Category Archives: Research

Toxic flame retardants gain attention of U.S. consumer commission

Ongoing studies into flame retardant chemicals have raised a serious question: Are ANY of the polybrominated or polychlorinated flame retardants safe enough to be used in household products?

It’s a question I’ve been asking for several years while writing about these chemicals, many of which are known to disrupt hormonal functions in humans and animals. Among them are the familiar polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

Now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is weighing in on the question by proposing new regulations that would ban this entire class of chemicals containing bromine or chlorine — now referred to as nonpolymeric organohalogen flame retardants. If these regulations are eventually adopted, they would prohibit the use of organohalogens in four types of products:

  • Any children’s product, including toys and baby furniture, except for car seats,
  • Any type of seat cushion or upholstered furniture,
  • Any mattress or mattress pad, and
  • Any plastic case containing an electronic device, including computers and televisions.

Banning an entire class of chemicals is a fairly radical step, because each chemical in this large group of compounds has its own toxicity profile. Even the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended against such a broad regulation. If you are up for some dense reading on the subject, check out the 535-page briefing report (PDF 78.7 mb) or just read the summary in National Law Review.

Despite the opposition by CPSC staff, three out of five commissioners were convinced of the dangers imposed by this broad class of chemicals. They voted, 3-2, to move ahead with a total ban. Convincing documents included a petition for rulemaking (PDF 63 mb) from 12 diverse groups, ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the International Association of Fire Fighters to Consumers Union. The commission also heard formal testimony from these groups and many others. (Review the videos on this page.)

“It is imperative that CPSC’s regulation cover all organohalogen flame retardants as a class when used in consumer products,” states the petition. “This class of chemicals is foreign to the mammalian body and inherently toxic, due to its physical, chemical and biological properties.

“Industry has historically responded to the dangers posed by one organohalogen flame retardant by replacing it with one or more other organohalogens that are, by virtue of their chemical properties, also harmful,” the petition continues. “This exposes consumers to a series of ‘regrettable substitutions’ from one harmful flame retardant to another… The way to end this cycle of toxicity is to ban all products in the categories at issue here if they contain any organohalogen flame retardant.”

A total ban was ultimately the position taken by the commission, although formal rulemaking will take time and may not come to pass. At least two commissioners asked on several occasions if even one of these flame retardants has been proven safe. They never received an answer that satisfied them.

After the vote, Commissioner Elliott Kaye, an attorney, issued a strongly worded written statement (PDF 262 kb): to explain why he agreed to take such a strong action.

“As a policymaker and, more importantly, as a parent, I am horrified and outraged at how chemicals are addressed in this country,” he said. “It is completely irrational that we wait for children to be poisoned before the government is allowed to step in.

“Rational and thoughtful public policy in this area would involve the government and industry coming together to agree which chemicals are safe for human exposure, especially for pregnant women and children, and which ones are not. And more importantly, rational and thoughtful public policy would have these assessments occur before these chemicals are permitted to come onto the market. Waiting to assess the safety of chemicals after they are already in consumers’ homes and our children’s bloodstreams is totally irrational public policy.”

Commissioner Robert Adler, an attorney, seemed to be troubled that he went against the commission’s staff, and he wanted to explain his position.

“As a starting point, let me say that I have little serious disagreement with staff on the science aspect of the issues,” he said in a written statement (PDF 136 kb). “To the extent that there was disagreement, it was over the legal and policy issues arising from the science.

“I note that a large part of the staff’s recommendation rested on their misgivings about treating OFRs as a broad class of chemicals given OFRs’ differing levels of toxicity and exposure to which consumers are subject. I grant staff’s point about the differing levels of toxicity for these flame retardants. But what I have not heard from staff, nor from any of the witnesses at our hearings, is credible evidence demonstrating that there are any ‘safe’ organohalogen flame retardants.”

He said all the chemicals in the class seem to have common characteristics. For example, they pass into cells freely, do not metabolize easily, inhibit a cell’s defense system, bioaccumulate in the tissues and cause harm that can be linked to the chemical structure.

“There are certainly a number of OFRs where we have no studies to provide us with proof of harm, but years of experience confirm that every time we get sufficient data to evaluate the risk of harm of any specific OFR, we always find it to be so toxic that we start to remove it from our products. In other words, the more evidence that accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals.”

As part of the coming regulatory process, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to convene a chronic hazard advisory panel to assess the risks of flame retardants, drawing on all available information.

Meanwhile, the commission also issued a “guidance document” that calls on manufacturers, distributors and retailers to voluntary ensure that their products do not contain added flame retardants. Consumers, especially those who are pregnant or have young children, are advised to make sure products they purchase are free of such chemicals.

While the commission appears to be moving on a course of tough action, the regulatory process can be long and filled with potential delays. In fact, through normal appointments of commission members, President Trump will be able to change the direction of the commission over the next four years if he so chooses.

Commissioner Anne Marie Buerkle, whose term was extended by seven years in February when Trump named her to chair the commission, does not support the commission’s decision on flame retardants.

“My Democrat colleagues claim that there is ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ of toxicity across the class; indeed, we heard witnesses at our hearing last week maintain that every organohalogen that has been adequately studied has been found to cause adverse effects,” Buerkle said in a statement (PDF 626 kb). “Even if that claim is accepted at face value, do all such adverse effects result from prevailing exposures? We know that substances as benign as oxygen and water — two of the most essential requirements for human existence — can cause death when too much is inhaled or imbibed. Is there something exceptional about organohalogens such that the dose becomes unimportant?”

Buerkle said she supports formation of a chronic hazard advisory panel, but she believes the results should be available to the commission before moving forward with regulations.

As for chemical manufacturers, it appears that they are not going down without a fight over flame retardants. A statement from the American Chemistry Council (PDF 86 kb), which represents the industry, says it will inform manufacturers and other businesses that the commission’s action has no binding effect.

“The value chain should feel confident that they can continue to use these chemistries in certain applications consistent with existing national and international regulations while CPSC conducts its further analysis of these substances,” says the statement.

Environmental and consumer groups say they will push retailers not to sell products with flame retardants, and “Consumer Reports” magazine offers recommendations about how people can avoid toxic flame retardants.

Meanwhile, Washington is among a growing number of states that have banned certain flame retardants. Based on findings from the state Department of Ecology, the Legislature approve a ban on the worst chemicals in 2008, followed by others last year. See Ecology’s webpage on the PBT Initiative.

For further reading, here are some stories from the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Amusing Monday: Odd-looking pyrosomes more familiar in the tropics

“I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.”English biologist Thomas H. Huxley, 1849

Warmer-than-normal waters off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia may be responsible for an invasion of all sorts of creatures normally found to the south in more tropical waters. None of these animals has attracted more attention than the bright bioluminescent pyrosomes, which showed up last spring as the waters of the Pacific Ocean were returning to normal temperatures.

Pyrosomes — which comes from the Greek word “pyro,” meaning fire, and “soma,” meaning body —are large colonies of small tunicates. These are invertebrates that feed by filtering sea water. The individual tunicates, called zooids, hook together to form tubes. The intake siphon of each zooid is aligned to the outside of the tube, while each discharge siphon is aligned to the inside.

The pyrosomes seen in Northwest waters so far are relatively small, thus fitting their nickname “sea pickles.” Nevertheless, they have impressed scientists who have observed them. The first video, above, was made in late July during the 2017 Nautilus Expedition along the West Coast (Water Ways, Sept. 4).

Hilarie Sorensen, a University of Oregon graduate student, participated in a research cruise in May, traveling from San Francisco to Newport in search of jellyfish that had invaded Northwest waters over the previous two years. She didn’t find the jellies she hoped to see, but she was blown away by the pyrosomes, some more than two feet long, and she wondered what they were up to.

“I am interested in how short- and long-term physical changes in the ocean impact biology,” Hilary was quoted as saying in a UO news release. “With all of these pyrosomes this year, I would like to further explore the relationship between their distribution, size and abundance with local environmental conditions.”

Reporter Craig Welch wrote about the recent findings for National Geographic. He quoted Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center: “For something that’s never really been here before, the densities are just mind-boggling,” she said. “We’re just scratching our heads.”

Even more impressive are the giant pyrosomes that have not shown up in Northwest waters, at least so far. They are rare even in tropical locales. Check out the second video, which shows a pyrosome found in the Canary Islands in North Africa and estimated to be about 12 feet long.

The third video was filmed in Tasmania south of Australia by Michael Baron of Eaglehawk Dive Centre. It shows both a giant pyrosome and a salp, another colonial creature formed of larger individuals. For the full story on the pyrosome, go to the BBC Two program, “Unidentified glowing object: nature’s weirdest events.”

Another good video on YouTube shows a giant pyrosome in the Maldive Islands off southern India.

Oddly enough, pyrosomes seem to light up in response to light, according to information posted on an invertebrate zoology blog at the University of California at Davis. The colonies may also light up in response to electrical stimulation or physical prodding.

When an individual zooid has activated its luminescence, it will trigger a chain reaction throughout the colony with nearby zooids lighting up in turn.

“When many pyrosomes are present in the same general area it’s possible to observe a vivid array of bright, pale lights produced by the many animals,” said Ian Streiter in the blog post.

“It was just this sort of observation that led the great Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) to remark in 1849: ‘I have just watched the moon set in all her glory, and looked at those lesser moons, the beautiful Pyrosoma, shining like white-hot cylinders in the water.’

Ian concluded, “For those lucky enough to be at sea when they’re around, I imagine there are few sights as pleasant as that of the ‘moonlight’ produced by the fire bodies.”

Other information:

Finally, there is this audio report, “Millions of tropical sea creatures invade waters off B.C. coast,” with commentary from Washington state fisherman Dobie Lyons and zooplankton taxonomist Moira Galbraith of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. They appeared on All Points West, CBC Radio, with Jason D’Souza of Victoria.

Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel Prizes to make us laugh, then think

Did you know that a cat exhibits properties of both a solid and a liquid, or that a didgeridoo can be a cure for sleep apnea?

I had never even thought of such questions before I reviewed the list of Ig Nobel Prize winners for 2017 and watched last week’s awards ceremony on video.

The Ig Nobel Prize honors real researchers working on subjects that seem off-the-wall. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991. Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

This year’s ceremony, held Thursday at Harvard University, proves that researchers really do have a sense of humor. The theme was “uncertainty.” Between the awards presentations and demonstrations of the research findings, the program contains music, comedy sketches and a coordinated launching of paper airplanes from the audience. All are shown in the 1.5-hour video on this page.

I’m amused by the amount of work that goes into these research projects, many of which have practical, if somewhat obscure, applications to daily life. In fact, one physicist, Russian-born Andre Geim, received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 when he showed how to levitate a small frog with magnets, using the magnetic properties of water. He went on to share an actual Nobel Prize 10 years later for discoveries related to graphene, now considered an advanced building material.

Following are the 10 award winners with links to their published findings. Shown in parentheses is the time stamp for the presentation as seen in the YouTube video.

Ig Nobel Prize in Physics (14:00): “On the rheology of cats”

“Are cats a liquid?” asks Marc-Antoine Fardin as he accepted the Ig Nobel Prize. “I saw this question asked on the Internet. It was based on the common definition that a liquid is a material that can adapt its shape to its container.”

Marc proceeded to show pictures of cats snuggled into baskets, jars, vases and other oddly shaped containers, as a liquid would do. His paper, filled with references to fluid dynamics, suggests that a cat at other times has a high viscosity and a low affinity to adhere to containers — especially those filled with water — thus behaving more like a solid.

Ig Nobel Peace Prize (16:40): “Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome”

Researchers realized they were onto something when a didgeridoo instructor reported that his students were less sleepy during the day and snored less at night after playing the didgeridoo for several months. Careful studies showed that the effect was real. The researchers surmised that tightening the muscles of the upper airways may increase dilation and improve air flow during sleep, thus reducing snoring and bringing greater peace to other occupants of the bed.

Ig Nobel Prize in Economics (29:30): “Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal”

Two Australian researchers asked visitors going through a crocodile farm whether they would be willing to hold a 1-meter-long crocodile and then participate in a survey. People with gambling problems tended to place higher bets after holding a crocodile. One exception was among those who were in a negative mood, in which case they tended to bet less than those who didn’t hold a crocodile. The study supports the idea that emotions — not logic — drive the gambling impulse.

Ig Nobel Prize in Anatomy (33:35): “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”

During a discussion among 19 British doctors, the group wanted to find a way to encourage other doctors to conduct basic research. One doctor threw out the question: “Why do old men have big ears?” Others doubted the basis of the question, and a new study was born. It doesn’t seem that the question of why was answered, but the award recipient, James Heathcote, reported that, on average, men’s ears grow by 2 millimeters each decade.

Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (46:20): “Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect”

In a strange evolutionary process, females of the genus Neotrogia have developed a penislike organ to hold tight to males, while the males lack an external organ for transferring sperm. The recipients of the award were unable to attend the ceremony, but they sent along a video recorded in a cave where the insects were discovered.

Ig Nobel Prize in Fluid Dynamics (52:40): “A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime”

In a report about the sloshing effects within a coffee cup, wine glass and other vessels, Jiwon Han of South Korea found that a person is less likely to spill his coffee while walking backward, although that method also increases the risk of tripping. Another strategy is to hold the cup by its rim rather than its handle — or one can just put a lid over the top. Note: Jiwon was a high school student when he wrote the paper.

Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (55:25): “What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata”

Three species of bats are known to consume only blood for their food supply. One species, which was thought to take blood from only wild birds, was found to consume the blood of domestic chickens and even humans when their normal food supplies ran low. The research opens the door to public health concerns in the Caatinga forests of Northeastern Brazil, where the bats were found.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (1:03:35): “The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study”

Researchers in France discovered that a higher percentage of people are disgusted by cheese than by any another other type of food. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they were able to identify the location in the brain that becomes stimulated by the disgusting cheese among those who don’t like cheese, whereas the same effect on the brain is not seen among those who like to eat cheese.

Ig Nobel Prize in Congnition (1:10:45): “Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins”

While most people can easily recognize their own face compared to any others, an identical twin does not favor his or her own face over that of the twin. Twins recognize their own face and their twin’s equally well. But, oddly enough, they were more likely to be confused between pictures of themselves and their twins when they felt anxious or self-conscious.

Ig Nobel Prize in Obstetrics (1:14:20): “Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission”

Playing music to an unborn fetus may result in varying responses. But this study found that when the music is played through a speaker placed in the vagina, the effect is greater than when the speaker is placed on the abdomen. More than 100 women went through the procedure, which included an ultrasound image of the fetus. Even at 16 weeks gestation, those receiving the music through the vagina were far more likely to respond with mouth and tongue movements than those hearing via the abdomen.

Farewell to Cassini, which found wondrous worlds not so far away

I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the discoveries of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — including the finding of water on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.

Water vapor escapes from geothermal vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. // Photo: NASA

The 13-year mission ended Friday when Cassini, running out of fuel, was directed to self-destruct by burning up in the atmosphere of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a story on NASA’s website. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Cassini was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. NASA extended the mission for two years and then again for seven years, as new findings continued to emerge, with a later focus on Saturn’s moons. An amazing surprise came when a subsurface ocean was found on Enceladus.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

The video on this page reveals some of the feelings that welled up and lingered among the Cassini team after the spacecraft came to its fiery end on Friday.

If you are interested in space discoveries, I recommend a glance at the text, photos and videos shared on NASA’s website. I also enjoyed the “most inspiring, beautiful, and historic” photos taken during the mission and pulled together by Brian Resnick for Vox Media’s website.

As Linda Spilker aptly described it, “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying. But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”

Travels to the front lines of restoration throughout Puget Sound

In the Puget Sound region, the front lines in the battle for clean water, healthy species and safe seafood include experts from Washington State University Extension and University of Washington Sea Grant.

These are the folks who help property owners understand how their lives are intertwined with natural systems. These are the folks who lead armies of volunteers to monitor changes in the ecosystem and help the rest of us understand how we can improve the environment in our own way.

These folks in the Extension and Sea Grant offices seem to have a special connection with average citizens, and they are some of my favorite people.

I was pleased to see an article in Washington State Magazine about the role that WSU Extension offices play in the Puget Sound region. The article, by Rebecca Phillips, highlights the close relationship between Extension and Sea Grant, especially in Kitsap County.

With artful writing, Becky juxtaposes the beauty of Puget Sound with the ongoing perils that have disrupted the ecosystem. She describes the efforts to turn things around and save this magnificent waterway that so many people call home.

“From Puyallup to Bremerton, Port Townsend to Everett, WSU Extension and research centers are immersed in Puget Sound revitalization through a combination of investigation, stewardship and educational outreach programs,” Becky writes.

She goes on to talk about the various programs — not the least of which is the Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the associated Washington Stormwater Center, which is doing great work to figure out how to remove pollution from toxic runoff coming from roads and developed areas.

The cooperative extension system was established in 1914, linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to land grant colleges, such as WSU. Traditionally, every county in the country had a local extension office, but in some areas county offices have been consolidated into regional centers.

The National Sea Grant College Program, established by Congress in 1963, is a network of 33 Sea Grant colleges supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to promote the conservation and responsible use of the nation’s waterways.

I have covered most of the issues mentioned in Becky’s article, often in some depth, but her story touches on the essential elements of various restoration projects taking place throughout Puget Sound. It was nice to see such a comprehensive story involving the important problems of our time, with a special emphasis on the frontline folks addressing the issues. For some people, the article may serve as an introduction to the problems of Puget Sound. For others, it is a reminder of the local efforts taking place across the landscape.

Washington State Magazine is a product of the WSU Communications Office. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of WSU and worked in that office one summer while I was a student at the university.

Washington State Magazine

Streaming Solutions: Below the glimmering waters of Puget Sound lie invisible problems

Video extras

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Amusing Monday: Splendid underwater images from EV Nautilus

Exploration Vessel Nautilus has completed its journey north to the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where the research team captured plenty of intriguing video, including a close look at the sunken submarine USS Bugara (first video below). All videos are best in full screen.

EV Nautilus, operated by Ocean Exploration Trust, conducts scientific research along the sea bottom throughout the world, specializing in biology, geology and archeology. Education is a major part of the effort, and school curricula are built around live and recorded telecasts from the ship. In addition, a select group of educators and students are invited to go on the expeditions each summer.

This year’s expedition began in May in California, where the ship took data for high-resolution maps of offshore areas never surveyed before. That was followed by an examination of the Cascadia Margin, a geologically active area off the Oregon Coast where the researchers identified bubbling seeps with multibeam sonar.

Dives using remotely operated vehicles began in June when the ship arrived off the Canadian Coast west of Vancouver Island. One dive, which went down to 2,200 meters, captured images of a hydrothermal vent, where water gets expelled after being superheated by the Earth’s magma. Watch the video saved on the Nautilus Facebook page. In another video, the temperature at one vent got so hot that the researchers found themselves cheering as the temperature at the probe kept going up.

I am easily amused, but I have to say that I was intrigued by a 9,000-year-old living reef made of glass sponges that was discovered off the coast of Galiano Island, British Columbia (second video this page).

One amusing video was created while watching a six-gill shark in the Channel Islands off California. Suddenly, a crab came into view carrying another crab (third video below). “It’s an Uber crab!” one researcher commented. “Is that lunch?” another wondered.

Another great shot from the Channel Islands showed a big ball of shimmering anchovies along with a select group of predators, including several fish, a six-gill shark and a sea lion. This video can be seen on the Nautilius Facebook page.

The examination of the submarine Bugara (first video on this page) occurred Aug. 25 off Cape Flattery in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The event was live-streamed with commentary from scientists, archaeologists and historians, as well as veterans who served on the submarine. Bugara was built during World War II and later became the first American submarine to enter the Vietnam War after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

After its decommissioning in California, Bugara was being towed to Washington state to serve as a target for a new weapons system. On June 1, 1971, the submarine took on water during transit and sank to the bottom, where it has rested ever since. No injuries occurred during the incident. For historical details, go to Bugara.net, which was set up for former sailors and others associated with the submarine.

A longer 1.5-hour video of the Bugara inspection by ROV can be viewed on the Nautilus Facebook page. This is basically what was viewed online in real time by observers — including a group gathered at Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport.

Another interesting video shot in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shows a siphonophore, a colony of specialized organisms that work together to form a chain of individuals that together are capable of swimming, stinging, digesting and reproducing. Researchers working the 4-to-8-p.m. shift were able to observe more than their share of these interesting colonies, so the group became known as the “Siphono4-8” (video below).

Nautilus currently is moored in Astoria, Ore., where it is scheduled to begin the next leg of its expedition on Wednesday. The goal is to search near Oregon’s Heceta Bank for ancient coastal landscapes that may have been above sea level 21,000 to 15,000 years ago. More live sessions and archived video are planned. Follow these Nautilus links for details:

The Ocean Exploration Trust was founded in 2008 by Robert Ballard, known for his discovery of RMS Titanic’s final resting place. The 2017 Nautilus expedition, which will continue into November, marks the third year of exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The expedition has been covered by these news media:

Some toxic chemicals increase; others decline in Puget Sound fish

The importance of long-term environmental monitoring is driven home in a new study by toxicologists who have spent years examining chemical contamination in Puget Sound fish.

English sole sampling locations include both urban and rural areas of Puget Sound.
Archives of Env. Contamination and Toxicology

After 28 years of monitoring, researchers have confirmed that it is extremely difficult to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Puget Sound food web. In some locations, PCBs are actually increasing in bottom fish some 38 years after these chemicals were banned in the United States.

“Across the board, we’ve seen either no decline or even increases in our English sole, which is really kind of shocking considering all the remediation that has been going on,” said Jim West, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who I interviewed for a story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The report, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, provides some bleak news about PCBs, but there are hopeful signs for other chemicals. For example, researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that toxic flame retardants containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers seem to be disappearing rapidly from the ecosystem less than a decade after the most toxic forms of PBDEs were banned in Washington state.

The study went to some lengths to make sure the decline in PBDEs in Pacific herring was not related to other factors — such as size, since the average herring is getting smaller over time.

“I now feel like this is a solid trend, and that’s really exciting,” Jim told me. “I believe it is related to our efforts in source control.”

Of course, we wouldn’t know about these long-term trends in chemical contamination were it not for long-term monitoring efforts. I discussed the importance of monitoring with Sandie O’Neill, a research scientist with WDFW. She is an author of the new study along with Jim West and Gina Ylitalo of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. See the related story “Monitoring helps to reveal hidden dangers in the food web” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

“We are changing people’s perspectives about contaminants throughout the (Puget Sound) watershed, including how such contaminants get into the food web,” Sandie told me.

As Sandie describes it, monitoring is needed in many aspects of ecosystem health. It can tell us whether nature is healing itself and whether restoration projects by humans are improving fish and wildlife habitat as well as human health.

Lights could be creating problems for salmon, seabirds and more

Bright lights that affect the behavior of birds, fish and other wildlife are emerging as a significant environmental concern.

Endangered Hawaiian Petrel
Photo: B. Zaun, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Yesterday, for example, two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Hawai’i Department of Transportation for bright lights the agency controls at piers and airports. The groups say three species of seabirds on the Endangered Species List have been circling the lights until the birds drop from exhaustion, and some birds have died.

Meanwhile, in Lake Washington and the nearby Cedar River in King County, there is evidence that threatened chinook salmon are at greater risk from predators because of lights on the two floating bridges as well as industrial facilities in Renton.

In Florida, researchers have discovered that female turtles avoid coming ashore to lay their eggs where bright lights are present, and in Virginia salamanders have delayed their feeding efforts in the glare of lights.

The lawsuit in Hawaii was filed by lawyers for Earthjustice out of concern for three species of seabirds: Newell’s shearwater, a threatened species, and Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels, both endangered species.

The Hawai’I Department of Transportation has failed to protect the birds, as required by the Endangered Species Act, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council and the Center for Biodiversity. Because the lighting is injuring and killing listed species, the state agency must obtain an incidental take permit and initiate actions to minimize harm, the lawsuit says. For details, see the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief (PDF 1.4 mb).

Lights at airports and harbor facilities have been documented as the greatest source of injury and death to the seabirds, which migrate at night and become disoriented by the artificial lights, the complaint asserts. Some birds crash into buildings, while others end up on the ground where they may be struck by vehicles or eaten by predators.

Since the 1990s, the Newell’s shearwaters have declined by 94 percent and the Hawaiian petrels on the island of Kauai have dropped by 78 percent.

“Our ancestors depended on the ‘a‘o (Newell’s shearwater), ‘ua‘u (Hawaiian petrel) and ‘akē‘akē (band-rumped storm-petrel) to help locate schools of fish, to navigate from island to island and to know when the weather is changing,” Kauai fisherman Jeff Chandler was quoted as saying in a news release from Earthjustice.

According to the news release, the Department of Transportation dropped out of talks with state and federal wildlife agencies that are developing a habitat conservation plan to protect the seabirds. After Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue, the agency rejoined the talks.

“That’s a good start, but talk alone will do nothing to save these rare and important animals from extinction,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It’s long past time for the department to take action, not only on Kauai, but everywhere in the state that its operations illegally kill seabirds.”

Lake Washington chinook

As for the lights on and around Lake Washington, I have not heard of any proposed lawsuits to protect the threatened Puget Sound chinook, but concerns continue to simmer.

Lights on the Highway 520 bridge
Photo: Washington Dept. of Transportation

Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, salmon recovery manager for the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed, told me that the next regional chapter of the chinook recovery plan will call for further study into the effects of lights on juvenile chinook migrating down the Cedar River and through Lake Washington.

“The technical folks have identified light as a potential emerging issue,” Jason said. “We don’t have a good handle on what the impacts are.”

Lights on Lake Washington may be creating a double whammy for young chinook, Jason said. First, the lights attract the fish, which slow down their migration to Puget Sound. Second, the lights keep them visible to predators at night, so the fish may be eaten 24 hours a day.

“Juvenile salmon don’t have a nighttime respite,” Jason said. “At least that’s the hypothesis.”

Nonnative predatory fish include bass, walleye and northern pike. Native predators include cutthroat trout and pike minnow. Predatory birds include the western grebe and great blue heron.

An updated chinook recovery plan for the Lake Washington region is under review and could be finalized this fall. Predation is getting some additional attention this time around, Jason said, and the issue of lights is something that needs more study.

Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified potential concerns with lighting along Lake Washington in a series of studies going back more than 10 years. It still isn’t clear, however, how much the known problems with predators are exacerbated by bright lights. That’s why more studies are needed.

Following complaints from residents of Laurelhurst near the Highway 520 bridge, the Washington Department of Transportation reduced the amount of illumination coming off that bridge, and further investigation is underway. Check out the King-5 News report below.

Other species

With regard to other species, lights are known to have a variety of effects. Reporter Sharon Guynup outlined the problems for birds, turtles, amphibians, mammals and even insects in a revealing story in National Geographic News, April 17, 2003.

A group of British researchers from the University of Exeter compiled a list of the known effects of light on various species while considering the role of artificial lighting. See “The ecological impacts of nighttime light pollution; a mechanistic appraisal” in Biological Reviews.