Dear EarthTal: How does growing human population, and its resultant landscape changes, affect the flight paths of migratory birds that might carry diseases?
—Ronnie Washines, Toppenish, WA
As human population numbers grow, oceans of people seem to spread out into every conceivable environment—even the forests and estuaries used for eons by migratory birds as nutrient-rich stopovers on their longer annual journeys between feeding areas and birthing grounds.
Of course, more human development means fewer habitats suitable for such birds of passage (and other wildlife) as we "pave paradise
" and put up parking lots. But tired and hungry birds may not have the wherewithal or instinctual coding to seek out alternative resting areas, so they make do with habitat crowded and compromised by human incursion. Close proximity to avian life hasn't presented too big of a problem for people in the past, but new concerns about the spread of bird flu (the H5N1 virus) via infected migratory birds (which presumably infect local populations of domestic birds) does have some scientists worried that persistent human expansion could indirectly lead to a disease pandemic of global proportions.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the role of migratory birds in spreading bird flu is not well understood, but we do know that wild waterfowl are a "natural reservoir" of mostly harmless H5 and H7 influenza A viruses. But recent research suggests that these viruses may be mutating into more "pathogenic" (disease producing) forms, such as H5N1 that can "jump the species barrier" and infect people and other animals. "Recent events make it likely that some migratory birds are now directly spreading the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form," reports WHO, adding that further spread to new areas is expected. It is unlikely that the bird flu making headlines a few years ago (the H5N1 strain), could lead to a human pandemic. The vast majority who got sick had direct contact with infected birds.
It could be that the very sprawl that increases our chances of catching bird flu—by bringing us and our poultry farms into closer contact with disease-bearing migratory birds—will protect us in the end. Humans have greatly altered the landscape for agricultural and industrial purposes and in creating urban settlements, points out wildlife biologist Kevin Kenow of the U.S. Geological Survey's Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. As such, it contains less of the kinds of habitat migrating birds prefer—wetlands, forests and prairies—and more of what adversely affects them, such as human development, urban and agricultural runoff, and other forms of habitat degradation. "Many migratory birds that once flourished are now absent in altered or degraded areas,” he says.
Regardless of the risk, scientists have yet to develop a vaccine to protect against H5N1 in humans, but they are working on it. Those who remain concerned should always cook poultry to a temperature of at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes (this heat kills the virus if it is present) and wash hands with soap and warm water frequently (always a good idea regardless). And look both ways before crossing the street: At present, at least, your chances of getting hit by a car are far greater than your chances of contracting bird flu.
Dear EarthTalk: Since nitrogen oxide compounds are components of smog and are common water pollutants, does nitrogen-enriched gasoline create additional pollution?
—Rick Oestrike, Poughkeepsie, NY
It might seem like adding nitrogen to gasoline is all the rage among oil companies today, but the idea has been around for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that automotive fuels sold in the U.S. contain detergents to help scrub away pollution before it goes out the vehicle's tailpipe. Some manufacturers have found that adding nitrogen to the detergent helps keep an engine cleaner by reducing the carbon build-up in the gas tank that can in turn "gunk" up the engine and lower performance.
The nitrogen itself also has a direct cleaning effect, breaking down carbon deposits that can harden on an engine's moving parts. "If too much collects, this gunk can negatively affect engine performance, causing your car to burn more oil, overheat and burn gasoline less efficiently," reports John Fuller on the How Stuff Works website. Valves inside an engine are designed to let in a specific amount of air and fuel, he adds; when that process is slowed by carbon build-up, a car won't perform up to its potential.
But while nitrogen-enriched gasoline may provide a slight bump in engine performance, some worry about adding to cars" already substantial pollution load, especially nitrogen oxide (NOx), which contributes to smog, acid rain and other environmental problems. André L. Boehman, a Penn State University engineering and fuel science professor, says that the addition of more nitrogen to the fuel mix "generally will increase NOx emissions." Boehman would like to see more research done so we can know for sure if and how much additional NOx pollution is caused by the use of nitrogen-enriched gasoline.
For its part, Shell Oil, which last spring launched its own form of nitrogen-enriched gasoline now for sale at all of its U.S. filling stations (it is mixed into all three grades of gasoline the company sells), denies that the additional nitrogen has any substantive impact on pollution levels. "Most nitrogen in vehicular NOx emissions does not come from gasoline," the company told The New York Times. "The nitrogen is primarily from the incoming air that mixes with gasoline inside an engine. NOx is produced when the nitrogen from the air reacts with oxygen under high engine temperature and pressure conditions."
Professor Boehman concedes that "the detergent additive may have such beneficial effects on engine operation, fuel system performance and other related features of engine system operation that they outweigh the adverse effect" of increased NOx emissions. "For instance, if improved detergency helps to increase fuel efficiency so that you burn less fuel, you may slightly increase the NOx emissions rate per gram of fuel burned, but end up with lower NOx because you burned fewer grams of fuel."
That said, it is probably a good idea to avoid putting nitrogen in your fuel unless you're sure the gains will outweigh the detriments. And until researchers know more, drivers might focus instead on minimizing their own vehicles" overall gasoline consumption and fuel efficiency—and on substituting other cleaner forms of transportation (walking, biking, mass transit) whenever possible.
EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.