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2013 Saw Environmental Protests, Regulatory Conflicts of Interest and Lingering Mysteries

It was a year when people were fed up with pipelines from Canada, fracking, coal trains and other environmental messes


It was a year when people were fed up. With pipelines in Canada. Fracking in the UK. Coal trains along the Columbia River. A crematorium and an oil refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area. A waste recycling plant in Ohio. Fluoride in Portland, Ore.

While there's nothing new about civil disobedience and other environmental protests, in 2013 they seemed to intensify and spread globally. Grassroots protests attracted large numbers of local and native people who worry about their environmental health but don't consider themselves activists.

In Romania, two proposals – opening Europe's largest open-cast gold mine and drilling for shale gas – drew thousands of protesters. In China, people protested not just the deadly smog that blankets their northern cities but also the government's inadequate flood-relief plans and proposals to build a refinery and uranium processing plant. In Nepal, locals staged a sit-in at a wire factory. In Malaysia, tribespeople blockaded the construction site of a new dam. In rural Mexico, wind farms drew demonstrations from native people.

On the lush island of Kauai, the public's environmental concerns spurred a landmark ordinance. Large farms must disclose their use of pesticides and genetically modified crops. The movement is now spreading to other Hawaiian islands. Will it reach the mainland in 2014? Stay tuned. So far, efforts in other states have focused on requiring labels on genetically modified foods. Scientists are divided about the need to label GMOs: There is little scientific evidence of health or ecological threats, but many uncertainties remain.

2013 also brought revelations of conflicts of interest between industries and regulators. An investigation by Environmental Health News revealed that scientists who have criticized plans in Europe to regulate endocrine-disrupting chemicals have past or current ties to regulated industries. Meanwhile, in Canada, conflict-of-interest allegations surround the environmental assessment of TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And in Australia, the environment minister is investigating claims that members of a board responsible for protecting the Great Barrier Reef have financial ties to companies that could benefit from a major port expansion.

Every day for the past 10 years, our researchers and editors have sorted through environmental stories produced by media from around the world, choosing which ones warrant our front page. In 2013, we posted nearly 58,000 news articles, opinion pieces and editorials.

A whopping 9 percent of those articles – more than 5,000 – were about fracking, the controversial procedure to extract natural gas and oil. (For the list and links, see our Hot Topic here.) It's hard to believe that just a few years ago, virtually no one had heard of fracking; our archives for 2009 include only 192 stories on the topic. Despite this onslaught of coverage, it seems the U.S. public isn't paying much attention. A new survey just reported that more than half of 1,061 respondents said they know little or nothing about fracking. If you're looking for coverage of other hot topics, plug in your subject here.

In addition, EHN journalists in 2013 produced articles covering more than 100 topics, from chemicals in children's products to the scientific debate over low doses of bisphenol A. Our mission is to bring you the top news related to the health of people, wildlife and ecosystems around the world, and to fill the voids left by layoffs and cutbacks at traditional media.

Along with editors Brian Bienkowski and Lindsey Konkel, I want to draw your attention to our picks for the top topics of the year: China's worsening air quality, Canada's oilsands controversy and king coal's waning reign in the United States. Read more about our editors' picks here.

Here's our roundup of the year's most important and intriguing topics:

Four to watch in 2014
Kauai's GMO rules: A big fight erupted on the small island of Kauai when the county council required agribusinesses to disclose use of pesticides and genetically modified crops. The ruling will affect big Hawaiian farms and might spread to the mainland, and could intensify debates over labeling of genetically modified foods. 2013 stories.

Fracking: Fracking drew more than 5,000 news stories from around the world last year. This year, it will continue to dominate headlines throughout much of the world with brewing controversies about health impacts, legality of bans and land rights. 2013 stories.

Cuts to kids’ lead programs: Slashed federal funding threatens the progress made in reducing children’s lead exposure. Watch this issue in 2014 because financially strapped cities will struggle to educate parents and clean up homes. Good news for Detroit. Other 2013 stories about lead and children's health.

Obama and climate change: President Obama vowed in 2013 to take action on climate change. More rules cutting emissions from power plants are expected in June. Also watch to see if the President takes a stance on the Keystone XL pipeline. 2013 stories.

EHN exclusives
EU conflicts of interest:  An investigation by Environmental Health News revealed that 17 scientists who criticized the European Union's plan to regulate endocrine-disrupting have received research funds from industry or served as industry advisors. The stakes are high because the new rules would have global ramifications. 

Chemicals in toys: An Environmental Health News analysis of thousands of reports from America’s largest companies shows that toys and other children’s products contain low levels of dozens of industrial chemicals, including some unexpected ingredients. 

Clues to breast cancer: About 100,000 vials of blood, frozen for five decades, are a treasure trove for scientists. Collected from 15,000 San Francisco Bay Area women, they could hold clues as to why some women with no family history develop breast cancer. 

Green malaria tools: Pesticide companies and public health agencies are trying to develop low-toxic and inexpensive – yet powerful and long-lasting – new insecticides and other technologies for controlling malaria.

Most neglected
Romania pollution: Romania, saddled with staggering unemployment, bears some of Europe’s deepest environmental scars from its legacy of industrial pollution. But Romanians are fighting back. The Parliament last month rejected a proposal to build Europe’s largest open cast gold mine. Photo essay: Romania's industrial legacy leaves deep scarsOther 2013 stories.

U.S. chemical reform:  A bill that would change the way chemicals are regulated in the U.S. has stalled in Congress – again. What’s different this time is that some industry leaders have sided with environmentalists to oppose the bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. 2013 stories on TSCA reform

Minamata Convention: The U.S. media remained largely oblivious as delegates from 140 nations met in Japan in October to adopt a landmark United Nations treaty regulating mercury. Opinion: A call for action in Minamata. The Minamata Convention: 12 things it does (or doesn't do)Other 2013 stories on Minamata.

Newsworthy chemicals
End of the flammability standard: As health concerns over flame retardants mount, California unveils a new flammability standard that avoids their use in furniture. California unveils new flammability standardOther 2013 stories about flame retardants.

Bisphenol A: Health studies on BPA kept rolling in, linking the ubiquitous chemical to cancer, obesity and asthma. While some states took action, federal scientists and academics argued over the effects of low doses. Childhood asthma, BPA exposure linked in new study. BPA replacement alters hormones at low doses, study finds.  EPA defends chemical testing of low-dose hormone effects. Other 2013 stories.

Neonicotinoids: Bees keep dying, and Europe banned the pesticides many believe are behind the die-offs. Pressure is mounting for the United States and Canada to follow suit. 2013 stories

Triclosan: Cleaning up soap? The FDA tells manufacturers that they must prove triclosan, a hormone-disrupting chemical, is necessary if they want to keep using it in soap. 2013 stories

Long-awaited
FDA action: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration acted on several long-delayed issues but still faces more, particularly related to bisphenol A.  2013 stories: farm antibiotics, bisphenol A in baby formula packaging, triclosan in antibacterial soap and food safety.

Most intriguing new science
Gut bacteria is hot: New science suggests it may play a role in many health conditions, such as obesity, autism and Alzheimer’s. While any link to the environment remains unclear, many scientists are wondering how gut microbes may be interacting with pollutants.  Air pollution and the gut: Are fine particles linked to bowel disease?  Other 2013 stories.

Biggest mysteries
Kidney disease: Farm workers in Central America, India and Sri Lanka are dying in staggering numbers from a rare kidney disease, with pesticides fingered as a potential culprit. 2013 stories.

Marine die-offs: What’s killing dolphins and starfish on both coasts of North America? No one knows yet. 2013 stories.

Autism: Autism rates continue to rise, and scientists are still trying to untangle the causes. Onslaught of autism. US kids born in polluted areas more likely to have autismScientists investigate possible connection between autism and vitamin D.  Other 2013 stories.

Worst disasters
West Texas blast:  A deadly ammonium nitrate explosion rocked the West Fertilizer Company in Texas, prompting investigations into chemical regulations, industrial safety and zoning laws. 2013 stories.

Quebec train derailment:  The mid-summer derailment of a freight train in Quebec sparked a deadly explosion and a controversy over crude-by-rail transport. And then, on Dec. 30, a collision involving another oil train forced evacuation of a city in North Dakota. 2013 stories on Quebec derailmentNorth Dakota derailment.

Philippines typhoon: A typhoon that slammed into the Philippines in November was the deadliest in its history, killing at least 6,000 people. 2013 stories.

Yarnell fire: Tragedy struck in Arizona when 19 firefighters were killed after they were trapped while battling a fast-moving wildfire. 2013 stories.

Floods in Australia and Colorado: Floods ravaged Queensland, Australia, early last year, and then Colorado in the fall, raising concerns about more frequent, intense storms in a changing climate. 2013 stories: Colorado floods, Australia floods.  

Legacies revisited
Camp Lejeune: Federal reports confirmed that carcinogens in the water at the Marine Corps base in North Carolina are linked to birth defects. 2013 stories.

Love Canal 35 years later: The Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., remains a powerful national symbol of the chemical industry’s tainted legacy. 2013 stories.

DDT off Los Angeles: What happened to the 110 tons of DDT on the ocean floor? Most of it apparently has vanished, prompting questions about a costly cleanup plan. Going, going, gone? Vanishing DDT. 2013 stories.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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