10 Monsters that Threaten the Planet

Forget vampires and werewolves. There are bigger monsters threatening us all.

October 29, 2009


ODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As the Witching Hour draws near, you may be thinking about the tiny monsters soon to be knocking at your door and demanding candy (or maybe the slightly bigger monsters who may TP your house or soap up your car windows). But what about the global monsters—global environmental issues that lurk in your backyard, perhaps right under your feet? How can you protect yourself?

To find out, read on to enter Rodale.com's house of environmental horrors. But enter at your own risk:

#1: Underground FOG Monsters
A hazy FOG lurks beneath your feet, snaking through your city's sewage system and lining the walls of the pipes with an axis of evil: Fats, Oils, and Grease. Poured down the kitchen sinks of homeowners and greasy restaurants alike, this FOG coats sewage pipes as it cools, slowly building up layers of goop, like fat in the arteries of a failing heart. Eventually, tiny chunks of the congealed FOG break off and form hideously huge grease balls that block pipes and lead to overflows of raw sewage into homes, yards, and parks. At that point, a city's only recourse is to flush out the FOG clots with caustic chemicals or acids, which can harm fish and aquatic wildlife.

How to kill the beast: Never pour leftover cooking grease, fats, and oils (everything from bacon grease to olive oil) down the drain. Empty them into a coffee can or other container you can store in the freezer, and when that's full, throw it away. Also, install a screen over your drain to prevent solid fats from slipping away.
#2: Oceanic Algae Blobs
Some call it "killer algae," and it's already outwitted the governments of four Mediterranean countries who have unsuccessfully tried to bring it under control. It's Caulerpa taxifolia, a fast-growing form of invasive algae that has blanketed 11,000 acres of the Mediterranean sea floor and has been reported in waters as far south as Sydney, Australia. Masses of the algae are now invading the ocean waters off the Southern California coast, killing native sea grasses and seaweeds that feed commercially valuable fish. The invasion began in 1984, when the algae either escaped or was inadvertently released from saltwater aquariums in France and Monaco. Now, it threatens everything from commercial fisheries to tourism industries that rely on recreational boating and scuba diving.

How to kill the beast: Be responsible about cleaning out home aquariums to prevent any form of invasive organisms from washing down the drain and contributing to the problem. If you remove any rocks or decorative items from your fish tank, place them in a plastic bag, and freeze them for 24 hours before discarding them in the land trash.
#3: Killer Cormorants
In a tale worthy of Alfred Hitchcock himself, these birds have invaded the precarious ecosystem of the upper Great Lakes and decimated the local populations of valuable yellow perch, which feed both other native wildlife and humans. Once threatened by overuse of DDT, cormorants have rebounded with a vengeance, moving from their native U.S. coastal habitats to inland lakes, where another invasive species, zebra mussels, devours the plankton in murky lakes, making the water unnaturally clear, so it’s easier for cormorants to prey on (and deplete populations of) their food of choice. But it gets worse. Cormorants' guano is so toxic that it rots the very trees in which they roost, and kills all the vegetation that lies beneath, depriving other native species like herons and egrets of the food they need to survive. In some regions, this killer excrement lies 18 inches deep on the bottoms of lakes and ponds.

How to kill the beast: We don't mean literally kill them. Because the birds are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act, doing anything to harm them can get you into trouble with the law. If you see this fugitive away from its coastal habitat, call your local Department of Natural Resources.
#4: "Clean" Coal
This monster attacks its victims psychologically, convincing them that technologies used to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground (preventing it from contributing to global warming) will make up for its destructive nature. "Clean" coal's masters want you to think that carbon dioxide is the only problem associated with this polluting fossil fuel—the associated mercury pollution, acid rain, particulate matter that triggers health problems ranging from asthma attacks to heart disease, and toxic arsenic- and lead-laden sludge that can spill into nearby communities (as happened last winter at the Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant in Kingston, TN) notwithstanding. Nor is "clean" coal clean of the issues associated with coal mining: unsafe mining conditions, black lung, destructive mountaintop removal, and mining companies that strong-arm small communities into moving off land their families have inhabited for generations.

How to kill the beast: We can't abandon our coal-oriented energy infrastructure overnight, but we can be sure that this dying entity doesn't linger on beyond its natural lifespan. Call your local utility and demand truly green power from solar and wind farms, and ask your state governments to support moratoriums on new "clean coal" power plants. Do what you can to conserve energy, reducing the consequences of coal-based power and saving your money, to boot.
#5: Brown Cloud of Doom
These are the ABC's you wish your children didn't need to learn. Asian Brown Clouds, chemical stews of fossil fuel–generated particulate matter, are slowly lumbering across the Pacific, carried by jet stream winds to cities along the U.S. West Coast, and beyond. A 2001 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that particulate matter stirred up by dust storms in China has made it all the way to New England, picking up even more pollution as it crossed the U.S from west to east. And we're unwitting fuel for similar monsters. Pollution from states across the U.S. is carried to European countries, and pollution from all countries can circle the globe, according to a soon-to-be-published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

How to kill the beast: Stop feeding them. Invest a few dollars in creating energy-saving windows that don't waste heat, and see if your utility provides free energy audits that will give you more ideas about how to cut your fossil fuel–powered energy use. Using less energy means power plants emit fewer pollutants. Then, as with "clean" coal, tell your state and federal officials you want more investment in energy that really is clean.
#6: GMO Frankencorn
Biotech engineers from agricompanies like Monsanto and Syngenta have created frightening frankencrops by taking genes from other species and injecting them into the genetic code of familiar domesticated plants. Several studies over the past decade have linked genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to higher rates of allergies, immune system problems, and even cancer. Some of these crops are genetically altered to withstand high dousings of hormone-disrupting synthetic pesticides, leading to more toxic chemicals being dumped into our soil and water. Estimates have found that about 70 percent of processed foods in the supermarket, including soda, ketchup, soup, and other foods, contain GMO ingredients.

How to kill the beast: GMOs are banned in organic farming, but the wind can carry GMO pollen particles to organic fields and genetically contaminate innocent organic corn, soy, or cotton far from the source. Buy organic, and tell your legislators to ban this stuff from our food supply before its genes are everywhere.
#7:Black Lagoon (of Crap)
If you live near a CAFO—a confined animal-feeding operation—you know it. That's because you can smell the ammonia-laced manure lagoon, a disgusting stew of watered-down animal crap mixed with bacteria, viruses, and antibiotics routinely used in this type of crowded farming practice. This mix of germs and medicine is accelerating the rate of development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that threaten humans, too. It's also likely where swine flu originated, according to many researchers. And if there's a leak in the lagoon, or even if it rains too much, the sickening sludge overflows, and can contaminate drinking water. Gross! The massive lagoons come from factory farms, which cram thousands, or even millions, of animals into small indoor areas or crowded feedlots. To make matters even worse, according to the groups Consumers Union and Food Animal Concerns Trust, CAFO farmers can legally feed cows manure, feathers, and poultry bedding material. The organizations say cows are also fed meat and bone meal from dead cattle, which could result in the spread of mad cow disease to humans.

How to kill the beast: If you eat meat, make sure you buy it from a small to midsize local farmer who allows animals to graze and eat a natural diet. Or buy meat that's certified USDA organic, where hormone and antibiotic use are prohibited.
#8: Mystery Bat Fungus
A mysterious, fuzzy white fungus has been implicated in the deaths of millions of bats living in caves in the Northeastern United States. And while bats are a spooky mainstay when it comes to Halloween decorations, what's happening in the wild is downright horrifying. Some biologists are pegging this as the most devastating wildlife crisis to face the continent in the last century. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services awarded $800,000 in grants to research efforts to find the cause of and to control white nose syndrome, cited as a wildlife health crisis of unprecedented proportions. Bat-lover or not, the situation is dire: Losing millions of bats sets the stage for a surge in the mosquito population. The bat population crash is also affecting farmers. They play a crucial role in plant pollination and insect control.

How to kill the beast: If you want to help, consider donating to groups like Bat Conservation International. If you encounter a bat in your house, take steps to let it out without harming it.
#9: Evil Butterfly Bush
"How could something so lovely be so bad," you ask? Well, we'll admit to being deliberately provocative by singling out this popular backyard beauty. But the truth is, it's an invasive plant. While the butterfly bush is a mainstay in many gardens, it's actually quite cruel. It attracts butterflies, but then does not provide food for butterfly larvae. On top of that, many botanical experts and government agencies have listed butterfly bush, which originated in Asia, on invasive species lists because it can spread and overtake native plants that feed beneficial insects and birds. And while it certainly isn't as aggressive as more common invasive plants, such as kudzu, a tree-strangling vine that has infested millions of acres in the U.S., butterfly bush is still available for sale in many nurseries (as is purple loosestrife, another notorious invasive).

How to kill the beast: If you already have a butterfly bush and don't want to rip it out, make sure you cut it back before it goes to seed, and rip out any offspring. Instead, choose native plants that better benefit butterflies, such as Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed, and swamp milkweed. And use other methods to make your yard a haven for butterflies.
#10: Atrazine—Annihilator of Safe Drinking Water
One of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S., atrazine is banned in Switzerland, the country where it's produced. Many chemical farmers continue to spray millions of pounds of the poison on crops every year. After application or excessive rain, the poison pesticide makes its way into the drinking water of millions of people. More and more research is showing it's an endocrine disruptor, and it's also believed to be a damaging contaminator of the womb: Higher levels in the drinking water during pregnancy correlate with a spike in birth defects and genetic deformities.

How to kill the beast: To put an end to the use of this sinister poison, vote for organic agriculture methods with your dollar by choosing organic food whenever you can. If you live in an agricultural area, you can buy NFS-certified water filters that can filter out most of the atrazine in your drinking water.
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