Horror films featuring a swarm of parasitic objects invading a small town abound—in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) it’s menacing flocks of seagulls; in The Swarm (1978), killer bees; in War of the Worlds (2005), aliens spring from underground to overtake earth. While these story lines make for compelling horror films, in actuality, the threat from outside is much more invisible than swarms of birds or bees: particulate matter easily enters air streams and waterways, traveling tens of thousands of miles and making for a much more insidious form of pollutant.

Here are five ways pollutants are now invading a quaint country town near you:

 

1. Aerosol-Induced Mega Storms

Have a strange feeling the weather in your town has been really wonky lately? That suspicion may be grounded in science: a recent study by a group of atmospheric scientists at Texas A&M and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows how aerosols released from factories in China change weather patterns of the Pacific storm track. In other words, China’s pollution is not just China’s problem. They write:

“This work provides, for the first time to the authors’ knowledge, a global perspective of the effects of Asian pollution outflows from GCMs (global aerosol–climate models). Furthermore, our results suggest that the multiscale modeling framework is essential in producing the aerosol invigoration effect of deep convective clouds on a global scale.”

In layman’s terms, aerosols amplify cloud and precipitation processes, causing not only increased cyclone activity, but also more severe storms as well.

 

2. Fukushima’s Reach

Not long after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster in March 2011, residents of the Pacific coast of the United States were worrying about the radiation’s range. Turns out their worries were justified—this study in the Open Journal of Pediatrics makes a link between elevated levels of radiation in the months following the disaster and an increased risk of hypothyroidism in babies born in California.

By comparing congenital hypothyroidism statistics from live births in California before and after the Fukushima meltdown, researchers concluded that ongoing research into the ramifications of such radiation exposure should not be contained to the immediate fallout area but extend well beyond these borders. They noted that “many were exposed to relatively low doses of Fukushima radioactivity—which nonetheless pose a risk to human health.”

 

3. Palm Oil’s Dirty Business

Palm oil may not be stocked on the shelves of your local supermarket, but examine the packaging of everything from your Girl Scout cookies to your shampoo, and you’ll likely see the pervasive oil listed in the ingredients.

The issue with palm oil is that most of it is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia through widely unregulated slash-and-burn deforestation techniques that cause peat and forest fires. And what happens with all that burning smoke?

Residents of Southeast Asia are well-versed in the noxious properties of the forest fire smoke, especially now that it has become such a regular and loathed annual occurrence (Singapore’s government, for example, is considering a new law to address the issue).  Scientists, such as SDSU professor Mark Cochrane, a senior scientist at the Geospatial Sciences Center for Excellence, and Robert Yokelson, a chemistry professor from the University of Montana, are now investigating the long-term climate impacts of such widespread deforestation. Cochrane has previously published work that looked at how forest fires in the Amazon impact deforestation.

As he wrote in that study: “To date, fires have generally been spatially co-located with road networks and associated human land use because almost all fires in this region are anthropogenic in origin. Climate change, if severe enough, could alter this situation, potentially changing the fire regime to one of increased fire frequency and severity for vast portions of the Amazon forest.”

 

4. Mercury Rising

China’s coal burning pollution isn’t just limited to its national borders—higher than natural levels of mercury are now found in sport fish in lakes and rivers across the Western United States.

This US Geological Survey study, prepared in cooperation with the US National Park Service, found that even the most pristine and protected parks in the country aren’t safe from mercury’s pervasive powers: “Mercury (Hg) is a global contaminant and human activities have increased atmospheric Hg concentrations 3- to 5-fold during the past 150 years. This increased release into the atmosphere has resulted in elevated loadings to aquatic habitats where biogeochemical processes promote the microbial conversion of inorganic Hg to methylmercury, the bioavailable form of Hg.”

Sad news for anglers and pescatarians across the world.

 

5. Plastic People

Much has been said about the harmful ways plastic pollutants damage human health. As early as 1972, studies confirmed that plastic had made its way into the bloodstreams of most people.

In this personal journey into the chemicals dwelling inside him, National Geographic writer David Ewing Duncan is astonished to learn that, despite leading a healthy life,  his levels of one particularly toxic PBDE, found primarily in US-made products, are 10 times higher than the average American and 200 times more than the average Swede.

As he goes on to note: “Yet even though many health statistics have been improving over the past few decades, a few illnesses are rising mysteriously. From the early 1980s through the late 1990s, autism increased tenfold; from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, one type of leukemia was up 62 percent, male birth defects doubled, and childhood brain cancer was up 40 percent. Some experts suspect a link to the man-made chemicals that pervade our food, water, and air. There’s little firm evidence. But over the years, one chemical after another that was thought to be harmless turned out otherwise once the facts were in.”


Image credit: National Archives via flickr