What’s in Wildfire Smoke, and How Dangerous Is It?

By the time it reaches the East Coast, a California smoke plume will have changed in a number of ways: Because it’s spent so much time aloft, the bigger particles have fallen out, but new particles will have formed. And because the cloud has spawned ozone, “it can be extremely impactful if you already have some health condition, let’s say asthma,” says Tarik Benmarhnia, a climate change epidemiologist at the UC San Diego’s Scripps institution of Oceanography and School of Medicine.

The solid stuff in wildfire smoke may also contain nasties. “Some particulate matter has more heavy metals than others,” says Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research. “Lead for example, or cadmium. There’s also other types of cancer-causing toxins. There’s things like PAHs—polyaromatic hydrocarbons,” which are found in fossil fuels. Keep in mind that when a wildfire tears through a residential neighborhood, it’s burning through the synthetic materials that make up homes, cars, and everything else in the built environment. “I think a lot of times we don’t know, when we’re talking about residential areas burning, how much more toxic it is to human health,” Prunicki adds.

With this handy map, you can actually see a forecast of where the smoke will end up. On the left side of the map, click “Vertically Integrated Smoke” to see what’s loading the East Coast atmosphere right now. (Red indicates high levels, blue means low.) The “Surface Smoke” option shows what you’d actually be breathing. As you can see, the latter is snaking a plume of bad air quality all the way to the Midwest, though at the moment not much of it is reaching the ground along the Eastern Seaboard. Which is not to say that it won’t—the weather could change and push the stuff down to ground level, at which point air quality will suffer.

Meanwhile, the West Coast has its own ozone problems because smoke has been recirculating through the region. “It’s staying in the same place, and you’re getting the same pollution from yesterday,” says Buchholz. The more time that goes by, “the more this ozone can be produced with sunlight.”

It’s not helping matters that the West Coast has been suffering extreme heat as these fires have burned—indeed, this and other consequences of climate change are supercharging blazes, because hotter temperatures and drier brush are making wildfires burn more intensely. That heat leads to the formation of yet more ozone at ground level. Hot air rises, so the fiercer the wildfire, the higher it propels smoke into the atmosphere to be carried across the US.

Wherever the smoke lands, we know it won’t be good for human health. “There’s a lot of literature in air pollution research showing associations with PM 2.5 and different types of diseases, in addition to shortened life expectancy, throughout the world,” Prunicki says. Her own research confirms that wildfire smoke specifically leads to inflammation in the lungs. She and her colleagues studied teenagers in Fresno, California, which suffers from bad air quality in general, but also endures blasts of wildfire smoke from forested areas to the east. “We looked at a group that was exposed to a wildfire versus not, and there was an increase in some of the systemic inflammatory biomarkers,” Prunicki says. “So we know that the smoke itself will cause systemic inflammation.” This is unhealthy for anyone, much more so for people with asthma or other respiratory issues.

Prunicki has also found that wildfire smoke causes an immune gene to be turned down, specifically one that produces what are known as T regulatory cells. “And T regulatory cells are needed to kind of have a healthy immune system,” Prunicki says. “It’s a good type of immune cell, not an inflammatory type of immune cell.”

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Rocket Lab Could Beat NASA Back to Venus in the Search for ET

But Venus is a particularly hostile destination. On the surface, temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, and the atmospheric pressures are intense. Things are a bit more tolerable high in the atmosphere where researchers recently detected phosphine. Here, temperatures hover around a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit, atmospheric pressures are slightly lower than those at sea level on Earth, and the sun is visible through the clouds. Sure, those clouds are made of a corrosive sulphuric acid, and the high-altitude winds whip around the planet at tornado-like speeds. Still, it’s paradise compared with the surface.

Many planetary scientists, including Carl Sagan, have long suspected that relatively clement conditions high above Venus’ surface could support microbial life. The recent detection of phosphine in the upper Venusian atmosphere is the best evidence yet that there might be something to that theory. But whether the phosphine points to life or is just the result of some weird high-temperature reaction we don’t yet understand requires sending an intrepid robot to find out. “No matter what you find, the amount of learning is going to be tremendous,” says Beck.

If Beck’s vision comes true, Rocket Lab would be the first company to launch a private interplanetary mission. But while its Venus probe could certainly yield some interesting data about the planet’s atmosphere, some experts aren’t sure the probe would be big enough to carry the kind of tech it would need to sniff out signs of phosphine, much less life itself.

“Small probes, like that proposed by Rocket Lab, are unlikely to have the mass to carry more sophisticated instruments such as mass spectrometers, which are exactly the kind of tools we need to really get to the heart of this phosphine detection,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University. “Rocket Lab’s mission could give us key physical measurements of the region of the atmosphere where this gas was detected, but to really answer this question we need at least a dedicated orbiter to search for phosphine and then a mission to the clouds themselves—not a descent probe, but an aerial platform of some sort.”

Seager, who has collaborated with Rocket Lab on its probe, says it should be possible to identify complex molecules that wouldn’t exist without life. “A probe without a parachute could last up to an hour, and there are instruments that take one second to make measurements,” she says. Still, she agrees with Byrne that an aerial platform is the ideal way to search for life on Venus.

It’s not a new idea. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union launched a pair of Venus landers—Vega 1 and 2—that each released a balloon-borne probe during their descent to the surface. Those probes only transmitted for around a day before going dark, but they operated in the part of Venus’ atmosphere where researchers found phosphine. Ballooning on Venus has only grown more attractive since the Vega missions, after companies like Google demonstrated it’s possible to keep large balloon-borne payloads aloft at high altitudes for months at a time on Earth. In 2018, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory initiated a study of possible Venus balloon probe concepts, and the agency has also explored whether the Venusian clouds could support crewed missions in blimplike spacecraft. But so far none of these ideas has moved beyond a conceptual stage.

That doesn’t mean NASA is ignoring Earth’s fiery sister. Earlier this year the agency announced the finalists for its next round of Discovery missions, and two of the four missions selected for further study have Venus in their sights. One of the Discovery proposals, Davinci+, is similar to Rocket Lab’s envisioned Venus mission. The NASA researchers plan to drop a spherical probe from a Venus orbiter that would slowly descend to the surface under parachute. On its way down, it would use an onboard chemical laboratory to sniff out gases in the atmosphere. It would focus on rare inert gases like krypton and neon that could shed light on Venus’ history, but there is the possibility it could also look for gases like phosphine that are associated with living organisms. Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, says the Davinci+ scientists can’t speculate on the possible capabilities of the mission while the team competes for selection in the agency’s Discovery program.

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Antarctic Glaciers Are Growing Unstable Above and Below Water

That study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that understanding how the ice field ruptures as it moves across the bedrock is vital to understanding when this collapse might occur. In addition to identifying the weak points in the glacier, Lhermitte and colleagues created a computer model to predict how such cracking and buckling could affect other Antarctic glaciers in the future.

Lhermitte says the goal of this model was not to predict the exact date when Thwaites will collapse. That’s next to impossible right now, because there are too many other unknown factors to consider, such as the pace of climate change that is warming both the air and water temperature around the glaciers, as well as the movement of ocean currents around Antarctica. (A 2014 study published in the journal Science by University of Washington scientists used satellite data and numerical modeling to predict that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, including Thwaites, may collapse in 200 to 1,000 years.)

Instead, Lhermitte’s model is an attempt to incorporate ice sheet damage into similar global climate models that predict both sea level rise and the future of Antarctica’s glaciers. “The understanding of how much and how fast these glaciers are going to change is still unknown,” Lhermitte says. “We don’t know all the process. What we have done with this study is look at this damage, the tearing apart of these ice shelves, and what their potential contribution to sea level rise could be.”

Predicting glacier ice movement is difficult because ice behaves as both a solid and as a liquid, says Penn State University professor of geosciences Richard Alley, who was not affiliated with any of these studies. Alley says the study about how glaciers fracture is both new and important because it gives more insight into how fast they might collapse. In an email to WIRED, Alley compared the science of studying how Antarctic glaciers move to the process of engineering a bridge.

“You do NOT want your bridge to break, and you do not want to need to predict exactly the conditions that will make it break, so you design with a large safety margin. We can’t ‘design’ Thwaites, so we face these large uncertainties. Quantifying parts of that is important, although remembering that this is still fracture mechanics, and it still might surprise us, one way or the other,” Alley wrote.

Lhermitte thinks his study results mean that Antarctic glaciers need to be closely watched in the coming years for any signs of rapid change that might lead to an environmental catastrophe. “They are these large sleeping giants,” Lhermitte says about Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers. “We start to be curious if they will stay sleeping or awake with large consequences, with sea level rise.”


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Asbestos Removal Is a Hard Job, but Covid-19 Makes It Harder

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was just before dawn as seven bulky men in T-shirts and sweatpants gathered in front of a towering glass building on Lexington Avenue in New York City. Marcelo Crespo, a 41-year-old with gleaming green eyes and a goatee, beckoned the group over to a white company van, handing each man a pile of protective gear: face mask and respirators, full-body coveralls, shoe covers, hard hats, masking tape.

Clutching their bundles, the men entered through the back door of the building, taking the utility elevator up 32 floors to the roof. The day before, they had sealed up the workspace like an enormous Ziploc bag, covering a large section of the roof with protective plastic structures to shield it from the open air. Before passing through the clear sheeting, Crespo rattled the scaffolding, checking its stability. He traced a sign of the cross on his chest and whispered a prayer that God keep them all safe. Warning signs plastered the makeshift walls, boxes, and equipment. Caution. Danger. Authorized personnel only.

It could have been a scene from the movie Outbreak, but the job took place several months before the Covid-19 pandemic gripped Manhattan. With every breath, the men were still risking serious health problems–even death–as a result of the microscopic particles of asbestos swirling in the air.

Asbestos abatement workers were deemed essential long before the pandemic. Property owners are legally required to call abatement teams in to remove asbestos any time there’s construction, renovation, or retrofitting. Across the United States, during the coronavirus pandemic, some asbestos jobs have even accelerated as several cities are taking advantage of the closures of public spaces to schedule renovations. And there’s a lot more of that on the post-coronavirus horizon: New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act, which was passed last spring, includes a mandate that the city’s biggest buildings reduce their overall emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 by installing new windows, insulation, and other retrofits to become more energy efficient.

But while the timing makes sense for cities, it’s not so great for abatement workers, whose occupational risks make them especially vulnerable to serious complications of Covid-19.

Judging from its physical properties alone, asbestos is useful stuff: The naturally occurring mineral’s long, fibrous crystals absorb sound and resist fire, heat, and electricity. In ancient Greek, the word for “asbestos” means “inextinguishable.” By the late 19th century, businesses in Europe and North America were competing for rights to mine it. Asbestos turned up everywhere: in concrete, bricks, pipes, flooring, roofing, and couches. It was used as insulation in schools, hospitals, and theaters. Asbestos was used as snow on movie sets in the 1930s, blanketing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

As it grew in popularity, doctors noticed that relatively young asbestos miners were short of breath, suffering from a condition called pulmonary fibrosis. When asbestos fibers become airborne, the small, needle-like filaments can enter the body through the lungs and skin, accumulating in internal organs and building up scar tissue over decades. By the time symptoms show up, people might already have permanent lung disease, genetic damage, or cancerous growths.

In the US, around 39,000 workers die every year from asbestos-related diseases. About 3,000 of these deaths are from mesothelioma, a malignant form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. And it doesn’t take much: “Mesothelioma can occur at relatively low levels of exposure,” said Victor Roggli, a professor of pathology at Duke University.

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The Bay Area Just Turned Orange. All Eyes Are on PurpleAir

There are a few very good reasons why the BAAQMD’s devices sacrifice speed for accuracy, and for using a system that calibrates with what environmental agencies across the nation are using. “When the EPA, the federal government, makes decisions about air quality on a national level, they can say with some level of confidence that the network in New York is giving you the same type of information as a network in the Bay Area,” says Michael Flagg, principal air quality specialist at the BAAQMD.

This data has to hold up in court when, say, the government needs to prove a company is polluting a given area. Accordingly, the feds have strict policies in place for these AQI-testing machines. “They have to meet certain EPA siting requirements: They have to be greater than 10 meters away from trees. They have to have unobstructed airflow,” says Flagg. “And also the regulatory data undergoes rigorous quality assurance and quality control to ensure the data is accurate.”

PurpleAir’s sensors don’t have to meet these strict rules. People can put them anywhere, including places an air quality expert would know to avoid. Owners might be placing them near chimneys, for instance, throwing off the readings for wildfire smoke. But what PurpleAir might lack in accuracy, it makes up in sheer numbers: AirNow.gov’s map shows one monitor in San Francisco, while PurpleAir’s map shows dozens of monitors within a square mile of my apartment. If one monitor is showing a wildly aberrant AQI reading, and all the others nearby are in general agreement, you get a kind of accuracy by way of averages—and you’re getting it in real time.

“This network is designed to know what the quality is right now,” says Dybwad, of PurpleAir. “And also by virtue of how many there are, you can then say, ‘Look, this one over here is reading, let’s say, green, and I don’t believe that because all of these others are reading orange.’ So just by sheer numbers, it becomes very persuasive in terms of the fact that they all agree.”

And just because PurpleAir’s monitors aren’t as accurate as BAAQMD’s, doesn’t mean the agency’s staffers scoff at the data. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. “The regulatory monitoring network is kind of the backbone of our decisionmaking, and we do that because we can trust the data are accurate,” says Flagg. “And with PurpleAir, we use that data in a qualitative sense. It can be really good at understanding if concentrations are increasing rapidly or decreasing, or if one area is experiencing poor air quality compared to a different area, and things like that. What PurpleAir can be good for is looking at the spatial distribution of smoke during a wildfire, like we’re experiencing now.”

All that data may also be useful in another way, says Adrienne Heinz, a research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD: It’s oddly compelling. For me and many others hunkered down in the orange gloom, relentlessly updating our PurpleAir and AirNow.gov maps offers a way to grasp at some kind of certainty—any kind of certainty—as the Bay Area suffers through this historic collision of disasters. “The more that you can put data into the hands of users, it can be comforting,” says Heinz, who studies the effects of disasters like wildfires and the Covid-19 pandemic. “Obviously, there’s a threshold, right? Like checking PurpleAir 20 times a day, that’s not helpful. But anything that can put it in the hands of consumers and citizens, helps us all come together to make more informed decisions.” So, for instance, timing forays into the outdoors when air quality improves.

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Mental Health in the US is Suffering—Will It Go Back to Normal?

Pies, however, sees it differently. He points out that even a contingent response to a specific situation can constitute a major health concern. “Consider this scenario,” he writes. “An elderly hiker with stable but underlying heart disease has a heart attack when a 12-foot grizzly bear suddenly appears in front of him. This poor fellow may have had an ‘understandable’ or even a ‘predictable’ response to the bear—but a heart attack is a heart attack!”

The debate about whether or not causes of emotional distress should be taken into account when making a psychiatric diagnosis is not new. It raged in the pages of academic and mass media publications as the DSM-5—or, more formally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which guides clinicians in diagnosing every disorder—moved toward its ultimate publication in 2013. The previous edition had included a “bereavement exclusion” for major depressive disorder, which stipulated that a person could not be diagnosed with depression if they had experienced the death of a loved one in the past two months and were not experiencing severe symptoms, like suicidal ideation. Though bereavement is an emotionally intense experience, it does typically improve on its own as time passes—and extreme sadness is a normal reaction to a major loss.

But the American Psychiatric Association, which has published the DSM since its first edition, decided to remove the bereavement exclusion with the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013. “The argument put forward for that was, ‘Well, we want to be able to help people who are struggling with grief, and there is really no objective difference between the two experiences, because, if you just focus on the symptoms, they are very similar,’” Tekin says.

And from some perspectives, this argument does make good sense. Imagine, for example, a doctor who is trying to treat a purely physical problem like a cough. Their patient will likely find relief from their symptoms with cough drops or Robutussin, regardless of what is causing their cough. But even in the case of physical symptoms, context can still matter. Someone who is suffering from seasonal allergies could feel better simply by changing their environment —say, staying inside and turning on an air purifier—while someone who is coughing because they have Covid-19 may ultimately need to be rushed to a hospital.

Similarly, Tekin says, in the case of psychiatric conditions, “even if you very simplistically say they have the same symptoms, when you look at it, what causes someone’s symptoms is going to be extremely important in the therapeutic context.” Someone who is grieving a recent loss probably needs a very different sort of help from someone who is experiencing depression with no obvious cause.

If a therapist understands someone’s symptoms as the product of the death of a loved one or of Covid-induced isolation, rather than as a fundamental pathology, they may recommend a less aggressive form of treatment. “There may be a way short of medication—maybe some talk therapy just to make you feel like you have human contact—but short of more heavy-duty interventions that have side effects,” Wakefield says.

That’s not to say, of course, that medication only works in some circumstances, and therapy in others. Medication may help people who are responding to difficult circumstances, and talk therapy can do a great deal for those whose symptoms have no obvious causes. But focusing on causes does open treatment possibilities that might not otherwise have been available.

And Browne thinks there are societal risks to treating emotional responses to events like the pandemic as medical issues. “The bigger risk that I see with medicalizing things when we may not need to, is that it places the problem in individualistic terms,” she says. “Anxiety and depression, especially in response to something like this global pandemic—those are not problems with you as an individual.” A person who has been suffering recently because of fear of contracting Covid-19, stress from its economic fallout, or anger over racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd is not feeling poorly because of factors specific to them. “The root cause is systemic,” Browne says.

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Mathematicians Report New Discovery About the Dodecahedron

Mathematicians have spent more than 2,000 years dissecting the structure of the five Platonic solids—the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, and dodecahedron—but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.

Now a trio of mathematicians has resolved one of the most basic questions about the dodecahedron.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research develop­ments and trends in mathe­matics and the physical and life sciences.

Suppose you stand at one of the corners of a Platonic solid. Is there some straight path you could take that would eventually return you to your starting point without passing through any of the other corners? For the four Platonic solids built out of squares or equilateral triangles—the cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron—mathematicians recently figured out that the answer is no. Any straight path starting from a corner will either hit another corner or wind around forever without returning home. But with the dodecahedron, which is formed from 12 pentagons, mathematicians didn’t know what to expect.

Now Jayadev Athreya, David Aulicino, and Patrick Hooper have shown that an infinite number of such paths do in fact exist on the dodecahedron. Their paper, published in May in Experimental Mathematics, shows that these paths can be divided into 31 natural families.

The solution required modern techniques and computer algorithms. “Twenty years ago, [this question] was absolutely out of reach; 10 years ago it would require an enormous effort of writing all necessary software, so only now all the factors came together,” wrote Anton Zorich, of the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris, in an email.

The project began in 2016 when Athreya, of the University of Washington, and Aulicino, of Brooklyn College, started playing with a collection of card-stock cutouts that fold up into the Platonic solids. As they built the different solids, it occurred to Aulicino that a body of recent research on flat geometry might be just what they’d need to understand straight paths on the dodecahedron. “We were literally putting these things together,” Athreya said. “So it was kind of idle exploration meets an opportunity.”

Together with Hooper, of the City College of New York, the researchers figured out how to classify all the straight paths from one corner back to itself that avoid other corners.

Their analysis is “an elegant solution,” said Howard Masur of the University of Chicago. “It’s one of these things where I can say, without any hesitation, ‘Goodness, oh, I wish I had done that!’”

Hidden Symmetries

Although mathematicians have speculated about straight paths on the dodecahedron for more than a century, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the subject in recent years following gains in understanding “translation surfaces.” These are surfaces formed by gluing together parallel sides of a polygon, and they’ve proved useful for studying a wide range of topics involving straight paths on shapes with corners, from billiard table trajectories to the question of when a single light can illuminate an entire mirrored room.

In all these problems, the basic idea is to unroll your shape in a way that makes the paths you are studying simpler. So to understand straight paths on a Platonic solid, you could start by cutting open enough edges to make the solid lie flat, forming what mathematicians call a net. One net for the cube, for example, is a T shape made of six squares.

paper dodecahedron
A paper dodecahedron constructed in 2018 by David Aulicino and Jayadev Athreya to show that straight paths from a vertex back to itself while avoiding other vertices are in fact possible.Photograph: Patrick Hooper

Imagine that we’ve flattened out the dodecahedron, and now we’re walking along this flat shape in some chosen direction. Eventually we’ll hit the edge of the net, at which point our path will hop to a different pentagon (whichever one was glued to our current pentagon before we cut open the dodecahedron). Whenever the path hops, it also rotates by some multiple of 36 degrees.

To avoid all this hopping and rotating, when we hit an edge of the net we could instead glue on a new, rotated copy of the net and continue straight into it. We’ve added some redundancy: Now we have two different pentagons representing each pentagon on the original dodecahedron. So we’ve made our world more complicated—but our path has gotten simpler. We can keep adding a new net each time we need to expand beyond the edge of our world.

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Your Beloved Blue Jeans Are Polluting the Ocean—Big Time

The researchers looked at sediment samples from several habitats, including in the deep-sea Arctic, shallow suburban lakes around Toronto, and the Huron and Ontario Great Lakes. The mean number of microfibers they found per kilogram of dry sediment in each group was, respectively, 1,930, 2,490, and 780. Of those microfibers in general, 22 to 51 percent were anthropogenically modified cellulose, and of that, 41 to 57 percent were indigo denim microfibers. In other words, that’s a lot of denim in the environment. “I think what’s interesting is that a majority of these fibers that we were finding were these anthropogenic cellulose fibers, even in the deep ocean sediments,” says Athey. “And that shows that they are sufficiently persistent to accumulate in these remote regions.”

To be sure that they were characterizing the denim fibers correctly, the scientists ran a separate experiment in the lab, washing three different kinds of blue denim made from 99 or 100 percent cotton: used jeans, new regular jeans, and new mildly distressed jeans. (That meant no more than three holes and some fraying.) They captured their washing machine’s effluent and counted up the fibers.

In accordance with similar studies from other groups, they found that the new jeans shed more fibers than used jeans—which makes sense, as old jeans have long shed all the loose fibers left over from the manufacturing process. But weirdly, they didn’t find a significant difference between the regular new jeans and the mildly distressed new jeans, which you might assume would shed more, given the fraying. “If you have an extremely distressed pair of jeans, they might release a bit more,” says Athey. “But then it could also be the type of material.” Past studies have looked at more synthetic clothes, which probably shed differently than pure cotton. Regardless, Athey and her colleagues landed on a startling figure: A single pair of jeans may release 56,000 microfibers per wash.

The researchers also collected effluent from two wastewater treatment plants, which filter out some, but not all, microfibers before pumping the water into Lake Ontario. (Treatment plants elsewhere pump their effluent out to sea instead.) This landed them at an even more startling figure: Those two plants alone could be unloading a billion indigo denim microfibers per day into the lake. That’s in keeping with the country’s washing habits, as about half of the Canadian population wears jeans almost every day and the average Canadian washes their jeans after just two wears.

Wastewater plants actually do a decent job of sequestering microfibers in the solid “sludge” of human waste, which is turned into “biosolid,” which farmers often use as fertilizer. Unfortunately, packing the microfibers into fertilizer may well be giving them another pathway to get into the sea. As the fertilizer dries on the fields, the wind might pick up the blue jean fibers, and any number of synthetic ones, and deposit them in the ocean for scientists to later find in the sediment. Studies have already shown that microfibers can fly hundreds if not thousands of miles, landing in formerly pristine habitats like the Arctic.

Overall, the problem is that wastewater facilities weren’t designed to capture all these microfibers. They’re catching between 83 and 99 percent of them, but even letting a few percent through is a veritable torrent, given their volume. “The thing is, there’s so many people on the planet—there’s just too many of us,” says University of Toronto environmental scientist Miriam Diamond, coauthor on the paper. “And I think what’s astonishing is how many of us wear jeans. It’s not an indictment of jeans—I want to be really clear that we’re not coming down on jeans. It’s just a really potent example of human impact.”

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Google and Apple Change Tactics on Contact Tracing Tech

The new plan unifies some of the behind-the-scenes work of sending exposure notifications. In the original scheme, state health authorities were responsible for setting up servers to send exposure alerts to people who had been near others who had tested positive for Covid-19. Different states, different servers. That meant apps in different states couldn’t easily talk to each other. Now that will be handled by a central server, operated by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Some existing apps using the Apple-Google system, including those recently released in Wyoming and North Dakota, are already designed to communicate with the association’s server—and thus with other apps.

The move wasn’t entirely unexpected. When Apple and Google announced their digital tracing plans, they told WIRED they planned to issue an update in June that would incorporate elements of the system into their phone operating systems. So long as people opted in to having the feature turned on, the phones would keep an anonymous tally of their nearby contacts. But in order to receive an exposure notification, or send word of a positive test, people would need to download one of the state-developed apps.

sanitation workers cleaning stairs

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Now, Apple and Google are getting a bit more involved. Which makes sense, given the chaotic state-by-state rollout. “I think it’s great,” says Harper Reed, a consultant and former CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign who codeveloped a privacy framework for exposure notification. He says the fact that only a few states have apps so far, some of which are incompatible, is a disaster. A common interface and technology across phones might both make it simpler for states to roll out apps and encourage more people to turn the feature on. Reed says smartphone contact tracing seems to be working in other countries where it is available nationwide—and when there’s a robust infrastructure for testing and contact tracing. “I think these apps really work in the proper environment, and that’s amazing,” he says.

Digital contact tracing has rolled out a bit more smoothly in countries where the public health response is less fragmented. In places like Ireland and Switzerland, apps have been available for months, and they benefit from consistent messaging from the national government about the benefits of using them.

But some people worry that because states and countries will be less likely to build their own apps than use the default Apple and Google options, public health officials in those places may learn less about the spread of the disease, which could complicate their responses. They may also have less control over what features are included in the apps. “It may force countries to move in directions that are not the best for their health system and their citizens,” says Carmela Troncoso, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who led the development of Switzerland’s app.

In any case, it’s still far from clear how much digital contact tracing will move the needle on the US pandemic response. The first hurdle after launching state apps is to get people to opt in so that the apps are effective, something the new plan may help with. But as Apple and Google have said from the beginning, digital contact tracing is a supplement to the public health response—a way to expand the reach of contact tracing beyond known contacts to include strangers nearby on a train, or in a crowd, or on a chairlift. To be truly effective, the rest of the public health response—the testing, the tracing, the support for those in quarantine—needs to work. And on that front, the United States still has a long way to go.

Will Knight contributed reporting.


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A Grim Reality of Reopening: More Mold

Last month, I took a road trip to North Carolina. The area had just experienced an extremely wet and rainy spring, and the Airbnb I was staying in had been unoccupied since Covid-19 halted almost all travel in March. When I unlocked the door, a putrid smell hit my nose immediately, like a wet beach towel left too long in a hot car. I was now sharing my rental house with some sort of mold.

The pandemic has forced all sorts of buildings to sit empty for long periods of time. As people venture back into their homes, schools, and offices again, they may also find an unwelcome surprise inside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns people who are reopening buildings to watch out for potential hazards like mold and Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease. Greg Bukowski, CEO of the mold inspection and removal firm Moldman USA, says he’s seen an uptick in customers in the Chicago and St. Louis areas where his company is based. “Homes that have been unoccupied for months have a high likelihood of having water-intrusion issues and subsequent mold issues,” he says. Water intrusion can come from something like a roof or plumbing leak or high humidity as a result of leaving the air conditioning off.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Vacation homes and foreclosed properties often harbor mold. New construction techniques may be somewhat to blame: Because homes are now tightly sealed for energy conservation, they may be poorly ventilated and susceptible to issues like mold. Every year, some unlucky school districts return in August or September to find classrooms full of the stuff, says Jason Earle, the founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-MOLD?, a mold inspection and removal firm based in the New York City area. Oftentimes, he says, maintenance staff shampoo the carpets at the end of the school year and then turn air conditioning units off to save on utility costs, inadvertently creating a perfect environment for mold to thrive.

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Fungi need moisture and food to grow. They will eat almost any organic substance, from cardboard and wood to ceiling tiles and upholstery. What I inhaled were the airborne byproducts of its metabolic processes, or what the US Environmental Protection Agency says are “microbial volatile organic compounds.” I personally prefer to call them fungi farts.

Aside from producing a nasty smell, exposure to mold can also cause unpleasant side effects for people who are sensitive to it, like stuffy nose, coughing, and sore throat. If you’re immunocompromised, you may be more vulnerable to these and other symptoms, says Naresh Magan, a professor of applied mycology at Cranfield University in England. For parents, the most serious issue to be concerned about is childhood asthma: A number of studies have found a link between mold exposure and the condition.

That doesn’t mean all mold is scary or harmful. Humans are constantly breathing in a plethora of different fungi and other microbes; usually they just don’t realize it. “There are thousands of mold spores in the air,” says Magan. If you wash a piece of fruit, for example, and then put the runoff water into a petri dish, “you will find loads of bacteria, yeasts, and filamentous molds,” he says. The world is really just a gigantic terrarium full of microscopic creatures ready to be inhaled. But if the concentration of mold spores in the air becomes too high, like inside a mold-contaminated building, it can cause an adverse health reaction.

If you return from quarantining at a loved one’s place to find that mold has turned your home into its home, it should be removed. While some companies will sell you testing kits to identify the exact species, the process is not necessary, according to the CDC. “The health effects of mold can be different for different people, so you cannot rely on sampling and culturing to know if you or a member of your family might become sick,” the agency’s website advises.

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