TIME Mexico

Mexico Says Mine Firm Lied About Chemical Spill

Buenavista del Cobre copper mine could face fines of up to $3 million for violations of safety and environmental standards

(MEXICO CITY) — Mexico’s top environmental official said Tuesday that a mining company lied about a spill of millions of gallons of acids and heavy metals that contaminated two rivers and a dam downstream.

Environment Secretary Juan Jose Guerra Abud said the mine falsely claimed the spill earlier this month was caused by unusually heavy rain. Officials say a construction defect at a holding pond allowed mining waste to flow out.

“At the start, they told us it was excessive rain” that caused the containment pond to overflow, Guerra Abud said. “That was totally false,” he said, saying there were no rains on that scale.

“They said there would be a series of aid programs for the populations, which also did not happen when they said they would,” he added at a news conference.

Guerra Abud said the Buenavista del Cobre copper mine could face fines of up to $3 million for violations of safety and environmental standards. The mine is owned by the Grupo Mexico consortium, which earlier said in a statement that “torrential and unusual rains” were to blame and that it responded immediately by trying to contain the Aug. 7 spill.

The spill sent about 10 million gallons (40,000 cubic meters) of mining acids into two rivers and on to a dam that supplies water to the capital of the northern state of Sonora.

Authorities have ordered a shut-off of water use from the dam until its safety can be ensured. The Environment Department office has also ordered an inspection of all Buenavista del Cobre’s properties to verify the company is complying with environmental laws.

National water commission head David Korenfeld said acids and pollutants like arsenic have been so diluted they are now within acceptable limits at the dam. A decision to renew use of the dam’s water could come as early as Friday, after multiple tests are carried out, he said.

But Korenfeld said the dam would have to raise intake levels for years to avoid stirring up possibly contaminated sediment. “The procedures for operating the dam are going to have to change for the next few years,” he said.

The mine piles up crushed rock and then leaches out metals using acid that collects in containment or transfer ponds until it is processed.

Arturo Rodriguez, the head of industrial inspection for the Attorney General for Environmental Protection, said lax supervision at the mine, along with some rain and construction defects, appeared to have caused the spill. Rodriguez said mine operators should have been able to detect the leak before such a large quantity got into the rivers.

TIME Environmental Health

Potent New Weed-Killer Could Be Sprayed Near Schools, Says Environmental Group

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering approval of a new herbicide that could pose health risks to school children, says the Environmental Working Group

The EPA is open to public comments until June 30 about approving Enlist Duo, a new combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular RoundUp weed killer. A majority of soybean and corn crops are now resistant to glyphosate alone, which is why Dow AgroSciences created the new formulation, designed to work on genetically modified seeds the company has developed that are supposed to be more resistant to weed growth.

But in a new analysis, EWG says more than 5,000 schools are located within 200 feet of fields that could potentially be sprayed with the chemical, if it’s approved. According to the environmental advocacy group, the compounds in Enlist Duo have been linked to harmful health effects, including immune and reproductive issues as well as certain cancers and Parkinson’s disease. EWG says the EPA analysis of the herbicide doesn’t sufficiently consider the potential health harms, especially if inhaled, which would be the primary way people would be exposed to it. The agency, for its part, says it “confirmed the safety of the use for the public, agricultural workers and non-target species.”

In its analysis, EWG found that Michigan contains the highest number of schools—658—located within 200 feet of corn and soybean crops that could be sprayed with Enlist Duo, followed by Missouri, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. For an interactive map of schools within 1000 feet of such fields, click here.

TIME Environmental Health

Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

A new report finds the number of chemicals contributing to brain disorders in children has doubled since 2006

In recent years, the prevalence of developmental disorders such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia have soared. While greater awareness and more sophisticated diagnoses are partly responsible for the rise, researchers say the changing environment in which youngsters grow up may also be playing a role.

In 2006, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai identified five industrial chemicals responsible for causing harm to the brain — lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (found in electric transformers, motors and capacitors), arsenic (found in soil and water as well as in wood preservatives and pesticides) and toluene (used in processing gasoline as well as in paint thinner, fingernail polish and leather tanning). Exposure to these neurotoxins was associated with changes in neuron development in the fetus as well as among infants, and with lower school performance, delinquent behavior, neurological abnormalities and reduced IQ in school-age children.

(MORE: A Link Between Pesticides and Attention Disorders?)

Now the same researchers have reviewed the literature and found six additional industrial chemicals that can hamper normal brain development. These are manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Manganese, they say, is found in drinking water and can contribute to lower math scores and heightened hyperactivity, while exposure to high levels of fluoride from drinking water can contribute to a seven-point drop in IQ on average. The remaining chemicals, which are found in solvents and pesticides, have been linked to deficits in social development and increased aggressive behaviors.

The research team acknowledges that there isn’t a causal connection between exposure to any single chemical and behavioral or neurological problems — it’s too challenging to isolate the effects of each chemical to come to such conclusions. But they say the growing body of research that is finding links between higher levels of these chemicals in expectant mothers’ blood and urine and brain disorders in their children should raise alarms about how damaging these chemicals can be. The developing brain in particular, they say, is vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals, and in many cases, the changes they trigger are permanent.

“The consequence of such brain damage is impaired [central nervous system] function that lasts a lifetime and might result in reduced intelligence, as expressed in terms of lost IQ points, or disruption in behavior,” they write in their report, which was published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

They point to two barriers to protecting children from such exposures — not enough testing of industrial chemicals and their potential effect on brain development before they are put into widespread use, and the enormous amount of proof that regulatory agencies require in order to put restrictions or limitations on chemicals. Most control of such substances, they note, occurs after negative effects are found among adults; in children, the damage may be more subtle, in the form of lower IQ scores or hyperactivity, that might not be considered pathological or dangerous. “Our very great concern is that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies, perhaps most seriously in developing countries,” they write. “A new framework of action is needed.”

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