Science & Health

Invasive Reptiles, Amphibians Cost World $17 Billion

Two invasive species — the brown tree snake and the American bullfrog — cost the world more than $16 billion between 1986 and 2020, according to a study. 

Researchers say the already-hefty price tag should be seen as a lower limit on the true cost of invasive reptiles and amphibians, especially in under-studied regions such as Africa and South America. The study results were published in the online journal Scientific Reports. 

Invasive species are animals, plants or other living things that aren’t native to the places where they live and damage their new environments. Humans spread many of the more than 340 invasive reptile and amphibian species — as stowaways in cargo or through the exotic pet trade, for instance. 

Invasive reptiles and amphibians can damage crops, destroy infrastructure, spread disease and upset ecosystems. The damage is costly, but scientists still don’t fully understand the extent of the economic impact wrought by invasive species. 

For the study, biologist and study author Ismael Soto of the University of South Bohemia, and Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, and his colleagues, estimated the global cost of invasive reptiles and amphibians using a database called InvaCost. The database collects the results of thousands of studies, reports and other documents produced by scientists, governments and non-governmental organizations. 

The data revealed that invasive reptiles and amphibians have cost at least $17 billion worldwide between 1986 and 2020.  

“But this cost mostly focused on two species — the brown tree snake [and] the American bullfrog,” Soto told VOA in an interview via Zoom. “But there are almost 300 invasive species of reptiles [and] amphibians. So, this means that our cost is really underestimated.”  

The two species have received a disproportionate amount of attention from researchers, said economist Shana McDermott of Trinity University, who was not involved in the study. 

“When you talk about invasives, people immediately will probably say, ‘Oh, the brown tree snake,’ just because its impacts are so wide-ranging,” she said via Zoom. “It’s got ecosystem biodiversity impacts. It’s got impacts to human health — it sends people to the hospital every year with bites. It takes down energy infrastructure. … And so, of course, people are like, ‘Oh God! That’s an incredibly dangerous invasive! Let’s understand it better.'”  

The research bias toward a few well-known species also skews the distribution of costs worldwide. For instance, 99.6% of the $10.4 billion in costs from reptile invasions were in Oceania and the Pacific Islands, largely reflecting damage dealt by the brown tree snake in Hawaii, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands. Likewise, most damage from amphibians was in Europe.  

But that doesn’t mean invasive reptiles and amphibians aren’t problematic elsewhere. Soto said there are many invasive amphibians in Africa, but their costs probably haven’t been quantified.  

“There’s not enough research in these countries [to] detect the economic costs,” he said. 

Soto also noted that the current cost estimate only includes costs that are easily quantified. Destroyed crops or property are easier to count than reduced quality of life or indirect damage to human health and assigning dollar values to ecological damage is trickier still, McDermott said. 

“We’re still in this very early stage of trying to understand the economic costs, and trying to understand how invasive species impact ecosystems, how they impact people’s quality of life,” she said, adding that she wants to include the price of biodiversity losses in future cost estimates. 

Soto and McDermott agreed that future studies should not only quantify the costs of more species in more regions but also project how the costs will evolve with time, especially as climate change continues to facilitate the spread of more invasive species. 

“There is a lot still left to be determined. … I do think that quantifying it is the first step, though,” said McDermott. “Unless you can put a dollar value on it, unfortunately, you don’t get [policymakers’] attention for policy. So, this is an incredibly important topic. … We really shouldn’t be waiting on more studies to act.” 


Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Biden Celebrates Semiconductor Legislation to Boost US Competitiveness Against China

President Joe Biden virtually joined Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer Tuesday to celebrate the CHIPS and Science Act, which aims to boost U.S. competitiveness against China by allocating billions of dollars toward domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research.

“This bill makes it clear the world’s leading innovation will happen in America. We will both invent in America and make it in America,” Biden said. He was scheduled to join the event in person but had to remain in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 again on Saturday in what his physician described as a “rebound” case.

In the coming days, Biden is expected to sign the legislation, which passed in a 243-187 vote in the House of Representatives and 64-33 vote in the Senate last week.

The $280 billion act includes $52 billion in incentives for domestic semiconductor production and research, as well as an investment tax credit for semiconductor manufacturing. Advocates say it will allow the U.S. to catch up in the global semiconductor manufacturing race currently dominated by China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Last year, a semiconductor shortage affected the supply of automobiles, electronic appliances and other goods, causing higher inflation globally and pummeling Biden’s public approval among American voters.

Michigan, a major hub for the American auto industry, has been one of the states hardest hit by the semiconductor shortage.

“This bill will mean humming factories and lower costs on electronics, medical devices, farm equipment and cars for working families,” Whitmer said.

The act includes $4.2 billion to fund defense initiatives and the U.S. mobile broadband market, particularly efforts to promote non-Chinese 5G equipment manufacturing.

Catching up with China

The U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity has decreased from 37% in 1990 to 12% today, largely because other governments have offered manufacturing incentives and invested in research to strengthen domestic chipmaking capabilities, according to a state of the industry report by the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Now China accounts for 24% of the world’s semiconductor production, followed by Taiwan at 21%, South Korea at 19% and Japan at 13%, the report said.

With the CHIPS Act, the administration hopes to bring as much semiconductor manufacturing to the U.S. as practically possible, said Bonnie Glick, director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University.

“And what can’t be reasonably onshore, either because it’s cost prohibitive or other allied countries simply do it better, we can ally-shore manufacturing and support that,” she told VOA.

The two allies the administration has leveraged are South Korea and Japan, both of which Biden visited in May. In Seoul, he toured a Samsung computer chip factory that is the model for a $17 billion facility that the South Korean technology giant is setting up in the U.S. state of Texas.

Last week, the U.S. and Japan launched a new joint international semiconductor research hub under a “bilateral chip technology partnership” to bolster manufacturing for 2-nanometer chips as early as 2025.

Washington has also persuaded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd. (TSMC) to open a U.S. foundry to produce advanced semiconductors. The $12 billion facility in the state of Arizona was completed last month and is scheduled to start production of 5 nm chips by 2024. TMSC also has plants in China.

“We’re back in the game,” Biden said Tuesday. “Remember, we invented these chips, we modernized these chips, we made them work, and there’s a lot more we can get done.”

The CHIPS Act has laid out a clear strategy for Washington, said Volker Sorger, director of the Devices & Intelligent Systems Laboratory at the George Washington University.

“Gain autonomy and eliminate political dependencies on these global supply chain values,” Sorger told VOA.

That strategy puts the U.S. on a collision course with China, which also aims to be the global leader in semiconductors. In 2015, Beijing launched the Made in China 2025 project, which aimed to increase chip production from less than 10% of global demand at the time to 40% in 2020 and 70% in 2025.

The Made in China 2025 program and the People’s Liberation Army’s goal of military-civil fusion make it “overtly clear that Beijing is seeking to dominate global technology and supply chains through anti-competitive trade practices and infiltration of dual-use technology research,” Glick said.

The U.S. government has been pushing for stricter export regulations to China by prohibiting export of equipment needed for manufacturing chips at 14 nm and below. “That would mark an escalation from the previous ban covering 10 nm and below,” Glick added.

Taiwan’s strategic importance

Taiwan — a self-governed island that Beijing claims to be its breakaway province — lies at the heart of the increasingly tense U.S.-China rivalry.

Taipei has dominated manufacture of the world’s most high-tech chips, accounting for 92% of the global production of 10 nm or smaller semiconductors, essentially creating what some observers have characterized as a “silicon shield” that ensures American support in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as a deterrence to such a move.

A military conflict over Taiwan could disrupt TMSC’s semiconductor production and have disastrous effects on global manufacturing.

U.S.-China tensions are already spooking technology investors. TSMC shares fell nearly 3% on Tuesday as U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei in a visit she said demonstrated American solidarity with the Taiwanese people.

Beijing has condemned the visit, the first by a U.S. House speaker in 25 years, as a threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Rare earths

The CHIPS Act does not include provisions to secure supply chains of rare earths — and other critical minerals used in semiconductors and other high-tech elements — to reduce the nation’s dependence on China, a major producer of these elements.

“I don’t know that we have developed a coherent strategy on accessing both rare and nonrare elements,” Glick said.

Last June, following Biden’s executive order to improve supply chains, the administration released a report concluding that the U.S. was overly reliant on China for critical minerals. Currently, China controls 87% of the global permanent magnet market, 55% of rare earths mining capacity and 85% of rare earths refining.

Earlier this year, the administration announced actions it said would bolster the supply chain of these elements, including a contract for U.S. company MP Materials to process heavy rare earth elements at its California production site — the first processing and separation facility of its kind in the nation.  

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Biden Celebrates Semiconductor Legislation to Boost US Competitiveness Against China

US President Joe Biden virtually joined Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday to celebrate the CHIPS and Science Act, which aims to boost US competitiveness against China by allocating billions of dollars toward domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

Science & Health

US Senate Passes Bill to Help Veterans Exposed to Toxic Burn Pits

A bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate over the measure that had infuriated advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 86-11. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. Biden described the legislation as the biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to comprehensively address exposure to burn pits.

“I look forward to signing this bill, so that veterans and their families and caregivers impacted by toxic exposures finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they earned and deserve,” Biden said.

The Senate had overwhelming approved the legislation back in June, but a do-over was required to make a technical fix. That process derailed when Republicans made a late attempt to change another aspect of the bill last week and blocked it from advancing.

The abrupt delay outraged veterans groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart. It also placed GOP senators in the uncomfortable position of delaying the top legislative priority of service organizations this session of Congress.

A group of veterans and their families have been camping out at the Capitol since that vote. They had endured thunderstorms and Washington’s notorious summer humidity, but they were in the galleries as senators cast their votes.

“You can go home knowing the good and great thing you have done and accomplished for the United States of America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told them.

The legislation expands access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for millions who served near burn pits. It also directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the VA due to lack of evidence, scientific data and information from the Defense Department.

The military used burn pits to dispose of such things as chemicals, cans, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War era veterans and survivors also stand to benefit from the legislation. The bill adds hypertension, or high blood pressure, as a presumptive disease associated with Agent Orange exposure.

The Congressional Budget Office projected that about 600,000 of 1.6 million living Vietnam vets would be eligible for increased compensation, though only about half would have severe enough diagnoses to warrant more compensation.

Also, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will be presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. That’s another 50,000 veterans and survivors of deceased veterans who would get compensation for illnesses presumed to have been caused by their exposure to the herbicide, the CBO projected.

The bill is projected to increase federal deficits by about $277 billion over 10 years.

The bill has been a years-long effort begun by veterans and their families after they had returned from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and experienced maladies that they suspected were caused by their close proximity to burn pits. It was named after Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson from Ohio, who died in 2020 from cancer he attributed to prolonged exposure to burn pits. His widow, Danielle Robinson, was first lady Jill Biden’s guest at the president’s State of the Union address earlier this year.

Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, also brought increased exposure to the burn pit maladies veterans were facing. He also was in the gallery watching the vote Tuesday. He wept and held his head in his hand as the final vote began.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” he said after the vote. “And I hope we learn a lesson.”

The House was the first to act on the burn pits legislation. An earlier version the House approved in March was expected to increase spending by more than $320 billion over 10 years, but senators trimmed some of the costs early on by phasing in certain benefit enhancements. They also added funds for staffing to help the VA keep up with the expected increase in demand for health care and an increase in disability claims.

Some GOP senators are still concerned that the bill will increase delays at the VA because of an increased demand for veterans seeking care or disability compensation.

“What we have learned is that the VA cannot deliver what is promised because it does not have the capacity to handle the increase,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., led the effort to get the bill passed in the Senate. After passage, Tester told reporters he received a call from Biden, thanking him for “taking a big weight” off his shoulder.

Moran said that when the bill failed to pass last week, he was disappointed but remembered the strength of the protesters who had sat outside in the scorching heat for days.

“Thanks to the United States Senate for demonstrating when there’s something good and a good cause, this place still works,” Moran said.