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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 5, 2011

Air Date: August 5, 2011



Pesticides' Influence on IQ

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Three recently published papers in Environmental Health Perspectives document the effects of low-level organophosphate pesticide exposure on children's IQ. (06:10)

Out of (a noble) Gas / Emily Guerin

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The Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas holds the world’s largest supply of usable helium. But that stockpile will be sold off within five years. Emily Guerin reports on the coming helium shortage. (05:40)

Toxic Tide: Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster / Jeff Young

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A year after BP’s well was capped, the health effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are coming to surface. Residents across the Gulf Coast report mysterious ailments, and some blood samples show traces of chemicals related to the oil. But as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, firm answers are hard to come by and frustration is growing in coastal communities. (09:30)

Smart Meter, Big Brother

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The goal of smart meter technology is to improve energy efficiency, cut greenhouse gases and save consumers money. But Kevin Doran, a Senior Research Professor at the University of Colorado, tells host Bruce Gellerman that these smart meters raise privacy concerns because they can potentially reveal personal details about customers’ at-home behaviors. (06:30)

BirdNote® /Hummingbirds See Red / Michael Stein

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Hummingbirds’ eyes are designed to attract them to shades of red to yellow. As Michael Stein of BirdNote® reports, the birds preference for red is not the only reason they zoom in on a particular food.(Photo: © Tom Grey) (02:30)

The Legacy

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Over the span of a lifetime, the world’s population has tripled and consumption has become a way of life. David Suzuki reflects on these changes in his new book “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future.” He tells host Steve Curwood that the path to a sustainable future is to stop elevating economy over ecology and to start imagining a brighter future. (16:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Brenda Eskenazi, Kevin Doran, David Suzuki.
REPORTERS: Emily Guerin, Jeff Young, Michael Stein.

GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Pesticides are designed to kill pests, but if a pregnant woman is exposed to the chemicals, they can have devastating effects on her kid’s IQ.

ESKENAZI: If you see a five or seven point shift in the IQ in the general population, you will see more children that are going to need special services.

GELLERMAN: Toxic pesticides and unintended consequences. Also, we revisit our series “Toxic Tide: Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster”

MILLER: I worked 60 days on the frontline for BP out here. I’m sick today, nobody wants to take care of me.

FOYTLIN: We are very, very ill. And there’s a very good chance now that I won’t get to see my grandbabies.

GELLERMAN: Many of Gulf of Mexico residents blame the BP oil catastrophe for their illnesses. This week on Living on Earth, we recycle some of our classic stories. Stick around.

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.

Pesticides' Influence on IQ

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, we recycle some classic stories from Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Pesticides are designed to kill pests, not hurt people. But now, three independent studies find two organophosphate pesticides, widely used on foods in the field, can have devastating effects on a child’s IQ if their moms are exposed during pregnancy. The studies appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers from Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center studied pregnant women and their children in New York City. Epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi and her team from UC Berkeley focused on the children of agricultural workers in Salinas, California. Dr. Eskenazi, welcome to Living on Earth!

ESKENAZI: Pleasure to be here!

GELLERMAN: So how great was the drop in IQ for the children who had been exposed to these organophosphates?

ESKENAZI: We measured organophosphates by something called dialkyl phosphate metabolites in the mother’s urine during the pregnancy. For every tenfold increase in the mother’s levels of these metabolites during her pregnancy, we saw a 5.5 point decrease in the child’s IQ. That translates to meaning that the children in the very highest 20 percent group of exposure, versus the very lowest - we see about a seven point difference in IQ.

Researcher Brenda Eskenazi.

GELLERMAN: So you looked at these mothers’ exposures and then you measured the children as they developed.

ESKENAZI: Yes, that’s right. We enrolled women during their pregnancies and have been following their children up until age seven at the point of the study.

GELLERMAN: How important is this type of IQ reduction, this kind of level - what effect does that have on a child’s chances of success in school?

ESKENAZI: Well, we are looking at a population level result, not an individual result. And so the way to think about this is that if you see a five or seven point shift in the IQ in the general population, you will see more children that are going to need special services and more children that would be driven into the area of IQ that we would be concerned about them.

GELLERMAN: Should we be surprised by these findings? I mean, these organophosphate chemicals - they’re sometimes called nerve agents. I mean, they’re designed to affect the brain.

This study found a link between a child’s IQ and his mother’s organophosphate load. (Photo: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget Flickr Creative Commons)

ESKENAZI: There is no doubt that at high doses, these chemicals are neurotoxicants. Children and farm workers have been poisoned for years at high doses. The question that we were faced with is what happens with low-level - maybe chronic exposure - but low-level exposure to these chemicals, and how does it affect a child during a critical window of development.

GELLERMAN: These chemicals - how widespread is their use now? Will I find it in my house?

ESKENAZI: Organophosphates were voluntarily removed for home use in the early 2000s. However, they have been widely used in agriculture since that time.

GELLERMAN: So if I buy organic, do I lessen my exposure to these?

ESKENAZI: Yes, you probably would have lower levels of exposure, if any.

GELLERMAN: For individual parents and children, these findings could be quite tragic. On a societal level, the educational level, it could be quite costly. Do you have any idea of the economic impact of this kind of decrease in IQ is having in our school systems?

ESKENAZI: No, it’d be very hard to estimate that. And also, it would be very important to make sure that parents know that eating a good diet may also affect neurodevelopment. And so we don’t want to restrict people from eating fruits and vegetables because of their concern about organophosphates - that would be an anti-public health message.

GELLERMAN: So what are people to make out of this study?

ESKENAZI: What I would say is eat lots of fruits and vegetables, make sure you wash those fruits and vegetables really well - even if it has a skin, and if you can and afford it - eat organic. And if you’re going to use pesticides in your home - even though we don’t use organophosphates in the home any longer, we are still using other pesticides that we know even less about - and the best thing would be to use integrative pest management, where we don’t use sprays, but we use baits and traps and other herbal remedies to rid ourselves of ants and roaches and other critters.

A crop duster spreads pesticides over an agricultural field. (Photo: cdn-pix Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Now your study is one of three that just came out. There were studies at Mt. Sinai and Columbia University, and researchers there have just found similar declines in IQ of children exposed to these very same chemicals. Were you surprised by those findings?

ESKENAZI: I was surprised that we saw the same types of associations in three parallel studies, and the fact that we saw similar findings is noteworthy.

GELLERMAN: So I can imagine a mom feeling guilty, getting these results and knowing that something that they ate prenatally is affecting their kids now.

ESKENAZI: I would hope not. I would hope that the mother would feel that she did the best, knowing what she knew, and she ate well, and she tried to protect her child as much as possible. And that’s really the best we all can do is base our behavior on what we know now.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Eskenazi, thanks a lot, really appreciate it.

ESKENAZI: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Brenda Eskenazi is a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at UC Berkeley.

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[MUSIC: Jason Moran “Planet Rock” from Modernistic (Blue Note 2002)]

Out of (a noble) Gas

GELLERMAN: Helium is a noble gas – fun stuff that fills birthday party balloons and sends SpongeBob skyward at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But helium also has a serious side – it’s used to cool down the magnets in MRI machines and clean rocket engines. Helium is also very common; after hydrogen, it’s the second-most abundant element in the universe. But here on earth, supplies are running low. Living on Earth’s Emily Guerin has our story.


RICHARDS: (Inhales). Hi (in a chipmunk voice).

GUERIN: Ooh, that’s really good.

RICHARDS: (In a chipmunk voice) See, you gotta suck down.

GUERIN: Employee Amy Richards and I are the only ones in the Party Plus store in Biddeford, Maine. We’re taking turns sucking on helium from yellow balloons.



GUERIN: I offer to pay Amy for them, but she says not to worry about it. Helium is cheap. A Party Plus balloon only costs 90 cents. And that, says Nobel Prize-winning Cornell physicist Robert Richardson, is the problem.

Nobel laureate Dr. Robert Richardson at his Cornell physics lab in 1989, inspecting a low-temperature apparatus, which uses helium to reach temperatures close to absolute zero. (Photo: Cornell University Photography)

RICHARDSON: The birthday party consumption of helium is probably only five percent, but it’s more symptomatic of the waste.

GUERIN: Helium has always been so cheap that it doesn’t make economic sense to recycle it. Reseachers let the gas escape after using it in their low-temperature physics experiments. After the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the huge balloons are just deflated. And after using the gas to clean rocket engines…

RICHARDSON: NASA vents the helium into the atmosphere. And that’s a form of squandering.

GUERIN: Dr. Richardson says up until now, that waste hasn’t been a problem. There’s always been enough helium to go around. But that’s no longer the case. In fact, the world supply of readily available helium is running out.

GROAT: Helium comes from the decay of radioactive material in the crust of the earth and it’s very light of course so it escapes.

GUERIN: Dr. Chip Groat, a geoscience professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

GROAT: In some cases it gets trapped up in natural gas, methane, and it accumulates with that methane when it accumulates.

GUERIN: One of the most helium-rich natural gas deposits in the world lies beneath the southern Great Plains. And there, just outside Amarillo, Texas, is the federal helium reserve – an underground helium storage area managed by the U.S. government. The reserve was created back in the 1920s, when helium-filled airships looked like one of the military vehicles of the future. But then came the Hindenburg disaster…


GUERIN: The Hindenburg exploded because it was full of flammable hydrogen, not helium. Still, after the disaster, airships, whatever they were filled with, fell out of favor. But Dr. Groat says helium found a new niche.

Dr. Charles Groat is the John A. and Katherine G. Jackson Chair in Energy and Mineral Resources, Department of Geological Sciences and Professor of Geological Sciences and Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. (Photo: Charles Groat)

GROAT: The use of it in welding, the development of MRIs required helium. And then a lot of pretty important low-temperature physics research that was of strategic importance to the United States also uses a lot of helium. So the feeling was still that we needed a reserve of helium, but for different purposes.

GUERIN: But according to Dr. Richardson, by the 1990s, the feds saw things differently.

RICHARDSON: The argument was that the Cold War was finished, and the federal government had no business competing with private industry.

GUERIN: Also, the helium program had cost the taxpayer one point four billion dollars. The government wanted that money back. So in 1996 Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which planned to sell off all the helium in the reserve by 2015. In the meantime, the world changed. China and other industrializing countries in Asia started gobbling up helium, demanding more and more to produce LCD screens and fiber optics. And suddenly, scientists in the U.S. started having a hard time getting a hold of helium. Again, Dr. Groat.

GROAT: Frankly the group that became the most alarmed was the research community that uses helium and found it couldn’t afford it anymore, and in some places it couldn’t even get it anymore because it was being competed for by commercial people who could pay more money.

GUERIN: Even though helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it’s expensive to strip it out of natural gas deposits. Other countries have helium…..

RICHARDSON: Russia. Or Qatar. Or Algeria.

GUERIN: …but Dr. Richardson says they’re not refining it yet. He thinks they’re holding out for economic reasons.

RICHARDSON: They are anxious for the United States to run out of helium because the price of helium will just sky rocket.

GUERIN: So the world isn’t running out of helium. But by selling off the federal helium reserve, the U.S. runs the risk of depending on unknown or unfriendly sources for this essential element, says Dr. Groat.

GROAT: Getting information about market prices and supplies in other parts of the world has been extremely difficult. I would be very surprised if we’re running out, I think we just haven’t found and developed the resources that are out there.

GUERIN: In the meantime, there are some substitutes for helium. Argon can be used for welding. And there are ways to recycle helium instead of just venting it into the atmosphere, and that could be come more popular after the U.S. reserve runs out. But until other countries start producing, everything that uses helium – MRIs, TV screens, even balloons--will likely become more expensive. So talk like one of the chipmunks while it’s still cheap.


GUERIN: (In a chipmunk voice): For Living on Earth, this is Emily Guerin.

Related link:
Read the full report of the Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserve.

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[MUSIC: Tin Hat Trio “Helium” from Helium (Angel Records 2000]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – “Toxic Tide – Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster.” Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Freddie Hubbard “Sky Dive” from CTI: The Master Collection (CTI Records 2002)]

Toxic Tide: Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster

GELLERMAN: This is a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. It’s been just over a year since BP’s ruptured oil well was finally capped in the Gulf of Mexico. But many Gulf Coast residents are still struggling with a wave of illnesses and puzzling symptoms that started soon after the oil washed ashore last summer. Blood tests reveal that some people had high levels of chemicals associated with oil and the chemical dispersants used in the clean-up. But firm answers and adequate treatment are still hard to come by. Last February, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young investigated the situation and found frustration in coastal communities. Here’s the first report in Jeff’s two-part series: "Toxic Tide - Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster".

[HEARING: OIL SPILL COMMISSIONER DON BOESCH: Okay, questions and comments from the floor…]

YOUNG: When the National Oil Spill Commission presented its final report in New Orleans, commissioners expected to get an earful from rig workers and fishermen worried about their jobs. Instead they heard speaker after speaker worried about something else: their health.

SPEAKER 1: I worked 60 days on the frontline for BP out here. I’m sick today, nobody wants to take care of me.

SPEAKER 2: The issue is ongoing; people are getting sick and dying.

SPEAKER 3: I have seen small children with lesions all over their body. We are very, very ill. And there’s a very good chance now that I won’t get to see my grandbabies.

YOUNG: Some had worked cleaning up the oil, others lived in or had visited places where oil washed ashore. All complained of mysterious ailments that arose after the spill. Robin Young was one of those who spoke out. She manages vacation rental properties in Orange Beach, Alabama, where she has lived for 10 years. When the spill started, Young helped form a citizen’s group called Guardians of the Gulf. At first, the group was not focused on health issues. Then, people, including Young, started getting sick.

Children’s footprints in the oily sand along the Alabama coast. (Photo: Jerry Cope)

R YOUNG: Headaches, I would get nauseous - and these are all things that I don’t normally experience at all, I’ve always been very, very, very healthy. Then the coughing - I coughed up so much nasty looking mess.

J YOUNG: Young says symptoms started after she spent a day near the water last June and she stayed sick for eight months. She heard from others in her community and across the Gulf coast with similar problems.

R YOUNG: We have way too many people that are sick with very odd symptoms that they have never experienced before in their life. So there’s something going on! And it’s all the way up and down the coast and it seems to be in the predominant areas where the oil continues to come onshore.

J YOUNG: A number of people Young contacted had sought treatment just across the state line in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, with Dr. Rodney Soto. Dr. Soto says he’s seeing a lot of upper respiratory symptoms and severe rashes.

SOTO: Multiple lesions all over their bodies and bruising. I tell you, people are suffering a great degree. The stress level is through the roof. So we are barely scratching the surface in regards to what else we are going to see and I don’t think the medical community is well prepared to handle this.

A foamy mixture of oil and dispersants on a Gulf Coast shore. (Photo: Shirley Tillman)

J YOUNG: Dr. Soto says the symptoms, patient histories and, in some cases, blood samples indicate these illnesses are likely due to chemical exposure from the spill. But back on the Alabama coast, there’s skepticism about that. Tony Kinnon is mayor of Orange Beach.

KINNON: I would not doubt that these people are ill. But I would say for them to adamantly say the oil spill made them ill - they’re gonna have to present evidence.

YOUNG: Kinnon says the city contracted an independent engineering firm to sample air, water, and soil. And he says local physicians have not reported any unusual number of health issues that might be oil-related. He says he wants to protect people’s health and people’s jobs.

KINNON: We’re a tourism industry. And I don’t know if you can remember that old scene in the movie Jaws where the mayor is standing on the beach saying "Come on to the beach, there’s no shark in the water!" and, heh, you look in the water and there’s blood everywhere!

YOUNG: You don’t want to be that guy!

KINNON: That’s exactly right. So you know, I want people to know that when I say we are healthy, the water and our beaches are fine - it’s because we did our homework.

YOUNG: State health departments in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi set up surveillance systems with emergency rooms and health clinics. There is little in that data to suggest a large number of spill-related illness. But Dr. Rodney Soto says chemical exposure cases can fall through the cracks if physicians are not trained to detect them because the symptoms mimic other illnesses.

SOTO: The diagnoses in their records are gonna be cold, flu, weakness, immune problem, whatever it is they want to call it. And so the government agencies are not gonna pick up on anything because there is no report or no documentation in the records.

YOUNG: Dr. Soto suspects many people who lack health insurance are trying to treat their own symptoms with over-the-counter medicines. And worse, Dr. Soto says, some physicians might be willfully turning a blind eye.

SOTO: And, unfortunately, I’m hearing a lot from patients that their doctors are turning them away. They, for whatever reasons, don’t want to get involved with dealing with this connection of oil to illness. Whether it’s litigation, or whether it’s BP, who knows what their motivations are. Somebody specifically told me the doctor said, "We don’t want to see any patients who potentially have symptoms of oil spill, period."

YOUNG: Some of Dr. Soto’s patients are having their blood samples analyzed for traces of volatile organic compounds that might indicate oil exposure. Robin Young had her blood tested.

RYOUNG: They found that I had ethylbenzene, isooctane, 2-butyrol, 3-butyrol, the hexane levels were over the top – so the lab even put a big H by it. It was scary; it was depressing. And then I got mad.

Biochemist Wilma Subra presents results of her analysis of blood samples to community members in Louisiana. “There’s a lot of frustration in communities.” Subra said. “They are really requesting answers.” (Photo: Jeff Dubinsky)

J YOUNG: Young’s group paid for more blood sampling. The Louisiana Environmental Action network asked biochemist and MacArthur grant winner Wilma Subra to analyze the results. The blood samples came from cleanup workers, crabbers, a diver who’d been in oiled water, and at least two children who live on the coast. All had reported recent health problems. Subra compared the levels of volatile organic compounds in those samples to a national database of VOC’s in blood compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics.

SUBRA: They’re as much as 5 to 10 times what you’d find in the normal population. And again, these are chemicals that relate back to the chemicals in the BP crude and the dispersants.

YOUNG: Benzene is a carcinogen and is linked to immune system problems and a host of illnesses. Ethylbenzene can cause dizziness and kidney damage. Xylene can cause headaches, rashes and respiratory problems. But this blood sampling alone does not prove a connection between the illnesses and the oil. It’s a small number of people - just a few dozen. Many of the chemicals rapidly break down and are hard to track. And other routes of exposure might be to blame. Benzene can come from pumping gasoline, breathing paint fumes, vehicle exhaust, or cigarette smoke. But Subra defends her findings and wants health officials to use her data to guide further study and treatment.

Wilma Subra looking at sand samples from the Gulf Coast. (Photo: Jeff Dubinsky)

SUBRA: I think it’s demonstrating that the chemicals they are being exposed to are showing up in their blood. We’ve briefed the federal agencies on it, tried to get them interested - they are evaluating the results. And I think there’s a lot of frustration in the community members across the coastal areas. They are really requesting answers.

YOUNG: Solid answers will take time. There’s little in the scientific literature on long term health effects of oil spills. This spring the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences started enrolling Gulf spill cleanup workers in a long-term health study. The principal investigator is Dale Sandler, chief of epidemiology at NIEHS. She hopes to track some 55,000 subjects for at least five years.

SANDLER: This will be by far the largest study of individuals exposed during an oil spill disaster that’s ever been conducted. So we have been moving heaven and earth to make this go quickly.

YOUNG: Sandler’s study has funding, thanks in part to BP. The study is a few months behind its original schedule. But researchers face another hurdle that may prove more difficult. Signing up tens of thousands of participants and getting people to accept results depends on credibility and trust. After the BP spill and Hurricane Katrina, trust is in low supply on the Gulf Coast. Here’s how Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kinnon sums up the attitude.

KINNON: The bottom line is very few people trust governmental agencies. They think there’s this incestuous relationship between BP and the government, and I tend to agree with them.

J YOUNG: And even as Robin Young asks the government to help her community, the plea comes with a note of deep suspicion.

RYOUNG: I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist - that’s what I’m starting to feel like. Because it’s hard to believe that something like this is going on in the United States and no one’s helping.

J YOUNG: Those hoping to find the Gulf spill’s real impact will also have to find a way to bridge a gulf of mistrust. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Related links:
- Wilma Subra’s analysis of blood samples from sick Gulf Coast residents
- The NIEHS plan for a large-scale, long-term study of cleanup workers.
- Louisiana state health department’s surveillance of spill-related illness
- Orange Beach, Ala., environmental sampling data

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[MUSIC: Eddie Bo “Eddie’s Gospel” from New Orleans Solo Piano (Night Train International 1995)]

Smart Meter, Big Brother

GELLERMAN: Nearly 9 percent of the electric meters in the United States are smart - and more are on the way. These high I.Q. devices are designed to improve energy efficiency, cut greenhouse gases, and save you money. All good things, but smart meters may be a lot smarter than you think - and know a lot more about you than you might want. Kevin Doran monitors smart meters. He’s a research professor at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Welcome to Living on Earth!
DORAN: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: So what makes a smart meter so smart?

DORAN: The idea behind a smart meter is that it communicates information to the utility, and in theory, the utility can also use that pathway, if you will, to send information back to the consumer, in terms of price signals, or in terms of switching off appliances when they’re on but not being used and could be saving electricity. So, you think of it like this: you’ve got your traditional electricity system - transmission, distribution - we’re all familiar with that. The smartness comes into play when you add information on top of that.

GELLERMAN: Well, what can a utility know about me from a smart meter that they couldn’t tell from a dumb meter?

DORAN: Well, think of a dumb meter - it just says to the utility, ‘This is how much power you’re using.’ Now think about a smart meter that is hooked up to all of the appliances in your homes. When you’re in a certain part of your house and you’re turning on lights, the smart meter is knowing that. So all of these things that were kind of hidden to the utility, or to other interested parties, become capable of being discerned because of the information that’s being sent through that meter.

Researcher Kevin Doran. (Photo: Kevin Doran)

GELLERMAN: So it can tell whether I’m toasting a bagel or getting a back massage?

DORAN: Well, no. But certain appliances definitely have certain energy signatures. So it could tell if you were using a microwave, which has a certain kind of signature. It could tell if you’re using an oven, which has another kind of signature.

GELLERMAN: So how is this data from a smart grid any different than, you know, smartphones, or the data that comes from my using an E-Z Pass on the road, or Facebook?

DORAN: You know, it’s becoming an increasingly transparent society that we live in. One of the concerns, especially with smart grid, is that so much of this is happening inside the home. And we’ve traditionally viewed the four walls of the home as a sacrosanct place of privacy. What smart grid does is it takes those four walls and it makes them essentially transparent. And all of the intimate personal details that we assumed are our own, because they happen within those four walls, are now being communicated to utilities.

And they’re using this information to manage their load better – to make sure that customers are not using power at, let’s say, peak power times, but using it at different times in the day so that they can use their system more efficiently. That very beneficial use aside though, there are all sorts of other kinds of information that come through the smart signal that could be capable of being used nefariously.

GELLERMAN: But it gets a lot more specific - you write that it can tell how often you arrive home around bar time, are you a restless sleeper, do you get up frequently throughout the night…they can tell all this from the smart meter’s information?

DORAN: Yes and no. The information is just the information about the power usage that’s happening in your house, and then potentially, about the kinds of appliances and when they turn on and when they turn off. That said, there’s a whole lot of extrapolation that can be done on that data to figure this kind of information out. So, to give you the example of: do you come home from…around the time when the bars close? So, you pull into your house and you start turning on all your lights. And then it becomes clear that somebody is now home, and let’s say that it’s around two AM, which is when the bars are closing.

An insurance company looking at this information could see a pattern that shows that this person is routinely coming home at this period of time, and then make a correlation or an assumption that says, ‘Ah, perhaps they’re out there drinking, and we should have higher premiums for them.’ So, it isn’t just the data. The data is one thing - but it’s also the kind of sophisticated correlations and comparisons and data parsing that can be done on that data to figure out all sorts of things about a person’s life.

GELLERMAN: Data mining.

DORAN: Data mining, essentially, yes. And it becomes even more concerning - I think, from a privacy perspective - when you realize it’s not just about the smart grid data anymore. You know, our lives are increasingly digitized and placed online for other people to look at. So it’s about the movie preferences that you make at Netflix, or the blogs that you’re participating in - and the reason I bring this up is because all of these data sets are floating out there.

Now if somebody, for nefarious purposes, wanted to take your smart grid data and start hooking it up with other kinds of data about you online - financial data, for instance - you can fairly quickly see how easy it would be for a sophisticated user to reconstruct virtually everything about you. Your digital doppelganger would become clear.

GELLERMAN: So the real question is: who has access to the smart meter information?

DORAN: Yeah, that is a critical question - and this is up for grabs. This is a battleground between utility companies, third party service providers that would like to be able to use this data to help customers manage their information, and people like marketers and advertisers who would like access to that information, and then consumer privacy advocates and consumers themselves. And as policy makers figure out how to approach this entire new terrain, they need to be cognizant of the fact that there are serious privacy concerns out there, and much of the legislation and statutes that deal with privacy have no idea what to do when it comes to the smart grid because this is so new.

GELLERMAN: Professor, do you have a smart meter at home?

DORAN: I do not. I live in a town outside of Boulder, which is the subject of an experiment by the local utility here - it’s called the Smart Grid Boulder City Experiment. So, many of the people in Boulder do have smart meters on their homes.

GELLERMAN: And when a smart meter comes knocking on your door, what are you going to do?

DORAN: I’m gonna say yes. Because I think that we can do this. I think that we can do it in a way that makes sense for environmental, energy efficiency purposes, and that we can also figure out a way to make sure that this data is used appropriately. The critical questions upfront are going to be: who owns the data, and what kind of protections are placed on that data? And although I’m sure it will not be a pain-free experience as we figure these answers out, I think at the end of the day, we’ll be happy.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Doran, thank you very much, really appreciate it, learned a lot.

DORAN: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Kevin Doran is Assistant Research Professor at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Related link:
Visit the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute

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BirdNote® /Hummingbirds See Red


GELLERMAN: The color red signals 'stop', 'danger', or anger. But as Michael Stein explains in this week’s BirdNote®, the hummingbird sees red differently.

[Whistling wing sounds of male Rufous Hummingbird]

A Broad-tailed Hummingbird in flight. (Photo:© Tom Grey)

STEIN: The hummingbird we hear zipping by is likely seeking out red blossoms, or making a beeline for a backyard nectar feeder accented with red plastic. What is it about hummingbirds and the color red? Red flowers, and of course red feeders, are often rich sources of food for hummingbirds. The color red often signals high-octane fuel for their intensely active way of life.

[More Rufous Hummingbird sounds]

STEIN: The hummingbirds’ sense of color is due to the dense concentration of cones in its retina. The cones themselves contain pigments and oil droplets in shades of yellow to red, which seem to act like filters. The filters appear to heighten color sensitivity in the red to yellow range, while muting colors such as blue. But it turns out that it’s the nectar, not the color, that makes the most difference with hummingbirds.

A male Rufous Hummingbird.(Photo: © Tom Grey)

By varying the nectar content of flowers, researchers were quickly able to switch hummers from a preference for red to a preference for the most nectar-rich flowers, regardless of color. So even though hummingbirds’ eyes have a heightened sensitivity to colors in the red to yellow range, the little sprites are fast learners and will go to where the nourishment is.

[More Rufous Hummingbird]

GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein, of BirdNote®. To see more photos of hummingbirds, flit over to our website, loe.org.

Related links:
- Sounds of the Rufous Hummingbird provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Wing sounds recorded by G. A. Keller; call while perched G.A. Keller.
- BirdNote®/Hummingbirds See Red was written by Frances Wood and Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: David Barrett “Hummingbird” from Music for Acoustic Guitar (David Barrett Music 2006)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – reduce calories, save a planet. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Jose Roberto Bertrami “Mamoa Com Acucar” from Things Are Different (Far Out Records 2001)]

The Legacy

GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled editionn of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. During World War II, the Canadian government interned David Suzuki and his family in a remote camp in the Rockies. But because he couldn’t speak Japanese like the other interned kids, he was a loner, and took long walks in the wide open spaces. Now fast forward a few decades, and today David Suzuki has had an award-winning career in science andis widely known as as environmental storyteller on Canadian radio and TV.

David Suzuki's lates book is “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for our Sustainable Future.” He recentlyy spoke with Loving on Earth's Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: On the cover of your book “The Legacy: an Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future,” you have a maple seed, the little thing that spins as it falls to the ground from a maple tree…

SUZUKI: Right. Yeah, to me, that seed symbolizes an opportunity for us to try to copy nature. You know, trees can’t get up and try to drop their seeds all over the place, like an animal might, and so they’ve got to rely on methods to get their seeds spread away. And, one method of course is to use the wind and the air, and take your seeds and move them by this helicopter-like motion. One of our problems, I think, is that we try to overwhelm nature with the power of our crude technologies, and oftentimes it creates ecological problems. Nature’s had four billion years to evolve basic solutions to the same things you and I have: you know, how to keep from being eaten, what to do if you get sick, how do you get laid, I mean - if we were to look to nature, we could learn a lot with far less deleterious effects.

CURWOOD: Earlier in your book, you mention that the population of the world has tripled in your lifetime. That’s a pretty striking statistic. And what does it tell us?

SUZUKI: It’s staggering. We appeared as a species in Africa, maybe 150,000 years ago. We wandered nomadically and gathered food and shelter. It was 10,000 years ago that the big change happened when we discovered agriculture. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution it’s estimated that there were about ten million of us on the entire planet. Agriculture heralded a huge shift because we could now grow our food dependably and in only 8,000 years, we increased to another order of magnitude to 100 million people.

And then, in just over 1,800 years, we increased to a billion people. And then in less than 200 years we reached six point nine billion people in 2010. And so, if you were to plot that on a piece of graph paper, the curve is essentially leaping straight off the page in the last pencil width of time. Nothing can go straight up off the page indefinitely. There’s got to be limits, and I fear, that we’re going to have some major problems of a big human die-off.

CURWOOD: So, yes, what is the problem of population? What are the consequences that you are concerned about?

SUZUKI: Well, of course it’s not just a function of number. It’s the amount of stuff that we exploit out of the biosphere, per person. So, if we in North American want to compare ourselves to China or India, you’ve got to multiply our populations by at least 20, to get our equivalent impact as Chinese or Indians. If you want to compare us to Bangladesh or Somalia, you’ve got to multiply by at least 60.

And when you look at it that way, then it’s clear that it’s the industrialized world because of our hyper-consumption. We are consuming over 80 percent of the planet’s resources even though we’re only 20 percent of the world’s population. We are the major predator on the planet.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the economy. In your book, you quote a couple of economists and retail analysts. One of them is Victor Lebow. You quote him as saying, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige is now to be found in our consumptive patterns.” And he goes on to say that, “The greater the pressure upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more he does tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats, his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

SUZUKI: Isn’t that incredible? This is Victor Lebow who is an industrialist. What happened was we all came through the terrible depression after the stock market crashed in 1929. What got us out of the depression was World War II, and by the middle of the war, the American economy was blazing, white hot, pumping out guns and tanks and planes and weapons. And of course, it was clear by the mid-1940s that the Allies were going to win the war, and people began to say, ‘well, what the heck do we do in peace time?’

David Suzuki’s book, “The Legacy: and Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future.”

And the President of the United States established the Council of Economic Advisors to the President and said, ‘how do we make that transition?’ And the answer came back - consumption. And Victor Lebow’s statement is just the plainest statement that you can get. We’ve got to make consumption an American way of life. Get people to buy stuff use it up, throw it away, and buy more stuff. And once you introduce the concept of disposability, use something once and throw it away, you’ve got a perfect system, because you never run out of a market.

But of course, all that stuff is coming out of the biosphere and the emissions to make that stuff goes back into the biosphere, and when you’re finished with these products, you throw it back into the earth, and it’s creating an enormous ecological problem. I’ve got a friend in Toronto, who lives in the outskirts of Toronto in a high-rise apartment building, completely air-conditioned. He goes downstairs into his elevator to his air-conditioned garage, gets into his air conditioned car, drives down the freeway into the basement of an air conditioned commercial building, up into his office.

That building is connected through a massive set of tunnels to huge shopping centers and food marts. He said, ‘David, I don’t have to go outside, for days on end!’ So who needs nature? We’ve got our own habitat. And in a city, our highest priority becomes our jobs. We need our jobs to earn money to buy the things that we want. And so our economy becomes our highest priority and that’s why we elevate economy above ecology and we think that everything’s gotta be done to service the economy.

Even though the economy now is so big, it is undermining the very life support systems of the planet! It’s using air, water and soil as a garbage can. Each of us now in the industrialized world, carries dozens of toxic chemicals dissolved in our bodies - over a pound of plastic dissolved in our bodies. We are the consequence of this industrial growth, because we have elevated the economy above the very things that keep us alive. And this is madness!

CURWOOD: David, at one point in your book, to explain the relentless need for growth in economies, you compare us to bacteria in a test tube. Can you explain that for us?

SUZUKI: Ok, let me give you some background now. We have come to believe that growth is the very definition of progress. You talk to any businessperson or politician and say, ‘How well did you do last year?’ And within a picosecond, they will talk about growth in the GDP and the economy in profit, jobs or market share. And anything in a finite world cannot grow forever. We live within the biosphere, that cannot grow - it’s fixed.

And I use the analogy of the bacteria in the test tube for why it’s suicidal to look for steady endless growth. Anything growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time. I give you a test tube full of food for bacteria - that’s an analogy with the planet - and I put one bacterial cell in and it is us. It’s going to go into exponential growth and divide every minute. So, at time zero, at the beginning, there is one bacterium. One minute, there are two. Two minutes, four. Three minutes, eight. Four minutes, 16. That’s exponential growth.

And at 60 minutes, the test tube is completely packed with bacteria, and there’s no food left. When is the test tube only half full? And the answer of course, is at 59 minutes. So, at 58 minutes it’s 25 percent full, 57 minutes, 12 and a half percent full. At 55 minutes of the 60-minute cycle, it’s three percent full. So if at 55 minutes, one of the bacteria looks around and says, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been thinking, we’ve got a population problem.’ The other bacteria would say, ‘Jack, what the hell have you been drinking, man? 97 percent of the test tube is empty, and we’ve been around for 55 minutes!’ And they’d be five minutes away from filling it.

So the bacteria are no smarter than humans.At 59 minutes they go, ‘Oh my god! Jack was right! What the hell are we going to do, we’ve got one minute left! Well don’t give any money to those economists, but why don’t you give it to those scientists?’ And by God, somehow those bacterial scientists in less than a minute, they invent three tests tubes full of food for bacteria. Now that would be like us discovering three more planet

Earths that we could start using immediately. So they’re saved, right, they’ve quadrupled the amount of food in space. So what happens? Well, at 60 minutes, the first test tube is full. At 61 minutes, the second is full, and at 62 minutes, all four are full. By quadrupling the amount of food in space, you buy two extra minutes. And how do you add any more air, water, soil or biodiversity to the biosphere? You can’t, it’s fixed! And every scientist I’ve talked to agrees with me. We’re already past the 59th minute.

CURWOOD: David Suzuki, this is, I think, one of the most powerful images I have heard of, what some people call the environmental crisis, but I think you probably call it the human crisis.

SUZUKI: It’s a human crisis. We’re at the center of it. You know, for years, we environmentalists thought that humans are taking too much stuff out of the environment, putting too much waste back into it. And for me, I got a huge shift when I began to work with First Nation aboriginal people in Canada. And they showed me, there is no environment out there and we are here. We are created by the Earth by the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. And the energy in our bodies, it comes from the sun. We are the environment, whatever we do to the environment, we do directly to ourselves.

CURWOOD: One of the most fascinating things in your work, David Suzuki, is the discussion you have of the temperate rainforest and the salmon and its connection to it. I wonder if you can share that with us now.

SUZUKI: That is such a wonderful story. One of the rarest ecosystems on the planet is the temperate rainforest. That’s the very thin strip that extends all the way from Alaska to California pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountain range. The salmon are born in these rivers, they go out to sea, and they grow in the oceans and accumulate the nitrogen from the ocean. And then when they come back, the bears, wolves and eagles eat these salmon and they poop and pee all over the woods.

It turns out that the salmon are the biggest pulse of nitrogen fertilizer that the forest gets, and the bears are the vectors to carry the nitrogen. They’ll fish for these salmon, once they grab one, they hike off up to 150 meters on either side of the river, they eat the salmon - they eat the best part - and they dump the rest of the carcass on the floor of the forest and go back for another one.

As soon as they dump the carcass, well, salamanders and slugs and ravens begin to eat it. But the main things are flies that lay their eggs on the carcass. And in a few days the carcass is a seething mass of maggots eating that nitrogen from the ocean. They drop onto the forest floor, and they pupate over the winter and in the spring trillions of flies loaded with nitrogen from the ocean, from the salmon, hatch at the very time that the birds from South America are migrating through the forest on their way to the Arctic nesting grounds. So the salmon come back and they nourish the flies, which feed the birds.

Now, we know the forest, the salmon need the forest. If you clear-cut the forest, the salmon populations plummet or disappear because the salmon need the forest canopy to keep the waters cool. They need the forest to hold the soil so when it rains it doesn’t run in and spoil the spawning gravels. And the forest feeds the baby salmon on their way to the ocean. So we know the salmon needs the forest: now we know the forest needs the salmon. So you see this beautiful system where the ocean is connected through the salmon to the forest, and the birds from South America are connected to the northern hemisphere.

Humans come along, and we go ‘Oh, well uh, gee, there’s a lot of salmon here. That’s the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans for the fishing fleet. Oh, the trees, well that’s the Ministry of Forestry. And the eagles, bears and the wolves, that’s the Ministry of the Environment. Gee, the river? - that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. And the rocks, the mountains, that’s the Department of Mining. So, what is a single interconnected system, we come along, fragment into different bureaucracies and try to manage a complete system through this fractured way of looking at the world. And we will never do it in the right way when we look at it that way.

CURWOOD: So what’s the solution?

SUZUKI: The solution is: our great advantage, what got us to where we are, is our brain. We invented the idea of a future, we could dream of a future in which we could avoid danger and exploit opportunity. I believe foresight was the critical feature that got us out of the plains of Africa to occupy the entire planet. So, what do have to do? Imagine a future that is free of danger and full of opportunity. So, how about this: how about an America, as Canada was as I was a kid, where you can drink the water out of any lake? Where you can catch a fish and eat it without worrying about chemicals are in it. An America where asthma and cancer rates plummet because we no longer use air, water and soil to dump our toxic chemicals.

Let’s imagine a future full of opportunity and promise, and then we have a goal that we can work towards, and we know what direction we want to go in, and everybody will be in it together. This is what we’ve done in Canada - we’ve created a vision for one generation away. And, when I presented this to the business community, to the mayors of Canadian cities, to the faith community - everybody says, ‘Well of course, I would love to have a Canada like that.’ So, suddenly, we’re all together, we’re not fighting. We all agree, that’s the kind of country we would like to achieve. So, anything we do today, we say, ‘Okay, that’s an interesting proposal, but does that get us closer or further away from that target that we’re moving towards?’

CURWOOD: You say, so if Canada can make this a target, so can the United States of America.

SUZUKI: Why not in the United States?

CURWOOD: And what about in the rest of the world?

SUZUKI: Absolutely. I think these movements are all things that we have to begin right away.

CURWOOD:.” Thank you so much David Suzuki.

SUZUKI: Thanks for having me, it’s been fun talking to you.

GELLERMAN: David Suzuki is author of “The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision for Our Sustainable Future. He spoke with Steve Curwood.

Related link:
David Suzuki Foundation website

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[MUSIC: Anat Fort “Clouds Moving” from And If (ECM Records 2010)]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, Our series "Toxic Tide" continues with the mystery of the BP oil dispersants.

KALTOFEN: You know, I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of a reason why I’m finding dispersant inshore, weeks after spraying supposedly stopped. We need to get a better explanation.”
Exactly where were chemical dispersants used - and when? That's next time on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Ike Srisjanderajah, Mitra Taj, and Jessica Ilyse Smith 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 you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth - that’s one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.


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