Chemicals’ Role in Breast Development
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A new report finds that chemicals can affect the development of mammary glands in fetuses and infants. Scientists believe these changes may lead to breast cancer. Bruce Gellerman talks with Dr. Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch, director of the California Breast Cancer Research Program, about implications for chemical testing in the future. (Photo: Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons) (06:55)
Ocean Extinction Trend
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Increased atmospheric carbon is causing a “Deadly Trio” in the world’s oceans. Alex Rogers is Scientific Director of the International Program on the State of the Ocean. He told host Bruce Gellerman that the trifecta of global warming, ocean acidification, and deoxygenation have been associated with all of the five major extinction events in paleontological history. Photo--Excess carbon absorbed by the ocean leads to acidification and coral bleaching. (Wildsingapore) (06:00)
Obama Taps Strategic Petroleum Reserve/ Mitra Taj
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The White House has announced it will release 30 million barrels of oil from America’s petroleum reserves to address disruption of oil production in Libya. But, as Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports, this is a short-term fix that won’t do much to cut our addiction to foreign oil. (02:00)
Fracking Makes Earthquakes?/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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Greenbrier, Arkansas is home to one of the world’s largest natural gas fields. It also felt a swarm of earthquakes recently. Geologists and state regulators noticed that when they capped some of the deep injection wells, the earthquakes nearly stopped. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports on the future of those wells and a class-action suit that puts drilling-induced earthquakes on trial. (04:00)
Natural Gas and Greenhouse Gasses/ Jeff Young
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The boom in production of natural gas is shaking up energy markets around the world, but what does it mean for the world’s climate? Some scientists say the glut of gas could bring a global warming benefit by knocking out dirtier coal. But others say gas is more likely to add to our climate conundrum. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on the sometimes heated debate about natural gas and greenhouse gases. (07:00)
Many Dishwashers Harbor Dangerous Fungus
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There’s a deadly fungus among us, in the very appliance used to clean and disinfect dinner plates. And the worst part is – the hardy fungi are near-indestructible. Microbiologist Nina Cimerman tells host Bruce Gellerman about the black yeast that has infested the rubber linings of a majority of the world’s dishwashers. (05:20)
BirdNote® Cowbirds and Yellow Warblers/ Michael Stein
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Brown-headed cowbirds don’t exactly make the best parents. They drop their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave it to those birds to do the hatching and raising. As BirdNote®’s Michael Stein tells us, the yellow warbler is a frequent recipient of the cowbird’s eggs. In the photo--The Brown-headed Cowbird lays her eggs in other birds’ nests. (Photo: Tom Grey ©) (02:00)
Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act
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The Endangered Species Act was landmark environmental legislation. Now, the law itself may be endangered. Host Bruce Gellerman explores the Harvard Museum of Natural History with Joe Roman, author of the new book “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.” (10:15)
Can the Moose of Summer Take the Heat?
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Warming temperatures cause multiple challenges for moose. Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Seth Lender watches as a trio of moose search for food in Northern Maine. In this photo--This moose’s leg bleeds where leeches have hung on. (Salt Marsh Diary ©) (03:15)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch, Alex Rogers, Nina Cimerman, Joe Roman
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Ike Sriskandarajah, Jeff Young, Michael Stein, Mark Seth Lender
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Commonly used chemicals and some foods may be affecting breast development in women - and men.
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We cannot shop our way to health. But we can demand better testing for chemicals and then we can advocate for stronger regulation of these chemicals and removing some of them from our environment.
GELLERMAN: Also, natural gas - we got lots of it but is it a boon or bane? Some claim getting it can trigger earthquakes - others say it’s the answer to climate change.
KENDERDINE: We really need significant carbon emission reductions now. And switching from coal generation to gas generation - that’s all you can do right now.
GELLERMAN: And moose on the loose in Maine - flies and heat make ‘em miserable. We’ll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. There’s a lot we can learn about breast cancer from laboratory rats and mice. The latest research indicates some common chemicals - and maybe some foods - can act like hormones and disrupt the body’s delicate endocrine system during early development. They can alter how mammary glands grow later in life and increase the risk of breast cancer in women - and men. The results of these experiments on lab animals, conducted by the government and independent scientists, appear in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Dr. Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch wrote the commentary accompanying the article.
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: The studies tell us that exposure to chemicals, prenatally or early in life, can change the way the breast develops. And we think that some of those changes can then make you more susceptible to cancer later in life or can cause cancer later in life.
GELLERMAN: These are exposures to chemicals in fetal development.
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: Fetal and, you know, the breast is kind of unusual as a human organ in that a lot of its development happens after birth. So the breast continues to change and develop in structure, in function, throughout infancy, adolescence, and then actually goes through more changes in a first pregnancy.
GELLERMAN: What kind of chemicals are we talking about here?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: So we’re talking about pesticides, such as atrazine; we’re talking about what are referred to as perfluorinated compounds, which are found in Teflon coating and stain-resistant coating; chemicals that are used in everyday products such as bisphenol A, which is used in the lining of many food cans and is found in many plastics and bottles; products that you can be exposed to without knowing it and be exposed to on a daily basis.
GELLERMAN: So it’s in natural products - foods!
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: That’s correct - there are chemicals that can mimic estrogen that are found in commonly eaten foods, such as genistein and soy.
GELLERMAN: Genistein is what?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: Genistein is a compound that is found in high concentrations in green tea and also found in coffee.
GELLERMAN: So are you recommending people don’t drink tea, coffee, or eat soy?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We’re not ready to make that recommendation at this time. There have been a lot of studies of the effects of soy and genistein on breast cancer, and what we know at this point is that the story is very complicated. You can have effects in early life that you then don’t see in adult life. And there could be even opposite effects between exposure in childhood, or in utero, and exposure in adulthood. In countries where people eat a lot of soy and consume a lot of genistein-containing products, the incidence of breast cancer is much, much lower than it is in the U.S. So we don’t know, for example if you don’t grow up eating soy on a daily basis, what the effect is if you start eating it as an adult.
GELLERMAN: What kind of exposures are we talking about here to these chemicals?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We’re talking about exposures that are at lower levels than effects we see on other organs. So, for example, in many of these studies, the effects seen on the mammary gland happened at much lower doses than you see effects on other organs. And so the breast was actually the most sensitive organ to damage of any of the organs that were looked at in these animals.
GELLERMAN: Now when we talk about breast cancer, we commonly assume it’s females, but the researchers also studied males. Can men get breast cancer from these chemicals?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We believe that they can. The incidence of breast cancer is much lower for men than for women - about a hundred times lower. But we actually think that they may be more susceptible to some of these chemicals, partly because women are exposed through their own bodies to hormones throughout much of their lives, whereas men in general are not. So it may be that they can be more sensitive to estrogenic-like compounds than women are.
GELLERMAN: So the obvious question is: if these things are ubiquitous, all around us, are these chemicals being tested adequately?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We think they are not. In standard chemicals testing, it is not common procedure to actually look at the mammary gland of the animals that you are testing. And that is one of the things that the articles provide evidence for and that we are calling for - is that looking at the breast, or the mammary gland, in mice and rats is critical to help us understand these effects. If you want to find out what chemicals may cause breast cancer, you ought to be looking at the breast and the developing breast.
GELLERMAN: Am I right that there were studies done by the EPA that are included in this analysis?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: Yes, there are studies done by scientists who work at the EPA, in this particular field, included in this analysis, yes.
GELLERMAN: So federal regulators know about these effects?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: They do, it is true. Actually, worldwide, I think these effects are both known and have not yet been incorporated into governmental regulations at all. The European Union is quite a ways ahead of the U.S. in terms of regulating chemicals and requiring testing on chemicals. But even at this point, they’re not requiring examination of the mammary gland in early life in mice or rats in their studies.
GELLERMAN: Okay, so what are we waiting for?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: We’re waiting for the agencies to take notice of these effects and to consider it important enough to start incorporating into their everyday policies.
GELLERMAN: So what can I do - what can any of us do?
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: As an individual, there are actually many things we can do. So one is we can try to reduce our own exposures to chemicals or other products that may be of harm to us. And work in your community to reduce community exposures, such as, for example, BPA - there's been fair amount of legislative activity, both on the state level and on the federal level, to remove BPA from at least some of the products that creates exposure for us. That can’t be the only action - a common phrase used among people who talk about this is, ‘we cannot shop our way to health.’ But we can demand better testing for chemicals and demand that the testing that is done include endpoints that are important to breast cancer. And then we can advocate for stronger regulation of these chemicals and removing some of them from our environment.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Kavanaugh-Lynch, thanks so much, I really appreciate it.
KAVANAUGH-LYNCH: It’s my pleasure, thank you for inviting me.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch is director of the Breast Cancer Research Program in Oakland, California.
[MUSIC: David Byrne/Brian Eno “I Feel My Stuff” from Everything That Happens Will Happen (Todo Mundo 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Scientists have long known that our oceans are in deep trouble, but now they’re issuing a dire warning of a rapid mass extinction of sea life. Marine experts meeting in Oxford, England were surprised to find the rate of change is accelerating unlike anything that’s happened in the last 55 million years. They blame carbon dioxide emissions in the air for a deadly trio of factors that are disrupting the seas. The International Program on the State of the Ocean convened the meeting - conservation biologist Alex Rogers is scientific director of the organization.
ROGERS: This report really is a mixture of despair and hope. If you look back in past extinction events in the oceans, they’re all associated with a major disturbance of the carbon cycle or carbon system of the Earth. And the symptoms of that are warming, ocean acidification, and also deoxygenation of the oceans. Now today we’re certainly seeing warming, particularly in polar regions. We’re seeing acidification taking place in the oceans at a staggering rate.
GELLERMAN: So global warming, ocean acidification…what’s the third?
ROGERS: The third one is deoxygenation.
ROGERS: Yeah, hypoxia. Essentially, warm water contains less oxygen than cold water. But also, in modern times, we’re seeing deoxygenation occurring through essentially nutrient runoff from land, and this is coming from the use of fertilizers in intensive agriculture and sewage and so on, which has been poured into the oceans. That causes a bloom of algae, which then die, and they’re broken down by bacteria, which use up the oxygen in the water column.
GELLERMAN: So essentially we’re killing our ocean.
ROGERS: The sheer rate of CO2 input into the atmosphere and the changes that they’re driving is almost completely unprecedented in terms of past history.
GELLERMAN: The oceans are carbon sinks. I mean, they’re designed - they’re supposed to - operate as absorbers of carbon and maintain the balance, right?
ROGERS: That’s absolutely right. The ocean’s been doing this fantastic service for us of mopping up about a third of the emissions that we’ve been producing through industry and land use and so on, but there’s a cost to that and this again links this rate at which this is happening. If this was happening slowly, the weathering of rocks and so on would be naturally neutralizing the carbonic acid that’s produced when the oceans absorb CO2 - but because of the rate at which we’re dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans simply can’t neutralize that sufficiently quickly so the oceans are acidifying at a staggering rate.
GELLERMAN: So in terms of paleological time, how does this compare, say, with what happened in the past?
ROGERS: Well the nearest analogy we could find to this in the past is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which was about 55 million years ago. During that period, there was a mass extinction - it's not one of the Big Five, so it’s not at the same scale of the end of the dinosaurs, for example - but it still led to the loss of up to 50 percent of marine species in some groups of organisms. The difference is that at that time it’s estimated, through natural causes, just over two gigatons of carbon was being pumped into the atmosphere per year for several thousand years. Now we are pumping 30 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere per year. So that’s why what’s happening now is so extraordinary - it's simply the rate at which this is occurring.
GELLERMAN: So are you expecting to see mass extinction - is the ocean going to collapse?
ROGERS: Well, we thought long and hard about this and we’re seeing very severe impacts from climate change already. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen mass coral bleaching events taking place. In 1998, a single bleaching event - and these occur as a result of elevated sea temperature - wiped out 16 percent of all the world’s tropical coral reefs. One event! Those events would increase in frequency as temperature increases. And I’ll just add, coral reefs are our most diverse marine ecosystems. They host – we’re not sure how many species - there are estimates everywhere from half a million to nine million species. And those ecosystems are in danger of collapse, probably within a generation and certainly by the end of the century if we continue to emit CO2 at the same rate that we’re doing now.
GELLERMAN: Okay, well Professor, cheer me up. The good news, please?
ROGERS: The hope is that marine species have been remarkably resistant to extinction. We know that overfishing has had massive effects on fish populations - you know, many of them have been reduced to 10 percent or less of their original size. But those species are still there. And in fact, the ocean still harbors much of its biodiversity that it’s harbored for millions of years. So if we act very quickly and we act decisively, we do have the opportunity to divert this disaster and really change this trajectory of degradation of these species and these ecosystems, upon which we really depend.
GELLERMAN: How wide is the window of opportunity - what are we talking about here?
ROGERS: We’re talking about 10 years - 10 to 20 years.
GELLERMAN: Whoo! That’s a short fuse.
ROGERS: It’s a very short fuse - the windows for action are really very, very narrow indeed.
GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking to Alex Rogers - he’s scientific director of the International Program on the State of the Ocean. Professor Rogers, thanks so much.
ROGERS: Thanks very much for listening, thanks.
[MUSIC: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey “David” from Stay Gold (Royal Potato Family 2010)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead - the perils and potential of natural gas. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
CUTAWAY MUSIC: Debbie Davies: “Atras De Tus Ojos” from Holdin Court (Little Dipper Records 2009)
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The war in Libya has disrupted the world’s supply of oil, so the 28 member nations of the International Energy Agency are opening the taps on their strategic petroleum reserves. The U.S., which began stockpiling oil in 1975, will provide half of the 60 million barrels the Agency plans to sell. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.
TAJ: If you're wondering what tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve might mean for efforts to cut America's addiction to foreign oil, Michael Levi, an energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, has an answer.
LEVI: It's irrelevant. This is a short-term response to a short-term problem and is an independent issue from long-term transformation of the U.S. economy and U.S. energy consumption.
TAJ; White House officials say the long-term plan remains the same: energy efficiency, alternative fuels and electric cars, and boosting domestic oil production. In time those policies might help keep volatile global oil markets from squeezing the economy. But the short-term impact of the decision is hard to ignore: just after it was announced, the price of oil fell five dollars to $90 dollars a barrel. Joseph Romm, a climate blogger and former Department of Energy official, says this won’t last.
ROMM: This is perhaps going to, you know, puncture a modest bubble, but the price of oil is headed up over time because we're seeing peak production around the world. Personally, I think we should sell off most of this oil and use the money to help make the transition to clean energy.
TAJ: It seems unlikely Republicans would support doing that with the $2.5 billion dollars that’s expected to be raised from the reserves. They’ve called the decision a distraction from their push to drill more oil here at home. But if an injection of oil can stimulate economic growth, the White House might face less political pressure and have more room to pursue a clean energy agenda. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.
GELLERMAN: Fracking is the process of using fluid chemicals under high pressure to crack open rock deep in the earth to release natural gas. It’s highly profitable - and potentially dangerous. Some environmentalists fear the ingredients can pollute underground aquifers. Most fracking companies are reluctant to disclose the chemicals they use - though Texas just announced they have to. But now comes a new worry: that wastewater from fracking injected back into the ground might trigger earthquakes. It’s already set off a class action lawsuit in Arkansas as Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Greenbrier, Arkansas was part of the Wild West. Jesse James and his gang passed through the town after robbing their first stagecoach. Stickups aren’t much of a threat anymore - earthquakes are. And guns are still part of the landscape. Scott Ausbrooks of the Arkansas Geological Survey is in Greenbrier to test out a new earthquake detector that measures seismic energy with sound.
AUSBROOKS: And one way we’re testing this is through using a shotgun - using sound from a shotgun. And I just got the signal - I need to fire right now. Hang on just a second.
[RUSTLING, PUMP, FIRE]
AUSBROOKS: Are you there?
AUSBROOKS: Yeah, it’s an experiment being run, measuring earthquakes through sound. And it’s probably one of the best areas to actually test this because we’re most likely going to have some earthquakes.
SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s an understatement. In Greenbrier, Ausbrooks, a geo-hazards expert, counted 150 earthquakes that were strong enough to feel since September. That includes one that measured 4.7 on the Richter scale, felt in several surrounding states. In the early 80’s, there was another swarm of earthquakes around Greenbrier, but geologists think that this swarm may be related to local natural gas drilling.
AUSBROOKS: We’re looking into the possibility that this swarm is being induced or triggered by the injection wells.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The process known as fracking pumps a liquid formula at high pressure into shale to release natural gas. The drillers dispose of the wastewater in even deeper injection wells. After the big earthquake in February, Arkansas’s Oil and Gas Commission put a six-month hold on two of the injection wells and noticed the earthquakes stopped.
AUSBROOKS: And since that shutdown, you know, it’s been well over 100 days, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number and size of the earthquakes. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if there’s not a relationship between the injection wells and the earthquakes.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Man-made earthquakes may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but evidence linking deep well injection to earthquakes has been documented at other fracking sites and notably at a military napalm disposal well in the Rocky Mountains. Sam Lane, a resident of Greenbrier, is hoping that those examples will hold up in court. But he recognizes his lawsuit may be on shaky ground.
LANE: To be honest, yeah, a lot of people just thought that that was something that wasn’t even possible. I’ve been called crazy numerous times among other things for even thinking that the injection wells could be causing the earthquakes.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Lane is part of a class action lawsuit against Clarita Operating Company and mining giant BHP Billiton. The suit seeks millions of dollars for property damage caused by earthquakes.
LANE: You know, it was scary for a while - we took numerous large pictures and mirrors off the walls and stuff for fear of them falling on us or, you know, our son, or any family or friends we had over. And on top of that, we’ve got a great reduction in our property value from the damage to our home and just by living in an earthquake-prone area.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Their case gained support after the director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission announced he would request a permanent ban on new injection wells in an area covering over 1,000 square miles and that six existing wells be plugged. Representatives of the companies named in the suit declined to speak to us, but a partner in Clarita Operating told local reporters that there was no evidence to support the ban. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
GELLERMAN: Getting natural gas out of the ground presents one set of problems. Another is what happens when it goes into the atmosphere - the gas can affect climate change. Several studies recently looked at the problem but as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, they came to very different conclusions.
YOUNG: The International Energy Agency calls it a “Golden Age of Gas,” an unprecedented boom in global supply. The glut of gas makes possible a large-scale switch away from far dirtier coal to generate electricity and power industrial boilers. There’s little dispute that switching to gas would help clean the air of coal’s poisonous pollutants. But there is vigorous debate about what gas might mean for greenhouse gases. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new report “The Future of Natural Gas” has a positive outlook.
MEGGS: The possibility of reducing CO2 emissions in the United States by 50 percent over the next 30 years is extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.
YOUNG: That’s MIT visiting engineering professor Tony Meggs, a lead author of the study along with Melanie Kenderdine, who directs MIT’s Energy Initiative. Kenderdine looked at switching from coal to the more efficient gas-fired power plants the country already has but does not use as often. That alone could reduce carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector by a fifth.
KENDERDINE: We really need significant carbon emission reductions now. And the only practical, large-scale, immediate action that you could take are energy efficiency and switching from coal generation to gas generation using that surplus capacity.
MEGGS: And I think just to add to Melanie’s point here, we weren’t pushing gas into the power sector - we simply asked the model question: what’s the most economical way to reduce CO2? And because of the relatively low cost of gas supplies, that is the most economical route.
YOUNG: The MIT report, which was partly supported by the gas industry, echoes earlier work by the World Resources Institute that says natural gas can knock off King Coal if laws force business to deal with coal’s carbon emissions and toxic pollutants. In the long run, both studies say we’ll need even cleaner energy sources, but the common refrain is that gas can be the bridge to that cleaner energy future.
Professor Kevin Anderson says that bridge looks a bit shaky. Anderson directs the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in the UK, which produced a study that doubts whether gas will really substitute for coal.
ANDERSON: We hear these sorts of arguments all the time. I mean, in this idealized world, that we might have in a theoretical model on a computer or in a university, perhaps we can imagine one substituting one for the other. In the real world, what we actually see is people are combusting whatever they can lay their hands on.
YOUNG: Anderson says without a global cap on carbon emissions, it’s more likely that gas will just move coal around to be used somewhere else. If gas displaces coal in one country, it lowers the price of coal - making it more attractive to another growing economy.
ANDERSON: And we have to remember that the only thing the climate cares about is the total amount of CO2. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the U.S., from China, from Nigeria, from the UK - it doesn’t matter where that carbon dioxide comes from, it only matters that we’re putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So substitution does not matter if we are then going to use the coal elsewhere.
YOUNG: The Tyndall Centre’s report also warns that cheap gas might undermine investments in cleaner renewable energy. Other analysts argue that gas is often a partner to renewables that smoothes out the intermittent power supply from wind and solar. But the biggest challenge to gas as a global warming good guy comes from a Cornell University study. Cornell professor Robert Howarth argues that gas from hydrofrack drilling is no better than coal. Howarth brought attention to the greenhouse gas methane that leaks from those shale gas drilling operations.
HOWARTH: If you look at the total greenhouse gas emissions, including methane release and not simply carbon dioxide, then in fact shale gas has a very large greenhouse gas footprint - making it perhaps the most high-impact fuel on the global environment of any fossil fuel.
YOUNG: Howarth’s conclusions are controversial. Industry critics say he overstates the amount of gas that leaks and understates the efficiency of gas power plants. At MIT, Melanie Kenderdine criticizes the short time frame Howarth uses to measure the global warming potential of methane versus carbon dioxide. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas but lasts in the atmosphere only a dozen years or so. CO2 does its damage for a century or more. Climate scientists focusing on CO2 generally use a 100-year time scale. Kenderdine says Howarth’s most alarming results came from using a 20-year time frame.
KENDERDINE: That of course increases the impact of methane. The concern of the climate scientists here is that decreases the focus on what they believe is the more serious problem, which is CO2 emissions, which reside in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
YOUNG: Howarth vigorously defends his findings and says the 20-year time scale is a useful one, given concerns about the climate approaching a tipping point in the coming decades.
HOWARTH: We’re in a stable state at the moment, relatively stable, but if we force it into some new trajectory, past some tipping point, then society’s in a lot of trouble. The shorter time frame is critical if you are serious about dealing with global warming.
YOUNG: And Howarth adds, so far, his is the only peer-reviewed study on the matter. More are sure to come as the full climate impact of gas gets more scientific attention. There’s one area where most of the researchers are in agreement: gas surely won’t improve the climate picture if it’s left purely to the whims of the current energy marketplace. The Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson says it’s really about the energy policy we decide to set.
ANDERSON: It is indeed. At the end of the day, we need the correct policy environment within which markets and we as individuals can operate. And if that is put in place, then we can start to deal seriously with climate change. If we choose not to put that policy framework in place, then we will simply not address climate change and we will have to deal with the impacts.
YOUNG: And as things are now, the production of natural gas is moving full speed ahead while policy on greenhouse gases is creeping along at best. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.
GELLERMAN: You can read the natural gas studies Jeff cites in his story and hear more of his interviews at our website loe.org.
[MUSIC: Kyoto Jazz Massive “The Brightness Of These Days (Quantic Remix) from 10th Anniversary (Compost Records 2006)]
GELLERMAN: Dishwashers are supposed to wash your dishes but there’s a good chance yours may be dangerous to your health. New research finds that the majority of dishwashers in 101 countries are infected with black yeast and other fungi that can make you sick. Not only that, microbiologist Nina Cimerman of the University of Ljubljana says these microorganisms are nearly indestructible.
CIMERMAN: It all started with my dishwasher at home. Once I looked into it and I saw something really black and slimy there, and I decided to sample it because I am interested in these particular, special microorganisms. I do explore them otherwise in hypersaline environments and in glaciers in the Arctic and this - what I saw in my dishwasher - looked kind of familiar. So I sampled it, I took the sample to the lab, and then we looked and we found out that we have - that I have in my dishwasher this really pathogenic black yeast.
GELLERMAN: You find this kind of fungus in glaciers?
CIMERMAN: Glaciers, yes, as you heard me - in the Arctic, and hypersaline environments. All of them live in extreme conditions. I should say that, out of all extreme conditions, the dishwasher is the most extreme of all. And when we did our study of dishwashers, we found out that in dishwashers we have almost exclusively the most dangerous genotype, genotype A.
GELLERMAN: This fungus - what can it do to us?
CIMERMAN: Well it depends how it enters your body. If it enters via a cut, for example, that you would cut yourself with a broken glass that you would take out from the dishwasher - in that way it would enter your nervous system, and it would spread through the nervous system and would end up in brain, where it makes tumors in the brain. The other way of entering the body is if you eat them, which could happen because they remain on the plates and the cutlery that we wash - the acid in the stomach does not kill them. And the third way of entering the body is via air that we inhale. So they could enter the lungs. But that is particularly problematic for people which have cystic fibrosis. We know that two thirds of Slovenian dishwashers, of the ones we tested through our student population, are infected. And when it comes to the global dishwashers - we have samples from all continents - it's more than half.
GELLERMAN: So there’s a very good chance based upon your research that my dishwasher is deadly - it's trying to kill me.
CIMERMAN: (Laughs.) Yeah, well I’m inclined to say yes to that, yeah. If you’re very healthy, you have a very good chance that nothing will happen. But if you belong to the target group, which is elderly people, immunocompromised people, or small babies, small children, which don’t have a very good immune system, yes, you are quite exposed.
GELLERMAN: So how did these fungi manage to get into my dishwasher?
CIMERMAN: Well you see, we actually discovered with these studies that they enter in the dishwasher by tap water. And with each washing cycle, we turn around about 70 liters of water. So it’s a good enrichment process. So they get there, they have the right temperature, which kills competition, they have the right food, and of course they come in numbers because it’s 70 liters we’re talking about.
GELLERMAN: So if these fungi are so tenacious and can live in such extreme conditions, how do I get rid of them?
CIMERMAN: So that’s a good question, and I wish I would know how to answer. And now of course it would be very good to have some reaction from a producer of these appliances - so far nobody contacted me, I should say - who would try to solve this problem. I guess the way to get rid of them - if we can really get rid of them - is to, for example, have dishwashers where it would have a cycle every so often where you can really heat this dishwasher very thoroughly. You know, temperatures - let’s say, 100 degrees.
GELLERMAN: That’s 100 degrees centigrade!
CIMERMAN: Yes. And also to be able to remove or change the seals because the black rubber seals are good food for them - they really like it.
GELLERMAN: They’re eating the rubber seals in my dishwasher.
CIMERMAN: Yeah, they hide in the rubber seals, they use them as a protectant, they make these little holes, and they colonize these rubber seals - and that’s also how they can get away from this heat shock that we exposed them to.
GELLERMAN: What about some bleach? That’s supposed to kill everything, right?
CIMERMAN: Well we didn’t directly apply any bleach on the fungi or on these rubber seals. But you know, bleach and food - that is not such a good combination.
GELLERMAN: So, are you still using your dishwasher?
CIMERMAN: Well I kind of…I’m using more of my hands lately, I have to say. But occasionally when I’m lazy, I still use it. And so far I’ve survived.
GELLERMAN: Talking to us from Ljubljana, Slovenia is microbiologist Nina Cimerman. Professor, thanks again.
CIMERMAN: Thank you.
Click here to read the press release.
[MUSIC: Club D’Elf “Sand” from Electric Moroccoland (Club D’Elf 2011)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, we take a tour of extinct species - past, present, and future. Stay tuned - it's Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
CUTAWAY MUSIC: Donald Harrison “Dance Hall” from Nouveau Swing (Impulse Records 1997)
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: Birds do it - and most take the same approach to parenthood - they lay their eggs in nests then incubate them until the nestlings hatch. But some birds do it differently, as BirdNote®’s Michael Stein tells it.
[BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD SONG AND CALL]
STEIN: It seems that nature doesn’t always play fair. One notorious avian example: the behavior of Brown-headed Cowbirds.
STEIN: Cowbirds, which are found throughout much of North America, lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and these birds raise the cowbird chicks, often at the expense of their own young.
STEIN: The beautiful Yellow Warbler is a frequent target of the cowbird’s unwelcome eggs. But it has developed a way to reject the role of foster parent. When a cowbird lays its egg in a Yellow Warbler’s nest, a tiny compact cup woven of plant fibers, the warbler weaves another layer of grasses over the top of the cowbird egg, preventing its incubation. Sometimes a cowbird returns and lays another egg in the same nest and now the Yellow Warbler covers over the second egg. Amazingly, one Yellow Warbler nest in Ontario grew six layers deep. Cowbirds developed their habit of palming off their eggs on other birds because they followed migrating herds of buffalo - cowbirds couldn’t stay in one place long enough to raise their own young. Today, it’s still a problem that even the hardest working Yellow Warbler is sometimes challenged to overcome.
GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein of BirdNote®. You’ll find a flock of photos on our website loe.org.
- Sounds of the birds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Song and call together recorded by D.S. Herr; song of Yellow Warbler recorded by M.J. Anderson.
- BirdNote® Cowbirds and Yellow Warbler was written by Bob Sundstrom.
GELLERMAN: It’s just a short subway ride from our studios to a university you might have heard of.
[TRAIN SOUNDS; CONDUCTOR SAYS, “Harvard Square - doors open on the right!”; HARVARD BELLS, WALKING AND STREET SOUNDS]
GELLERMAN: And from the Square, it’s just a short walk across Harvard Yard to the university’s Museum of Natural History.
[DOOR SQUEAKS OPEN; THEN DOOR SLAMS; FADES INTO LIGHT WALKING AND GENERAL ROOM AMBIENCE]
GELLERMAN: Built in 1859, it’s a venerable place filled with cabinets of curiosities and rows upon rows of display cases. There are animals preserved in bottles of formaldehyde, skeletons of marine mammals, and fierce predators stuffed and displayed, frozen in action. There are insects pinned and mounted, all perfectly organized and presented. More than 21 million specimens in all - some of the species are still with us, others are long gone. I recently explored Harvard’s Museum of Natural History with conservation biologist Joe Roman, author of the new book, “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.”
ROMAN: What I love about it is it’s almost like a museum of museums. There are so few natural history museums left that still show the individuals similar to the way they would have been shown in the 19th century.
GELLERMAN: So show me - do you got a favorite exhibit here?
ROMAN: Ah sure, there’s a couple of them.
GELLERMAN: Boy, look at this, we got a rhinoceros! What is this, this is a Sable Antelope…a Kori Bustard…look at these, these are incredible! African Civet!
ROMAN: It’s incredible - I mean, natural history museums like the one at Harvard have an incredibly important role in understanding biodiversity. People knew that there were different species, but really until they started collecting all these different specimens did they get an idea of how much diversity was within species and geographic variation.
GELLERMAN: Now when we say ‘species,’ what do we mean?
ROMAN: Species generally is defined as a population of animals or plants, or it can be bacteria as well, that interbreed. And so they’re very closely related and they’re limited in that they can reproduce with each other.
GELLERMAN: It wasn’t until, you write in your book, about 1812 that they really, kind of, understood that we were losing species.
ROMAN: That’s right, extinction’s a relatively new concept. Originally people had thought that species survived in different areas so you may lose a population here or individuals here, but they would be surviving in other areas.
GELLERMAN: This museum has 21 million specimens. How many different species are there - does anybody know?
ROMAN: In the millions. We’re not really sure - those numbers are still being discovered now. So we’re still adding new species everyday probably to the list. It’s ironic that right now, just as we’re losing species, we’re also seeing probably the greatest growth in the number of described species in science.
GELLERMAN: So how fast are we losing species?
ROMAN: That’s also controversial. Historically, the thought was - the average was about one out of every million species was lost every year. Now we’re seeing there are - we're thinking maybe it’s ten, maybe even 100 times faster than that. People have started to claim that this might be the sixth great mass extinction. In history, we have several mass extinction events - one of the most famous is at the end of the dinosaur era - and now we’re seeing a rapid die-off of lots of large vertebrates.
GELLERMAN: So die-offs are natural. Losing species is not an unnatural act.
ROMAN: That’s right. All species go extinct just like all organisms die. The concern is the accelerating rate that we’re seeing right now, largely because of human influence, either through habitat degradation or direct hunting or climate change.
GELLERMAN: When we try to protect animals, are we not upsetting the natural balance of things?
ROMAN: That’s a risk. Typically, what we’re trying to do is restore. So the goal is not to upset the balance but rather to restore systems so that they’re functioning naturally. And that can help people as well as the animals themselves. I mean, as you’ve mentioned, I do ecological economics, and what we look at is natural capital - that is, how can natural systems provide benefits to human society. That can be in the form of storm protection. One of the most obvious is tourism - think about whale-watching. The protection of whales, here in New England, has resulted in a $125 million dollar industry.
GELLERMAN: How do you conserve an animal this large in a habitat so vast as the ocean? How do you do that - can you do it?
ROMAN: You can, but what you have to do - it’s really about managing humans. For whales, basically, where they’re found is what we’re going to have to conserve. One of the problems is they feed in areas where there’s a lot of shipping traffic. So the ships are coming in, they’re hitting whales - lots of whales have propeller marks or have been killed. There was a very elegant solution: move the shipping channel to the area between the two areas where they’re most densely feeding. That has happened off of Boston and we’re starting to see some results, hopefully, of increase in these populations’ size as a result of that change.
GELLERMAN: But when you have an animal, say, like the Blind Salamander that lives in Texas caves - you know, what’s the ecological value, what's the environmental value, what’s the cultural value of that animal?
ROMAN: Some people use the term ‘existence value,’ and that is how much are you willing to pay to keep these species around, would you be willing - and people do do that, people analyze that, that’s a start. Cultural value is also important, and we really don’t know which individual animal is going to be very important to humans. What are the species that are going to protect us? One species that we’ve seen an incredible decline recently is the little brown bat - used to be the most common bat in the system - has basically dropped out of the system. I don’t see any in my farmhouse in Vermont anymore. We don’t know yet. We know that it’s probably going to have an impact on agriculture.
GELLERMAN: Because it eats insects.
ROMAN: It eats insects, that’s right. And one study had put the value of bats in the United States at about three billion dollars a year in pest control alone.
GELLERMAN: But doesn’t that put us in the position of playing God - deciding which species to save and which, well, maybe it’s too expensive?
ROMAN: The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to protect all species, all native species within their environment. I don’t know if that’s playing God - I think that’s trying to control human rampant development, I guess, is one way, or irresponsible development of land.
GELLERMAN: The Endangered Species Act was passed in, what, 1973, and Richard Nixon signs it - overwhelmingly supported in Congress.
ROMAN: That’s right, 92 to nothing in the Senate, including Jesse Helms, Bob Dole signs it, Ted Stevens signs it - a lot of those guys changed their mind later on. Overwhelming support. Keep in mind it was a short list at that time - only a couple of hundred animals and they were mostly vertebrates. They were thinking they were protecting whales, for example, and wolves - sort of more charismatic species. It was only later that lots of other species started adding in and people started to say, ‘oh, wait a minute maybe this is more complicated than we thought.’
GELLERMAN: So really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about saving species is saving their habitats because without the habitat, no species.
ROMAN: That’s right, we don’t have an endangered ecosystem law. And often that’s the problem as the species are the surrogates for that. That was the case for the snail darter. A lot of people were really concerned about the river system that was going to be lost as much as the darter itself. Spotted owl is another example that really was a surrogate for old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.
GELLERMAN: So in 1975, the snail darter comes along - a three-inch little fish, nobody really cared much about it until they decided to build the Tellico dam in Tennessee.
ROMAN: Actually, not only did no one care about it, no one knew about it. It was discovered right after the ESA was passed. So it was David Etnier out of the University of Tennessee who comes upon this while he was swimming, looking for other fish. He comes upon a new species. He was actually interested in the Tellico and interested in preventing it - there was a lot of local effort to stop the Tellico. He finds this new species that’s found nowhere else and he’s the world’s expert on this. He describes that at the same time that the dam is being completed. It could have been one of those stories where you just find a species, just in time, describe it, and it’s gone.
GELLERMAN: But it becomes the symbol - it becomes, actually, the tool, the weapon against the dam. Supreme Court winds up getting the case and they say, ‘you gotta stop the dam.’ Congress turns around and says, ‘nuh-uh, we want this dam.’
ROMAN: That’s right. So it was mostly local Tennessee politicians - Howard Baker…Al Gore, actually, was one of the people that votes for the dam - he’s a very strong supporter for the dam, he just gets into Congress at that time.
GELLERMAN: And ironically, Newt Gingrich votes against the dam!
ROMAN: That’s exactly right, so Newt Gingrich votes against it, but it passes. Actually at the time, Jimmy Carter vowed to veto any bill that was going to do an override - that was going to allow the dam to be built. But the story is at the time that he was negotiating, he wanted to get the Panama Canal treaty through. He was willing to negotiate with Baker and sign that bill in order to get his Panama Canal. The dam is closed in 1979, just after it’s signed.
GELLERMAN: It was a disaster.
ROMAN: And the species went extinct, that’s right.
[SOUNDS OF WALKING IN EMPTY ROOM]
GELLERMAN: So let’s go into the next hall.
[SOUNDS OF WALKING IN EMPTY ROOM]
GELLERMAN: Oh this is my favorite room here, this is awesome. Where are we? This is…
ROMAN: This is the Great Mammal Hall. And really, this is one of the classic - it looks like a classic 19th century museum. You’ve got the whales up above - there's a sperm whale, a fin whale in the middle, and North Atlantic right whale here. And then you’ve got a great diversity of ungulates, or hoofed mammals, down here, including some marsupials here representing Australia. And then we’ve got some primates here, including the great apes, the chimpanzee, the Eastern gorilla - oh, and here’s a human.
GELLERMAN: The skeletons.
ROMAN: That’s right, the skeletons. All the species in this cabinet are endangered, except, of course, humans, which are still at six billion strong.
GELLERMAN: So one day, could we be endangered?
ROMAN: Well keep in mind that all species do go extinct, just like all organisms die. And so yes, it doesn’t look - it's hard to fathom right now when we’re so populous. We’ve really become the dominant force on Earth, but yes, at some point, humans too will join the rest of creation.
GELLERMAN: Joe Roman is a professor of conservation biology at the University of Vermont and author of “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.”
[MUSIC: Andrew Bird “Natural Disaster” from Noble Beast (Wegawam Music 2009)]
GELLERMAN: Northern Maine conjures up images of tall trees and deep snow, lobster, and moose. But come summertime, says Mark Seth Lender, warm weather makes the moose miserable.
LENDER: It is barely first light. But to the bull moose, cloaked in his rugged throw, it is noonday. Though still cool, already too warm. He is pinioned by flies. With great precision, they drive into the skin, following the capillaries and arteries like a roadmap, all in a tormenting rush. On a ground of open water, there is nowhere to hide.
Bull moose, like chocolate left out in the sun, is losing his solidity. But these ponds are his larder and to eat - well, he has no choice. He ducks, head and velveted antlers deep, then thundering spray lips splayed, and a white cloud spreads for twenty feet. Water cascades, runs in rivulets from his face, the great ears pouring out like twin Viking cups, a libation of water. Instantly, the flies return. And now at his ankles, leeches catch a free ride and ride him till he bleeds, bright red against the dark brown of him. He goes, preferring hunger to the heat.
At the sunrise side of the pond and still in shadow, a cow moose with her yearling has come down from the tree-covered hill. They shamble-amble through the shallows, picking out the tender shoots beneath and chewing, loud and openmouthed. Dipping and rising, two great metronomes keeping slow time, their jaws mash and crush the vegetation in counterpoint, a Niagara of water gushing down their chins.
At last the sun finds them, kissing their backs, and the cow decides they too must leave. She calls, a sound between a grunt and some deep brass instrument, and stepping and plunking she walks toward the shelter of the forest. The yearling continues to feed, like a child who will do as she pleases. Her mother strides away. Only then the yearling begins to answer and hurries to follow, and the underbrush snaps and rustles on the path of their long retreat.
[MOOSE SOUNDS IN THE WOODS]
Just after sunset, a large moose trailing her too-late calf-of-the-year swims the entire length of the pond. The calf struggles. Though summer will be long, winter will come and the calf will be too small. The sky reddens their way. Twin wakes, black on the black of water stretch out behind like time, all the time the world has ever known - till now.
GELLERMAN: Author Mark Seth Lender. Mark has a new book of wildlife essays called “Salt Marsh Diary.” For more information and to track down some images of Mark’s moose, go to our website loe.org.
- Purchase an autographed copy of Mark Lender’s new book “Salt Marsh Diary” and one of his beautiful photos, with proceeds going to Living on Earth.
- Back Story: Listen to a short interview with Mark Seth Lender about his fieldwork seeing moose in Northern Maine.
- Salt Marsh Diary
[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “Slow Hot Wind” from What’s It All About (Nonesuch Records 2011]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Daniel Gross, Stephanie McPherson and Anne-Marie Singh. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at loe.org - and check out our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And while you’re online, visit myplanetharmony.com. Our sister program, Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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