“Impacts of Emerging Contaminants on Surrounding Aquatic Environment from a Youth Festival”

CITATION:
JJ Jiang et al. 2015. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 792–799.
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ABSTRACT:
The youth festival as we refer to Spring Scream, a large-scale pop music festival, is notorious for the problems of drug abuse and addiction. The origin, temporal magnitudes, potential risks and mass inputs of emerging contaminants (ECs) were investigated. Thirty targeted ECs were analyzed by solid-phase extraction and liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry (SPE-LC-MS/MS). Sampling strategy was designed to characterize EC behavior in different stages (before and after the youth festival), based on multivariate data analysis to explore the contributions of contaminants from normal condition to the youth festival. Wastewater influents and effluents were collected during the youth festival (approximately 600 000 pop music fans and youth participated). Surrounding river waters are also sampled to illustrate the touristic impacts during peak season and off-season. Seasonal variations were observed, with the highest concentrations in April (Spring Scream) and the lowest in October (off-season). Acetaminophen, diclofenac, codeine, ampicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin-H2O, and gemfibrozil have significant pollution risk quotients (RQs > 1), indicating ecotoxicological concerns. Principal component analysis (PCA) and weekly patterns provide a perspective in assessing the touristic impacts and address the dramatic changes in visitor population and drug consumption. The highest mass loads discharged into the aquatic ecosystem corresponded to illicit drugs/controlled substances such as ketamine and MDMA, indicating the high consumption of ecstasy during Spring Scream.

It isn’t every day that water quality researchers get to spend a weekend at a music festival for work purposes.  Nor is it every day that a cup of the waste water effluent near that festival contains enough MDMA and ketamine to provide a clinically-active dose of ecstasy.  But when researchers from Kaohsiung University in southern Taiwan visited the “Spring Scream” music festival, which brings 600,000 visitors every April to nearby Kenting, they found just this.  Along the way, they illustrated the fundamental importance of timescale for understanding the Anthropocene.

One of the hardest things for humans to wrap their heads around is the immensity of geological time.  It is difficult enough for us to fathom the world our great grandparents lived in, even harder to contemplate the world beyond our own ephemeral individual lives, and harder yet to start imagining time before the advent of our own civilizations.  But deep time—the hundreds of millions of years that existed long before the evolution of multicellular life, let alone animals, let alone mammals like us—is something our human brains wrap around as easily as a flea circumnavigates the Superdome.

I think this is what makes the importance of the Anthropocene so difficult for some people to appreciate.  It is not the particular present concentration of CO2 that is the concern.  Nor is it the absolute global temperature.  These have occurred before.  What is unprecedented is the rate of change.  And to fully appreciate the rate of change, one needs to fully, deeply understand deep time and the scale upon which the Earth has generally seen change.

If there is one defining feature of the Anthropocene, it is perhaps the suddenness of change.  Rapid change in extinction rates, rapid changes in land use, rapid changes in climate and the composition of our atmosphere.  One look at a plot of CO2 concentration over the past 800,000 years is enough to drive home this point.  Or for a more playful look, I recommend XKCD’s take on the issue of time.

Scientists therefore must carefully consider what sort of timescale on which they should study the Anthropocene.  Are yearly measurements enough?  Or monthly?  Daily?

Jiang et al. did all three.  They measured the concentration of “emerging contaminants”—human-derived chemicals found in the natural environment that include prescription drugs, personal care products, and illicit substances—from several rivers, estuaries, and beaches in southern Taiwan.  (For an overview of the concerns raised by these chemicals see this Water Quality Association fact sheet.) Scientists often measure the concentrations of emerging contaminants on a seasonal or monthly basis.  But the concentrations of these compounds are closely tied with human activity, which varies as quickly as a large group of humans can drive up to a nice spot on a riverbank and start consuming their favorite mind-altering chemicals (including, of course, their favorite latte).

What is perhaps most interesting is the researchers measured wastewater on a daily basis immediately prior to, during, and after the music festival.  Wastewater treatment plants are generally not designed to remove emerging contaminants, so unsurprisingly, they found concentrations of caffeine in concentrations of 10 – 14 mg per litre (one cup of coffee contains 95 mg).  More concerningly, they found concentrations of erythromycin (a highly active antibiotic), codeine, gemfibrozil (a blood lipid management drug), and acetaminophen at concentrations high enough to cause significant risk to aquatic organisms.   It is also worth noting that risk to aquatic organisms is based on the concentrations of a single chemical at a time—the impacts of cocktails of substances are complex, and not well-understood.

Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, they found concentrations of illicit substances (including MDMA, ketamine, and pseudoephedrine) in high enough quantities to individually cause clinically active effects in 500 mL (about 2 baking cups) of water.  And just like in aquatic organisms, the impact of these together on a human is not well understood.

When the researchers examined the samples they took on a monthly basis, they did see an increase in emerging contaminant concentration, but not to near the extent they did when they measured on a daily basis.  If conservation and environment officials only measured impacts on a monthly basis, these short-term but potentially incredibly significant events easily might be missed.  In this case, the rapid spikes in contaminant load that are associated with human activity are easily missed when the timescale at which we take measurements is mismatched with the timescale of significant changes in the environment.

So how is Jiang et al.’s research relevant to the Anthropocene? To see, we must consider how we understand the Anthropocene–by understanding that human-caused changes are incredibly quick relative to deep time.  And by understanding, perhaps even more importantly, that we (like many other organisms) are fragile beings whose physiology similarly responds on incredibly rapid timescales.  For example, the length of time it takes for extreme heat to kill a human can be measured in a matter of hours, and measuring only changes in mean temperatures over long scales does not give us the precision we need to understand the impacts that anthropogenic warming will have on us.  In fact, we are experiencing greater numbers of extreme events in the Anthropocene that happen on incredibly short time-scales.  The interaction between mean conditions and number of extreme events is complex, but at least in climate, it appears that greater mean temperatures lead to greater numbers of heat waves.  While heat waves are short in timescale, even on human timescales, they lead to large numbers of human deaths, with a recent estimate that up to 69% of deaths from a heat wave were directly attributable to anthropogenic climate change.

So what timescale do we measure the Anthropocene on?  The answer is likely “all of them”.


FURTHER READING:
B. Petrie, R. Barden and B.  Kasprzyk-Hordern. 2015. “A review on emerging contaminants in wastewaters and the environment: Current knowledge, understudied areas and recommendations for future monitoring.” Water Research Vol. 72, pp. 3-27. Provides a broader context for understanding the kinds of contaminants studied by Jiang et al.

“Relative impacts of mitigation, temperature, and precipitation on 21st-century megadrought risk in the American Southwest”

CITATION:
Ault, T.R. et al. 2016. Science Advances, vol. 2, e1600873
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ABSTRACT:
Megadroughts are comparable in severity to the worst droughts of the 20th century but are of much longer duration. A megadrought in the American Southwest would impose unprecedented stress on Continue reading

“Valuation in the Anthropocene: Exploring options for alternative operations of the Glen Canyon Dam”

CITATION:
Jones, B.A. et al. 2016. Water Resources and Economics vol. 14, pp. 3-13
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ABSTRACT:
Amidst debates about what conservation and preservation mean for large coupled human and natural systems, survey-based non-market valuation approaches for eliciting non-use values also may confront the need for Continue reading

“Climate, Environment and Early Human Innovation: Stable Isotope and Faunal Proxy Evidence from Archaeological Sites (98-59ka) in the Southern Cape, South Africa”

CITATION:

Roberts, P., C. S. Henshilwood, K. L. van Niekerk, P. Keene, A. Gledhill, J. Reynard, S. Badenhorst and J. Lee-Thorp. 2016 PLoS One 11(7):e0157408.

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ABSTRACT:

The Middle Stone Age (MSA) of southern Africa, and in particular its Still Bay and Howiesons Poort lithic traditions, represents a period of dramatic subsistence, cultural, and technological innovation by Continue reading

“How humans drive speciation as well as extinction”

CITATION:
Bull, J.W. and Maron, M. 2016. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283: 20160600.
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ABSTRACT:
A central topic for conservation science is evaluating how human activities influence global species diversity. Humanity exacerbates extinction rates. But by what mechanisms does humanity drive the emergence of new species? Continue reading

“Advances in restoration ecology: rising to the challenges of the coming decades”

CITATION:
Perring, M.P. et al. 2015. Ecosphere, 6(8): art. 131.
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ABSTRACT:
Simultaneous environmental changes challenge biodiversity persistence and human wellbeing. The science and practice of restoration ecology, in collaboration with other disciplines, can Continue reading

“The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis: A Biography of an Ingenious Species”

CITATION:
R. DeFries. 2014. New York: Basic Books.
BOOK WEBSITE:
ABSTRACT:

The human species has long lived on the edge of starvation. Now we produce enough food so that all 7 billion of us could eat nearly 3,000 calories every day. This is such an astonishing transformation as to Continue reading

“When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal”

CITATION:
Zalasiewicz, J., et al., 2015. Quaternary International, 383, pp. 196-203.
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ABSTRACT:
We evaluate the boundary of the Anthropocene geological time interval as an epoch, since it is useful to have a consistent temporal definition for this increasingly used unit, whether the presently informal term is eventually formalized or not. Continue reading

“From hominins to humans: how sapiens became behaviourally modern”

CITATION:
K. Sterelny. 2011. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, vol. 366, pp. 809–822.
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ABSTRACT:
This paper contributes to a debate in the palaeoarchaeological community about the major time-lag between the origin of anatomically modern humans and the appearance of Continue reading

“A Paleolithic Reciprocation Crisis: Symbols, Signals, and Norms”

CITATION:
K. Sterelny. 2014. Biological Theory, vol. 9, pp 65-77.
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ABSTRACT:
Within paleoanthropology, the origin of behavioral modernity is a famous problem. Very large-brained hominins have lived for around half a million years, yet social lives resembling those known from the ethnographic record appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago. Why did it take 400,000 years for humans to start acting like humans? Continue reading

“Beyond DNA: integrating inclusive inheritance into an extended theory of evolution”

CITATION:
E. Danchin et al. 2011. Nature Reviews Genetics, vol. 12, pp. 475-486.
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ABSTRACT:
Many biologists are calling for an ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ that would ‘modernize the modern synthesis’ of evolution. Biological information is typically considered as being transmitted across generations by the DNA sequence alone, but accumulating evidence indicates that Continue reading

“The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System”

CITATION:
P. Falkowski et al. 2000. Science, vol. 290, pp. 291-296.
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ABSTRACT:
Motivated by the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 due to human activities since the Industrial Revolution, several international scientific research programs have analyzed the role of Continue reading

“The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language”

CITATION:
Steven Pinker. 2010. PNAS, vol. 107, suppl. 2, pp. 8993–8999.
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ABSTRACT:
Although Darwin insisted that human intelligence could be fully explained by the theory of evolution, the codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, claimed that abstract intelligence was of no use to ancestral humans and could only be explained by Continue reading

“Efforts to monitor and characterize the recent increasing seismicity in central Oklahoma”

CITATION:
D. E. McNamara et al. 2015. The Leading Edge, June 2015, pp. 628-639.
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ABSTRACT:
The sharp increase in seismicity over a broad region of central Oklahoma has raised concerns regarding the source of the activity and its potential hazard to local communities and energy-industry infrastructure. Efforts to Continue reading

“Early warning of climate tipping points”

CITATION:
Timothy M. Lenton. 2011. Nature Climate Change 1, pp. 201-209.
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ABSTRACT:
A climate ‘tipping point’ occurs when a small change in forcing triggers a strongly nonlinear response in the internal dynamics of part of the climate system, qualitatively changing its future state. Human-induced climate change could Continue reading

“Species-specific responses of Late Quartenary megafauna to climate and humans”

CITATION:
E.D. Lorenzen, et al. 2011. Nature 479, pp. 359–364.
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ABSTRACT:
Despite decades of research, the roles of climate and humans in driving the dramatic extinctions of large-bodied mammals during the Late Quaternary period remain contentious. Here we use ancient DNA, species distribution models and the human fossil record to Continue reading

“Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”

CITATION:
Colin P. Kelly et al. 2015. PNAS, Vol. 112, No. 11, pp. 3241-326.
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ABSTRACT:
Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to Continue reading