Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Dolphin reef playgrounds at risk from climate change


Pacific bottlenose dolphins treat their skin conditions in coral reef spas, a new study has found. 

The dolphins are regular customers at specific Red Sea reefs, where they rub up against certain types of corals that contain distinct active medicinal compounds, according to the study, published on Thursday in iScience. 

Repeated rubbing allows these chemicals “to come into contact with the skin of the dolphins,” Gertrud Morlock, of Germany’s Justus Liebig University Giessen, said in a statement. 

This could help dolphins prevent or treat microbial infections, Morlock added.

“Many people don’t realize that these coral reefs are bedrooms for the dolphins, and playgrounds as well,” co-author Angela Ziltener of the University of Zurich added. 

“It’s almost like they are showering, cleaning themselves before they go to sleep or get up for the day.”    

They may soon be evicted: While coral reefs are critical to dolphin communities, they have becoming increasingly endangered by rising temperatures and acidity in the oceans — even in the comparative refuge of the Red Sea, according to a study Frontiers in Science.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll explore legislation that could pay to move homeowners out of the nation’s most flood-ravaged areas. Then we’ll find out why scientists are angry that the FDA won’t institute a full ban on toxic “phthalates” in food packaging. 

Government could buy flood-prone homes 

Millions of homeowners who face continual destructive floods could soon have the option of a quick, federally funded buyout under a new bill introduced Thursday by Reps. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). 

What it says: The bill would allow the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the federal flood insurer of last resort, to buy houses and zones deemed indefensible instead of continually paying to repair them. 

How bad is the problem? Bad, and it’s getting worse. 

The NFIP is straining under the weight of ever more frequent and severe flood events. Congress paid $16 billion to bail the program out in 2018, and Congress proposed another $20 billion in 2021. 

That problem is only growing

Flooded before mortgage paid off: Meanwhile, the nation’s coastlines are set to rise an average of 12 inches in sea level rise by midcentury — with Florida and the Gulf Coast facing even higher water levels, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. 

“That’s basically saying that if you’re building a home south of I-10 in Louisiana, if you’re building that home today, it’s going to be underwater before you have paid off a 30 year mortgage,” Casten told Equilibrium. 

Do people have to move? No. But in certain properties at particular risk from rising seas or increased flooding — where a buyout ends up being cheaper than repeated repairs — that could be the only way to get an NFIP payout, Casten said. 

No obligations, but no payments to stay: “You’re not obligating people to move but you’re saying. if you want to if you want to avail yourself with the NFIP program, we’re going to structure it towards a buyout rather than rebuilding,” Casten said. 


On the flip side, the bill would also revamp Federal Emergency Management Administration policies program so that people who do want to leave can more easily do so, according to a press release from Casten’s office. 

Such as? NFIP payouts can take up to fix years, and under the current system require homeowners to come up with 10 percent of the house’s cost in order to receive the other 90 percent. 

Possible upgrades: America’s legacy of hydrological discrimination makes the moving people out of floodplains a form of social uplift, Casten suggested. 

“If you are paying for someone to move from the flood prone part of town to the non-flood prone part of town, you are also probably paying them to move from the poor part to the part of town that’s got better schools,” he said. 

That doesn’t erase fairness concerns: “It’s a really hard issue and like the equities are lost on none of us,” Casten said.  

But for many areas, he sees it as a choice between enforced retreat and chosen retreat in the face of a changing and inevitable reality.  

Tough calls: “Is it to say, you need to move out of the community where your grandparents lived, because the federal government isn’t willing to build there — or to say, ‘Your house is underwater and there’s no there’s no good choices, but I think here is a better choice.’” 

Read more here.

FDA won’t fully ban fast-food packaging toxin 

Sparking the ire of scientists and environmental groups, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Thursday that it would only restrict certain types of dangerous chemicals that are commonly found in food packaging, while leaving others unregulated. 

The decision came in response to three separate petitions requesting that the FDA limit the use of compounds called phthalates, which are known to disrupt hormone function and linked to birth defects, infertility, learning disabilities and neurological disorders.   

No more science necessary: Banning phthalates is “a way we can prevent impaired learning and reproduction in all Americans, but especially the most vulnerable,” Amit Zota, an associate professor at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Equilibrium.   

“Here’s a pathway to prevention,” Zota continued. “We do not need more science. The science is clear.” 

Disproportionate impacts: Despite the proven health impacts of exposure to phthalates, these compounds are still common ingredients in food packaging.  

Scientists have found that marginalized groups suffer disproportionate impacts from these chemicals, in part due to greater fast-food intake.  

A partial ban: The FDA agreed on Thursday to institute a ban on the use of 23 phthalates for food contact applications, noting that these particular phthalates had already “been abandoned” by manufacturers anyway.  

The decision affirmed a July 2018 petition submitted by the Flexible Vinyl Alliance trade group. 

But the agency denied a separate petition on Thursday that was filed by a cohort of environmental organizations in 2016.  

Ubiquitous toxins: Zota called upon “the FDA to make evidence-based decisions to protect the health of Americans.” 

“Given the ubiquity of the problem and its magnitude on health, we need upstream policy decisions, policy action, and this is in FDA’s regulatory authority,” she said.  

To read the full story, please click here

Heat linked to rising US death rates: study 

Extreme heat events are linked to an increase in adult death rates across the U.S., posing a particular threat to older adults, men and non-Hispanic Black individuals, a new study has found.  

From 2008 through 2017, each additional extreme heat day per month was linked to 7 deaths per 10 million adults, according to the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Thursday. 

Heat death rates will keep climbing: “As extreme heat events increase over the coming decades, this will likely become an even greater issue,” lead author Sameed Khatana, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told Equilibrium. 

Worsening existing gaps: Without intervention from policymakers, the authors warned, the expected increase in extreme heat due to climate change could worsen existing health gaps among groups. 

“As with many other public health issues in the United States, the adverse health effects appear to fall disproportionately on certain populations, notably on non-Hispanic Black adults,” Khatana said.  

A nationwide problem: To draw their conclusions, the scientists cross-checked the number of extreme heat days in the summer months from 2008 to 2017 and county-level “all-cause mortality rates” across all counties in the contiguous U.S.  

The death figures, obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics, included adults aged 20 years and older, according to the study.  

Worrisome numbers: The scientists found greater increases in monthly mortality rates among specific groups. 

  • Older adults, with 19 deaths per 10 million individuals 
  • Males, with 12 million deaths per 10 million individuals. 
  • Non-Hispanic Black individuals, at 11 millions deaths per 10 million individuals 

Prioritizing mitigation: “Local, regional and national policy makers need to make mitigating the health effects of climate change in general, and extreme heat in particular, a priority,” Khatana told Equilibrium.  

To read the full story, please click here

Musk embraces GOP — will they embrace EVs? 

Electric vehicle (EV) and solar panel magnate Elon Musk vowed on Wednesday to vote Republican in the next election. 

So what? Musk’s embrace of the GOP could help de-politicize clean energy and EVs in particular, Republican strategist Douglas Heye told Equilibrium. 

Further reading: We reported last week about the role of growing red state renewable manufacturing industries in shifting Republicans toward embracing clean energy — or at least the jobs it can bring. 

What Musk said: “In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” Musk wrote on Twitter. 

“But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican,” added. 

A history of mockery: Historically, Republicans have been somewhere between bemused and contemptuous of EVs, Heye said. 

“Republican [Congressional] members kind of make fun of them,” he said. “They think they’re all Priuses.”

A possible change: Musk’s recent embrace of the GOP could throw a wrench in that narrative, Heye suggested. 

“Musk could change that calculation,” he said. 

Thursday Threats

Colorado and Nebraska embroiled in water squabble, the Arctic’s ground burns faster than it grows and a lack of pipeline regulation puts communities at risk. 

Colorado, Nebraska spar over water  

  • Farmers on both sides of the South Platte River are facing uncertainty, after Nebraska’s Republican-controlled legislature voted earlier this year to divert water from Colorado over the border, The Associated Press reported. 

Cut emissions, for peat’s sake 

  • The warming Arctic is experiencing a great destruction of carbon-trapping peat — a wet, boggy and flammable muck that is like a cross between soil and coal — at the same time that, paradoxically, the greener landscape is causing new peat to form, Wired reported. 

Carbon dioxide pipelines pose unregulated risk 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.


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