipitation and flooding, and its deficit increases flood frequency and magnitude.

A solution for improvements to the L.A. River fit under the category of revitalization efforts. Various conservation groups advocate distinct methods to achieve revitalization, though the general trend is to reduce the presence of the “concrete coffin” and increase the amount of recreational space alongside the banks of the river. It would be best to advocate the restoration of riparian habitats and the cultivating of native species that were traditionally present. These native species would most likely work the best due to their natural temperature and climate, as well as have the least amount of negative effects on other native species. Many also recommend the building of compact mixed-use developments and parks alongside the banks of the river in order to create a kind of civic space. (“Guide to the Los Angeles River- Revitalization.”)


“HISTORY OF THE LOS ANGELES RIVER.” Los Angeles Department of Public Works. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. <>.

“Birds, Plants, Fish.” Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). (FoLAR). Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <>.

“Guide to the Los Angeles River- Revitalization.” Http:// Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <>.

Sarah Beshir and Ashley Lukashevsky are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Cancer With A Side of Fries

Filed under: Environmental Risk — Tags: , , , , — dginsbur @ 11:16 am

In April of 2002, the results of a study were reported by the Swedish National Food Administration which discovered that starchy foods that had been fried or baked at high temperatures, above 120° C (248°F), produced acrylamide, a human neurotoxicant and chemical known to cause cancer in animals (EHP). French fries and potato chips were found to contain higher levels of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a chemical in cigarette smoke, and is used primarily in making polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers for industrial processes, such as manufacturing plastics and in the treatment of drinking water, wastewater, and sewage.

Small amounts of acrylamide are also found in consumer products, including cosmetics, food packaging, and some adhesives (NCI). Acrylamide in food is formed during the Maillard reaction, which is the chemical process that browns food during cooking. Sugars, including glucose, fructose, and lactose (EHP), react with Asparagine, an amino acid that is found in many vegetables, with higher concentrations in certain varieties of potatoes. Longer cooking times at high-temperature have been found to produce acrylamide, but boiling and microwaving appear to not produce the chemical (NCI). According to University of Southern California professor and nutrition expert Roger Clemens, black olives, breakfast cereals, coffee, and other foods have some acrylamide and “our foods have contained this compound since man started cooking with fire.” (WMD)

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health and scientific organizations continue to study acrylamide in food and its effect on health, they have not advised consumers to stop eating contaminated foods. According to the FDA, eating a balanced diet of foods high in dietary fiber, like fruits, beans, vegetables, and whole grains, and choosing foods low in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol promote overall good health. The U.S. National Toxicology Program offers the following tips for reducing acrylamide exposure: 1) Fry foods at 338 degrees Fahrenheit or lower; 2) Cook potato strips, such as French fries, to a golden yellow rather than a golden brown color; 3) Toast bread to the lightest color acceptable; 4) Soak raw potato slices in water for 15 to 30 minutes before frying or roasting. Drain and blot dry before cooking; 5) Do not store raw potatoes in the refrigerator.

More specific dietary advice or federal regulation of specific food products may be implemented in the future based on further research (OEHHA), but the FDA has opposed warning labels, pending its own review of the matter. Fried potatoes are a big business throughout the U.S., with Americans spending an estimated $4 billion a year on fries and $3 billion a year on potato chips. The food industry does not want “cancer” on its products and argue that scientists do not know for certain that acrylamide is carcinogenic to humans at the levels present in food. Acrylamide is also not put into food, but is formed when starchy food is heated at high temperatures.

In 2005, under Proposition 65, approved in 1986 by California voters requiring the state to regulate chemicals that are known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and to force manufacturers to label their products or otherwise warn consumers, California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, filed suit against McDonald’s; Burger King; Frito-Lay, owned by PepsiCo; KFC, a division of Yum Brands; Wendy’s International; Lance, which makes Cape Cod potato chips; H. J. Heinz, which produces Ore-Ida frozen potato products; the potato chip company Kettle Foods; and Procter & Gamble, which sells Pringles. The lawsuits alleged that they had failed to warn consumers about the dangers of acrylamide found in food, accused the industry of concealing the facts, and demanded them to put labels on all fries and potato chips sold in California, stating: “This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.” (NYT) In 2007, a number of fast-food chains agreed to post acrylamide warnings in their restaurants in California and pay civil penalties and costs.

By August 2008, the lawsuits brought by the Attorney General were settled out of court. The CAG again decided to sue a number of snack food producers in 2009 for acrylamide exposure, and in 2010 the California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced plans to list acrylamide as a reproductive toxin based on findings by the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (OLL). Debate, both scientific and non-scientific, over the dangers of acrylamide in food continue, but some action is necessary in the absence of regulatory decisions by the FDA. Over a dozen acrylamide animal studies show both cancer and birth defects, and the chemical has been regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen for over 20 years. The California attorney general and several activist groups believe that consumers should be given notification so they can make informed food choices (NYT).

Citations/Resources: – b18


Marc Chua and Kaylee Yang are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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