Hard Freeze Hurts Michigan Cherry Crop

  • Cherry blossoms arrived early this year. To look for damage, researchers cut into the flower parts to look at four fruit buds in each blossom. Each bud is capable of forming a cherry. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station)

by Bob Allen for The Environment Report

A hard freeze has wiped out a big portion of the cherry crop in Northwest Michigan this spring.  The area produces more than half the state’s cherries that end up in desserts, juice and as dried fruit.

An historic early warm-up in March left fruit trees vulnerable to frost once the weather turned cooler again.

Temperatures broke records for the month of March across the Great Lakes region.

Climate researchers say there’s never been anything like it going back more than a hundred years.

“We’re seeing history made before our eyes at least in terms of climatology.”

Jeff Andresen is the state’s climatologist and professor of geography at Michigan State.

“And in some ways if we look at where our vegetation is and how advanced it is, it’s probably a month ahead of where it typically is.”

Andresen is careful to point out that this year’s early warm-up is an extreme weather event.

He says it far outpaces the previous warmest March on record in 1945.

He can’t say it’s a direct result of climate change.

But it fits the predicted long term pattern of change that includes extreme fluctuations.

During one period, there were several straight days of above 80 degree daytime highs and nighttime temperatures in the 60's.

At the time, Nikki Rothwell was checking the cherry trees at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in Leelanau County.

And she was seeing day-to-day changes in the fruit buds that are highly unusual.

“It’s just been uncanny. When I go out and look at those trees I look at what we saw yesterday in development and then I look at what we saw today in development and it actually looks like it kinda jumped to the next stage of development.”

Normally, that kind of growth would take weeks to occur.

But, Rothwell says, it’s hard to tell what’s normal anymore.

There’s a trend over the last 30 years of earlier spring warm-ups by as much as seven to 10 days, on average.

But the last date for a killing freeze has not moved earlier to keep pace.

Jeff Andresen at Michigan State has done a lot of that research.

With the extremely early warm-up this year, the fruit buds advanced to a stage of development that left them very vulnerable to temperatures below freezing.

And, as Andresen says, it was highly likely that temperatures would return to more springtime norms.

“There has never been a spring season, April, May or June, in which we have not observed freezing temperatures, or actually hard freezes. It’s never happened.”

And sure enough, on the last Sunday night in March, there was a prolonged freeze with strong winds and temperatures in the mid-20's.

It hit the heavy fruit growing areas in Leelanau County particularly hard.  

Frances Otto manages Cherry Bay Orchards north of Suttons Bay.

“I’d say we’ve got at least a 90% crop loss.” 

The official numbers for the Northwest region are losses of tart cherries in the 50 to 70% range.

Southwestern Michigan and the areas midway up the west coast haven’t been hit as hard.

But there have been more overnight frosts around the time of the full moon that continued to do significant damage to other fruits as well, such as apples, peaches and plums.

And there are other concerns besides a freeze.

Nikki Rothwell of the Horticultural Research Center says growers had to start spraying orchards to kill fungus that was released early because of the warm-up.

“There’s going to be a challenge to fight off more insects, more generations of insects and a longer season of fighting those pathogens.”

And there’s another problem for farmers who still may have a crop.

The fruit blossoms have a short window for pollination.

But now that more normal spring temperatures are back, it’s too cool for honeybees to fly.


Designing Buildings for a Changing Climate

  • (Image courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A group of planners and designers is arguing that we need to rethink the way we make our buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council and the University of Michigan recently put out a report. It’s called Green Building and Climate Resilience.

It says design teams should start making buildings that are better suited to a changing climate. That could mean redesigning heating and cooling and stormwater systems, and it could mean changing landscaping.

Larissa Larsen is the lead author of the report. We met up on a corner in Ann Arbor to take a look at a new high rise apartment building that’s going up…

(construction sound)

“This looks like a fairly traditional apartment building and that’s completely fine. We want to start thinking that this building is going to be inhabiting conditions that are different than what has been in Michigan for a long time.”

RW: “One of the things that stood out to me was when you wrote ‘while climate has always been integrated into building professions, our codes, standards and practices typically assume the future will be similar to the past.’ What do you mean by that?”

The report: Green Buildings and Climate Resilience

Great Lakes Climate 101

Climate change indicators from the EPA


LL: “In architecture, they use something called the typical meteorological year, and it’s a way to understand what we think are going to be the needs of the building from a heating, and cooling perspective, a consumption perspective, really. And it’s based on information from 1970. Well, we know in Ann Arbor, that in 1970, spring came about a week to 14 days later than it comes now. So we’ve got to make sure that the information we’re feeding into the models to generate what are the right sizes of equipment and capacity of those systems? We need to change that up. And so we actually anticipate not only what it is today, but looking ahead, what is it going to be in 2040, 2070, the end of the century?”

RW: “How is the climate expected to change in the Great Lakes region?”

LL: “In this region, we’re expecting warmer temperatures; more extreme heat events. Now, depending on what happens with emissions scenarios, people are thinking Michigan could emulate more of a situation like Kentucky all the way to the most extreme emissions scenarios, say, it might even be like northern Texas, which is a little amazing to me. So we’re going to see an increase in the number and size of drought prone areas, so we’ve got to need to be thinking pretty strategically how we want to use water in our buildings and equally as important, outside our buildings for landscape purposes.”

RW: “How do design teams hedge their bets and design for an uncertain future?”

LL: “One of the things we came upon in this report is a lot of the techniques we’re encouraging people to do are good things to do no matter what. One of the things I’m interested in is reflective surfaces. They don’t trap, hold and re-emit the heat, but they actually bounce it back. Another strategy is pervious pavement. That’s pavement that is very similar in appearance to asphalt but it actually has pores. That allows water to move through it. Not only is that good for stormwater or on-site water management, but we also think then it allows for evapotranspiration. Some of the water from the soil can actually move back through the pores and be a cooling effect on the surrounding area.

And then just good, honest site planning. Thinking about the floodplain. Our floodplains may be expanding and many communities right now are redrawing their floodplains to look at this. We don’t want to be putting buildings in those places if we’re anticipating that we may have more intense rain events.”

RW: “Larissa Larsen is an associate professor in the urban and regional planning program at the University of Michigan. Thank you so much.”

LL: “Oh, thank you, Rebecca.”

Tracking Coyotes in the City

  • Coyote tracks in the dirt. (Photo by Holly Hadac)

Coyotes have been making themselves at home in cities all over the country.    They’ve been showing up in big cities like Chicago and Detroit, and in a lot of suburban areas. 

But we don’t know a whole lot about Michigan’s urban coyotes.

A small research team from Wayne State University is trying to find out as much as they can.

But to do this… they have to act like urban coyotes… and become nocturnal.  Bill Dodge is a PhD candidate at Wayne State.  He heads up the research team. 

“They’ve found in other studies that coyotes especially around humans become much more nocturnal than say, out West.”

Dodge invited me to tag along on their 6pm to midnight shift one Friday night a few weeks ago. 

I met up with the group in a parking lot in northeast Oakland County. 

Bill Dodge puts on a headset and pulls an antenna and a mess of cables out of his trunk.

“I’m getting a signal on him but it’s really weak…”

They’re tracking a radio collared coyote that they trapped last summer.   

“We’ll go down the road a ways and take a listen to see if he’s closer.”

The team takes precautions to keep from being spotted by other people… as they cruise around these neighborhoods.

Holly Hadac volunteers with the coyote study.  She’s also a retired sheriff’s deputy.  She points out the red cellophane covering her car’s interior lights.

“My interior lights don’t go on when I start the car up.  I’ve got all the lights in my car blocked out, and that way keeps me incognito with what I’m doing.  So we keep our coyote safe so nobody knows where he is.”

“If someone doesn’t like coyotes, they might look for him.”

She says they’re worried someone might kill their research subject.

We drive around for a few hours… stopping to listen.

Usually… you’ll hear scientists refer to their study subjects by number.  But they’ve given this coyote a nickname.  They call him Lance.

When they get a clear signal from Lance’s collar they take compass bearings.  When they have three good points they can triangulate his location.

The team rarely sees Lance… and they don’t hear him very often either.  But halfway through the shift… we’re out in a big open field… when we hear him.  And he’s not alone… he has a mate.

“Yeah those are coyotes.  That’s definitely them.”

We listen for a long time, out in the dark. 

The night turns quiet again and we pile back into the cars.

We stop at a fast food restaurant and Bill Dodge pulls out his tracking equipment.  They’re mapping Lance’s movements to get an idea of what kind of habitat he likes.  So far, he moves around a lot at night… crossing a backyard here or there to get to a wooded patch or a wetland.

“We have found that he does cross major highways.  He has also used quite a few power line corridors.  So there’s a lot of connectivity in this area between these different habitat patches that he’s been using.”

And Dodge says urban coyotes spend a lot of the night hunting for food.  But he says they’re finding coyotes are not eating pets (but he does recommend keeping an eye on cats and small dogs when you let them outside, especially at night).

“Most of their diet consists of small rodents such as mice and voles they also eat rabbits a lot and we have found deer hair.”

And he says in Michigan, coyotes tend to be afraid of people.

“The ones we catch are just so afraid of us that they fall over when we approach them.  They’ll stay away from people.  Nobody has to worry about their small children.”

After my visit, the team caught and radio collared three more coyotes.  They’re hoping to get a better handle on how coyotes are surviving in the city… because like it or not, they’re part of urban life.

You can learn more about urban coyotes in this report on the "Ghosts in the Cities," a large long-term study of coyotes in the Chicago area by Ohio State University.

Michigan Sen. Stabenow: Stop the Asian Carp

  • Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow says we need to move quickly to stop the threat of the Asian Carp on the Great Lakes' eco-system. (Photo: Kate Gardner, Flickr)

By now, you’ve probably heard all about the Asian Carp.

The invasive species is making its way up the Mississippi River and there’s concern that if the fish are able to get into the Great Lakes that they could drastically change the waters’ eco-system.

Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow and Michigan Republican Congressman Dave Camp introduced the Stop the Asian Carp Act last year. The legislation required the Army Corps of Engineers to create a plan to permanently separate the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.


Stopping the Carp

I spoke with Senator Stabenow this week and asked her where things stand with the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan. “The Army Corps of Engineers is working on a plan to give us specific recommendations on how to separate the waters… The problem is they say they won’t have this done until 2015. And, so, what we’re trying to do is push them to get this done much quicker,” Stabenow explains.

The Mississippi River: Not the only entry point for the Carp

A lot of attention has been paid to the Mississippi River as the main entry point where the Carp could get into the Great Lakes. But, Stabenow explains, “We also, now, are looking more broadly than just the Illinois River and the Mississippi River going into Lake Michigan. We’ve found that there have been some fish seen going across Indiana – in the Wabash River. At certain times, during the year, it connects to the Maumee River in Ohio and then actually goes into Lake Erie. And, so, this is a real challenge for us. There is, I believe, nineteen different tributaries and ways to get into the Great Lakes – that’s my biggest worry.”

Chicago shipping interests

Recently, we’ve been hearing more about the idea of permanently separating the waterways rather than a temporary solution. “I believe that we ought to be closing the [Chicago] locks until we get to a permanent solution. But, there is a lot of pushback from Illinois and Chicago,” Stabenow says. Those who work in commercial shipping in Chicago are against the idea of closing the locks. They say it would hurt their multi-million dollar business interests. “Personally, I’d say the other side’s interests are – not that we don’t respect them – but they’re small in terms of economic impact compared to what could happen having the fish go into the Great Lakes.

How to pay for it?

A question remains regarding closure of the waterways: who would pay for a permanent solution?  

“No one knows exactly how much it would cost to shut down the Chicago shipping canals and replace them with something else. But, the price-tag would be big, it could run into the billions of dollars, “Rick Pluta, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network explains.

Michigan Republican Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee told Pluta, “I think there’s enough money certainly in the Great Lakes Restoration Fund that we could use to help with that problem.”

As Pluta explains, the Great Lakes Restoration Fund is used for, “Great Lakes cleanup, dredging and pollution prevention. Camp’s idea could divert funding from those purposes. But, environmentalist groups say restoring a physical separation of the two water systems, and eliminating the danger of non-native species back and forth between them, just might be worth it."

A Salmon Balancing Act

  • The Desperado heads out at sunrise to go after Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan. (Photo by Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)

by Peter Payette for The Environment Report

The people who manage salmon in Lake Michigan will have to decide soon how many fish to put into the lake.  The salmon fishery is a manmade industry in the Great Lakes.  It’s produced by planting millions and millions of fish in the lakes.  But keeping the salmon population in balance with the food supply is a challenge these days.  And some scientists are raising new questions about the salmon’s demise in Lake Huron and whether that can be stopped in Lake Michigan.  

Salmon were brought in from the Pacific Ocean.

Some fish have learned to breed in the wild but historically, if you caught a salmon in the Great Lakes, it was born in a tank.

But by 2002, that was no longer true in Lake Huron.  That year, researchers observed something they didn’t believe, at first.  Four out of every five salmon were  wild.

Jim Johnson is a state fisheries biologist based in Alpena.  He says they assumed there was something wrong with the data.

“And we thought maybe it was a tick that would stabilize later on. But every year since then it’s been about 80 percent. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan it was a permanent change.”

The change might sound like good news: more fish.

But there were too many, far too many.

They ran out of food and died off.

Today, the once famous salmon fishery in  Lake Huron is pretty much gone.

And Jim Johnson says it all happened rather suddenly.

“The Great Lakes are big waters; you think of things happening slowly in such big waters.  This was relatively rapid.”

What happened in Lake Huron was the fish adapted well to some rivers in Georgian Bay.

Johnson estimates that while the state was putting three million fish in the lake each year, as many as 14 million wild fish would be born in Georgian Bay.

That overwhelmed the food supply of the whole lake.

You might say that the salmon, an exotic fish, became an invasive species in Lake Huron and wrecked the food web.

Recently, scientists have begun to talk about the fact that Lakes Huron and Michigan are connected by the Straits of Mackinac.

They know fish pass through the Straits but have generally believed it’s a minor factor.

But one scientist in particular is now questioning that assumption.

Rick Clark does research through Michigan State University.  Clark noticed something unusual about fishing in Lake Michigan during the past decade.

He says the fishing has been nearly as good as it was back in the eighties: the best fishing ever on Lake Michigan.

But anglers spend about half as much time fishing as they did back then.

“So that meant that half the number of fishermen were catching just as many fish. Which is hard to explain except that there must’ve been more fish out in the lake.”

His hypothesis is that lots of fish born in Lake Huron are coming over to feed in Lake Michigan.

It’s a just a hypothesis, but it’s a troubling one.

Clark says if millions of wild salmon are coming over from Georgian Bay, the salmon fishery in Lake Michigan could collapse too.

But Mark Ebener doesn’t think that’s happening.

He’s a fisheries biologist for the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority.

Ebener says the salmon fishing is horrible in Lake Huron right now.

“If there really was (sic) that many wild fish being produced in Lake Huron and particularly in Georgian Bay and moving into Lake Michigan, we would see substantial better fisheries than what we see… they’re not going to make a beeline for Georgian Bay into Lake Michigan.”

Ebener says it would take centuries for the salmon to develop such a specific migration pattern.

But the managers of Lake Michigan are anxious about this very possibility.

And it is something of a wildcard as they decide how to maintain the state’s prized salmon fishery.


You can listen to this Environment Report series: The Collapse of the Salmon Economy to learn more.


Living Near Palisades

  • The Palisades nuclear power plant in Van Buren County, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

This year, federal regulators will keep a close eye on the Palisades Nuclear
Power Plant. The plant had three safety violations last year. That makes
it one of only four nuclear plants in the nation with such a bad safety

Lindsey Smith reports people who live by the plant near South Haven are still trying to figure out what the safety violations mean to them:

About 700 people work at Palisades every day. It’s one of the largest employers in Van Buren County. The plant is the county’s largest taxpayer too, with money going to a number of public schools, libraries, a hospital and local governments.

But the recent safety violations make some people who live nearby uncomfortable.

“My name’s Barbara Geisler. I live on a farm here outside of Bangor with my husband. And I’m Maynard Kauffman and I feel really nice about this place because it’s prime farmland.”

Geisler and Kauffman’s 22 acre farm has rich black soil. It lies about 11
miles away from the Palisades Nuclear Power Plant.

Kauffman didn’t think too much about the plant when he bought his farm back
in 1973, two years after the plant opened.

But by 2005, when plant operators began asking regulators to renew their
operating license, Kauffman and Geisler were at the plant protesting the

“And with a lot of people carrying signs ‘shut it down, shut it down’ and then it was after that that we decided when we built our house not to use nuclear energy for electricity.”

Instead, the farm is powered by two small scale wind turbines and a solar panel. Kauffman says it gives him a good feeling knowing none of their energy is coming from coal, natural gas or the Palisades plant. But the two still have a bad feeling about Palisades. They’re worried about the steel vessel that contains the actual nuclear reactor. That vessel is the oldest in the country.

“If you just have one accident and if it were only one in a million, it is a cost that we don’t want to have to bear.”

The company that operates the plant, Entergy, will need to update the steel
vessel or prove that it can withstand further use in order to keep operating
past 2017.

But that vessel issue is actually separate from the safety violations the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued Palisades last year. In all, the plant
had four unplanned reactor shutdowns, resulting in significant safety

“Were there mistakes made? Yes there were. And those have been corrected.”

That’s Mark Savage, a Palisades spokesperson.

“But did they operate safely at all times? Yes they did. Was there any consequences involved that would’ve harmed equipment or harmed people? No there were not.”

At the NRC’s annual assessment meeting in South Haven last night, another Entergy official said safety improvements have already been made. He says human errors, the main cause of the safety violations issued last year, have declined.

But the NRC’s Acting Regional Administrator Cindy Peterson says the company will still be under close surveillance this year.

“Quite frankly we won’t be satisfied until your performance improves.”

The NRC says the safety problems at Palisades are uncommon, but not enough to warrant a shutdown. They too insist the plant is operating safely, and if it weren’t the agency would and could shut it down.

NRC inspectors will spend thousands of man hours at the plant this year and beyond, until Entergy can prove the safety culture at Palisades is up to federal regulators’ standards.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith in South Haven.

Hurdles for Small Wind Project in Northern Michigan

  • Steve Smiley, project manager for the Northport turbine, on the ridge where the windmill will be built. (Photo by Bob Allen/Interlochen Public Radio)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Big wind farms generate not just power but a lot of controversy. There’s been quite a debate in northern Michigan recently about the effects on safety, health, property values and the landscape. Smaller scale projects called community wind are designed to avoid those criticisms. But, as Bob Allen reports, there are still roadblocks:

Northport is a picturesque village that sits near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. For the past two years, a group of residents there, mostly retirees, has been working to put up one small wind turbine.

Doug McInnis says the opportunity just about fell into their laps.

“There was this unique spot. There was a hill. And it’s near right where you want to put the energy. We’re right near a substation. I mean all these things come together and it just says, hey, this is a natural.”

The village owns the hill that rises just behind its new sewage treatment plant. From the hilltop, the turbine will supply half the electricity for the plant. It will be a fraction of the size of new commercial turbines.

State maps show that Leelanau Township has the best sites for wind energy in the Lower Peninsula.

McInnis says the group wants to do something now that will benefit their community for years to come.

“People are concerned about the future generations. And if we don’t start thinking and moving in other directions I don’t know what’s going to happen. It ain’t gonna be good.”

But moving in the direction of renewable energy even for a small village is not easy. The Northport energy group has some pretty impressive credentials, though.

McInnis is a former aerospace engineer. Another member is a retired automotive engineer.

They formed a private company and put up their own money to finance the turbine, along with more than a dozen other investors.

That allows them to use federal tax credits and incentives that would not be available to the village.

The investors expect to make their money back, plus four percent, in about ten years. After that, they’ll turn the windmill over to the village free and clear.

Then the turbine is expected to cut Northport’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year for at least ten years.

Despite the benefits of local owners generating clean energy and using it on site, community wind projects are rare in Michigan.

And Steve Smiley says it’s because the state makes them difficult to do.

“Every time we turn a corner someone’s putting up a wall in front of us.”

Smiley is the project manager for the Northport turbine.

He says, under state rules, there’s an incentive to keep these projects smaller by paying less for the electricity as the projects get bigger.

Originally, he wanted the Northport turbine to be twice as big but that meant less money for the electricity it would generate.

And Smiley says if state rules required a fair price for all community wind it be a lot easier to do.

“We wouldn’t have to go through tons and tons of paperwork and complications and have twenty or thirty people involved for a year just to try to do a piddly little project.”

But it’s not just state rules that stymie community wind. Sometimes local governments make it difficult. Emmet County, for instance, has a very strict noise limit for wind turbines.

That’s meant Chris Stahl had to jump through extra hoops to develop a small windmill for a farm and community kitchen near Cross Village. Stahl is president of Lake Effect Energy in Harbor Springs.

He was able to get around the county restriction by having neighboring landowners agree to a higher noise limit. But it means he has to install meters to keep track of sound at their property lines.

“We haven’t even broke ground on the project yet and we’re already over budget due to the sixteen month process to get the permits and also to buy the additional sound metering equipment.”

Stahl believes community wind will catch on as barriers are broken down and people see how it works.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Unlocking the Secrets in Our Cells (Part 5)

  • Dr. Madhuri Kakarala looking at stem cells from human breast tissue. Women voluntarily donate their tissue after various breast surgeries for research. (Photo by Mark Brush/Michigan Radio)

There have been breakthroughs in treating cancer, but what about preventing it in the first place?

In 1970, the nation launched a “War on Cancer.” The goal was to cure it in 25 years, but back then, researchers didn’t know what we know now. That cancer is a disease of our genes… “a distorted version of our normal selves” as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold Varmus said.

In the final part of our week-long series, I visited some researchers at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center who are looking deep into our cells for answers.


When I visited Dr. Madhuri Kakarala, she had me peek through a microscope in her lab.

“Just describe for me what you see here, and I’ll tell you what it is,” said Kakarala.

The last time I peered through a microscope was in a high school biology class. Those images were typically a hazy outline of something… maybe green… and with a hair in it.

But what I was seeing here was crystal clear. Tiny white spots on a gray background, and several spots had clumped together in the center.

“That looks kind of like a circular ball, right? A three dimensional sphere. That is a mammosphere,” said Kakarala.

I’m looking at stem cells from human breast tissue donated by women who have undergone some type of breast surgery.

They’re analyzing these cells to see how they react to a chemical many of us are exposed to – bisphenol A, or BPA.

BPA is used in plastic food containers, water bottles, and the linings of metal food cans. It’s even on money and some paper receipts.

Scientists at the National Toxicology Program at the Department of Health and Human Services say this about BPA:

In the case of BPA, the NTP and our expert panel expressed “some concern” for potential exposures to the fetus, infants and children. There are insufficient data from studies in humans to reach a conclusion on reproductive or developmental hazards presented by current exposures to bisphenol A, but there is limited evidence of developmental changes occurring in some animal studies at doses that are experienced by humans. It is uncertain if similar changes would occur in humans, but the possibility of adverse health effects cannot be dismissed.

It’s “uncertain,” so the researchers in this lab are gathering more data.

They want to know how this estrogenic compound affects breast cells. Kakarala says BPA can promote progenitor cell growth, and they want to know if it promotes the growth of some kinds of breast cancers.

This is just one experiment in this lab. It’s one puzzle they’re working on.

They’re also looking at how some spices, like turmeric and pepper, might keep cells from turning cancerous – how some foods and anti-inflammatory drugs might also help.

“What we are trying to do is look at those individuals that we know have an increased risk of developing cancer, and intervene with those people before they already have cancer,” said Kakarala.

Much of the research they do here falls under the umbrella term of cancer prevention research.

Cancer prevention can be cell biology research like this, or developing vaccines, or it can mean educating the public about the things that can reduce cancer risk – things like maintaining a healthy weight, reducing emotional stress, eating the right foods, and exercising (the Mayo Clinic lists 7 tips for  reducing your cancer risk).

Some cancer rates are rising, but if you look at all cancers combined the overall rates have been ticking downward since 2001.

More people have quit smoking, and that’s led to a drop in lung cancer rates.

More people are getting screened, and that’s led to a drop in colon cancer rates.

Dr. Dean Brenner heads up the lab where Dr. Kakarala works. He said the lesson is that cancer prevention works.

“That’s why it’s so important to think of dealing with cancer as a process that starts long before one sees the bad endpoint, which is the disease that everybody calls cancer and treats with chemotherapy, but rather that the whole process that we intervene early than that because we already know that when you intervene early, we see a reduction in mortality,” said Brenner.

The complex puzzle remains. Can researchers find the things that increase our cancer risk?

There are around 80,000 chemicals in our lives today. Only a fraction of them have been well studied.

Many health professionals say more needs to be done.

But all this research takes money, and today more money is spent on treating the disease than preventing it.

The National Cancer Institute is the biggest funder of research in the U.S. The government agency has an annual budget of more than $5 billion.

When we looked at the programs aimed at prevention, around 13 percent of their 2011 budget went toward this kind of research.

In an e-mail, an NCI official told us they spent closer to 27 percent of the 2011 budget on prevention. And they said much of the research they fund focuses on basic cell biology, which can lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention.

Dr. Kakarala said no matter what her funding situation, she’ll keep looking for answers.

In her first year of medical school she was diagnosed with an advanced thyroid cancer.

She said living through that experience has helped her. And it helps today when she’s in the lab or with her patients.

“It makes me really understand the suffering that they’re going through, because I’ve been in that bed.  And in the lab, it’s a huge motivator. You may or may not get your next grant, but I’m not giving up on this, because this is a mission. It’s not just a career.”

Dr. Kakarala said she feels like her experience drives her to solve these complex genetic puzzles – to learn ways to keep our cells from mutating out of control.

Suing Over Cancer (Part 4)

  • Kathy Henry's property was contaminated by Dow Chemical with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says it's likely to cause cancer. (Photo by Kathy Henry)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

As part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment… we’re talking about going to court. Some people turn to the courts because they think pollution has made them sick, and they think they know who’s to blame. But, the courts aren’t always the best place to turn with these kinds of cases. Sarah Alvarez explains:

Kathy Henry lived along a river in the Midland area that Dow Chemical contaminated with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says dioxin is likely to cause cancer. Henry’s property had high levels of the chemical. So she and a group of other people sued Dow. She was more than a little nervous that first day in court.

“I was a little overwhelmed, just really Interested in watching the proceedings.”

But what does she feel like now?

”We’re just frustrated to the point where I have no respect for the process anymore.”

Henry’s frustrated because her case started nine years ago. Their case isn’t over yet, but it’s not looking good for them.

“We just wanted the courts to force Dow to basically buy our house so we could leave. And we couldn’t afford to just pack up and leave on our own.”

Henry’s group has not been successful in getting Dow to pay for any moves, or for medical monitoring to look out for future health problems.

Let’s just say here that these cases aren’t easy for the companies being sued either. They take up a lot of time and resources.

Sara Gosman teaches toxic torts classes at the University of Michigan Law School. She says Kathy Henry’s experience is not uncommon.

“A toxic tort is a lawsuit for personal injury. These cases are complex, they’re difficult to prove, they’re very expensive.”

Let’s say, for example, there’s a case where people say a company released a chemical into their water-and now some of them have cancer. Sara Gosman says it’s going to get complicated right away.

“I think a lot of the difficulty comes from the lack of scientific knowledge about how people get cancer.”

And there’s one other thing.

“And since cancers don’t typically show up until 20 to 30 years after the exposure, you have to reconstruct after a great length of time what actually happened. That is the big issue around toxic torts.”

Sometimes the system works for plaintiffs. When it does they can win a lot of money and really change how companies act. But that doesn’t happen often. Sara Gosman says maybe the courts aren’t the best place for these kinds of fights, but that people keep ending up there anyway. Why? Because the laws that should protect people from toxic substances in the first place-and keep them out of court-are weak.

“Right now, the federal law governing these substances, the main federal law governing it which is called the toxic substances control act, TSCA, is widely seen as a failure. It doesn’t actually protect people’s health.”

In fact, that law… it’s basically been locked in a drawer. Gosman says the EPA hasn’t even tried to use it to regulate any toxic substances-at all-in over 20 years.

So what are people supposed to do? Well, there are alternatives to the court system. Like the 9-11 Health Compensation Act. People who got certain diseases from dust after the twin towers collapsed got some money automatically to pay for certain health problems. But that’s not happening on a wide scale. Until there are more alternatives people will still turn to the courts if they think the environment is making them sick.

And what advice does Kathy Henry, the woman who is suing Dow right now, have for those people?

“So all you can do is try. I wish them luck.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.

Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, we take a look at cancer prevention research and what we know about avoiding cancer before it starts.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Investigating Rare Childhood Cancer Cluster (Part 3)

  • Danielle Williams with her daughter Erika. Williams suspects something in the water or air is making kids sick. Health officials say at the moment, there's no clear connection. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories on cancer and the environment.

Today, in the third part of our series, we’re going to St. Clair County.

The state of Michigan has confirmed a cancer cluster in the county. Since 2007, eight young children – and a possible ninth – have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer called Wilms tumor.

Health officials ran a statistical analysis and found there are more cases of Wilms tumor in kids in the county than you’d expect to find.

Danielle Williams’ (no relation to Rebecca Williams) daughter Erika was the first to be diagnosed. She was seven years old.

“My daughter was playing soccer and she came home that night and we noticed she had a protruding lump on the side of her belly, and to the touch it was hot.”

An ultrasound revealed what looked like a six inch mass in Erika’s kidney. Erika had surgery to remove her left kidney … and that’s when the doctors discovered the tumor was the size of a football.

“In the hospital, she quit… she didn’t speak. She didn’t really know what was going on but she knew it was serious. Because they’re so little they don’t know the serious(ness) of it, but her seeing me so broken, she just sat there in silence all the time and didn’t talk.”

Williams says after Erika’s surgery, she went through radiation and a year of chemotherapy. Erika is in remission now. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control say more than 90 percent of kids diagnosed with Wilms tumor survive.

A few months after Erika’s diagnosis, another child in the county was diagnosed with Wilms tumor. And then more kids got sick. The youngest was a 6 month old baby girl.

“If children are getting cancer, you know there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong.”

Williams lives in Marine City, on the St. Clair River. It’s downstream from Sarnia, Ontario. That area is nicknamed Chemical Valley because of the complex of petrochemical plants on the river. There have been hundreds of spills in the past two decades. Several cities – including Marine City – pull their drinking water from the river.

Danielle Williams suspects something in the water or the air is making the kids sick.

But health officials say right now… there is no clear connection between any environmental factor and Wilms tumor.

Tom Sinks is with the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. He says it’s believed Wilms tumor could stem from something that happens before a baby is born.

“So if you translate that into doing an epidemiologic study you have to try to recreate what environmental exposures or what the conditions may have been for the mother during pregnancy or possibly before pregnancy .”

The St. Clair County Health Department has been following the Wilms cases for a few years.

Dr. Annette Mercatante is the medical health officer with the health department. She says they’re developing detailed survey questions for the families in the cancer cluster.

“Where did they live? What did they eat? Their medical history, their work exposure history, we’re just going to try and be very comprehensive.”

They’re also going to try to track down the placentas of the children. Hospitals often save placentas when babies are born. There’s a research team at the University of Michigan that’s hoping to study the placental tissue to see if they can find any clues about the Wilms tumor cluster.

Dr. Mercatante says it will be difficult to figure out why these kids are getting sick.

“I need to be honest. And the honest answer is we don’t know and we very well may not know for a long time to come, if ever. Especially in something as rare as this.”

But she says this cluster of children with cancer deserves a very close look.

Our series on cancer and environment continues tomorrow. We’ll hear the story of some people who turn to the courts when they think pollution could make them sick.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.