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Can we humans reset our relationship with our environment? 

 

Should you be testing for lead in your water – especially if you have children? What do chickens think about daylight? Are nephro-toxins making us sick? Can ancient temples help us understand what happens when climate change causes society to collapse? Can history help us understand how the public will respond to new climate information?

 

Queen’s researchers at the School of Natural and Built Environment and the School of Biological Sciences are examining whether – and how – we might reset our relationship with our environment.

 

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Lead causes permanent harm. Especially to children, and even at very low levels. But around 100,000 homes across NI still have lead pipes in their network. Is yours one? Dr Tristan Sturm wants you to check.

 

Lead water pipes are common in the Western world. You can even see lead pipes in Pompeii, but they began to be widespread in the 19th century. In fact, the word ‘plumbing’ comes from Pb – the symbol for lead on the Periodic Table. But lead is extremely damaging, particularly for children. When they consume lead, the uptake into their blood is 30 to 50 per cent; with adults, it’s between 5 and 10 per cent.

 

Lead can affect fertility, gait, hearing and especially IQ. It has been linked to cancer, ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage, and it’s one of the leading contributors to heart disease. A study recently found that seven per cent of all mortality in the US – that’s around 315,000 people per year – is linked to low-level lead exposure.

 

And it’s pernicious: it collects around your bones, as the body treats it like calcium. As you reprocess your bones throughout your life, you poison yourself repeatedly. In the same way, if a breastfeeding woman has lead in her system, the body will again treat it as calcium: it takes it from her body and concentrates it in her breast milk.

 

In Belfast, lead pipes were banned for water in 1969. But around 25 per cent of homes in Belfast and 100,000 across Northern Ireland still have lead pipes in their network. In the Republic of Ireland, around 120,000 homes in South Dublin alone have lead pipes. Lead surveillance studies regularly take place in England, Scotland and Wales, but they don’t take place in Northern Ireland. NI takes its policies from those studies, yet it has much more acidic water and more organic material in its water – both factors that lead to higher lead levels.

 

In 2014, the US city of Flint, Michigan, switched its drinking water supply to the Flint River. That cost-saving measure resulted in contaminated water, numerous health issues, and a rise in blood lead levels among the city’s children. It started a conversation about lead levels that we felt we should be having, too. So, we carried out a small pilot study of 35 homes. It found that 15 per cent of the homes studied exceeded the UK and European Union reference limit for lead in the water, which is 10 micrograms of lead per litre. We found five samples that were over 50ug per litre and one reaching 92ug. These are very concerning numbers. Even when a lead level is lower than the reference level of 10ug, that’s not safe. No amount of lead is safe.

 

We now have a grant to test a further 300 homes in Belfast, and we want to take samples from homes built before 1970. If you are concerned, you can test your own water: contact us at leadwater@qub.ac.uk or visit our website and we will test your water in Belfast for free.  

 

What can you do if you have lead in your water? Changing pipes is the ideal, but it’s expensive and there are no grants available. A cheaper option is to install an activated carbon filter under the sink (though it does need changing every year, otherwise it can make your water quality worse). And one very simple and cheap thing you can do is to run your water for about a minute every time you have a glass of water. I’d like to see an advertising campaign encouraging people to do that.

 

We need to challenge the status quo around this issue and start conversations in the community. Until our study hit the media, many people were totally unaware that they had lead in their water. We must start testing for lead whenever someone has a blood test. If you sell your home, you should be legally obliged to test for lead and inform the new owners, as should landlords when they rent to someone new. These simple policy changes could make a big difference.

 

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What do chickens really think of their houses? Professor Niamh O’Connell is taking a bird’s-eye perspective to understand and improve farm animal welfare.  

It’s really challenging to understand farm animal welfare from the animals’ perspective. For obvious reasons, most of us tend to make judgements on what might be best for animals on the basis of what might be best for us. 

But that’s where science can make a big contribution. Our research is very much focused on the animal’s perspective – for example, we will often ask the animal to make a choice. What would you prefer in your environment? What would you like to interact with? We can then design environments which are animal-focused rather than human-focused.

That’s how our research on natural light started, over 10 years ago. Chickens have evolved under natural light. But in the poultry industry they are often housed under artificial light, which differs in spectrum and intensity. There was a move within the industry to start installing windows in the houses. We wanted to add science to that discussion.

That study was one of the first of its kind to actually work on a commercial scale – an experimental unit, for us, could be a house of 20,000 birds. We work closely with industry: it’s very much about the application. Working with industry is one of the best ways to bring about impact. 

We varied the light levels within the houses and monitored the effect on the birds. We found that with access to natural light, birds were more active, and their leg health was improved. So, there was significant evidence of improved welfare. And while it might seem intuitive to say ‘of course, they need natural light and windows’, you need the science there to support those arguments. We were able to provide that.

This particular study has been very influential in terms of underpinning policy and has been very widely cited. I think that reflects the fact that it’s still quite rare – there’s not much research in this field. It is best to do fieldwork in commercial facilities where animals are actually housed, but that’s logistically challenging. And those facilities are hard to replicate under experimental conditions. 

Since then, we’ve done a series of studies on different environmental enrichments and their effect on animals. Often, we’ve looked at what animals particularly want to engage with. So, we’ve looked at things like preference for different types of dust-bathing substrate among chickens, and different types of perches – we found that they preferred a platform, as opposed to a bar. Again, that’s had significant impact in terms of production and practice.

I’m very proud of the research my team and I have produced. Increasingly the industry is saying that it’s not just important to minimise suffering, but also to promote well-being. Working on positive welfare indicators – how animals demonstrate good welfare and physical and mental wellbeing – is a great sector to be in.

 

Programming code abstract technology background of software developer and Computer script

Chronic kidney disease is increasing and has many causes, including ageing, obesity and diabetes. But could the environment also be making us sick?  Professor Jenny McKinley is working to find out. 

Geochemistry is the study of the chemical composition of soils, both natural and from human activity. When you analyse the soils, you realise they are composed of lots of different elements. Soils can be very different, and they are created from the natural breakdown of the rocks beneath our feet, but also the historical legacy of industry and modern pollutants. Soils can be proxies for what is happening on the ground and in the air, as tiny particles are absorbed in soils.

I use soils to research the relationship between health and place. Where we live, where we move and where we work is very important for our health. It’s difficult to test what we’re taking into our bodies. But soils show what our bodies are experiencing, too – from water, from soil, from the air, from moving through the environment and from where we spend a lot of our time, such as work.

Over the past few years, I’ve been working with organisations including the NI Cancer Registry, the Renal Research Group and the UK Renal Registry to look at the link between chronic disease and place. Chronic kidney disease is increasing worldwide due to ageing, obesity and diabetes. But we want to know if there are environmental factors, too.

It's such an important question that the World Health Organisation has set up an individual task force on what we call nephro-toxins: potentially harmful elements in the environment which – through different pathways – could affect the liver or the kidneys. These are things like lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. The link between these heavy metals and kidney disease is still unclear. These environmental factors could also, of course, affect the progression of other causes of chronic kidney disease like diabetes. So, it’s all connected.

Renal practitioners and experts want to understand more about patients where the cause of chronic kidney disease is unknown, so they invited us to explore this important problem. We examined chronic kidney disease (CKD) data from the UK Renal Registry to explore the links between soil elements, deprivation, and chronic kidney disease. 

This work is ongoing and has widened into two new current projects. We are working with Belfast and four other cities in Europe to investigate the idea of nature-based solutions, which includes urban gardens. We’ll be looking at the soils that will be used, what these soils contain, and, if they contain environmental toxins, how plants might take these up.

And we’re also looking at the link between our environment and healthy ageing: trying to bring together all the available data on environmental factors, including air pollution, which hasn’t always been considered. All our work is highly interdisciplinary, and we work with lots of partners: it’s so important in this field to listen to and understand their needs. It’s not just about analysing data, it’s also about communicating these results to a wider audience.

People reading data on tablets

Will climate change cause society to collapse? And if it does, what comes next? Professor Caroline Malone reports on her work in Malta, where neolithic peoples survived massive tree removal, soil loss and desiccation – with their society intact. 

I’ve devoted my career to furthering the understanding and protection of one of Europe’s lesser known, but most remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Since 1987, my colleagues and I at Queen’s and Cambridge University have uncovered the secrets of Malta’s Neolithic Temple Culture, whose establishment and decline hold deep lessons about humans’ relationship with the environment. 

The temples were designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1980 – “each the result of individual development”, as the official inscription notes. They are extraordinary, unique architectural masterpieces, especially given the limited resources available to their builders, and they show how the tradition of temple-building was handed down.

Through our work, we’ve discovered evidence that the islands saw massive tree removal, soil loss and desiccation following early colonisation. Yet despite this, the Temple Culture survived on these isolated, arid islands for almost two millennia. It offers us valuable insights into societal resilience in resource-constrained circumstances.  

Our research trained some 70 students in the field, supported by more than a dozen specialised post-docs, and it has grown capacity in people’s skills in Malta, too. Beyond technical training, our work has reached the wider Maltese population through literature, museum display, popular TV programmes and site visits. That’s because our discoveries at several sites tell such compelling stories of the lives of the first Maltese.

And Queen’s is set to continue innovative research that will ensure these sites, and others, are even better understood – and better protected – for decades to come. We have a pioneering carbon-dating lab that has been running since the 1960s, and we’ve just received funding for a fantastic new laboratory. A £3 million investment from UK Research and Innovation will complete a major £5 million renovation of the CHRONO Centre and the Archaeology and Palaeoecology laboratories. It’s a significant update to research capacity in Archaeology, which has been taught at Queen’s since 1912. That’s a lot of pedigree.

 

People reading data on tablets

Why do some people respond to new scientific information with scepticism and others with confidence? Dr Diarmid Finnegan is taking inspiration from history to find out more about how scientific discoveries influence – and are influenced by – culture. 

Social distancing. Masks. Vaccines. How the public responds to new scientific information matters – and one way we can gain a better understanding of why people react the way they do is by looking at how public opinion has reacted in the past. 

As a historical geographer, my work looks at the 19th-century public reaction to the emergence of new knowledge, and how people embrace or resist it. For example, there’s a fascinating lecture given in Belfast in 1874 by the Irish physicist, John Tyndall. In that lecture, he presented evolution and other scientific ideas in ways which set them in stark opposition to some cherished religious beliefs. For example, he said that theologians should concede that science alone had the authority to speak securely about the world. 

It was heard by many as making a scientific argument for atheism, though Tyndall himself denied that. He wasn’t denying the importance of religious sensibilities. But he said that when it comes to knowing the world, we must cede authority to science. In a religious town like Belfast, there was a very strong backlash – and my colleague, David Livingstone, has argued that this very polemical lecture set the tone of the debates about evolution in Belfast for nearly two decades.

Similarly, in the 1830s and 1840s, the Swiss geologist, Louis Agassiz made an argument for an Ice Age. This cut across lots of existing theories around explaining the different distribution of depositional features across Europe – for example, erratic boulders in the landscape. Many geologists at the time were sceptical and felt that Agassiz was over-extending and over-claiming. They wanted to defend the theories that they felt explained this geological phenomenon better. 

One of those theories was that the boulders had been brought by a catastrophic flood event – not ice, but water. A catastrophic flood event was associated with the Bible and taken as confirmation that the Flood was a historical event – which meant that Agassiz’s idea was threatening to both established scientific and cultural beliefs.

Some people were more accommodating and tried to find a middle ground, with theories that took on components of Agassiz’s theory, but not accepting that a massive ice sheet covered the whole of Europe. And that makes it another example of the complex range of responses you get to a big new idea hitting the scientific headlines.

I’m always wary of applying ideas and responses from history directly to our time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t informative. By the end of the 19th-century, around 100,000 people were members of local voluntary scientific societies, where they learned about science but also contributed to it. Encouraging that kind of thing would be a great place to start to help the public feel that they’re not just passive learners but are actively involved in science.

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