“Top 10 Environmental Health Stories of 2014”

Top 10 Environmental Health Stories of 2014

By Annie Hauser

Published Dec 22 2014 08:39 AM EST

1. Fracking Concerns Continued

On Dec. 17, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking, citing health concerns. This move — New York is the first state to ban fracking — ended a year full of news about the practice's health effects.

The bottom line is we really don't know fracking's longterm impact, New York's acting health director Howard A. Zucker, M.D., told the state's cabinet, saying he recommended suspending the practice.

(MORE: How Fracking Changed the Eagle Ford Shale)

Throughout the year, other scientists echoed this sentiment. “We really don’t know objectively how the health of these communities is being affected by the natural gas drilling,” Peter Rabinowitz, M.D., who published a survey on the health of those living near fracking wells, told in September. “We don’t know about long-term health effects. … We really just don’t know how much to worry, and how much not to worry.”

In 2014, studies did link respiratory issues and skin conditions, as well as infertility, miscarriages and birth defects to fracking wells. Next year, the study of fracking's health effects — and the debate over its safety — is sure to continue.

Although fracking grabbed a lot of headlines in 2014, it was far from the only environmental health issue to make waves.

2. Power Plant Emission Standards Tightened

24. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio (tie): This metropolitan area tied for the 24th most high-ozone days out 277 cities from 2010-2012, according to the 2014 State of the Air report from American Lung Association. (Wikimedia/Royalbroil) 

On June 2, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule that would make the first-ever significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants nationwide, with a plan to cut their carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, a major tenet of the president's Climate Action Plan.

Lowering emissions standards is meant to not only help the environment, but also public health.

“For the sake of all our kids, we've got to do more to reduce [emissions],” the president said in a press conference before the EPA's June announcement, adding that they “threaten the health of the most vulnerable Americans.”

Particulate air pollution — or the microscopic bits of ash, soot, diesel exhaust chemicals, metals and aerosols filling the air from factories, power plants and cars — is a known cancer-causer. It's also closely associated with heart failure and heart attacks. Particulate pollution also damages lung health.

The EPA's new clean power plant standards could prevent an estimated 100,000 asthma attacks per year and an estimated 2,100 heart attacks, the American Public Health Association stated at the time of the announcement.

“This is about protecting out health, and it is about protecting our homes,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in June.

3. Water Quality Issues Surfaced

Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio.(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari) 

In early August, the city of Toldeo, Ohio, shut off its municipal water supply after the city detected high levels of the toxin microcystin. Blue-green algae blooms, which are the result of warm, wet weather and agricultural runoff, produce the toxin, which has long plagued Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

In fact, the EPA considers harmful algal blooms to be a "major environmental problem" in all 50 states. As the planet continues to warm, the problem is only going to get worse, scientists said in the journal Science.

Extreme weather events caused some to zero in on water quality issues in other ways, too. When heavy rains hit, municipal sewer systems are often overwhelmed, dumping storm water, which contains fertilizers and chemicals, and untreated sewage into nearby waterways in an estimated 775 communities around the country.

After a storm in Michigan sent a deluge of contaminated water into Lake Erie this summer, Melissa Damaschke, of Michigan's Sierra Club, told The Detroit News. “These extreme weather events are happening and we need to address them.”

4. Chikungunya Hit the U.S.

Mosquito-borne diseases sicken tens of thousands every year. Chikungunya, an infection once only found in Asia and Africa, recently hit the states, sickening several people. Here, more insect-borne diseases to watch for, according to the CDC. (James Jordan/Flickr) 

After months of spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere, the chikungunya virus made its way to the United States in July.

A Florida man became the first patient to locally acquire the painful virus, the CDC announced. In total, it spread locally to more than 10 people.

Hundreds of Americans also acquired the virus while visiting the Caribbean. Chikungunya arrived in the Caribbean in December of 2013, whereas previously it had only been found in Asia and Africa.

Like all other vector-borne diseases, such as West Nile and Lyme, chikungunya is predicted to spread faster and farther than ever before as a result of climate change. Warmer climates and longer growing seasons make the environment more hospitable to insects, who in turn have more opportunities to spread infection.

Other climatic-related diseases, such as valley fever, which sickens individuals through fungal spores spread during dust storms, might become increasingly severe as well.

5. Heat Deaths Predicted to Rise

Scientists have been studying the burden climate change will place on us for the past several years. In 2014, several studies were released examining the affect of increased heat.

From present day until the 2080s, British researchers projected that annual heat deaths in the United Kingdom could increase from approximately 2,000 to more than 12,000. Although the country’s average temperature will increase, the number of cold deaths is not expected to drop significantly enough to offset the spike in heat deaths. The findings were reported in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

6. Pollution Named Top Environmental Health Risk

In April, WHO named air pollution the world's top environmental risk, blaming it for some 7 million deaths a year — more than double previous estimates.

This measure combined outdoor air pollution from factories and cars, as well as indoor pollution from wood and coal stoves. Together, these two types of pollution killed more than smoking, traffic deaths and diabetes combined, WHO said.

Southeast Asia is now the most-polluted region in the world, WHO stated. Meanwhile, U.S. air quality has been steadily improving since the Clean Air Act of the 1970s.

Although, according to the American Lung Association's 2014 State of the Air report, nearly all of the 25 U.S. cities with the worst air pollution had more high ozone days from 2010 to 2012 than from 2009 to 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Warmer, more humid summers are likely to blame for the rise in ozone, researchers stated.

7. Allergies Continued to Become More Severe

Seasonal allergies are everywhere, though some places are harder to live than others. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) identified the most challenging places to live with fall allergies in 2014. Click through to see how your city ranks. (Thinkstock/Comstock) 

If you live in the "pollen belt" — the swath of the country that stretches from the southern Midwest to the Southeast — you likely experienced worse-than-usual allergy symptoms this year, continuing with a years-long trend of more-severe allergy symptoms.

Warmer springs and falls create pollen seasons that are particularly tough for people with allergies, Dr. Clifford Bassett, of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York and spokesperson for the AAFA, told in October. “We've had record warm days, and as of result of that, greater healthier plants pollinating, record pollen counts and so forth," he said of 2014. It also makes reactive plants, such as poison ivy, grow faster and become more toxic, he added.

As Warner Carr, M.D., an allergy and fellow of the American College of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology told, “There's a warming trend in our environment, so we're seeing a much more favorable growing environment for weeds."

8. Ebola Made History

Ebola is a zoonotic disease, which means it is transmitted from animals to humans. In 2014, it was the most striking example of what happens when humans and the natural world combine with tragic results.

2014's Ebola outbreak is by far the deadliest in the history of the disease. As of Dec. 14, 18,603 cases have been reported around the world resulting in 6,915 deaths. Actual figures are likely much higher. And the outbreak is raging on for the most-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the U.S. military and other organizations are still working to control the epidemic on the ground in West Africa.

9. Enterovirus Sickened Kids

A severe form of enterovirus, the type that usually causes summer colds, hit kids across the country particularly hard in 2014. Above,  4-year-old Eli Thomas Waller with his sisters. Waller died from the virus this fall. 

At least 11 more children died because of EV-D68 and the severe respiratory illnesses it causes. In total, more than 1,152 people in 49 states and Washington D.C., fell ill from mid-August through December. Almost all of the CDC's laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus occurred in children, most of whom had a history of wheezing or asthma.

10. The Flu Shot Made Headlines

The 2014 flu shot also raised illness concerns toward the end of the year, as the CDC announced that one of the three viruses the vaccine protects against had mutated, making this year's formulation less effective than the agency hoped.

But this bad news merely "reinforces the notion we’ve always known, that the influenza vaccine is not a perfect vaccine," Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and past president of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases, told "But it is the best we have. … Waiting for perfection is the great enemy of the current good, and we can still do a lot of good, protect an awful lot of people, and make a severe disease milder, using the current vaccine."