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Science Talk

EPA Pesticide Controversy and Impact Astronomy

In this episode, journalist Paul Raeburn talks about how the Environmental Protection Agency has been taking a long time, decades in fact, to figure out how to handle some potentially dangerous chemicals. And astronomer and geologist Peter Schultz talks about his chosen method of learning about the universe--smashing stuff. Websites mentioned on this podcast include www.paulraeburn.com.

Science Talk August 9, 2006 -- EPA Pesticide Controversy

Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific american for the seven days starting August 9th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll talk with journalist Paul Raeburn about how the Environmental Protection Agency has been taking a long time, decades in fact, to figure out how to handle some potentially dangerous chemicals. And astronomer and geologist Peter Schultz talks about his chosen method of learning about the universe—smashing things into each other. Plus, we'll test you on some recent science in the news.

First up, Paul Raeburn. He has been the science editor for the Associated Press and was senior editor for science and technology at Business Week. He is now a freelance journalist and author and he had an article in the August issue of Scientific American about the EPA's foot-dragging on pesticide regulation. I called him at his home in New York City.

Steve: Paul, thanks for talking to us today.

Paul: Yes, Steve. Happy to be here.

Steve: You have this article in the August Scientific American about the EPA and DDVP, and a whole bunch of alphabet soup. Let's talk about, first of all, what is DDVP? What is that chemical?

Paul: DDVP—another name for it is Dichlorvos and it's a household pesticide. It's one of a group of things called organophosphate, and I didn't realize till I started working on its story, that those actually are chemically related to [the] World-War-II-era nerve agent. When those things were being tested, researchers discovered that insects' nervous systems were much more sensitive to the chemicals than human nervous systems, and so in small amounts, they would be toxic to insects. And what they originally thought was that they would be harmless to humans. That has turned out to be much, much more complicated in the ensuing decades.

Steve: So let's talk about the EPA and the regulation of DDVP and what that represents in terms of EPA regulations in general.

Paul: Well, I think DDVP is the example of where [the] EPA has fallen down on regulation of pesticides. The problem here was that when the EPA was created and began to look at pesticides—which is going back to the early '70s—there were many, many pesticides already on the market, so it had a different job from what it normally does. One of the thing the EPA does is looks at some new chemicals and decide whether they are safe, just as the FDA does with drugs. But they had the problem of looking at pesticides that were already on the market, and so by the time they get around to that job, there were thousands of them. And in their defense, I won't give them too much credit here, but I will say there was [a] huge job to take on. The problem has been that you know, whether it would have taken them several years or five years or even ten years, we might forgive them and say, it was a lot of work, it took time. But they started to review these things in the late 1970s, so we're now, you know, in three decades of waiting for the EPA to make some decisions on a lot of these pesticides, whether they are safe or not.

Steve: And I would assume that these pesticides are probably more dangerous to little kids or developing fetuses. Is that right?

Paul: Well that's certainly one of the risks that's come up with a lot of them, particularly these organophosphates. That's a particular problem with children. But the, you know, the issue here is that its not a question of finding out whether, I mean, to a certain extent, everybody except the EPA—many people outside the EPA—now recognize that many of these chemicals are quite dangerous. There are hundreds, I am sure thousands, of studies, showing there has been problems. What has been stalled has been the EPA's, you know, official regulatory recognition of the problems and then to take some action to get rid of these things or persuade manufacturers to [phase]face them out. So it's not that we know the science; we know these things are problematic, not everything is certain, we don't know exactly what they do. But we know that they are risky and we['d] probably be better off without them; and even in the cases where we know for certain that some of these chemicals are dangerous, the EPA still hasn't acted.

Steve: Yeah! I was just bringing up little kids and fetuses to point out there had been a lot of little kids and fetuses in the last 30 years whereas, you know, an adult 30 years ago is still an adult.

Paul: Yeah! That's right, and I mean, we don't have, you know, we don't have huge numbers of children's dying. That These effects aren't lethal, but who knows what happened to all those fetuses and kids born over the last 30 years in terms of very subtle nervous system malfunctioning or problems; now I'm not suggesting that, any of this is nailed down, but the point is its clear that these chemicals are risky. They do have an effect on the human nervous system—it is stronger with kids and fetuses, and so lets do something. You know, lets not just spend 30 years considering the problem.

Steve: Now, your article points out that at least part of the problem in the foot-dragging would appeared to be a relationship between industry and the EPA.

Paul: Yeah. Well that's right. So the question is, the EPA has taken this long to act on these things—why? And so in reporting I tried to look at that, and clearly the EPA employees themselves—[in] a letter from their union to the EPA administrator, Steven Johnson, they charged that the EPA is foot-dragging and it is much, much too closely allied with the chemical companies and the makers and users of these pesticides. So that's of even more concern. Again if we might be forgiving off the EPA, we might be more forgiving if they were simply incompetent, but it appears to be more than that; at least charges from its own employees suggest that there is a deliberate effort to slow down any regulatory action on these pesticides.

Steve: You know, what always cracks me up is that often the same people who want deregulation want total reform and deregulation would lead to a lot of things that are potentially dangerous. Being there in the free market is supposed to correct that, but the total reform that they also want would take the free market out of play because you wouldn't be able to give bigger words to anyone who was damaged by these dangerous compounds or dangerous products, so ...

Paul: Yeah, that's right. I think you've got to have something to protect [against] this; and these pesticides we're talking about, by the way, is a household pesticide—it's used in pest strips and dog collars. When we go into the drug store to buy one of those things, we have no way of knowing whether it's safe or not, so we have a couple of ways of doing that. One is to have an agency like the EPA that can do the research and the testing and find out and evaluate, you know, university research and so find out whether those things might be harmful. Or, as you say, we have legal means of recourse—if somebody is harmed by a product, but if the regulatory agency is moving slowly, and if there are efforts in Washington to deprive consumers of legal means—namely, law suits—to go after companies they think have harmed them, then that leaves us in a rough position. I don't mean to sound like I'm editorializing or taking a political point of view, I mean simply as somebody who covers science and writes for magazines like Scientific American, I'm interested in seeing that when people do research and get answers and know something, that appropriate political action is taken to reflect those scientific results. And I think what I found sort of aggravating and almost unbelievable as I was reporting the story was that the answers are so clear, and so many of these pesticides, from a scientific point of view, and yes the political process, has just almost come to a standstill.

Steve: So where does this story go from here?

Paul: So, where we go from here—the EPA has—in response to the charges from its employees—has taken some small steps forward. And articles about this, like the story that we did in the magazine, will create some public consciousness. So, I think we have some reason to think that the EPA will begin to move ahead on this. But we're going to need a tough EPA that is willing to take action; that will be very unpopular with the chemical industry and others in related areas and it is not clear that we have that now. Certainly there are plenty of people in a position to know who think that the EPA is not being nearly tough enough.

Steve: Paul Raeburn thanks very much.

Paul: Great to be here Steve. Thank you.

Steve: Paul's article on DDVP is a case study of the EPA; [it']s in the August issue of Scientific American. Paul Raeburn's Web site is www.paulraeburn.com that's p-a-u-l-r-a-e-b-u-r-n. Now its time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Attractive people have more sons than daughters.

Story number 2: How warm was it? Inuits in Canada are buying air conditioners.

Story number 3: A bar in China lets patrons blow off steam by punching employees.

And story number 4: Teenagers who listen to music with sexually suggestive lyrics have sex at a younger age.

We'll be back with the answer. But first Peter Schultz is a Brown University professor of geology and an astronomer. He is the director of the Northeast Planetary Data Center and the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium. He was part of the Deep Impact Mission last year that blasted a rocket into a comet, and he hangs out at the NASA Ames Vertical Gun Range in California blasting things to smithereens. To find out more about constructive destruction, I called Schultz at his office in Providence.

Steve: Professor Schultz, thanks for talking to us today.

Peter: Oh! You bet.

Steve: So, [I] hear you've been smashing things into other things. What exactly do you do?

Peter: (laughs). Well let me put it this way. I play in the sandbox whenever I can, but I use a very high-velocity gun to do it.

Steve: Which just sounds like more fun.

Peter: Exactly. You get dirty; you really do get down and dirty. You—when you come of there—your hair is filled with dust, eyes are clogged, your nose is clogged. But it is so much fun.

Steve: And when you say high velocity, you're talking really high velocity.

Peter: This stuff is humming. We go in—the velocities that we use are anywhere from six to ten times faster than a speeding bullet.

Steve: So, let's back up a little bit. What is the intent of all this smashing?

Peter: All planetary bodies are victims of these random crashes, but we have to understand the process; and the[re are] several ways to do that. Right now lot of people are using computational codes to simulate the event, but what I'd like to do is that actually do the whole scale event in small scale; and that way we'll understand why craters look like [they]it do on places like the Moon, Mercury and Mars and Venus; and what might happen to the Earth if we got hit by the next big one.

Steve: How could we be sure that the scaling up or scaling down in this case is going to give you accurate results?

Peter: Yeah! That's a really good question, and it's always a challenge. But it's remarkable how [much] similar[ity there is in] what we see on the other planets versus what we see in the laboratory. [I'll] give you a good example. [The] most recent example is Deep Impact. We slammed into that comet, 9P/Tempel 1, with a velocity higher than we give in the laboratory and with a much larger mass, but boy we saw something that was very, very similar to what we see in the laboratory.

Steve: It did get a lot of press at that time. This was the mission to the comet, where you actually, as you said, smashed into the comet. Anything in particular that you've learned that surprised you from Deep Impact?

Peter: One of the big surprises was how fluffy the surface was. That is, at least, for the impact itself, we could tell that this crater must have been large, and thought to be only it can't be [that] large with all the energy that we put into it [unless] was if the material was very fluffy. The other thing we could see which was remarkable was that we could see the vapor plume being generated by the impact and traveling into the outer space with very high velocities. And this vapor plume, as it expanded, we're able to track it just like we do in the laboratory. The composition of that material will be telling us something about the—perhaps—the nature of the primordial materials or perhaps something related to the impact process itself.

Steve: And again, we're going to be seeing papers from that for years to come probably.

Peter: Oh absolutely! You know everybody is going to have a slight[ly] different opinion and everybody is looking at them with different instruments. So I think we've [got a] lot of work, [a] lot of synthesis we have to do.

Steve: Tell me about the lunar crater observation and sensing satellite mission.

Peter: Yeah. This is nicknamed LCROSS, or Lunar CROSS, and this is a mission that's intending to do something very similar to what we did for Deep Impact, but this time we're going for the moon. Now on a comet, we know there is ice and dust, but for the moon, why we don't know if it's there for sure; and if it is there, it is hidden in the permanently shadowed areas of the poles.

Steve: The ice we are talking about.

Peter: The ice—exactly. So the reason we think it's there is that there had been measurements made by previous satellites indicating that there is hydrogen coming off the polar regions; and that hydrogen—what we gather for that—is water ice. So if that's the case this may be an important supply for future lunar explorers because it's that expensive to transport water to the moon, and ...

Steve: And so we're basically—I mean, I don't mean to trivialize it, but basically—you're going to smash something into the south pole of the moon and see what comes up.

Peter: Yep! That's basically it.

Steve: Is there anything that's most fun that stands at your mind as having been the most fun to smash into something else? I am thinking [a] long time ago, David Letterman used to drop things from the roof of the building or from a six-storey building and there were some things that hit the ground that were just more fun to watch explode than other things were.

Peter: Well, we did do some experiments and we officially called them thinly-shelled ovulate steroid containing variable viscosity until we were outed for the reasons [that] it was simply eggs.

Steve: (laughs)

Peter: (laughs) We had figured out a way that was very important to understand how craters form when the projectile deforms a great deal; so the best way was [to] take an egg, filled it up with plaster of paris, and then you just use the yolk and cook them to different degrees. And so we had the full range from solid body to something that was basically a raw egg; and lets us just say the chamber was not used for a couple of weeks after that.

Steve: Yeah, I'm sure. So, what was the highlight of your outcome there?

Peter: Very interesting. It's something every kid knows when he takes a spray of fire hose or just a hose and puts into sand. What happens is we get a compression zone right in the center and then everything shoots off from the sides—a little bit of a mound at the center, that's what we got. When we got something that was soft and deformable, we simply created a zone that was compressed and resisted the excavation in the center and just sheered, so we had a crater with a little mound in the bottom.

Steve: How long did it take to air out the chamber?

Peter: It really did take—it took about it took a couple of weeks.

Steve: So, what's the future of smashing things into other things for science?

Peter: I think it's a brand new strategy that we're going to be able to use. A lot is from planets, and I think we're seeing that—we slammed into a comet, we're going to be slamming into the moon—I think that's just the beginning. We can use this as a way to dig material off from below, see it for the first time; and at the same time, we can do measurements, spectrum measurements of the vapor coming off these bodies to understand things that are largely hidden from view. So we really got an exciting new technique, and also [that] means that I get to do some more smashing in the future.

Steve: Oh! I just hope that you don't find the first inhabited other world this way. Professor Schultz thanks very much.

Peter: Ah! You bet.

Steve: The lunar crater observation and sensing satellite LCROSS is set to go up in October of 2008.

Now it's time to see which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Attractive people have more sons than daughters.

Story number 2: Eskimos are buying air conditioners.

Story number 3: A Chinese bar allows patrons to relive stress by punching the staff.

And Story number 4: Teens who listen to sexually suggestive lyrics have sex earlier.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. Kids who listen to sexually suggestive music have sex earlier—and I don't mean before breakfast. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Of course, the researchers think that the music influences the behavior, but perhaps it's a correlation, not a causation—that is, maybe young people who engage in risky behaviors are also attracted to music about such behaviors.

Story number 3 is true. Wire service reports say that the Rising Sun Anger Release Bar in Nanjing allows stressed out customers to punch the staff, smash stuff and scream. I thought the original reason for going to a bar, you know, for having a drink was enough to relieve stress, but hey, psychological counseling is also available, probably to the staff as well as patrons.

Story number 2 is true. You no longer have to be a great salesman to get Inuits to buy air conditioners. An Inuit leader explains, "our arctic homes are made to be airtight for the cold and do not breathe well in the heat. With this warming trend, and temperatures were in the high 80s in Kuujjuaq recently." You can read the whole story titled "In Warmer World Even Inuit Buy Air Conditioners". That's on our Web site, sciam.com.

All of which means, Story number 1, about attractive people having more sons is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because a new study finds that good looking couples have 36 percent more daughters on average than, well, not you, but then [your]you are a less attractive acquaintances. The study published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology summarizes that since beauty is heritable, and since females benefit more than males do from being attractive, natural selection maximizes the effect by giving the beautiful people more daughters. We'll be right back.

Tired of searching the Internet in a vain attempt to answer your science question? Well now you can ask a scientist. Send your science questions to podcast@sciam.com and if we pick your science question ...Johnny tell them what they have won!

An answer to your science question from an actual scientist; plus, we'll have you ask the question yourself on the podcast. So send your science questions to podcast@sciam.com today.

We broadcasted recent Situation of the counter descriptions of Ask a scientist were allowed without expressing major league baseball do with the results of recent school board elections. Ask a Scientist is available in Kansas.

Well that's it for this edition of [the] Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address [is] podcast@sciam.com. And also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American web site, www.sciam.com. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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