What is it about mercury? Thinking about chemicals in the public discourse

UncategorizedFebruary 9, 20160

All of the revelations about the lead in the water system of Flint, Michigan have made residents and curious neighbors alike  wonder ‘haven’t we solved the lead problem’? There are thousands of well-established scientific studies; the sources and even many of the solutions are well-understood and frequently implemented. Not to say the problem’s gone, but we’ve wrapped are heads around it. So how is it possible that a new lead problem has surprisingly reared its ugly head? And more importantly, what does that mean for exposure to chemicals for which we’ve barely scratched the scientific surface?

The world of fisheries has its analog – mercury. We’ve all heard the recommendations for pregnant women and small children to avoid tilefish, swordfish, mackerel, and shark. We understand that it bioaccumulates in the food chain – and that as humans not exactly at the bottom, we’re susceptible. The dynamics of methylmercury (the poison variety) and elemental mercury are fairly well mapped out and we can identify areas of potential hazard where more methylmercury is likely to be naturally created. We’ve also stopped doing things like spraying mercury-based pesticides and covering our landscape and foodscape with the toxin. Kids have even stopped playing with ‘quicksilver’, it’s been removed from dental fillings and vaccines, and you should get rid of that mercury-based thermometer. Yet, if you scanned most people’s hair (the way we measure these things), there would be mercury present. And there’s still a host of ways they might have been exposed. But the better question is – if there’s still mercury in your body, what else is floating around in your system? And why do we focus on only the best-understood pathway of chemical exposure?

Modern Mercury Exposures

If you ask people what water quality concerns we should pay attention to in coastal, small-scale fishing communities and they’ll say mercury first (such a question produced this research). These fishermen get questions from their consumers occasionally and health-conscious consumers becoming more prevalent. It’s the only public health concern that the big fish guides, like the Monterrey Bay Aquarium cards,  test for. Ask those same people how they think the mercury got there and why they think it’s a concern, and they’ll list local or regional phenomena like historic land use (those pesky mercury pesticides again), presence of Superfund sites, and urban industrial discharges.

What they won’t say, but what the scientists will tell you, is that the majority of mercury these days comes from coal-fired power plants. They’re engineered these days in the US with “best available control technology” and many other nations share the same technology. However, that technology is often just a taller smokestack to deposit said mercury further up in the atmosphere. So instead of falling on the houses in the neighboring community like it used to, the mercury gets a jump start for global distribution in the high winds of the upper atmosphere. That means if you’re living on the east coast of the US, you’re mercury exposure is most likely coming from Chinese power plants. The mercury from turning your lights on is visiting your European friends.

Plus, mercury still has industrial applications. Do you have compact fluorescent lightbulbs in your house in order to cut down on carbon emissions? Those contain mercury. Waste management companies have special handling procedures to deal with old or broken CFLs, but it’s a fair guess to say that most end up in the regular trash along with 75% of other recyclables (in some areas). In a quest to help with one enormous environmental problem, we are contributing to another.

Have a gold wedding band? Yet again, the mercury villain rears its ugly head. Small-scale gold extraction across the developing world still depends on mercury to extract the gold from the surrounding rocks. This means that the workers frequently report mercury poisoning and the rivers from which this gold is mined flows downstream to communities, houses, and schools full of the mercury used to extract gold. Every once in awhile, a community particularly hard-hit will be profiled by international media, but otherwise the story is a fairly quiet one.

These points are all a way of saying that despite the fact that people care about mercury, think about it regularly, and place it at the top of a long list of environmental concerns, there are still aspects of the mercury problem that fly below their radar. So if we’ve got a public consciousness about mercury, how do we focus it to the most current concerns in a way people can take action? What is it about mercury that keeps it in people’s public consciousness and what can we learn to help both the mercury problem and other environmental concerns moving forward?

Why can’t we think about chemical exposure more broadly?

Despite lingering problems with mercury, it represents one of few chemical or water quality problems that we can, to a certain degree, place in the “success” box. There are laws in almost every country regulating its use (enforcement continues to be a problem, but that’s a story for another time) as well as broad public health campaigns about current exposures through thermometers, seafood, and industrial effluents. Parents and grandparents today tell stories of playing with quicksilver in school but how they’re glad that science has told their future generations that despite the fun of liquid metal, it’s not a safe activity. Yet, it’s still a public health concern via new pathways of exposure that get far less attention and that tend to be out of the public discourse.

Furthermore, the mercury story makes one wonder what else is out there that we as a scientific community have not yet had the time or funding to fully investigate. There are approximately 60,000 synthetic chemicals registered and used industrially that can be added to the list of naturally occurring compounds with public health implications (like mercury). In the US, these are not routinely tested before application in wide commercial use. Plasticizers like bisphenol-a are a good example – once widespread in almost every form of plastic object (which are fairly ubiquitous), we now understand they act like the body’s natural estrogen and cause developmental and hormonal problems. Plastic producers have responded by swapping it out for new plasticizers, none of which have gone through a thorough review to see if they have similar problems.

Take even one of mercury’s main routes of exposure – application to the land through pesticides – and while mercury’s now out of the pesticide arsenal, we spray plenty of very potent chemicals on our fields to this day. The route of exposure remains and concerns over farmworker and farm community safety occasionally bubble to the surface. The rise of organic produce options show that some people care, but even organic farms are allowed to use some untested chemicals to keep the bugs away. Since the beginning of toxics regulation in the US, only 4 chemicals have been banned from use and the Toxic Substances Control Act (the main regulation on chemical use) only tests or monitors about 10,000 chemicals. It’s a long, steep road to controlling our exposure to unhealthy chemicals, let alone those with primarily environmental effects. How do we get people to talk about these types of chemicals in the same way that they talk about mercury? After all, it’s getting to them in the same sorts of ways.

Fundamentally, what can we learn from mercury’s story? What placed it high on the list of people’s concerns and what keeps it there? Why haven’t other chemicals joined mercury as literal poster children for environmental health? Let’s use mercury as a window into how the public interprets and reacts to scientific information and move our understanding of chemicals forward with broader support from the public.

Playing against the slaughter rule

#OceanOptimism, Blogging, Personal StoriesFebruary 8, 20161

My middle school baseball team was bad. Really bad. Ball droppingly, bat throwingly, pitch ditchingly bad. It was a good inning if four of our batters made it to the plate. A great inning if the other team didn’t rotate through it’s entire line-up, twice. Our MVP was the kid who caught a ball. And if you think this is going to be one of those articles about how one tough player (me?) turned a bunch of scrappy underdogs into winners, it’s not. I played right field, and not particularly well. We lost, often.

In peewee sports, at least in the US, there’s something called a “slaughter rule”. The slaughter rule ends the game if a team is losing by more than a certain number of points. In our case, it took something like a 20 run difference to trigger a slaughter. The slaughter rule exists so that outmatched teams don’t have to slog through 7 innings of a brutal losing streak, racking up demoralizing 112 to zero defeats. Once, we got slaughtered in the first inning.

Were it not for the slaughter rule, I would probably still be out somewhere in right field, wondering if maybe I should sign up for the Latin team next year.


Fun Science FRIEDay – Bionic Eye

Fun Science Friday, Science, UncategorizedFebruary 5, 20160

Every year modern medicine brings more and more surprises. It really does seem that the limitations of man’s achievements are solely limited to our creative ability to dream what is possible. This week we bring you the bionic eye. As part of an ongoing trial at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital surgeons implanted a micro electric chip into a patients eye restoring part of her sight.

Human eye.

Human eye.

The lucky patient, Rhian Lewis a British woman aged 49, suffered from a genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa, which causes gradual deterioration of the light-detecting cells (photoreceptors) in the retina and can lead to blindness. Lewis was completely blind in her right eye and had virtually no vision in her left eye. In an ~6 hr surgery a chip was implanted into her right eye, and for the first time in many years she was able to see.

The second-generation ‘bionic eye’ implant given to Rhian Lewis. Photograph: University of Oxford/PA

The second-generation ‘bionic eye’ implant given to Rhian Lewis. Photograph: University of Oxford/PA

The implant (a 3 mm sq array of ~1,500 light sensors sends pulsed electrical signals to nerve cells) is connected to a tiny computer that sits underneath the skin behind the ear. This is powered by a magnetic coil on the skin. When the device is first activated patients see only flashes of light, but over time the brain is retrained to convert those flashes into meaningful shapes and objects. The images can be black and white and grainy, but as you can image, still have the power to transform lives (Hey! Who turned on the lights!?). Going forward this technology will only improve, and Lewis and the surgeons at Oxford are at the frontier of that scientific progress.

Happy, snowy FSF!!

A cool descriptive video of this story on the BBC (replete with funny British accents) can be viewed here:

Making your scientific outreach go further

UncategorizedFebruary 3, 20160

1009103_10151717293838265_589812446_oCatherine Macdonald is the Executive Director of Field School, an interdisciplinary field science training programShe is also a fifth year PhD student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, and the Intern Coordinator for the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SRC).

Like a lot of the scientists I know, teaching (outside the classroom) and outreach are a key part of the work I do, and one of the things I love most about my job. This isn’t because scientists accrue big rewards for prioritizing outreach (in the academic tenure system, we can actually pay a pretty high price for spending time on anything other than research/required teaching/publication) but because we want to get people excited about science and care a lot about the subjects we study.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always maximizing our positive impacts on students or citizen scientists who engage with our research—maybe because we aren’t familiar enough with the vast and labyrinthine social science literature on what works in education.* (I wish I had a dollar for every time a natural scientist, in talking to me about education or outreach, has said “if only someone would study this…” without being aware that education researchers have been studying it, in some cases for decades.)

This list is in no way comprehensive, but distills some key points I’ve come across that have influenced the way I teach and interact with students. My thinking here is geared towards programs like those I work with, which take students into the field and involve them in science or outreach in a direct, hands-on way. Although I think it’s great for scientists to go into classrooms and give talks, this advice is only partially applicable to that kind of outreach, and is really geared towards out-of-classroom folks.

Let’s also note that a variety of good potential outcomes have been shown to result from experiential education programs, including increased academic success, improved self-esteem and “self-concept” (i.e., how kids see themselves), increased personal and social responsibility, and better attitudes towards and relationships with adults. There’s no question that those of us who work with students above and beyond what is required or expected of us are doing a good thing. The question becomes: how do we do that good thing better?

* In this list, I am not attempting to differentiate between environmental education, experiential education, service education, scientific outreach, adventure education or any of the other various terms which can be used to describe similar programs. Although there can be important differences in approaches and goals among these categories, it is key elements that the most effective programs have in common that I am interested in.


On spending a month publishing science fiction from our Ocean Future.

Blogging, Field Notes from the FutureFebruary 2, 20161

January 2016 was different.

We blocked off an entire month, primed it with some of the best speculative fiction from our ocean’s future, wrapped it in a narrative to connect seemingly disparate topics, and launched Field Notes from the Future, 41 blog post imagining the issues we would face in 2041, 25 years in the future. This was the first time in the blog’s almost 8-year run that we dedicated an entire month to a single concept. It was also the first time that the authors collaborated and coordinated our content.

I am incredibly happy with the results. Field Notes from the Future gave us a chance to flex our creative muscles in new and exciting ways. It gave us an outlet to express our hopes and fears, to expand on our concerns, and to look beyond the horizon and imagine the conflicts that have yet to emerge.

Science and Science Fiction have always been deeply connected. For all the great work of the “heroes of science communication”, the STEM-advocates, the science outreach professionals, it was Clarke, Verne, Shelley, Wells, and Le Guin who inspired me to pursue a career in science. Science shows us the world as it is, Science Fiction imagines the world as it could be.


The final server update: All systems normal.

Field Notes from the FutureJanuary 31, 20160

He showed me exactly what we needed to see.

He? I, me, we. The me that is yet to be.

The Nautilus is not of the future. Only data flow backwards. That much, I understand.


At least I think I understand. He that is, well, me, eventually, understood. Will understand.

The message was a code. Is a code. Will be many codes.

One was the Nautilus. An icon of past futures. A cipher meant only for me. The symbol of a promise made to myself. A totem that whispers “I know you.”

Two was a command, in plaintext, delivered to the 3D Hubprint this, write this, flash this, send these.

Three was the bootloader, flashed to a microSD, hidden within the Nautilus. He showed me… (I showed myself?) the future we needed to see. He knew. It was not enough to know that he is me… will be me. I needed to understand what we become. I needed to trust myself.

Four was the genome. A machine language written in base pairs that cannot be read yet none-the-less must be spread. Will spread. Has spread. It will percolate through our networks, permeate our systems. When the first transcriptors come online, it will march down the new central dogma: Source Code -> DNA -> RNA -> Protein and transcribe the vaccine to a virus that has not yet been written.

The final piece of the puzzle: a temporal anomaly, a glitch buried in Facebook. Or meant to appear that way. An artifact of the moment that drove Southern Fried Science into the future, that uploaded the future to my server. Tracks in the sand.

The tide has risen, the tide has fallen. All is washed away.

This is where our paths diverge. There is nothing here but the present. No one here but me. Though a million questions remain, they cannot be answered. Though a thousand stories hang, half-formed, they cannot be told.

They must be lived.

Happy New Years, old me

Field Notes from the FutureJanuary 30, 20160

I really hope this old twitter embed code works, otherwise this whole thing is going to fall apart.

Hey Dr. Thaler circa 2016, did you get my package?


Check the infill.

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

How to fight invasive software: the cure to the cyborg crisis.

Field Notes from the FutureJanuary 29, 20160

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

It came from the deep.

The heart of Zero Cloner is a snippet of cunningly concealed genetic code isolated from shrimp on the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, retro-edited to create an easy to edit gene region to which other Cloner derivatives can latch.  Zero Cloner pave the way for Omega Cloner. Omega Cloner spread across the world, locking augmented humans out of society. The Standard Deviants launched a series of attacks early Monday morning, destroying essential digital architecture needed to maintain a fully integrated world.

Entire nations are grinding to a halt. We needed a cure, and we needed it fast.

It also came from the deep.  (more…)

Technocracy and the Sea

Field Notes from the FutureJanuary 28, 20161

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

“The sea is big. The sea is cruel. She takes more than she gives. That’s how it’s always been.”

This line from my long forgotten first science fiction novel still resonates with me. The ocean is a tough place. No matter how good we get at working at sea, the sea always finds new and creative ways to totally undermine our endeavors.

The last quarter century has seen a tremendous rise in our collective faith in technology’s power to save us. When hundreds of thousands were dying on the roads, we made car that drove themselves, reducing traffic fatalities by several orders of magnitude. After the last great recession, we created new digital currencies to protect our savings from market forces. When we could no longer afford to burn coal and oil, we finally built an alternative energy infrastructure.

When firearm deaths and mass shootings were out of control, we built “safe” guns with sophisticated biometric locks, and developed clothing and shields to reduce fatalities. These measures had almost no effect, but we continue to throw technology at the problem.

That is the problem with technocracy.  (more…)

Remember when sexism in science died? Me neither.

Field Notes from the Future0

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

Any female scientist my age (Generation Pre-Internet) can remember when sexism was a standard rite of passage.  Truly, you hadn’t ‘made it’ in science until you could one-up your colleague’s harassment story.  I remember being enlisted into the Sisterhood of the Travelling Confidants (to quote an old classic), where we laughed at the futility of filing complaints while helping new members process their anger.  We were powerless back then… but many.

Then came the advent of ‘social media’, sharing and liking posts, hashtags, connectivity and a voice.  This led to the realization that all institutes of every field of science had their own Sisterhoods.  One by one, reluctantly, these groups came out of the libraries on the second floor (there’s a second floor??), hidden basement kitchenettes, and forgotten conference rooms.  New members, who were younger and more internet savvy than the old guard, took to social media to process their anger.  The sisterhoods became solidarities when male colleagues used their position to amplify the messages.  Soon, a spotlight was put on our inside joke that reporting harassment to higher-ups was as effective as one of David’s remote petitions, and titans of torment began to fall, one by one, each story more disturbing – at least to those outside of the sisterhood – than the last. (more…)

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