Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium — Arsenic exposure linked to kids’ antibiotic resistance 

AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Drinking water contaminated with high levels of arsenic may be linked to antibiotic resistance in children, a new study has found.  

Areas of rural Bangladesh with arsenic-contaminated wells showed an increased prevalence of antibiotic resistant E. coli in both water and child stool samples, according to the study, published on Thursday in PLOS Pathogens.  

Antibiotic resistance is one of the leading causes of death and hospitalization worldwide, the study authors noted.  

While the major drivers of such resistance are the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, natural elements like heavy metals can also play a role, the researchers explained. 

“Heavy metals such as arsenic are more stable than antibiotics in the environment,” lead author Mohammad Aminul Islam, of Washington State University, said in a statement.  

Metals like arsenic exert pressure on bacteria, driving “the evolution and expansion of antimicrobial resistance in the community,” he explained.  

Islam and his colleagues collected water and stool samples from mothers and young children of 100 families in two rural subdistricts in Bangladesh: Hajiganj and Matlab.  

The two regions produced a natural experiment on the effects of arsenic: Hajiganj has shallow wells with high levels of arsenic, while those in Matlab are arsenic-free, according to the study. 

Although 84 percent of samples across both sites were positive for E. coli, the prevalence of antibiotic resistant strains was significantly higher in Hajiganj’s high-arsenic water than in Matlab’s water: 48 percent versus 22 percent.  

In addition, the researchers found that a bigger proportion of E. coli from Hajiganj were resistant to multiple antibiotics, including penicillin, cephalosporin and chloramphenicol.  

Islam acknowledged that the extent to which heavy metals are driving antimicrobial resistance remains unclear, due to the possibility of other variables.  

“Nevertheless, it is critical to contain this environmental driver of antimicrobial resistance along with responsible antimicrobial usage in medicine and agriculture,” he said. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, we’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin.

Today we’ll start in Saudi Arabia, where the world’s biggest oil importer and exporter met on Thursday. Then we’ll explore how the Biden administration is reshaping the future of the U.S. nuclear industry.

Plus: A look at how Americans are fleeing hurricane zones — only to face wildfires. 

China’s Xi visits Riyadh, amid frosty US-Saudi ties 

(Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday evening — kicking off a visit that could deepen ties between the world’s biggest oil importer and exporter, The Wall Street Journal reported.  

A tense backdrop: The trip occurs amid what the Journal described as “a global reshuffling of power” and as Riyadh-Washington relations have grown more tense.  

  • President Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July to make up for previous comments criticizing the kingdom, following the killing of a Washington Post journalist, our colleagues Laura Kelly and Alex Gangitano reported.  
  • Among Biden’s goals was to convince the kingdom to boost oil production — part of an attempt to counter surging crude prices. 
  • But the efforts proved to have little effect, as Riyadh chose to cut oil production in October and remained “unfazed by U.S. backlash,” according to our colleagues.

Rolling out the red carpet: Saudi state television depicted “a grand ceremony laid out for the Chinese leader” as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received him on Thursday, CNN reported.   

The two countries then signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement that includes deals on hydrogen energy, direct investment and infrastructure initiatives, according to CNN.  

They also signed $29 billion worth of commercial agreements, including a Huawei cloud-computing zone, a Saudi Arabia-based electric vehicle production plant and a hydrogen battery supply for a smart city planned by the prince, the Journal reported on Thursday. 

An economic friendship — or more? Both Beijing and Riyadh say that their relationship remains predominantly economic, according to the Journal. 

  • China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner and a top buyer of oil.  
  • But their interactions are worrying Washington, which has long been the dominant security force in the region.  

Could China be supplanting the U.S.? Saudi Arabia has insisted it plans to put its own interests first, rather than favoring the U.S. or China — or Russia, the Journal reported.  

  • Meanwhile, China hasn’t expressed interest in taking on the U.S.’s security role in the Middle East. 
  • But during a tour of the region four years ago, the Chinese leader pledged
    $23 billion in loans and aid to Arab countries and said he wanted China to become “the keeper of peace and stability in the Middle East.” 

Not backing down: Regardless of Xi’s precise intentions, the Chinese president’s trip highlights “the constantly growing importance of Sino-Saudi relations,” according an Al Jazeera analysis. 

The meeting sends “a clear message from Saudi Arabia that it will not take diktats” — or decrees — “from the United States,” the Qatar-based newspaper added.

Five ways DOE is spending big on nuclear energy

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

The Department of Energy is spending big to keep America’s old reactors online while laying the foundations of the nuclear energy industry of the future. 

  • The investment into America’s long-declining nuclear sector includes
    $17 million of funding announced this week. 
  • But it builds on a far broader package of federal subsidies into the industry, which remains America’s leading single source of zero-carbon electricity. 

Top view: Programs announced by the Energy Department look beyond the current generation of nuclear plants to build out foundations for the next generation of nuclear energy.  

Here are five nuclear goals in which the agency has poured money since October:  

1. Probing the boundaries of reality

One grant announced on Wednesday will pay $12 million to fund scientists across America’s national laboratories as they work on advanced research into problems at the edges of our understanding of nuclear physics. 

  • The five projects funded “span topics like the 3-D internal structure of nucleons,” according to a statement from the Energy Department. 
  • While this research is largely theoretical, it has the potential to open up broad practical applications into fields like clean energy, officials said in the statement.

2. Training nuclear-electric engineers

The Energy Department this week also announced $5 million for three state universities to establish programs to educate “the next generation nuclear security work force,” according to a separate statement.

  • In particular, the program will train students in Texas, New Mexico and North Carolina to design components that can function in the extreme environments found inside nuclear reactors.

3. Keeping old plants online

Last month, the Energy Department paid out $1.1 billion to keep southern California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant running.

  • The money is the first disbursement from the $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit Program, which was part of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure package. 
  • Diablo Canyon — which became the focus of a public battle over the fate of nuclear energy in a carbon-conscious age — had been set to be decommissioned in stages through 2025, as we reported. 

4. Building nuclear fuel supply chains

The Energy Department is putting $150 million into producing nuclear fuel essential to advanced reactors, officials announced in November.

  • “This demonstration shows DOE’s commitment to working with industry partners to kickstart [advanced fuel] production at commercial scale,“ Granholm said. 
  •  The Energy Department expects this “to create more clean energy jobs and ensure the benefits of nuclear energy are accessible to all Americans.”

5. Catching up on fusion

The Energy Department in October announced $47 million for research into fusion — the process by which stars like our sun create energy.

Funds from that grant will fund U.S. researchers in conducting experiments in China’s EAST and Korea’s KSTAR, nuclear engineering professor and grantee Eugenio Schuster of Lehigh University said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Both are “long pulse devices” more advanced than alternatives available in the U.S.

  • Working in these overseas research institutions “will help us learn from these superconducting tokamak machines,” Schuster said. 
  • Such experience means that “eventually, we can build a long-pulse reactor-degree device in this country,” Schuster added.

Americans are ‘flocking to fire,’ study finds

(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Americans are fleeing from many of the U.S. counties hit hardest by hurricanes and heat waves — only to find themselves facing dangerous wildfires, a new study has found. 

‘Moving into harm’s way’: The 10-year national study, published in Frontiers in Human Dynamics, investigated how natural disasters, climate change and other factors have been driving American migration.  

  • As people seek refuge from hurricane zones, they are “flocking to fire” — moving to regions with the greatest risk of wildfires and summer heat, the researchers observed.  
  • “These findings are concerning, because people are moving into harm’s way,” lead author Mahalia Clark, of the University of Vermont, said in a statement

Understanding climate migration: The inspiration for their study was the increasing number of headlines about record-breaking natural disasters, according to Clark. 

“Our goal was to understand how extreme weather is influencing migration as it becomes more severe with climate change,” she said. 

The new hotspots: Clark and her colleagues identified several top U.S. migration destinations by combining census data from 2010-2020 with data on weather, landscape, demographic variables and socioeconomic factors.  

  • The most popular spots were cities and suburbs in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Southwest — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah — as well as Texas, Florida and a swath of the Southeast, from Nashville to Atlanta to Washington, D.C.  
  • Many of these locations already face considerable wildfire risks and relatively warm annual temperatures.  

What places are losing popularity? The authors found that people tended to move away from areas in the Midwest, the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River — including many counties that have been worst hit by hurricanes or frequent heatwaves.  

One interesting outlier: Florida. Many people — especially retirees — are still attracted to the area despite the hurricane risks, according to the study.  

“We see a general aversion to hurricane risk, but ultimately — as we see in Florida — it’s one factor in a person’s list of pros and cons,” Clark said. 

What can be done? City planners should consider discouraging new development in fire-prone areas, the authors suggested.  

  • Policymakers should consider integrating fire prevention efforts in areas of high risk with sizable growth in human populations.  
  • The study includes several maps that highlight the severity of national hazards across the country — information that could help inform public awareness.  

To read the full story, please click here

World’s first hydrogen passenger train announced

The Coradia iLint hydrogen powered train.

Germany now boasts the world’s first fully hydrogen-powered train route, Reuters reported. 

  • The route in Lower Saxony will soon see 14 two-car hydrogen fuel-cell trains replace 15 diesel-powered trains. 
  • Its launch is a testament to the potential of hydrogen fuel to help clean up one of the most difficult-to-decarbonize sectors: heavy freight. 

Making tracks: The trains are produced by manufacturer Alstom, which has three contracts underway for hydrogen-powered trains in Italy, France and Germany, according to Reuters. 

  • “Alstom’s ambition is to contribute to the decarbonization of railways by deploying its emission free solutions, hydrogen in particular,” Alstom vice president Brahim Soua said.  
  • “Several discussions are progressing for hydrogen applications not only in Europe, but also in North America and Middle East,” Soua added. 

Not just trains: A truck engine or generator that runs on a combination of diesel and hydrogen fuel runs with far lower emissions than a diesel engine alone, Ars Technica reported. 

Thursday Threats

Dust from California’s Salton Sea, warm air above Greenland and Democratic senators call out the U.N. tolerance of fossil fuel lobbyists. 

Salton Sea dust can cause lung inflammation: study 

  • The inhalation of dust near California’s dwindling Salton Sea triggers the inflammation of lung neutrophil — white blood cells that help fight infection — in mice, according to UC Riverside study, published in Science of the Total Environment. As a warming climate causes the lakebed to shrink, it gains exposure to new sources of dust, such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and microbial toxins, the authors stated.   

Greenland air mass sends winter storms south 

Fossil fuel lobbying threatens U.N. climate legitimacy: senators

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and explore other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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