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By: Adrian Britt

Understanding how pesticides interact with non-target organisms is a challenge for today’s scientists. There are simply too many variables to be considered for each species that may come into contact with a pesticide once it runs off the intended application site. Thus, regulatory agencies tasked with setting pesticide thresholds rely, in part, on independent studies from the scientific community at large. Our study focused its efforts on a keystone estuarine species, Crassostrea virginica, the native eastern oyster of the Chesapeake Bay. Our lab sought to answer a vital question: How does the broad-spectrum herbicide, atrazine, effect the microbiome of the Chesapeake Bay oyster? Atrazine has already been banned from use within the E.U. because exposures to concentrations as low as 0.1 parts per billion of atrazine in surface water have been shown to adversely affect aquatic animals, causing the male gonads to produce eggs.

 

For this study, we relied on long-standing evidence that supports the importance of maintaining healthy populations of microbiota for the survival, homeostasis, and complete development of marine mollusks. We chose frequently detected concentrations of the chemical in surface waters to be the focus of our most recently published study, “The Effects of Atrazine on the Microbiome of the Eastern Oyster: Crassostrea virginica”. Relatively little is known about the impact that agricultural activity is having on our fallen oyster population, however, in this study we succeeded in shedding some light onto the enigmatic effects atrazine could be having on the native oyster’s microbial community, which in turn provide essential services for the oyster’s survival.

 

Through our study, we found that oysters which were exposed to concentrations of atrazine as low as 3µg/L saw a significant loss of key mutualistic microbial species and underwent a subsequent colonization of pathogenic bacteria. We concluded that exposure to atrazine in the Chesapeake Bay may be contributing to a significant shift in the microbiomes of juvenile oysters that reduces overall fitness and impedes natural and artificial repopulation of the oyster species within the Bay. Since the late nineteenth century, the oyster industry – including the catch, sale, shucking, packing and shipping of oysters – has contributed millions of dollars to the region’s economy.  Managing oyster populations by limiting the over-use of toxic substances will ensure that the oyster industry will become a sustainable effort. 

 

This is the first long term study of how ecologically relevant concentrations of atrazine affect the eastern oyster. Thus the findings this study provided will help to form the foundation for future investigations into the toxicological effects of commonly used pesticides on non-target organisms.   

 

By Francesca Edralin

While the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are two scientific crises raising political controversy, the two issues possess another interesting intersection: Could the global response to COVID-19 offer a long-term solution to combat the climate crisis?

Over recent months, stay-at-home orders have led to a temporary plunge in greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, as much of the population stayed home more and traveled less. However, as governments gradually lift social distancing orders, more and more people are leaving their homes and transitioning back to old routines.

Yet, some aspects of the quarantine routine have the potential to translate into long-term lifestyle changes. In particular, teleworking offers a multitude of environmental benefits if continued after the quarantine period. Recent research shows that increased teleworking in communities reduces air pollution and traffic congestion.

In 2018, civil engineer and transportation systems analyst at the University of Illinois-Chicago Ramin Shabanpour published a study on the impacts of teleworking on local air pollution. In his study, Shabanpour identified the current populations in Chicago capable of telework. Then, he calculated what percentage of those populations participated in telework at the time. He found that only 12% of individuals who are capable of telework worked from home to some extent. Using 12% as the base, Shabanpour and his team developed a simulation that modeled a hypothetical “twin city” of Chicago.

“We spent a few years here in Chicago developing a transportation simulation platform which, in a nutshell, is a simulation-based twin city. Using a software known as the POLARIS model, we were able to simulate what we have in the real world,” he said.

Shabanpour and his team kept all data points constant in the simulation, except for the percentage of the population who worked from home which they increased from 12% to 50%. The simulation did not manipulate the frequency that Chicago residents worked from home, only increasing the percentage of teleworkers at the current frequency.

The results proved to Shabanpour and his team how beneficial teleworking can be for the environment.

“We found that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.7% because of an increase in telecommuting. When you talk about impact, this is actually a huge number because if you multiply 0.7% with current greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago, we find that an implementation like this can reduce 500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per day,” Shabanpour said.

Capable teleworkers do not need to solely work from home to produce these emission reductions. Shabanpour acknowledges that most teleworkers only work from home a few days per week, and they likely still drive when they telework in order to run errands. The simulation’s results account for the driving needs of teleworkers, because Shabanpour kept the frequency that teleworkers drive to work and run errands in real life constant.

Shabanpour’s study was one of the first to analyze teleworking’s impacts on air pollution and the environment. While he only examines telework patterns in the Chicago metropolitan area, his findings can apply to any area that suffers from air pollution and has a section of the population that is capable of telework.

As a result, Shabanpour has emerged as an advocate for telework. He believes that current efforts to reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions invest in the wrong solutions, instead of cost-efficient solutions like telework programs.

“We just invest billions and billions of funding into building new bridges and infrastructure – let’s start looking at this soft side of transportation. Focusing on these numbers, we can definitely reduce the transportation emissions and congestion that we have at a very low cost, compared to the big infrastructure projects that we have,” Shabanpour said.

As the quarantine period forced many companies to temporarily transition their workforce online, the potential for companies to commit to a long-term telework system makes Shabanpour’s research more relevant now than ever.

In the past, companies have hesitated to allow teleworking. Timothy Golden, a professor and telework researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, finds that companies assume teleworking would decrease employer satisfaction and productivity.

“Because you’re working away from the office, particularly if the rest of the office is still there, that has the potential to make you feel cut off or separated from people,” Golden said.

Golden asserts that hybrid teleworking programs, which allow employees to split their hours between working from home and in the office, alleviate employees’ concerns of feeling isolated from the workplace. He also recommends that managers assess which employees are capable of telework, meaning they can productively complete their tasks at home.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing scenario. It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Golden said.

Companies who supported teleworking before the pandemic prove that implementing a telework system increases productivity and company savings, in addition to reducing carbon footprints.

Dell, headquartered in Austin, Texas, is one company leading the global movement toward hybrid teleworking programs. Since implementing its “Connected Workplace” program, Dell allows employees to design a work-from-home schedule tailored to their preferences. Dell cuts 136 million travel miles and more than 35,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually through this program, as calculated in their most recent sustainability report.

John Pflueger, the principal environmental strategist at Dell who designed the Connected Workplace program, told Environment+Energy Leader, “We’re pleased with the flexibility it offers our employees and the positive consequences it has on carbon emissions.”

If the environmental impacts do not incentivize companies, perhaps the benefits in finances and productivity will. Dell’s recent sustainability report highlights that it saved $39.5 million from the Connected Workplace program, which allows the company to reduce the amount of office space they pay for and maintain. Dell also hires from a greater applicant pool, with the ability to hire top talent beyond the region of Austin.

“When a company is considering a work-from-home program or telecommuting or remote work, sustainability is probably not the primary reason why. The primary reasons are issues related more to work-life balance and being the sort of employer that the 21st-century employee has come to expect, but we found sustainability-related benefits are an important side effect,” Pflueger said.

Golden is hopeful that this quarantine period will help companies and employees realize the various benefits to teleworking.

“I think this is a defining moment for telework in that it is likely to be much more commonplace after this pandemic. Now that it’s forced on so many people, it’s changing mindsets because teleworking is no longer something that ‘other people do’, it is something that everyone does,” Golden said.

Shabanpour demonstrated the environmental benefits of teleworking scientifically, while companies such as Dell show how teleworking programs foster a more sustainable and cost-efficient workplace. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic showed many companies already have the means for telework, although they may not have taken advantage of it previously.

Perhaps what helps to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases now just may help flatten the curve of greenhouse gas emissions as well.

For over ten years, GW has made steady progress toward its vision for a sustainable university, striving to make a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants, while equipping students with the skills and knowledge to contribute to a sustainable future. Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the planet and society, today and in the future. Further, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the enormous impact humans have on the environment, and the need for more inclusive and equitable structures in our society.

This week, based on recommendations from the Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) Responsibility Task Force of the Board of Trustees, GW has announced a renewed commitment to addressing climate change. The sustainability community at GW has consistently called on the university to take bold action to address climate change due to its impact on the planet and people. The Task Force took input from students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of GW. These voices are important in the shared governance of our university.

In the announcement GW renewed its commitment to addressing climate change, including divestment from fossil fuels. The university has committed to not make any new endowment investments in businesses that derive the majority of their revenue from the extraction of fossil fuels, and to eliminate 100 percent of all such investments from its endowment over the next five years.

Divestment is only the beginning of what is necessary. Leading institutions can amplify their efforts to address climate change if we reach back to remove our past, cumulative carbon emissions. As such, in addition to divestment, GW announced a commitment to remove all greenhouse gas emissions it has produced in its nearly 200 year history.

“In order to authentically commit to climate justice, we must look to the past to reclaim the future,” according to Peter Harrison, GW Trustee and Chair of the ESG Task Force. “Our moonshot approach to climate change takes responsibility for not just the university’s current carbon footprint, but also our historical emissions. We hope to inspire GW’s experts, partners, and peers to collaborate and emulate the pathway to historical decarbonization.”

The university will also accelerate plans to achieve carbon neutrality, release a plan for climate resilience for the university’s operations, phase out single use plastics on campus, capture stormwater, provide more outdoor green spaces to improve biodiversity, and convert university operated transportation to zero-emissions vehicles. Additionally, GW will develop a prominent transdisciplinary academic home, such as a Sustainability Institute, and ensure that every GW student has an opportunity for an academic experience that promotes innovative thinking in sustainability.

“Our students understand that their generation will bear the burdens of a changing climate, unless action is taken now,” said Dr. Tara Scully, Director of the Minor in Sustainability. “GW is not only addressing its own footprint, but also educating students to create a sustainable world.”

“Working through Sustainable GW, faculty across campus are developing transdisciplinary research projects to address some of the most complex problems facing society. These projects develop new technologies and also analyze public policy and social science to ensure that the technological solutions are effective,” said Robert Orttung, Director of Research for Sustainable GW.

While the ESG Task Force will now turn to social and governance matters, all three areas are interconnected. The social justice implications of climate change are real: disadvantaged groups suffer the most from environmental degradation.

“By curbing its contribution to climate change, GW intends to lead by example and show how institutions might help reduce the negative impact on populations around the globe,” said Meghan Chapple, Director of GW’s Office of Sustainability. “The comprehensive commitment to climate change was instigated years ago by GW Fossil Free students, now championed by Chair Grace Speights and Trustee Peter Harrison, and guided by faculty experts.”

While the Office of Sustainability will work with the GW community to deliver on these commitments, the progress GW has made in sustainability is due to the tireless efforts of students, faculty and staff across the university. Your contributions will be critical going forward, as well.

To learn more about the details of the announcement, see the resources below:

GW Today Story

ESG Task Force Website

ESG Task Force Report to Board of Trustees

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