Is Fracking Making People Sick?/ Reid Frazier
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Some Pennsylvania residents who live near Marcellus Shale gas wells believe natural gas drilling is contaminating their water and making them sick. But others point to the economic benefits of fracking and say there’s little scientific evidence that exposure to drilling activities causes illness. Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front reports. (10:00)
Discovering New Causes of Parkinson’s/ Steve Curwood
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A new study suggests that exposure to the common industrial solvent TCE or trichloroethylene may lead to Parkinson’s disease. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Samuel Goldman of The Parkinson’s Institute in California about the disease and how his team identified potential environmental causes. (07:40)
Rebranding the Asian Carp as Dinner/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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Asian Carp are infamous for their invasion of the Mississippi River and jumping out of the water. But some scientists, fishermen, social service agencies, and even marketers see a lot of promise in this aggressive fish. As Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports, there’s a move to change the fish’s image, and unleash a river of healthy, environmentally-friendly, protein, and slow an invasion. (10:50)
Have Kitchen Scraps Will Travel/ Jessica Ilyse Kurn
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A new business is helping city residents in the Greater Boston area turn their food waste into brown gold. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn profiles the owner of the kitchen scrap pickup service, Bootstrap Compost. (07:10)
Befriending an Octopus/ Steve Curwood
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Octopuses may not have a brain, but scientists believe they are intelligent creatures with distinct personalities. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood and environmental writer Sy Montgomery went behind the exhibits at the New England Aquarium and wrapped their arms around Octavia, a giant Pacific octopus. (14:30)
The mesmerizing sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur.
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTER: Reid Frazier, Ike Sriskandarajah, Jessica Ilyse Kurn
GUESTS: Dr. Samuel Goldman, Sy Montgomery
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
(THEME UP AND UNDER)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
What causes Parkinson's disease is still unclear but scientists point to links with environmental exposures. And a recent study of twins suggests two common chemicals may play a major role.
GOLDMAN: We found that the twin who was exposed to a compound called trichloroethylene, or TCE, had a more than six-fold increased risk of having Parkinson's disease than their unexposed co-twin.
CURWOOD: Also, the Asian Carp is invading the Great Lakes. Now there's a new line on coping with these unwanted fish - eat them.
IRONS: Carp's a four-letter word. People think carp and they think of Grandpa's carp. Even though we know they're over-fished in the rest of the world we don't have a big desire here in the U.S. to eat bighead and silver carp.
CURWOOD: Taking a bite out of Asian carp, 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.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
A recent study adds to the growing evidence, and controversy, about the possible health effects from the natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing. Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health monitored fracking wells in the state for three years and found that many were emitting toxic hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. The researchers say this may contribute, to "acute and chronic health problems for those living near" the sites.
The findings in Colorado would seem to support residents in Pennsylvania who live near fracking wells and claim the drilling process has made them sick. But as Reid Frazier of the public radio program the Allegheny Front reports, the evidence isn't conclusive.
PARE: So, how'd you do?
PARE: Not too bad?
FRAZIER: Amy Pare is a plastic surgeon. She does lifts and tucks, and breast implants. Today she's taking sutures out of a patient who had a mole removed.
PARE: I may put a little bit of peroxide on there to dry it off a little bit.
FRAZIER: Cosmetic procedures like this patient's are Pare's specialty. So it's remarkable that she finds herself in the middle of a public health debate. It started about two years ago.
PARE: We started to have more patients that would have open areas or recalcitrant lesions, that bled, ulcerated, didn't quite heal. And usually they're on your face.
FRAZIER: Pare's first concern was skin cancer. So she took biopsies of the patients.
PARE: And when we would send them off to the lab, they wouldn't come back as a cancer but they wouldn't come back normal.
FRAZIER: On top of the skin problems, the patients had headaches and were acting lethargic.
PARE: And then we thought, 'Well, are these patients exposed to anything?' And so then we would ask the patients if they were exposed to anything at work or at home.
FRAZIER: It turned out many of these patients had one thing in common: they all lived near Marcellus Shale gas wells. Pare's practice is in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh, where over 500 wells have been drilled so far. Pare asked her patients to take a urine test.
PARE: Unfortunately, we did find quite a few people that did have urine that had methane in it, toluene, hippuric acid.
FRAZIER: All of which could have come from natural gas drilling. What to do about these patients and discerning whether gas drilling is indeed the culprit, is a question doctors and public health scientists are grappling with. Ralph Schmeltz is with the Pennsylvania Medical Society. It represents 18,000 doctors in the state. The group thinks fracking for Marcellus Shale could have public health impacts.
SCHMELTZ: But there's a lot that we don't know, and a lot we need to learn about exactly what they are.
FRAZIER: What he means is there's not much science yet that answers the question of whether fracking is safe. The industry says it is, and can point to reports by state governments in Texas and Pennsylvania that find no evidence that fracking pollutes groundwater. On the other hand, a growing number of case studies have documented people near gas wells getting sick.
But these studies are hardly definitive, says Jean Finkel. She's an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
FINKEL: I am certainly not saying that these people don't have something wrong with them. I'm sure they do.
FRAZIER: The problem, she says, is that good old statistical axiom: correlation does not imply causation. That means that a headache could come from toxic fumes, but it could just as easily come from stress or some other factor. What's needed are long term studies that look at a variety of questions, Finkel says.
FINKEL: We have to look at biological plausibility, is the disease that we're seeing biologically plausible based on what we know about the potential compounds that are in the drilling process - and how strong is the association between exposure to risk and development of disease?
FRAZIER: Many are calling for the creation of a health registry for Marcellus Shale that would list people who say they've gotten sick from fracking. It would be used as a basis for future health risk studies. Last year state lawmakers earmarked two million dollars from the proposed Marcellus Shale impact fee to fund a registry. However, that money was stripped out of the bill before a final vote.
Even without impact fee funding, several shale-related health projects have sprouted in recent months. Among these efforts is the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
RIPPEL: This is our resource that's going to be looking at gas drilling impacts.
FRAZIER: Raina Rippel runs the center. It's funded by philanthropies, including the Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front. The center opened in February in a suburban medical office building just south of Pittsburgh.
The office isn't much to look at, just a few plants and a TV in the waiting room. But the center is the first of its kind, a medical outreach program specifically designed to treat people near gas wells.
RIPPEL: We're going to the people who we believe have probably been impacted. So, you know, are these people who are in proximity to a gas-drilling site, or gas drilling activities? And are they experiencing significant health concerns? And we want to provide them with a response.
FRAZIER: Much of the response will be to refer patients to the appropriate physician. The center will compile patient information for scientists to study, but that's not the project's primary function.
RIPPEL: We're serving this population. We are not studying, we are not researching. That's not what we're doing.
FRAZIER: What it is doing is helping people like June Chappel. Chappel and a group of her neighbors in Hopewell Township in Washington County leased their land for drilling. The company they leased to, Range Resources, built an impoundment behind Chappel's house to store water produced from fracking. The water in ponds like this often contains chemicals used to break up the shale, as well as heavy metals and salts that it picks up underground. Chappel says when she came home, she could smell the pond even before she got to her house.
CHAPPEL: The only way I can explain it is, it smelled like if you were sitting inside your car with a gasoline can.
FRAZIER: At the time, Chappel's husband Dave was suffering from cancer. He began to develop nosebleeds. She thought they were from his chemotherapy. Then she started getting nosebleeds, too. Then, a ringing in her ears.
CHAPPEL: It almost sounds like when you go to, like, a real loud concert and you're there and then the next day your ears are just like (SHE MAKES A WHIRRING SOUND), that. That's what it sounds like, but this just never stops.
FRAZIER: Chappel complained to Range Resources. The company removed the frack pond. Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, says the company probably shouldn't have put the impoundment so close to Chappel's house. He also said that any odors were probably due to stagnant water, not pollution. And he disputed the claim that the wells could have made Chappel sick. Chappel's husband, Dave, lost his fight with cancer two years ago. But she's now worried for her own health.
CHAPPEL: And I don't know what my health is going to be. You know, I was exposed to these chemicals for over a year. We had our windows open. I had like a blue film on my mirrors. You know, we were breathing this stuff in.
FRAZIER: In spite of reports from people like Chappel, some doctors think fracking is safe. Sean Porbin has a small practice in Avella, PA, in Washington County. The town is surrounded by wells.
PORBIN: I've been looking for it for the past three years and I haven't seen a thing. I think the big story here is, so far is, with all the hype, is that there is no story.
FRAZIER: Porbin himself has leased gas rights to his property. He sees the gas rush as a boon to this old coal town. And he wonders if health complaints aren't driven by a profit motive. Porbin's also worried scientists looking for harmful impacts from fracking could find evidence of a problem where none actually exists. Still, he says, he'll keep his eyes open. He's signed on to work with the newly opened environmental health center.
PORBIN: The potential here is that everyone is supposed to win. The farmer's getting the royalties, the subway shops that are full at lunch, the little gas stations - everyone's winning here. And no one wants to see anyone get sick. You got to watch it though. And we are.
FRAZIER: Among those who figure to be winning and watching are Kathy and Guy Avolio. On a recent day, they took me to see the well Chesapeake drilled on their property three years ago. It sits on a large pad behind their home, on what had been a rolling hillside.
[SOUNDS OF THE WELL PAD]
FRAZIER: The couple also live in Avella, on a 600-acre farm with a koi pond and a chicken coop. They have three kids. It's not a stretch to say the well has become almost another family member, complete with its own nickname.
KATHY AVOLIO: The kids call it 'College!' They do. Our kids'll say, 'hey, that's 'College' out there.'
FRAZIER: Guy Avolio is an urgent care physician. He's heard and read reports of water contamination from fracking. But he's convinced that drilling is the right thing to do. He's very concerned about America's energy independence. The Avolios don't drink their well water, but they do have it tested every few months just in case. The water, says Kathy Avolio, is safe.
KATHY AVOLIO: I would never put my kids, no matter what price tag you put on it, would I ever put my kids in harm's way. But I also feel like my husband does, we have to try to get this. I mean, this is an incredible technology.
FRAZIER: Guy Avolio grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where his dad was a steelworker. He remembers when the mills were booming.
GUY AVOLIO: He always says, you know, the cars were dirty, the streets were dirty, but at least everybody had a job.
FRAZIER: The scene they see now in front of their house is one of economic prosperity. And their family is healthy. For the Avolios, the benefits of shale outweigh the risks, whatever they may be. For Living on Earth, I'm Reid Frazier.
CURWOOD: Our story on the suspected health effects of fracking comes to us by way of the Pennsylvania public radio program, The Allegheny Front.
MUSIC: The Bad Plus "And Here We test Our Powers Of Observation" from Blunt Object (Sony Music 2005)
CURWOOD: Just ahead: go fish - a taste of how a problem might become an asset. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
MUSIC: Christian Scott: "Away (Anurada & Maiti Nepal)" from Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord Music 2012)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Parkinson's Disease afflicts some 700 thousand Americans. The disorder often causes tremors and an unsteady gait. Parkinson's disease is often linked to environmental exposures. And now comes news that among the possible causes of the disease is a common workplace chemical. Joining me to talk about the emerging research is Dr. Samuel Goldman, one of the authors. Welcome.
GOLDMAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: My pleasure.
Your study is really interesting. You looked at twins, and you looked at twins where one brother has the Parkinson's disease and one doesn't. And you then reconstructed a detailed work history for them - any place they'd worked for more than six months since they were 10-years-old. What did you find?
GOLDMAN: We found that the twin who was exposed to a compound called trichloroethylene, or TCE, had a more than six-fold increased risk of having Parkinson's disease than their unexposed co-twin. And then there were also some other solvents that we looked at as well, including one called PERC, or perchloroethylene, which is the most common dry cleaning solvent, and that was also associated with a markedly increased risk of Parkinson's.
CURWOOD: What if they had been exposed to TCE or PERC?
GOLDMAN: Exposure to TCE or PERC was associated with a nearly nine-fold increased risk of Parkinson's disease.
CURWOOD: That's a startling number, isn't it? You must have been pretty excited to see this.
GOLDMAN: Well, excited, dismayed... We've always believed that the vast majority of Parkinson's disease is a consequence of environmental risk factors, but it's important to recognize that this is a single study, so replication of our results is really important at this point before we can progress to being really certain that this is a causal link.
CURWOOD: Talk to me a bit about these chemicals. TCE, now that's trichloroethylene, what does it do?
GOLDMAN: TCE was extremely widely used - it still is, but not so much as 30 years ago. So it would be used now primarily for degreasing of metal parts in manufacturing. And, in fact, it's in a broad range of consumer products and it has been for decades. And actually, up and through the 1970s, TCE was used to decaffeinate coffee. It's been used as a general anesthetic. It was in wide use during the 1940s and 1950s primarily as an obstetrical anesthetic, strangely.
CURWOOD: So, tell me a bit about how you did design this study. You got almost a hundred sets of twins?
GOLDMAN: Correct. Well, we've been following this cohort of twins since the early 90s, and then that's a very powerful study design to be able to look at environmental risk associations with disease.
GOLDMAN: Because twins, if they're identical twins, they are genetically identical. And if they are fraternal twins, they are at least genetically very similar. So we are able to remove the genetic background effect from the equation and focus specifically on differences in environmental exposures.
CURWOOD: Now, what were the most common occupations for the people who got sick?
GOLDMAN: The most common occupational exposure settings for TCE and PERC were among electricians and dry cleaners as well as people who repaired industrial machinery and artists.
GOLDMAN: Artists use solvents commonly.
CURWOOD: Of course art is a career. It's also a hobby. What hobbies were people most at risk of getting Parkinson's from this toxic exposure?
GOLDMAN: The hobbies that we observed were people working in carpentry. Artists again, people who worked in photography in particular. But, oftentimes, it's in the household settings where exposure levels can be exceedingly high because there is no one enforcing a regulatory maximum or protective equipment in the home.
CURWOOD: So, Dr. Goldman, if somebody came into your office today and said, 'Gee, I read your study. I want you to know that I worked at an aircraft engine repair place and I was up to my elbows everyday in TCE. I'm fine today.' What would you tell him he could do to help keep from getting Parkinson's?
GOLDMAN: I would love to be able to offer some advice but currently there really is no way that we're aware of to delay or prevent Parkinson's disease. I think the most important thing we can do right now is to replicate this observation and if it's found to be a consistently observed link between exposure to these compounds and Parkinson's disease, I would hope that the funding agencies would really get behind this work and help us move it forward.
CURWOOD: And what are we to make of the fact that so many environmental contaminants seem to be linked or even perhaps cause Parkinson's disease? There are earlier studies that have shown that several pesticides cause it by destroying brain cells, and research also points to, what, some heavy metals like manganese?
GOLDMAN: To me, as an investigator for many years in Parkinson's disease, I am really shocked at the paucity of environmental factors that we've been able to identify.
CURWOOD: Paucity? Too few?
GOLDMAN: I would like to know what causes Parkinson's disease. So I feel like we've really only begun to scratch the surface of identifying risk factors for Parkinson's disease. What's really interesting about Parkinson's is that there are very few naturally occurring disease clusters.
When you find a cluster, it's a good sign that there's likely to be a shared environmental determinant in those people. But there are very few naturally occurring clusters of Parkinson's disease. So that implies that the environmental factors that go into causing Parkinson's disease are likely spread out over a very long period of time and may be different in everyone.
So what we've been able to link so far is, as you pointed out, several pesticides have been linked, but only a couple - paraquat, an herbicide, and rotenone, an insecticide. As someone who has worked in this field for many years, I'm somewhat discouraged at the small number of environmental compounds that have been definitively linked with Parkinson's disease.
CURWOOD: What you're saying to me is that Parkinson's disease as a disorder might be akin to, if you'll forgive me, a broken leg. In other words, you can break a leg skiing, it could be in a car crash, you could fall over in your garden, you could get hit by a door. That it's the endpoint of any number of processes.
GOLDMAN: That's absolutely right. I think that we'll find that there are many environmental insults that ultimately coalesce to result in Parkinson's disease. But that in any given individual, the route to get to that point is different.
CURWOOD: Sam Goldman, thanks so much for talking with us today.
GOLDMAN: Well, it's been a real pleasure and thanks for your interest in our work.
CURWOOD: Sam Goldman is a physician and public health researcher with the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, California. He was part of a team whose research appeared in the Annals of Neurology.
MUSIC: Goldman Q&A: The Doors "20th Century Fox" from The Doors (Elektra Records 1967)
CURWOOD: The Asian Carp has invaded the Mississippi River system. As the fish encroaches on the Great Lakes, scientists, entrepreneurs and community organizers are coordinating efforts to pull this fish out of the rivers... and onto our plates. Ike Sriskandarajah investigates what needs to happen to take a bite out of the invasive Asian carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: On a warm afternoon, I met Kevin Irons in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Bolingbrook, Illinois - about 30 miles from Chicago. Irons runs the aquatic nuisance species program for the state of Illinois, and just came out of meetings with biologists and commercial fishermen. He agrees to show me why they met in this small town.
[SOUND OF CAR GPS, DRIVING]
IRONS: Yeah, as we drive out here, we’re going to park at the end of this road.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Irons drives a few miles away from the hotel and turns onto a dusty service road that cuts through two thin bodies of water.
IRONS: And it’s on essentially the shores of the Des Plaines River. And to our right is where the Chicago sanitary and ship canal exists.
[SOUND OF CAR DOOR]
SRISKANDARAJAH: The Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal is manmade, carved into bedrock to save a city from its own sewage one hundred years ago. The river moves waste from the city and is the only shipping link for cargo between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. The Des Plaines River is natural.
[SOUNDS OF CRICKETS, RIVER]
IRONS: It’s a very slow river. We see aquatic vegetation, shore birds. We see a fishing egret out here. So even though we’re close to Chicago, you feel kinda remote. You can see why people want to spend some time out here. You may also get a sense for why people are so concerned about Asian carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Not far from here, the invasive Asian carp are more densely populated than anywhere in the world. And if they made it across this 30 ft wide service road from river into canal, they would be on their way to Lake Michigan.
Two Asian Carp varieties: bighead and silver, are the most proficient water invaders. They exist on nearly every continent. They’re highly adaptive, reproduce quickly and eat a ton of plankton. That is why scientists like Irons are sounding the alarm.
IRONS: It takes a biologist a while to convince other people and we have to consider everything. That’s why the pictures, the movies have been so valuable to us. If I say there’s a lot of fish, what does that mean? But if you see a picture of 100 fish jumping out of the water around a boat, oh, that’s a lot of fish.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Asian carp are infamous for jumping at the hum of a motorboat. YouTube has made them the poster child for invasive species.
[SOUND OF YOUTUBE VIDEO: MAN: “Here we go, the land of the jumpin' carp” SOUND OF FISH SPLASHING WITH MOTOR. “Here we are, hang on. Look at ‘em Fred, look!” FRED: “Dear lord!” WOMAN: “Oh my lord! Look at that.” MAN: BEEP BEEP that knocked my hat off!”]
SRISKANDARAJAH: The kamikaze fish, averaging 35 pounds, can break bones and knock people unconscious.
[SOUND OF YOUTUBE VIDEO: (Laughter) “Oh crap! They hurt!”]
SRISKANDARAJAH: In the mid '70s catfish farmers in the south imported Asian carp to eat the scum off their ponds. But flooding soon washed the fish into the Mississippi. The schools moved north, up the Mississippi system and were first found in the Illinois River 25 years ago. Now there are more here than ever.
Illinois is fighting the carp occupation with electrified barriers, vigilant river patrols and DNA sweeps. The White House has even appointed a Carp Czar. But there’s a secret weapon that has not yet been deployed. A strategy invasive-insiders call “when you can’t beat 'em, eat 'em.”
IRONS: Commercial fishing may be that one tool that can remove enough fish - I mean millions of pounds, consistently.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But so far, that tactic is unused only because Americans have a prejudiced palette against the carp
IRONS: Carp’s a 4-letter word. People think carp and they think of Grandpa’s carp. Even though we know they’re over-fished in the rest of the world, we don’t have a big desire here in the US to eat bighead, silver carp.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The common carp is a bottom feeder - living off mud, bugs and it's notoriously strong-smelling. The Asian carp lives near the top of the water and is a planktivore. And some biologists swear it’s good eating.
IRONS: I’ve eaten it several times. It’s very good - one of the best tasting fish products, maybe, in the world. In fact, Illinios is working with a program we call Target Hunger Now or Feeding Illinois trying to get this fish product into places like food shelters.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Over the past year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been working with food banks to channel this river of protein towards urban food deserts and hungry people across the state.
[SOUNDS FROM FOOD SHELTER]
SRISKANDARAJAH: I met with Tracy Smith, the director of Feeding Illinois, outside A Safe Haven , a shelter in Chicago.
[SOUNDS OF SIRENS IN BACKGROUND]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Smith oversees a network of eight food banks that moved 127 million pounds of food last year to soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters - like the one we’re at. This year, Feeding Illinois is stretched thin.
SMITH: One of the things that strikes me in every part of the state that we go to - they all talk about an increase in demand and decreasing federal and state support. Every single pantry that we’ve walked into has said, "look at my empty shelves." This is a crisis situation.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The food banks are especially short on protein. That’s where the Department of Natural Resources partnership comes in. The program, Target Hunger, enlists deer hunters to supply fresh meat.
SMITH: Yes, we do already…the food banks and food pantries work with the Department of Natural Resources to do a venison program and we get about 100,000 lbs of venison out of that program a year.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But Asian carp is a completely different animal.
SMITH: Yeah… No, the scale would be much larger. 100,000 lbs in the scope of 127 million that are distributed is pretty small. And in addition, because it is not being consumed widely, there’s an education component. Is it something that clients are going to accept? The worst thing is to have food that people don’t want to eat.
SRISKANDARAJAH: So Feeding Illinois, with help from the DNR and the culinary world, gave food-bank clients a taste of carp cuisine. I met three Safe Haven residents who were at the tasting. Susan Harper, Michelle Miles and Willie Rimson were initially biased against the fish. But could taste triumph over reputation?
HARPER: Yeah, the way they prepared it, you know, it was almost like a salmon croquette with a lemon sauce on it, and I thought it was great. I think it’s something that they could serve at A Safe Haven, and it’ll bring a lot of protein and some taste into our menu. I think it’d be a wonderful idea.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And you?
MILES: Yeah, I thought it was good.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Though not everyone took to it.
RIMSON: That carp croquette was not to my liking. It was just a strong fishy taste to it, you know. I actually wouldn’t go and buy. No, not now that I’ve had it. No.
SRISKANDARAJAH: But Harper and Miles said they would look for Asian carp at the grocery store.
HARPER and MILES: Absolutely, absolutely. I would… if I knew how to cook it right, I would serve it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: So how easy is it to cook? I ordered a few pounds from a place that catches and process Asian carp - Schafer’s Fishery in Illinois. They sell it ground up - hamburger-style.
[SOUNDS OF BAG OPENING]
SRISKANDARAJAH: My package arrived in a white Styrofoam box with one-pound vac-u-packed units that looked like bio-medical waste.
[SOUND OF CARP SIZZLING ON FRYING PAN]
SRISKANDARAJAH: But fried up with some seasoning…
SRISKANDARAJAH: Rolled into a taco - it tastes more like meat than fish. It seems that this protein has promise. That’s why Tracy Smith, back at Feeding Illinois, is figuring out the business of getting this product into the pantries.
SMITH: The unique thing about Asian carp is that they’re not using it commercially in the United States right now, and so in order to use it for humanitarian purposes, a whole infrastructure really has to be built up to do it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: That means hiring fleets of fishermen, processors, distributors…
SMITH: You also have to pay people well enough that it's worth it for them to get involved in the process.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And for that to happen, there has to be enough people who want to eat this stuff. But how do you sell something that has a bad reputation? Well that’s what marketers do.
HALDEMAN: What do I do, specifically? High-level creative strategy.
SRISKANDARAJAH: High-level creative strategy?
SRISKANDARAJAH: Brock Haldeman is the President and CEO of Pivot Design, a Chicago firm that builds brands. I wanted to know what a carp campaign might look like. So before we met, I sent him a dossier of facts that I thought would be helpful - like how carp’s a lean protein, high in omega 3, low in mercury. It’s likely the most environmentally friendly meat around. But Haldeman told me selling this fish has little to do with the facts.
HALDEMAN: I mean the stigma is really the name. There’s lots of examples in, sort of, the food world of taking a horrible sounding fish name, give it a new name and actually make them very popular.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Ever heard of Patagonian Toothfish? One LA-based fish importer in the 70s found this little-known, undervalued fish. He renamed it Chilean sea bass and sold it to restaurants around the world. Now it's nearly fished out of existence.
Some carp cheerleaders want to reintroduce it as “Silverfin.” Then marketers like Haldeman would erase Asian carp from memory. But to pull off this level of “brand rollout,” to make Asian carp - I mean Silverfin - the new turkey dinner … it’ll cost you.
HALDEMAN: Uh, a lot. It’s probably, you know, a six figures effort.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Six figures sounds like a lot, but these invaders threaten the commercial and recreational interests of the Great Lakes - a nine figure value.
Millions of dollars can buy influence; evangelists to push your product into the market. I asked Midwestern rapper, Juiceboxxx, if he could put the message to music.
JUICEBOXX MUX: Throw it to the song!
[MUSIC: "Don't call it carp. Don't call it carp. Don't call it carp..." RECORD SCRATCH]
HALDEMAN: But, no, you're not going to use ... there'd be no references to carp ever. You basically have to say goodbye to that name and reintroduce this product with its new name.
[MUSIC: JUICEBOXX: Alright. "Silverfin! Silverfin! Silverfin!"]
SRISKANDARAJAH: If marketers, fishermen, biologists and a rapper have their way, it might not be too long before there's a silverfin invading a grocery store near you.
For Living on Earth, I'm Ike Sriskandarajah.
CURWOOD: You heard "Don't Call it Carp" from Juiceboxxx.
- Safe Haven
- Asian carp- Schafer’s Fishery
- Pivot Design
- The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee
- Chef Phillippe Parola was the chef behind the carp croquettes and the website “Silverfin Craze”
- Sara Schafer’s Asian Carp Recipes
CURWOOD: Coming up -
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
We'll have a story that we're sure will grab you -
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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation, for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilmund Ordway, for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
MUSIC: Grover Washington Jr: Black Frost" from Mr. Magic (UMG Records 1975)
CURWOOD: You're listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Americans waste a lot of food. We throw away a staggering 68 billion pounds of food each year, most of which winds up in municipal landfills.
Composting is one solution to the problem but it's not always easy, especially if you live in a city. But now some urban dwellers in Massachusetts can compost without the dirty work - producing nutrient-rich material that can be added to the soil, and enriching a young entrepreneur at the same time. Living on Earth's Jessica Ilyse Kurn has our story.
KURN: It’s late afternoon and Catherine Iagnemma stands in her 2nd floor apartment kitchen. The Somerville, Massachusetts resident grabs a colander, washes vegetables and lays them out on the counter.
[SOUNDS OF WASHING AND CHOPPING VEGATABLES]
IAGNEMMA: So, I’m making dinner, and I’m cutting up my brussels sprouts.
KURN: Also on the menu: sweet potatoes, asparagus and ground lamb. Iagnemma cuts off the vegetable ends and pushes them into a pile on her wooden cutting board.
IAGNEMMA: Normally, all these ends, I would just throw in the trash. But I’m going to take them, and just put them in this five gallon bucket that we keep right next to our butcher's block.
KURN: In the ideal world, Iagnemma would have the time and space to throw these scraps in a backyard compost heap. But her neighborhood is dense. Her backyard is small. She finds the logistics of composting overwhelming.
IAGNEMMA: Like if I had to go and start up a compost bin in my backyard, I don’t know if I would do it, or I don’t know if I would know how to do it.
KURN: Now composting is part of Iagnemma’s routine, thanks to a new startup business.
IAGNEMMA: I just feel like it should be a part of anyone’s environmental protocol. If they’re recycling, then composting is really not that hard, especially with someone like Andy.
KURN: Andy is Andy Brooks, a young entrepreneur who founded Bootstrap Compost - a kitchen-scrap pickup company. Brooks travels around greater Boston, mostly by bike, and collects organic waste for customers like Iagnemma. He then brings it to a local farm for composting.
[SOUNDS OF OUTSIDE]
BROOKS: Through composting our material, we are collectively improving our community.
KURN: The idea of helping the community was his inspiration, and he had another motivation. A college grad, Brooks was getting frustrated after searching endlessly for jobs.
BROOKS: After like relying on this cruel economy of applying and cover letters and resumes and interviews, and nothing was going anywhere for like two years, and I was, like, forget it, I gotta do something for myself, and the whole notion of, like, picking myself up.
KURN: And so Bootstrap Compost was born. Brooks says there are many reasons why he loves helping urbanites compost.
BROOKS: When people ask me that question, it’s like someone saying, ‘Why do you like Star Wars? Or why are the Beatles good?’ I get dizzy. Like, there's so many reasons. The way that interests me is like - what are the challenges that we face being a disposable society?
KURN: Brooks puts on his helmet, and jumps on his souped-up bicycle - complete with a custom-made trailer that tags behind. Such a setup couldn’t have been designed for anything other than a nomadic compost business.
[SOUNDS OF BIKE PEDALLING]
BROOKS: It’s super beautiful, I have to say. It’s all aluminum and then a real simple, thin sort of barrier around it to keep everything inside of it. It’s got two super-nice 10-speed wheels, a reinforced axle - so it’s super sturdy. I mean, it looks pretty awesome.
KURN: Six empty buckets sit in the trailer. They'll soon be swapped with pails filled with carrot tops, banana peels and other scraps. Bootstrap Compost currently serves several dozen customers and is growing. Brooks destination today: the Boston neighborhood, Jamaica Plain.
[SOUNDS OF BIKE PEDALS, GRABBING A BUCKET; CLIMBING STEPS]
KURN: He grabs an empty bucket, and climbs up to the porch of a triple-decker house where a filled-to-the-brim pail is waiting.
[SOUNDS OF OPENING UP BUCKET]
BROOKS: So, pretty like exemplary contents here. You know, for someone’s food scraps. It looks like there’s some kale here, and some sort of gourd or something - I don't even know what that is.
[MOVING BUCKETS DOWN STAIRS]
KURN: How heavy do you suppose that is?
BROOKS: I would say this is probably at least 10 pounds; it's probably a bit more.
KURN: Brooks pedals to three more sites, and each time, his load grows heavier. So heavy, that on his way to the fifth and final stop, he has to push the bike and trailer up a huge hill.
[SOUND OF MOTOCYCLE PASSING]
BROOKS: We’re at the base of a pretty gnarly hill, but we can walk it.
[SHOES CLICKING, BIKE SOUNDS AS WALK UP THE HILL]
KURN: At the top of the hill, we reach a professional baker’s house. This client fills two buckets a week.
[SOUNDS OF OUTSIDE]
BROOKS: She gives me like really nice stuff, like beautiful fruit and stuff.
KURN: Two buckets of apple cores, orange peels and espresso grounds sit on the porch. A third bucket is there too, filled with rich, dark compost that Brooks dropped off last week. He says his business is like a bank - clients deposit their raw food scraps, and then can withdraw fresh soil after 15 weeks. Customers that have no need for compost can opt to donate theirs to a local community garden.
[SOUND OF OPENING THE BUCKET]
KURN: Brooks opens the bucket of fresh soil and smiles.
BROOKS: It’s the end result of 7,000 pounds of material that I’ve collected since January. And this is what you get when several months pass, and you’re on top of it and you’re mixing it. And this is what you get at the end of the day.
KURN: Bootstrap Compost operates year-round, and when the weather’s bad for biking, Brooks hops on the subway with a hand truck loaded with buckets. He offers 3 payment plans: a weekly pickup costs $32 a month, biweekly $18, and a once a month visit is $10.
KURN: At the end of the day, Brooks loads the scraps into his pickup truck to be taken to the farm. He says he isn’t trained in this field and hasn’t always composted himself. He just came up with a business plan that works, and has a passion for the environment.
BROOKS: When you throw out your banana peels into the trash, that to me is insulting to all the resources that went into growing those things initially. The end product is just treated like refuse, but it shouldn’t be - it still harbors this immense energy to be used for good, and to go back into the cycle of growing.
KURN: His clients like Catherine Iagnemma start to live by this ethos too.
IAGNEMMA: You really think about where your food is going, and especially on trash day, I’ll look at people’s trash and see is this one family? How many families are living in these home? And how much do we generate as individuals?
KURN: And on trash day when a slight putrid smell hangs in the air, Andy Brooks is extra motivated to recruit more people to turn their food scraps into a useful product. For Living on Earth I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn.
MUSIC: Andrew Bird "Near Death Experience Experience" from Break It Yourself (Mom + Pop Records 2012)
[SOUNDS OUTSIDE OF THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM, SEA BIRD AND CAR SOUNDS]
CURWOOD: On a warm sunny day, I visit the New England Aquarium to meet up with author Sy Montgomery, who has a new best friend.
CURWOOD: Now, Sy Montgomery, you’ve written a lot about really smart animals, in fact, you had one live with you; his name was Christopher Hogwood, he was a pig. And then when you went to the Amazon, you met these pink dolphins. I think maybe you fell in love with one of the pink dolphins, too.
MONTGOMERY: Oh, I think I fell in love with all of the pink dolphins, Steve!
CURWOOD: (laughs) And of course, there are the Golden Moon Bears that you tracked down in Southeast Asia, all very smart. And today we’re at the New England Aquarium to meet another very smart animal, you tell us. And that would be a …
MONTGOMERY: A Giant Pacific Octopus.
CURWOOD: Uh, octopus? Just one though?
MONTGOMERY: Yes. The problem is, if you put two together, they tend to eat each other.
CURWOOD: And more than one octopus … do you say octopuses, octopi, octope, what do you do?
MONTGOMERY: Unfortunately, it’s now octopuses. It’s because the plural - octopi - did not go with the origin of the word octopus, and so it’s supposed to be octopuses.
CURWOOD: Huh. So, who are we going to meet today, Sy?
MONTGOMERY: We are going to meet a Giant Pacific Octopus named Octavia.
CURWOOD: Octavia. And this isn’t, of course, your first time encountering these animals.
MONTGOMERY: Well, no. I got to know Octavia’s predecessor, whose name was Athena. I visited her three times. Athena, when we first met, it was the most amazing thing. She started coiling up from her exhibit - her arms started coming out and I plunged my arms into the 57-degree water, which is actually very cold, and immediately we were just embracing each other. Her suckers were all over me. I was petting her beautiful head, and I would notice that her skin would turn light colored right underneath my touch.
CURWOOD: No way.
MONTGOMERY: And I knew that that’s the sign of a contented octopus. An unhappy, angry octopus turns red and gets all pimply. But she was showing her contentment and letting me touch her head. And after the encounter, which went on for awhile, I was told by the wonderful folks at the New England Aquarium, they said, ‘this is very unusual for an octopus to let someone - a stranger like you - touch her head.’ So we had an immediate bond.
But I just met Octavia last Friday, and just from my short encounter with her, I can tell you she’s very, very different from her predecessor, who was very different from her predecessor, who was different from his predecessor. They all are quite distinctive, just like we are, which is so surprising. These are, I think, the most surprising creatures, because unlike us, they are completely without any bones - they are so unrelated to us in anyway - and yet, you can have a meaningful interaction with them. And that just blows my mind. I think you’re going to love this.
CURWOOD: Okay, well, let’s go inside.
[WALKING SFX - DOOR OPENING]
CURWOOD: We head inside the aquarium, past the information desk, and up some stairs. We go behind the labyrinth of exhibits and into a room full of tanks.
[MUSIC: Yellowdubmarine “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey Dub (Gold Lion records 2011)]
CURWOOD: This is a favorite place of staff biologist Bill Murphy. So, Bill Murphy, this is your tank. This is your octopus. This is your world here.
MURPHY: Yes it is. So, come on back. This is the octopus tank right over here with the lid on it.
CURWOOD: Now, let's see, scientifically this is known as a cephalopod, in other words, a head and foot type of thing?
MURPHY: Yes, correct.
CURWOOD: But, there are no bones in this. It’s completely invertebrate.
MURPHY: Yes, the only hard part of it is its beak.
CURWOOD: Which is kind of like what?
MURPHY: It’s kind of like a parrot’s beak.
CURWOOD: Yeah? So what’s really unusual about octopuses aside from the fact that they have eight arms, which we don’t and the fact that they don’t have any bones and we do… they’re smart though, like us, I’m told.
MURPHY: Yes, they’re very intelligent. They’re also very curious, which also leads to, I would say, partly, their intelligence.
CURWOOD: So, just how smart is an octopus?
MURPHY: Well, they can open locked boxes, which we do here at the aquarium. They can open pill bottles, they can turn valves, they can turn knobs, they can crawl through a tube to get to food - if they see food on the other side of the tank they’ll try and go towards it. There’s been an experience that I’ve heard about where if an octopus knows how to do a puzzle and opened the box before, and another octopus is right next to it and does not, the other octopus will actually watch the one octopus who knows how to do it open it and then learn it immediately. So, they can observe and then learn.
CURWOOD: Now, if the two octopuses are together observing, what about the risk of getting eaten by the other octopus?
MURPHY: They were separated. They were in different tanks, so they could see each other but they couldn’t get to each other.
CURWOOD: Ah, Okay. Sy, you told me that octopuses don’t really get along with each other very well.
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, that's kind of too bad. It’s one reason why I don’t think any aquarium has yet bred them in captivity, because they tend to eat each other.
CURWOOD: Yeah, what is this about octopuses not liking each other?
MURPHY: I think it’s just more of also the aggressiveness of their attitude. When you're you’re living on own, fighting to survive, adding another octopus in there competing for the same source is just not a good thing.
CURWOOD: Ok, so how do they reproduce if they don’t get along?
MURPHY: That comes at a time in their life - they reach a lifecycle where they’re ready to reproduce - the females are ready to lay eggs and mate, the males have reached their maturity and they're ready to mate and then move on. And the male still has to appease the female. He still has to do his dance, and she still has to accept him for them to mate, and then for them to move on, and then she’ll lay her eggs, and spend the rest of her life’s energy making sure those eggs stay safe and protected and hatch.
CURWOOD: So, she doesn’t live long after she lays eggs.
MURPHY: Correct. So, once they lay eggs once, that’s it for them.
CURWOOD: So, an octopus will have how many young?
MURPHY: Thousands. They lay strands of eggs that look like grains of rice and they’ll have probably easily a thousand eggs, if not more. And most of them will hatch, but it’s also the law of the wild - you lay a lot and produce a lot of offspring, but only a few will survive due to predators and food.
MONTGOMERY: How would you describe how Octavia differs from all the others, since every one is an individual?
MURPHY: She’s a little more picky. She came to us probably a little bit older than what we normally get our octopuses, because the one before her, Athena, died unexpectedly. So we got one from the wild - from a collector - that we talk to a lot. So she’s straight from the wild, and a little bit larger and more used to the wild of nature than other ones are.
MONTGOMERY: How much do you think she weighs and how big do you think she is?
MURPHY: Ah, she’s probably about 40 pounds. And if we stand her up, she’s probably about four and a half feet. She still has another year and a half - I’d say- to grow.
CURWOOD: Wow. Alright. And Bill, I guess you’re the one really to take us to meet her, anything that I should say or do?
MURPHY: Roll up your sleeves; take off your watch. We always joke that they’re very sticky fingers so they could probably slip off a ring or a watch without you realizing it, but also, we don’t want anything sharp on ourselves that would hurt them.
MONTGOMERY: I was wondering if there is anything that she would like to have as a gift, and I brought in two shells and a rock for you to inspect to see if that was something she might enjoy or if it would be safe. Would you be willing to look at it?
MURPHY: I'll take a look at them, but it’d be up to her whether she enjoys them or not.
CURWOOD: Alright, well, now’s the moment. Do we get to meet her?
MURPHY: Yes, you do! Step right over this way…
[MUSIC: Yellowdubmarine “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey Dub (Gold Lion records 2011)]
MURPHY: This is our volunteer, Wilson, he’s been with us for many, many, many, many years!
MONTGOMERY: Look her beautiful arm is out!
MURPHY: And there she is.
MONTGOMERY: Oh let's touch her! Can I touch her?
MURPHY: Go for it!
MONTGOMERY: Hi, darlin’. Oh, man, stick your hand up here. Oh my god, this is great!
CURWOOD: Very sticky!
MONTGOMERY: She’s very excited about … these delicious capelin, yum! And, there they are going right down into her mouth! Oh, she’s beautiful!
MONTGOMERY: I’ve got three arms on me.
CURWOOD: She’s grabbing a hold, here.
MONTGOMERY: Do you feel the suckers?
CURWOOD: Yup, feel the suckers…
MONTGOMERY: She’s tasting you with these, as well as feeling you!
CURWOOD: She can control each one of these suckers individually! Wow! So, she’d be amazing playing the piano - can you imagine?
MONTGOMERY: Oh! Now, her beak is right in the middle there, and that’s where you don't really want your hand to be. Oh, she’s got me! Hear those suckers coming out?
[SOUNDS OF OCTOPUS SUCKERS]
MONTGOMERY: Look at you! She’s so big.
CURWOOD: Oh my god.
MONTGOMERY: Isn’t this amazing?
CURWOOD: So, what do you think? She’s recognizing you again?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I just saw her Friday, but I really think that she’s being much more affectionate because she’s with Wilson, and she feels like a friend of Wilson's is a friend of mine. Hear the suckers coming off?
CURWOOD: Yeah. Now this color she is right now - she’s very red - does that mean she’s happy?
MENASHI: Red is very normal and they kind of stay this way. They kind of get more flashes of darker reds and whites when they’re aggressive.
MONTGOMERY: And she’s all over me now! I've got one, two … both of my hands and my forearms are covered, but look, there’s the beak, right where all of her arms come together - that’s where her mouth is.
CURWOOD: Uh huh. Are all of the fish gone? Look at that - woah!
MONTGOMERY: I’m going to come home covered with hickeys!
MURPHY: It’s amazing, if you feel how firm their arms are? Amazing that’s just all muscle - that's so solid it feels just like a steel cable, but it's just muscle. It shows you how strong they can be.
MONTGOMERY: This is great! Her tentacles are coming just as fast as you can take them off! She’s really enjoying this. This is lovely. Do you think she’d want my rock? Here sweetheart, would you like this? Here’s a nice rock. It’s from New Hampshire. She’s holding onto it - she’s investigating it. Well, she's not as interested in the rock. Look at the difference between touching the rock and touching me. She can get so much more interesting information out of touching me than touching the rock, I think.
CURWOOD: You know, Sy, I think you are probably more interesting than a rock.
MONTGOMERY: (Laughs) So glad to hear! I bet you say that to all the girls!
MONTGOMERY: There she goes. She’s got the rock. Opp! She’s dropping the rock. She doesn’t care about the rock. Cares about my hand, though - look at this! Here darlin’. Now, watch this: here comes the fish - she’s holding it with her sucker, and what she’ll do is she'll pass it if she wants to eat it. She’ll pass it from sucker to sucker to sucker as it goes into her mouth, but she may just want to play or not want to do anything with it. Right now, she seems more interested in interacting with us than eating the capelin. Oh, god, look at how - she’s coming - she’s coming out of her exhibit!
MENASHI: She knows where the food comes from so grabbing the food bowl and trying to take it.
MONTGOMERY: But she's not even hungry, she’s just doing it for fun, isn’t she? Oh, she’s wonderful! Just wonderful. This is so different from the first encounter that I had with her.
[SOUNDS OF SUCTION]
CURWOOD: Now, here’s a creature that’s smart, sentient and looks nothing at all like us.
MONTGOMERY: In fact, when she touches you with those suckers, she is knowing your skin, and probably your bones, and probably your blood and your muscle in a way that no other animal will ever know you. That’s what she’s knowing when she touches you. And look how white she’s going now - right under my touch. So, she feels very calm. I feel calm too.
[MUSIC: Gary Burton: “Dance Of The Octopus” from For Hamp, Red, Bags, And Cal (Concord Records 2001)]
CURWOOD: So, I guess our time is up with Octavia.
MONTGOMERY: Wow! Was that the greatest thing ever?
MENASHI: And now my hand is frozen, too.
MONTGOMERY: Oh boy, you know, I didn’t even notice how cold it was.
CURWOOD: Wow! So, if an octopus is this smart, what other animals that are out there could be this smart - that we don’t think of as being sentient and having personality and memories and all these things?
MURPHY: It’s a very good question. The ocean is a very undiscovered world and there’s a lot of animals out there we don’t even know about - there's a lot of animals that we know they're there, but they don’t know anything about them. Who knows what else is actually out there for the ocean?
CURWOOD: Bill Murphy from the New England Aquarium, Sy Montgomery… thank you both for being with me today, and Octavia. Octavia will you say something? (Silence). I guess she’s taking a nap after having lunch. Thank you both.
MURPHY: No problem, thank you.
MONTGOMERY: Our pleasure!
[MUSIC: Gary Burton: "Dance Of The Octopus" from For Hamp, Red, Bags, And Cal (Concord Records 2001)]
CURWOOD: That was writer Sy Montgomery. And we also heard from New England Aquarium marine biologist Bill Murphy, volunteer Wilson Menashi, and, of course, Octavia the Octopus. Sy Montgomery's article, "Deep Intellect - Inside the Mind of the Octopus" was published in Orion Magazine. You can grab some links and photos on our web site - LOE dot org.
- Sy Montgomery’s article “Deep Intellect” in Orion Magazine
- Sy Montgomery blogs about Octavia and our visit to the New England Aquarium on Orion’s website
- New England Aquarium’s Giant Pacific Octopus page
Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, and Jeff Young, with help from Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Annabelle Ford and Annie Sneed. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at L-O-E dot org - and check out our Facebook page. It's PRI's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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