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

August 12, 2011

Air Date: August 12, 2011



Improved Fuel Efficiency for Trucks

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From dump trucks and buses to tractor trailers, heavy duty vehicles will now have to meet new fuel efficiency standards. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Allen Schaeffer of the Diesel Technology Forum about what these new rules will mean for truckers. (05:30)

Toxic Tide - Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster, Part 2 / Jeff Young

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Sick residents have questions and scientists are looking for answers; might the BP spill be behind a wave of illness? We hear how cleanup workers and coastal communities might have been exposed in part two of Jeff Young’s report Toxic Tide - Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster. (08:30)

Mixing Oil and Water

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Tar sands oil from northern Alberta is notoriously dirty and difficult to get out of the ground and refine. But California has its own thick and dirty oil, and as reporter Jeremy Miller tells host Bruce Gellerman, the state is turning scarce clean fresh water into steam to get that petroleum out of the ground. (06:20)

Science Note/Saved By a Whisker / Amanda Martinez

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Scientists recently showed that it’s possible to prevent stroke damage in rats by stimulating a single whisker for four minutes. As Amanda Martinez reports, if humans respond similarly, future stroke treatment could be as simple as massaging the fingertips. (02:00)

SNAP to the Farmers’ Market / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides low-income Americans with assistance to buy food. The city of Boston is creating extra incentives to encourage healthy eating. LOE’s Jessica Ilyse Smith went to a farmers’ market to find out about the Boston Bounty Bucks program. (05:00)

Snow in Summer / Mark Seth Lender

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Salt Marsh Diary’s Mark Seth Lender observes the brilliant white of the Snowy Egret does little to camouflage the bird, nor does it explain how the egret will survive the changing climate. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender) (02:20)

On the Grid? Or Off the Grid?

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Infrastructure in the United States is under-funded, outdated and in need of serious repair. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood hears two different views on how to reform our ailing grid. Nick Rosen, author of “Off the Grid,” suggests decentralizing utilities, while Scott Huler, who wrote “On the Grid,” wants to stay plugged in and work to improve the system. (16:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Deborah Seligsohn, Jeremy Miller, Scott Huler, Nick Rosen, Mark Seth Lender
REPORTERS: Jeff Young, Amanda Martinez, Jessica Ilyse Smith


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Barreling down the road, President Obama sets new fuel efficiency standards for big trucks.

SCHAEFFER: Today in some of America's most polluted cities the air coming out of a diesel truck, 2010-2011 model, could actually be cleaner than the air going into it.

GELLERMAN: Also our series "Toxic Tide" investigating the BP Oil disaster continue with the mystery of the elusive chemical dispersants. And a record 46 million Americans are on food stamps. Bringing the farm closer to the fork can help some.

MURNANE: Farmers’ markets are a really interesting way to get fruits and vegetables into the inner city.

GELLERMAN: City folk share in nature’s bounty - with a little help from a federal food program.

CARLOS: This is like for me seven dollars. Fifty percent discount.

GELLERMAN: These 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.

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Improved Fuel Efficiency for Trucks

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studio in Somerville, Massachusetts it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Heavy duty trucks make up just four percent of the vehicles on the road yet they use 20 percent of the fuel. Now for the first time trucks and other commercial vehicles will have to meet federal fuel efficiency standards. Back in 2007, President George W. Bush signed a law allowing new standards. Now President Obama has set them. Joining me to discuss the new rules is Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, which advocates diesel as a sustainable energy technology. Mr. Schaeffer, welcome to Living on Earth!

SCHAEFFER: Thanks. Great to be here.

GELLERMAN: So first of all what kind of trucks are we talking about?

SCHAEFFER: This new rule covers trucks of all shapes and sizes, from the big-rig tractor/trailer-type trucks down to the heavy-duty pick up trucks, kind of a beefier work-grade truck and everything in between, the cement mixers, fire trucks, you name it, if you’ve seen a truck like it, this rule covers it. It also covers buses I should say too.

GELLERMAN: So let’s say for 18-wheeler big-rig, what’s the new standard?

SCHAEFFER: They will be getting about 23 percent gain in fuel efficiency between now and 2018.

GELLERMAN: Well how do they meet these new standards? That’s pretty ambitious. That’s really coming fast and furious

SCHAEFFER: It is and it starts out with the diesel engine which now is near-zero emissions and that engine is going to get more efficient than ever before through the use of advanced turbo charging and boosting technologies on the engine and advanced fuel injection technology will make the engine super more efficient in how it burns every drop of fuel converting more of that fuel into usable energy than waste heat. And then you start to think about the thing that that engine powers which is the rest of the vehicle and you try to make the vehicle more aerodynamic.

(Photo: Phogel)

GELLERMAN: The small vehicles, the standard is what 10-15 percent, but did I hear you say zero emissions from a diesel engine?

SCHAEFFER: That’s right. You know we spent the last ten years making diesel clean and today in some of America’s most polluted cities, the air coming out of a diesel truck, 2010-2011 model, could actually be cleaner than the air going into it and that’s because the engine is now near-zero emissions for both particles and ozone kind of smog precursors like nitrogen oxide.

GELLERMAN: But you’re still emitting greenhouse gases, climate changing gases.

SCHAEFFER: That’s right. And any internal combustion engine is emitting greenhouse gases so it’s important just to keep that in mind, I think. The other thing with this rule is that these vehicles do work, they haul lots of heavy loads and do lots of different things so we have to think about them in a different way than we do passenger cars in terms of fuel economy.

GELLERMAN: Well a big-rig. How many miles per gallon is it getting right about now?

SCHAEFFER: The new generation of big rigs are getting about five percent better fuel economy than the ones made in 2009. So they’re pulling down you know 6, 7, 8 miles a gallon. Those are trucks that are hauling again 80,000 pound payloads. So, that doesn’t sounds like a lot of fuel efficiency but it is especially when you look at it over an entire fleet.

GELLERMAN: So how many miles does an average rig get driven a year?

SCHAEFFER: The average big rig is anywhere from a 100 to a150,000 miles a year. The fuel bill for a big rig is easily close to, or above the $100,000 range.

GELLERMAN: So what will the new efficiency standard save?

SCHAEFFER: The fuel cost savings that are predicted, when all is said and done, fully-implemented for these rules, about $50 billion in fuel costs and EPA estimates about 500 million barrels of oil will be saved from the full implementation of these rules.

GELLERMAN: So trucking companies probably love this, I would guess, it’s gonna save them fuel. But what about the people that make the trucks and the engines and that’s about more expensive.

(Photo: Kim Seng)

SCHAEFFER: It’s a win-win on both sides of the equation there. On the manufacturers side, it’s the uniformity and having a certainty about what the future looks like. For users there is a higher investment for these new vehicles. That could be a couple of hundred dollars in a small truck upto a couple of thousand in a big rig. But the big rigs put down so many miles per year that they’ll get the pay back of that in a shorter time frame. Really in a year or two they’ll have recovered the higher cost of the new technologies to make the engine, the truck more efficient. So then going forward that’s just additional profit in their pocket.

GELLERMAN: I was reading a blog post by the spokesman of the house majority leader, Republican Eric Canter. He says this the new rules quote “further tie the hands of job creators and add yet another hurdle to getting the economy up and running.” He’s basically saying these new standards are job killers.

SCHAEFFER: Well, (laughs) it’s hard to say exactly what’s behind that statement and I haven’t see that analysis. The new generation trucks are more fuel efficient and people are seeing that and saying “I can’t sit here on the sidelines with this, you know, five-year-old truck and these guys are eating my lunch getting you know 5, 6, 7 percent better fuel economy per gallon. I got to get in that game and that’s been driving some of the growth in truck sales this year. We’ve heard that from a number of different sources. This does look like at this point it’s going to be a win for both the users and the manufacturers in terms of getting the most fuel-efficient clean diesel technology out there on the roads.

GELLERMAN: Allen Schaeffer is Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum. Mr .Schaeffer thank you so very much.

Related link:
Diesel Technology Forum

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

Toxic Tide - Discovering the Health Effects of the Deepwater Disaster, Part 2

GELLERMAN: The BP oil disaster may be history, but its effects are still being felt by many who live along the Gulf Coast or helped clean up the mess. Never before had so much crude been dumped into water so deep. And never before had so much chemical dispersant been used on oil as it erupted from the seabed. It’s been a year since the run-away well has finally been capped, but Gulf Coast residents are reporting a wave of strange illnesses that some suspect are related to the spill. Back in February, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young looked into their complaints, and spoke with scientists about what might be causing them. Today, we rebroadcast the second part of his investigative series – “Toxic Tide: Discovering the Health Effects of the Deep Water Disaster.”

YOUNG: We’ll call him “John” - he does not want to use his real name. From June through November last year, John worked for a company BP hired to clean up oil in Louisiana’s hard hit Barataria Bay. His boat had a vacuum device to suck up the oil and dispersant mixture. Often, he’d smell it before he saw it.

"JOHN": You could smell the hydrocarbons in the air and just smell that oil and you knew it was coming in. As the wind blew, some days you’d get really nauseous - our skin would itch a lot, and it was just tough.

YOUNG: John says he was not offered use of a respirator or other protective gear. Some crewmembers quit out of health concerns. Now he’s wondering about health effects, too.

“JOHN”: There were many times when we felt that, you know, we were getting sick and we probably should have had respirators on. And, to this day, I’m pretty upset because I just was not informed of the contaminants that could affect me and my life as I go down the road.

YOUNG: In one way, John’s story is like many others from spill responders concerned about chemical exposure during their work on the Gulf. But John’s story is different in that his comes with hard data, thanks to a personal air-monitoring device.

Marco Kaltofen says samples he collected show chemical dispersants closer to shore and much later than they should have been used. (Photo: Marco Kaltofen)

KALTOFEN: What I’ve got in this little tube is…


KALTOFEN: This is a small cartridge. It looks like a small brass pen.

YOUNG: Civil engineer Marco Kaltofen shows the device John wore.

KALTOFEN: As they move through the oil and dispersant, these little tiny samplers, with no moving parts, are picking up those chemicals. So we can take them back to the laboratory and measure what was in the air they were breathing while they were working.

YOUNG: Kaltofen is a researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He’s also head of an environmental research company called Boston Chemical, which was hired by a New Orleans personal injury law firm to collect samples. Kaltofen says samples from monitors clipped to John and other fishermen-turned-cleanup workers showed what are called “BTEX” compounds.

KALTOFEN: BTEX stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. These are some of the lightest, most readily volatile compounds that are out there in that dispersant crude oil mix. And that’s where we found something very interesting, too. It was not the crude oil that was responsible for most of the volatile compounds we’re seeing, but it was actually the dispersant.

Lab tests show the chemical dispersants emit volatile organic compounds, a potential health concern. (Photo: Marco Kaltofen)

YOUNG: Why do you say that?

KALTOFEN: When we took the dispersant and the crude oil into the laboratory to measure how they partition - how they divide up into the different parts in the environment. When we did that, and we looked at the air above our tanks of seawater, we were finding that the same volatile chemicals that were in the air around the fishermen were the ones that we found in the air above the dispersant-seawater mixtures.

Fishermen turned their boats into an oil spill armada. Now many worry about what they were exposed to on the water. (Photo: Marco Kaltofen)

YOUNG: Those volatile chemicals likely come from the petroleum distillates mixed with the Corexit brand dispersants. At least 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants were used during the spill. The chemicals most prevalent in the lab tests can affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems, liver, and kidneys. Corexit maker Nalco declined comment, citing litigation. Kaltofen says he had another surprising finding: he found dispersants closer to shore than they should have been used.

KALTOFEN: It’s confusing to us that we can go one mile off of Biloxi and find dispersant in the seawater - enough that it reeks because of the hydrocarbon odors. And when we got those samples into the lab, we found that we had multiple hits for dispersant compounds. So how could they get into the inshore waters and how could they still be there weeks after application supposedly ended? We need to get a better explanation.

YOUNG: The presidentially-appointed oil spill commission looked into the persistent citizen complaints that dispersants were being sprayed too close to shore. A commission staffer says reviews of Coast Guard operation logs found no evidence to support that. Kaltofen’s work gives us some ideas about how those working on the water might have been exposed to toxics. But what about people who live along the coast? Robin Young of Orange Beach, Alabama, is among the many Gulf Coast residents who say they fell ill not long after oil started coming ashore.

UC-Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer coordinated NASA’s remote sensing mission during the BP blowout. (Photo: George Foulsham, UCSB Office of Public Affairs)

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!

YOUNG: The Environmental Protection Agency monitored air quality during the spill and reported few incidents that would raise a health concern. But University of California Santa Barbara oceanographer Ira Leifer is taking a close look at how coastal communities might have been affected. Leifer was chief mission scientist for NASA’s airborne remote sensing during the spill. Measurements and images from satellites, aircraft, and ships give him a good picture of how components of the oil traveled from the sea and into the air. The same method used to measure the thickness of oil slicks on water, for example, also revealed oil in clouds.

A NASA image of air above the Deepwater spill in May, 2010, as seen with the remote sensing technology known as Lidar. The red indicates aerosols over the spill.
(Photo: NASA)

LEIFER: Where there was some of these clouds, they showed up as if they had almost a millimeter of oil in the cloud. And these hydrocarbon-laden clouds - when they reach land - would in fact rain oil. Leifer thinks this oil rain is an unprecedented oil spill phenomenon - a combination of the Gulf’s high humidity and the columns of thick smoke from burning oil. A lot of things about the BP blowout made it unlike other oil spills. Most spills happen all at once, say, when a tanker or pipe ruptures. The BP wellhead kept spewing for 87 days, sending oil to the surface in a plume that Leifer says kept pushing the oil’s toxic chemicals into the air.

LEIFER: Air sampling that was conducted both on a boat and by NOAA in the atmosphere showed that this plume contained numerous components and that these components were…many of them are toxic, bearing some similarity to the volatiles you might find in gasoline.

YOUNG: Prevailing winds could have carried those chemicals onshore. Leifer wanted to know what that might mean for public health. The scientific literature on toxicology and oil spills is thin. So he instead used well-known health data from chronic exposure to gasoline and plugged that data into his model.

LEIFER: By that measure, my quick calculation suggested that for an adult healthy persona: maybe an effect, maybe not. For a baby, levels were a thousand to ten thousand times where one starts to see effects.

YOUNG: Leifer is quick to add caveats - his results have not yet been tested and his model makes assumptions that might prove wrong. But he thinks it’s important for health researchers to follow through, focusing on the implications for infants, the elderly, and others more susceptible to chemical exposure. Well now, it appears Leifer is getting his wish. Five months after this story first aired, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences announced a study aimed at the acute and long-term health effects to the general public. In addition to the agency’s study of Gulf clean-up workers, this new five-year, $25 million project will involve university health centers in three Gulf states. It will evaluate the level of potentially harmful contaminants in the air, water, a seafood and how those might effect health outcomes. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Related links:
- Hear part one of the report
- EPA’s testing of chemical dispersant toxicity
- The Centers for Disease Control data on oil spill health surveillance
- Corexit maker Nalco’s information on its product
- Boston Chemical Data Corp.

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GELLERMAN: You can hear part one of Jeff’s special report, find out a lot more about what was in the air during the spill, and see some photos from space of the BP oil disaster at our website – loe.org. 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 myplanetharomy.com.

[MUSIC: David Baker/Various Artists “Le Miroir Noir” from Trippin: The Groove Merchant Collection (Ubiquity Records 1999)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, how oil and water do mix in southern California. Keep listening to Living on Earth.


Mixing Oil and Water

GELLERMAN: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The movie “There Will Be Blood” is set in the desert scrubland of southern California at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. The story is fiction but many of the events in this tale of family, greed, and oil are based on fact.

[SFX: SOUND FROM THE MOVIE “THERE WILL BE BLOOD”:…there’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet…no one can get at it except for me…]

GELLERMAN: Once, petroleum did gush from wells in the desert sands of southern California, but today, what’s left of the ocean of oil in some parts of this arid region is gooey crude. In places it’s so thick it has to be mined – thinned out with steam.
Problem is: this is one of the most water-starved corners of the country. Reporter Jeremy Miller traveled to southwestern San Joaquin Valley. His article “The Colonization of Kern County: a story of oil and water” for Orion Magazine.

MILLER: When you are driving around, there is oil literally bubbling up from the ground in places if you know where to look. It’s typical, kind of desert, arid, southwest San Joaquin Valley kind of area. Yeah, it’s a landscape of oil, for sure. And, it’s interesting because it butts up right against all of the big agricultural regions in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

GELLERMAN: But the type of oil they’re extracting now is not this gusher oil, it’s more this thick, heavy stuff.

MILLER: It is, yes. One oil driller that I talked to there described it as the consistency of ‘liver in a meat case.’ It’s very thick, gooey, molasses-y, kind of oil. And, that’s a result of the oil sitting in shallow deposits underground and being exposed to air and bacteria – and these bacteria like to chomp on the oil and through that process, the oil gets broken down from the nice stuff that flows like syrup to this sort of semi-solid material.

GELLERMAN: But to extract this type of oil, they have to use prodigious amounts of water – in the form of steam.

A natural oil seep near McKittrick, CA. (Photo: Todd D'Addario)

MILLER: They do. Yeah, water was a key to unlocking the heavy oil deposits of Kern County. So they’re taking this relatively clean water out of the California aqueduct, and putting it through co-generation plants, which create steam. And they pump it underground, and they use that steam to extract the oil. And since that method, called steam flooding, was pioneered back in the 1960’s, most of the oil fields in that area have transferred over to this mode of oil production.

GELLERMAN: So where are they getting all of this water that they use for extracting the oil?

MILLER: So that’s a very good question, and that’s at the heart of my reporting. What I found is that a good portion of the water that oil companies use for steam flooding is coming from the state water project. The state water project administers the California Aqueduct, which is this vast concrete river of water that brings water from the Sacramento, San Joaquin Bay Delta outside of San Francisco, down, all the way to Los Angeles. So this is not only bringing water to irrigate farms in the central valley, but also bringing drinking water to Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and the other large municipalities in the central valley. So I thought, well, could it be possible that some of this water is coming through the state water project? And I called Kern County Water Agency, one of the big water distributors in the state - in fact in the world - they are in command of about a million acre-feet of water. I called the water district that serves the main part of the oil fields - it’s the West Kern Water District - and asked the director, JD Bramlet, "Are the oil companies taking water from the state water project through the West Kern Water District to do steam flooding?" And he told me, "Yeah, they get most of it." And I said, "Well when you say most of it, how much?" And he said, "About 83 percent of the West Kern Water District’s water," which is about 31,000 acre-feet. So, in this parched, dry region, about 83 percent of the water being delivered through the California aqueduct, through one water district alone, is being given to oil companies for steam-flooding operations.

GELLERMAN: So they’re using clean drinking water to extract oil from tar sands?

MILLER: They are, yeah. One of the hiccups of steam flooding, if you will, is that they can’t just use any water to do it. It’s sort of like your coffee maker. If you use dirty water in your coffee maker, you’re going to get stuff precipitating out onto the heating elements of your coffee makers. So the oil companies need a clean, a fresh source of water. One shocking thing that I found in my research is that back in 1985 when oil was at its peak in California, in Kern County it took about four and a half barrels of water to generate one barrel of oil. Okay, four and a half barrels of fresh water to generate one barrel of oil. Well, that oil field is in decline now. Today it takes close to eight barrels of water to generate one barrel of heavy oil. It’s enough water to supply 200,000 households, or about 500,000 people, for a year.

GELLERMAN: From reading your article, this is an area where the aqueduct carrying clean drinking water goes right past towns that don’t have clean drinking water.

MILLER: Exactly. There are dozens of small towns within sight of the aqueduct, as you say, that don’t have access to clean drinking water. So that water flows right past to the oil fields and these towns are forced to deal with well water that they have, which in a lot of cases is contaminated with agricultural pollutants and other natural pollutants. Yeah, it’s a landscape that’s defined by drought. It’s a semi-arid desert. I mean, this is an area, where, like you say, every drop of water counts.

GELLERMAN: You know, it’s really disturbing to read and think that our addiction to oil, or our need for oil, is so great that we would use water - water that’s scarce - to extract oil from the ground.

MILLER: Yeah, it’s shocking. There’s no other way to put it. And when you’re driving in the area, when you’re walking around in these dry hill sides, it really comes into focus - when you realize that all those miles worth of silver pipes are carrying a vast amount of super-heated steam to get this oil up out of the ground.

GELLERMAN: Well, Jeremy Miller, thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.

MILLER: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Miller’s article, “The Colonization of Kern County: a story of oil and water,” can be found in Orion magazine.

Related links:
- Jeremy Miller story in Orion magazine
- EPA page on Crude Oil and Gas Special Wastes
- Industry group The Produced Water Society
- US Fish & Wildlife photos: Hazards to wildlife from oil discharge ponds
- Argonne National Labs paper on Produced Water in the U.S.:
- Halliburton link on Composition of Heavy Oil
- West Kern Oil Museum for info on the region's history:
- California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal stats on oil and gas

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[MUSIC: Bob Marley “Burnin And Lootin” from Capitol Records Rehersal 1973 (Capitol records, currently out of print)]

GELLERMAN: A federal program that brings farm closer to fork for city folk is on our menu. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Amanda Martinez.

Science Note/Saved By a Whisker


MARTINEZ: When a person has a stroke, every second counts. A blood clot stuck in a major artery is most often to blame. It prevents blood and oxygen from reaching the brain and cells begin to starve and die. If doctors or EMTs can’t loosen the clot quickly, brain damage can become permanent.

At the moment, the only way to treat a stroke is to give the victim blood thinners that break the clot apart. But new science suggests that in the future, treatment could be as simple as getting a massage.

Scientists at the University of California Irvine recently showed that it’s possible to prevent stroke damage in rats by stimulating a single whisker. The method was 100 percent effective, but had to be performed within two hours of blockage in the rat’s artery to work.

Researchers found that stimulating a lone whisker for four minutes activated the blood-deprived region of the rat’s brain. The demand for blood became so great, it caused alternate arteries to retrieve blood pooled within the clogged artery and re-route it. Imagine a crowded theater full of people trying to escape. Instead of throwing themselves at a single locked door, they suddenly find four emergency exits.

But of course, rats aren’t humans and we don’t have sensitive whiskers, so the question remains as to whether the technique could work for us. The good news, researchers say, is that our lips and fingertips serve the same essential purpose as a rat’s facial sensors. And given how dangerous and debilitating strokes can be, they believe a non-invasive, cheap, potential fix such as this might well be worth a shot.

And that’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Amanda Martinez.


Related link:
Read the research paper published in PLoS ONE

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SNAP to the Farmers’ Market

GELLERMAN: A record number of Americans are now receiving federal food aid. Forty-six million people a month – half are kids. Once known as food stamps, today the program is called SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Despite attempts to increase SNAP recipients’ access to wholesome foods, just a small fraction of the federal money, one-hundredth of a percent, is spent at farmer’s markets. To boost that, some cities are trying a different tactic. Last fall, Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith went shopping with some SNAP recipients trying to balance limited benefits and a healthy diet.

SMITH: On a recent afternoon the farmers’ market in Boston’s Copley Square is bustling with energy.

WOMAN: Do you want me to lift that bag up for ya?


SMITH: Today a group from the Boston Living Center is on a field trip.

HANSEN: We decided to come to the market today to learn how to use the food stamps and also use the Boston Bounty Bucks.

SMITH: Amber Hansen is the Boston Living Center’s registered dietician. She organized this outing to help the Center’s HIV positive members shop for produce using Bounty Bucks—the city’s program that doubles Federal SNAP benefits. It’s a dollar-for-dollar match up to ten dollars.

HANSEN: Do you want some cauliflower, or are you good?

CARLOS: How much is it?

HANSEN: Four dollars a pound. You could roast it with olive oil, garlic and salt. If you just chop it up. And then put some oil on it. Do you have olive oil or canola oil even? Both of those are healthy, good fats.

SMITH: Hansen gives Carlos tips on how to choose and cook his produce. For Carlos and others living with compromised immune systems, fresh fruits and vegetables are especially important for their nutrition. Janet’s another member of the Boston Living Center.

JANET: When you’re living with HIV even though now, with the medicines a lot of people are living longer, but it’s very important to take care of yourself. Good nutrition is kind of a way to fight back.

Using a SNAP EBT card at the farmers’ market. (Photo: The Food Project)

SMITH: But fresh produce can be prohibitively expensive. Boston Bounty Bucks is trying to make healthy food more attainable for low-income residents. Edith Murnane is Boston’s director of food initiatives. When I visited her at her office in City Hall she told me this program is all about accessibility.

MURNANE: Farmer’s markets are a really interesting way to get fruits and vegetables into the inner city. I’m not only talking about physical accessibility, but it’s really economic accessibility and the Boston Bounty Bucks really gets at that.

SMITH: The program also helps out farmers.

MURNANE: It makes it economically viable for a farmer to come to the inner city. It makes it economically feasible.

SMITH: There are now 21 farmers’ markets that participate in the program—Murnane says this shows the city’s strong commitment to public health.


A Bounty Buck.

SMITH: The program is helping the city’s farmers’ markets accommodate SNAP users by providing grants for new technology. Lee Piper is the assistant farm manager at the Copley Square Market.

PIPER: We have a wireless terminal here at the market, so we can take your EBT card and swipe it through.

SMITH: The terminal logs on to each person’s SNAP benefits and matches up to ten dollars in Bounty Bucks. Piper shows Living Center members how to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT cards.

PIPER: So I swipe this.


PIPER: Now, you need to enter your 4-digit pin number.


SMITH: Piper hands Carlos his receipt and counts out 20 Bounty Bucks.

Boston Bounty Bucks. (Photo: The Food Project)

PIPER: 16,17,18,19, and 20. So that’s what you can spend.

CARLOS: Alright.

SMITH: Armed with his 20 Bounty Bucks, Carlos decides what to buy.

CARLOS: What I would like to buy…se llama? Collard? Collard greens. I love romaine lechuga, lettuce.

SMITH: Carrying bags of lettuce, collard greens, onions and mushrooms, Carlos gets in line to pay.

WOMAN: Do you want me to lift that bag up for you?


CASHIER: $13.75 is your total.

CARLOS: Gracias, thank you!

HANSEN: So the Bounty Bucks are a big help!

CARLOS: Oh my god!

HANSEN: Yeah! Right?

CARLOS: Yes. This is like for me seven dollars. 50% discount, 20 dollars for ten dollars! And I’m more positive that I come back more often.

SMITH: That’s exactly why Boston sponsors Bounty Bucks — to have customers return to the market throughout the growing season and eat more fruits and vegetables. The program has become a model for other cities. Farmers’ markets around the country are starting to add EBT stations and a few other programs offer financial incentives. The goals are the same: to improve health and nutrition in traditionally underserved populations.


WOMAN: How many pounds is that? This is one…

SMITH: For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Ilyse Smith.

WOMAN: So we could just get a couple? They really are delicious…

Related links:
- Learn more about Boston Bounty Bucks
- Learn more about the Boston Living Center

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[MUSIC: John Ellis and Double Wide “Okra And Tomatoes” from Puppet Mischief (Obliqsound 2010)]

Snow in Summer

GELLERMAN: Animals can use patterns and colors as camouflage. Zebras and tigers have their stripes. Hyenas and leopards, their spots. But as writer Mark Seth Lender observes, the white Snowy Egret stands out in a crowd.

LENDER: The Snowy Egret lands, the name and color of a substance she will never see. There on the muddy bank, still as chalk her carved and ancient figure stands stilting. Like Nike, she leaps sailing into the bright, wide-winged above the shallow water where she feeds, so white sunlight seems shadow.

What could be the purpose of such brilliance, Snow in Summer? Perhaps in some prior life this most strident, most absolute of colors kept her safe in a far and frigid land, and all these amazing feathers are only an artifact of dim ice ages past. Or in the brief season between her comings and goings this is her temporary color, as polished and transparent as paper made of rice, except there is no other phase than white when Egret flies.

There is fragility in all this. The bird, the salt marsh where she lands, even the turbulent sand. From the South the assault comes by hurricane, each season earlier and more ferocious than the last. From the North it is the melting, and where there is no flood, drought. There is no reprieve. As the brackish plain is silted out or altogether gives way, where will Snowy Egret go? How will she retreat from Winter when Winter itself is in retreat?

When the sun pounds like the hammer to the anvil all life is forged to the blow. The upper latitudes break away. The equator burns. North and north and north the southern creatures go driven there by unfamiliar weathers. Life once rare becomes common. The common vanishes. Perhaps it is not camouflage but survival of a more intense and personal kind which turns the egret white, reflecting not just light, but heat. Maybe she will be all right. What about us, I wonder.

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender’s new book is called “Salt Marsh Diary: A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” To see some of his photographs and find out more about his writings, go to our website, loe.org.

Related link:
Salt Marsh Diary

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[MUSIC: Goldfish “Snow” from Coming Home (Pale Music 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, our aging infrastructure for electricity and water. The grid, the bad, and the ugly. 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, welcoming students back to college with SIERRA magazine’s annual ranking of America’s “Coolest Schools.” Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

On the Grid? Or Off the Grid?

GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. It’s easy to take our electric grid for granted, and the pipes that provide our water as a given. You flick on a switch and the light comes on. Turn on the tap, clean water. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But pipes and power lines are vulnerable to age and attack from nature and terrorists. Two books that examine the infrastructure of the United States are “On the “On the Grid,” by Scott Huler, and Nick Rosen’s “Off the Grid.” As you might guess from the titles, the authors have some very different ideas. So we invited them on our show to grapple about their views of the grid with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood acting as referee.

CURWOOD: So I’m looking at your book Nick Rosen, yes the title is, “Off The Grid,” but also it says, “Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America.” In brief, what is your book about?

ROSEN: Well literally, “off-grid” means living without utilities, but also has a metaphorical meaning, which is living kind of outside the system, or half-in and half-out of the system, and so going off the grid is something that more and more people are doing because it’s getting easier. The technology is allowing it — the low energy fridges, the more efficient solar panels, and the fact that it’s becoming more acceptable and you’re allowed to “tele-work,” you know, be on the internet in the boonies, and so people are exercising this freedom, some of them are.

CURWOOD: And Scott Huler your book is called “On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work.” Tell me in brief, what is your book about?

HULER: My book is about all of the systems that the people in Nick’s book want to do without. My book starts from my house and looks up and says, ‘look at all these things sticking out of my house, these wires, and these tubes, and these pipes, where do they go and how do they work,’ and it asks questions like, okay we had a drought here in Raleigh, a drought of biblical proportions where it just stopped raining for months and in the middle, at the worst part of that drought, when we were almost out of water, you could turn on your tap and brush your teeth for 20 minutes, with the water running while you were humming Mozart and you would never run out of water. And it asks questions like, ‘how on earth is that possible? How could it be that that happens and you flush your toilet and you never have to think for five minutes about what happens to that stuff, and how can that be,’ and is that a good thing or is that a bad thing, and above all just how does it work and how did we get to this place and what next.

Author Scott Huler, “On the Grid.” (Photo www.scotthuler.com)

CURWOOD: Well it seems both of you would agree that for 99.9 percent of us, we all would be looking for electricity and water in our lives. You two don’t disagree on that, do you?

HULER: Oh not a bit.

ROSEN: I have a small quibble with that. Living off-grid doesn’t mean doing without electricity and water – it means providing your own electricity and water. And a lot of people would say, well why on earth would I want to do that? But there are quite a few people who think they can answer that question. They say they want to do that because of the ever-increasing price of electricity, or because they don’t trust the system to deliver them electricity and clean water and the other things that we traditionally rely upon the state to provide. And they’ve come to distrust the state and authority and the financial system and they just want to provide for themselves. It’s not so much self-sufficiency, although for many that is a factor, it’s self-reliance.

CURWOOD: So Scott Huler what about this. In fact, within the last, say six weeks, right where we are at the studios of Living on Earth, we’ve had to boil our water because the water main system failed, we’ve had power outages, and of course almost everyday we have traffic jams. So these folks who are looking to get off the grid; how much a bad thing do you think that is?

HULER: I am in favor of all kinds of, sort of, adjunct technology and technology that frees you from paying companies who you don’t trust or anything like that. If you want to generate your own power I’m in favor of that. If you want to clean your own water rather than using municipal water I’m in favor of that too. But no matter how easy the systems get and how great the systems get, I think it’s still going to be a lot more trouble for each person to do it than to do it as a group. And yes as you pointed out, Steve, in Boston you had that shocking water main break. The collar they put on that water main was seven years old! It’s unspeakable that something like that should be breaking. And that demonstrates how bad we are getting at paying the taxes to take care of these systems that take care of us. But I much more strongly trust a municipal water system and the people who run it and who have degrees in running that, then I would trust my neighbors to take good enough care of their sewage so that my water, if it was coming from a well wasn’t fouled and---

Author Nick Rosen, “Off the Grid.” (Photo Dafydd Jones)

ROSEN: Well you say that—

HULER: Go ahead.

ROSEN: Well you say you trust the municipal water authorities but the fact is, as I describe in my book, Associated Press did a survey of most of the major municipal water systems and they found that the water was polluted with all sorts of drugs that have passed through the human body and then not been taken out by the filters. So actually I think that trust is a bit misplaced. And I’m not saying we should all stop drinking the tap water immediately, but what I am saying is that I can completely understand somebody who wants to provide their own water.

CURWOOD: And let me be sure I understand what you’re saying, Scott. Many suburban areas just a little beyond the reach of, say, a main sewer system, they use septic tanks and leach fields and they have wells. What kind of risk do you think these people are at?

HULER: I don’t think they’re at an enormous risk. When you have septic systems and you have, as you say, wells, and you have government people coming out to manage that and make sure they’re installed properly, I’m in favor of all of that. I’m just saying that living in Raleigh, N.C., in my quarter-acre lot, I don’t care to get off the sewer system and I don’t care to get off the municipal water system and I’ve just spent two years hanging around with the people who manage and run those systems and I couldn’t have come away more deeply impressed with the work they do under very difficult circumstances with never enough money. And, though, I certainly see Nick’s point that there are more and more dangerous substances showing up in those systems, and we’re always running behind to catch up with a new thing that we found, that’s always been the case. I don’t think that that indicates some sort of malfeasance on their part and I don’t think that it indicates that they’re not doing well enough. I think that it indicates there’s something new and especially when you look at these personal care products or pharmaceuticals, that’s us putting that stuff in the water, that’s not the treatment people throwing it in the water, it’s us putting it in the water. We could solve that problem by using less of those products quicker, than we could by waiting for them to find a way to pull out what we’re dumping.

ROSEN: I don’t really buy that argument that we have got to be a bit careful about where we urinate after we’ve take a contraceptive pill, for example, because we know that that’s not going to be filtered out by the water system. I think it’s an all or nothing case. If you’re a big water company you either say you can do the job or you get out of town. You can’t be selective and say, ‘well we can do it, but just not that bit.’ You know, I have also got great respect for the kind of middle-ranking engineers who keep the system going. But the fact is that the history of the electricity business and the water business is a history of corruption and devious business practices, which are aimed entirely at maximizing the profit of the businesses and really are not specifically designed to be in the interest of the public.

CURWOOD: Woah, woah, woah, okay Nick, wait a second. That’s a very broad brush to tar an industry. So please explain, at least give us an example here.

ROSEN: Enron is an example of what happens when we just let the utility companies get completely out of control. But Enron is just indicative of the state of the overall electricity industry because at the moment the industry is not sufficiently regulated and spends as much time trading electricity with itself as it does supplying the electricity it produces to ordinary members of the public.

HULER: I couldn’t agree more with that. That something like Enron is a great example of un-regulated industry gone wild. And your examples of what’s wrong with industry, to me, that’s human history. There’s a shock for you that when you look at people who amass power and amass control they suddenly stop acting in the public interest and start lining their pockets. This is not a stop the presses moment. This is reality; this is how human beings act. And so I’m totally in favor of enormous regulation and enormous public control but I’m still not convinced that the way to move forward is to disassemble the grid. There’s an enormous part of the world that would hear you saying ‘I think that sewage treatment or municipal water supply is a huge scam,’ people would weep to hear you – who have it – talking about, ‘I want to do without it,’ whereas a billion and more people in this world would give an arm to have their children, give their children access to the water than any Western European or American could get by doing nothing more complicated than turning on the tap.

ROSEN: Well that’s a very interesting point, because if you’re talking about the couple billion people in the world who are not on any grids, then I would say of them, that in places where the grid does not yet exist, there is no longer any need to invent it. The grid, as it exists in America, the electricity, the water, the roads, is an extraordinary technological achievement, but it may turn out to have been of its time, and that time may be about to pass. We have found that in fact we can do a much more efficient job by creating energy locally, much closer to where it’s used. I’m not talking about in each individual building here, I’m talking about something called micro-grids, but it is very much literally a case of returning the power to the people, rather than allowing it to be centralized in the hands of a few producers.

CURWOOD: After studying the grid you both came to the conclusion that it is tremendously vulnerable. Knowing this, what should we do? And what have you done with this knowledge? Let me start with you Scott.

HULER: The most important thing that I think we can do is take a serious look at our tax structure. I think we need to start paying taxes and taking care of these things. I guess I’m going to be labeled as a “tax and spend liberal” but I’d love to see us pay more taxes and take more care of it through government oversight.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you the same question Nick Rosen. After studying the grid you say it’s tremendously vulnerable, so what should we do, and what have you done with this knowledge yourself?

ROSEN: So what I would say is what we should do is be aware that it’s an option, that living off the grid is an option that you don’t need to be scared of. That it really is quite doable. I quite agree with Scott, you really wouldn’t want to do it all yourself. But I wouldn’t mind being part of a community which supplied its own power and water and where one or two members of that community were more involved in maintaining those systems than the rest of us.

CURWOOD: And what would be the advantage of that?

ROSEN: There are many different reasons that people give you for living off-grid. One of them is a fear of peak oil, or a fear that the system is going to collapse in some way. There’s an argument that says, ‘I don’t really want to spend my life maintaining my mortgage and paying the utility bills when I could live somewhere a bit smaller and a bit less expensive without any utility bills, and then I don’t have to work so hard.’ So there’s an element of freeing yourself from the cares of society.

CURWOOD: Scott Huler, you write that, “you can’t go off the grid anymore, we’re all on the grid.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

HULER: Yeah, I think that in a larger sense I think it’s almost impossible to go off the grid and I would make “air quotes” if you could see me because all these people who are off the grid have their satellite internet technology, and of course the internet is powered entirely by grid power, and they drive on paved roads when it’s time for them to go into town and get their groceries, the groceries that they don’t grow themselves, so I question whether you really even can get off the grid anymore.

CURWOOD: Nick Rosen, as we were getting ready for this interview, the thought came up that off-the-griders are seen as extremists, you know, these are people who are really pretty upset with society and want to check out as best they can. How accurate is that?

ROSEN: Some of them are. For some people that is completely accurate, and I met some very angry and very paranoid people, intelligent, but yet frightening in their mistrust of the system, and in their belief, for example, that 9-11 was a George Bush conspiracy, and that was given to me twice as the reason why certain individuals that I interviewed in the book are living off-grid. And I find that sad and worrying. But equally the majority of people who live off the grid, the ones I met anyway, are doing so for different reasons and they’re not doing it in a solipsistic or hermit like way, they’re doing it as part of a group, part of a society of other people living off the grid. I don’t mean necessarily that they’re living in a commune, but they might well be living in an off-grid community where hundreds of others like them are also living that way.

CURWOOD: It seems to me both of you are saying we need to be aware of how and where we get our power, our water, how we travel, the resources. If I listen carefully, you’re both saying the same thing. You can’t really get completely off the grid and yet you can’t simply mindlessly be on the grid and not pay attention to the consequences of our actions.

ROSEN: The one area where I disagree with Scott, although I do admire his focused examination of the grid, I think he goes a little bit too far in kind of championing the grid, and I think that Scott is a bit of a cheerleader for the grid. Whereas when he charts its shortcomings I’m very much in agreement with him. But when he holds it out as something worth spending two trillion dollars to preserve I’m not so sure I’m with him there.


HULER: Well I think Nick’s exactly correct. I am nothing short of a cheerleader for the grid. I spent two years looking at this stuff and saying, ‘oh my God, how did this happen and what an amazing accomplishment it is.’ Where it’s going in the future I can’t be sure of. Neither were the people who I spent all this time with. They’re not sure. But they all believe that they can manage it and they can keep it working and keep it working well. I think that Nick……

ROSEN: They can, they can keep it working Scott, but at what cost? Can you imagine all the different ways that that money could be spent in order to set up local systems for dealing with water and waste disposal, in order to set up small-scale electricity production? You could run the entire country in a completely different way.

HULER: You could...I’m not convinced that that would be better or cheaper. It might be, and it’s well worth studying. I think that when you can build—I just saw Raleigh open up a 90 million dollar water treatment plant and what they can do there, at the 15-20 million gallons per day rate, they can do enormously wonderful things. I’m not sure that you can do that if you’re going to do it all small scale. Maybe you can, I’m willing to be convinced, but I haven’t seen that. Nor have I seen the structure by which you would put in 50 sewer plants to replace our one sewage treatment plant and that leaves me basically trusting the fertilizer that they produce, the soil treatments that they produce. These resource issues are the questions we’re going to be asking every day of our lives, and so I wrote “On the Grid” so that you would be aware where does my electricity come from, where does my water come from, where does my sewage go, where does my trash go, who paves my roads and how and why. If you have a basic understanding of how it works at least you’ll be prepared to be an enlightened citizen, and an informed citizen in the debates that will come that will make the small disagreements that Nick and I have had here look like playing patty cake when people really start talking about spending real money.

CURWOOD: Scott Huler’s new book is called “On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work.” And Nick Rosen, your book is called “Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America.” Well I want to thank you both for taking this time with me today.

HULER: It was a pleasure to be here.

ROSEN: Thanks very much.

GELLERMAN: That’s Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood debating life on and off the grid.

Related links:
- Check out other works by author Scott Huler
- Learn more about off-the-grid living on Nick Rosen’s website

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[MUSIC: A Setting Sun “Fell A Victim (Electricity)” from Empty Sound (Moongadget Records 2008)]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Ike Sriskanderaja, 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 be sure to check out our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living On Earth. 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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