Study: Phthalates Affect Child Development

  • The federal government has banned certain types of phthalates in children's products, but the chemicals are still in many other products including cars, flooring, shower curtains, cosmetics, shampoos and lotions. (Source: Toniht at Wikimedia Commons)

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. They’re used in all kinds of consumer products including flooring, cars and cosmetics.

A new study published today finds a significant link between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and negative impacts on their children’s development.

Robin Whyatt is a professor in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and she’s the lead author of the study. She and her team have an ongoing study of more than 700 mothers and their children that began in 1998.

For this particular study, they looked at about half of those mother-child pairs. They measured phthalate levels in the mothers’ urine and compared those levels to several developmental tests on their children, who are now three years old.

“As levels in the mothers’ urine went up, the child’s motor development went down significantly.”

She says the types of phthalates they studied appear to affect the babies’ brain development while they’re still in utero.

“Three of the phthalates were significantly associated with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”

Whyatt says they controlled for a long list of factors. They looked at tobacco smoke, lead, pesticides, and other toxic substances.

“We controlled for race and ethnicity, gestational age. We looked at marital status, we looked at a number of different indicators of poverty and also how much hardship a woman was going through.”

And she says still, there was a significant link between the mothers’ phthalate levels and their children’s development.

“Our findings are concerning because saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”

But she says more research is needed. And parents should keep in mind that any individual child’s risk is low.

But Robin Whyatt says phthalates are everywhere.

You can find them in cosmetics and hair products and fragrances, because they help retain scent. You might absorb some kinds of phthalates through your skin, or in your food, or just by breathing.

But Whyatt says there’s limited evidence to know exactly how you’re getting exposed, or what to do to lower your exposure. The federal government has banned certain phthalates in children’s products. Robin Whyatt says you can read labels and cut down on products containing phthalates, but there haven’t been any studies to know how much that helps.

For now, she says the best thing you can do for your child’s development is to spend time with them.

“Reading to your child, interacting with your child, that has more effect than any of these environmental toxicants we’re talking about.”

The study appears in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.


(music bump)

New research from the University of Michigan reinforces why it’s important to keep kids from being exposed to lead. Steve Carmody reports:

It’s long been known that relatively high blood lead levels can negatively affect children’s IQ.

New research finds it can also affect a child’s motor skills.

Dr. Howard Hu, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, studied children between the ages of three and seven in Chennai, India. Half the children studied had relatively high levels of lead in their blood. Those children tested significantly lower on motor skill tests… like using peg boards and copying pictures… than children with far less exposure to lead.

Dr. Hu says the Indian children’s blood lead levels are about two to three times that of American children. Lead is still a problem in Michigan….with children still being exposed to aging lead paint in homes…lead in pipes…and lead contamination in soil.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody.

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

Cleanup Jobs & Health Concerns After Oil Spill

  • Worker covered in oil works to remove oil among Talmadge Creek vegetation near Marshall, Michigan. (Photo taken August 2, 2010 by USEPA)

The federal government says it will spend six million dollars to hire jobless workers for Great Lakes cleanup projects. Sarah Hulett reports:

Conservation groups often make the claim that environmental cleanup and restoration efforts are good for the economy.

Andy Buchsbaum works for one of those groups. He heads the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation, which lobbied aggressively for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the initiative. It includes projects like toxic pollution cleanup, restoring wildlife habitat, and fighting invasive species.

Buchsbaum says projects like those will need lots of engineers, landscapers and construction workers.

“They’re the people who actually move the dirt, move things around, constructing sewage facilities, cleaning up contaminated sediment. All those activities have a variety of direct jobs associated with them.”

Buchsbaum says there are also indirect jobs created when those people start spending money on things like groceries and rent.

The Environmental Protection Agency is likening the hiring initiative to the Civilian Conservation Corps – the New Deal program that put single, unemployed men to work doing manual labor.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruprtured… spilling more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup continues. And people who live near the river say they’re worried about what they might have been exposed to when the spill happened… and what they might still be getting exposed to.

The majority of the oil has been cleaned up, but there are still significant amounts of submerged oil on the bottom of the river.

The Michigan Department of Community Health recently put out a report on the risks of contact with that submerged oil.

Jennifer Gray is with the MDCH.

“We concluded that in terms of long term health issues, so health issues that would stay with you after the contact was done, or things like developing cancer, that contact with the chemicals in the submerged oil wouldn’t really cause these kinds of effects.”

She says people could have short term health effects from contact with the oil – things such as skin irritation.

The assessment did not include any health risks from breathing in chemicals from the remaining oil. Jennifer Gray says her agency is currently evaluating air monitoring data from the early days of the spill… and says they’re continuing to look at other ways people might be exposed to the oil that remains.

The areas of the Kalamazoo River that were affected by the spill are still closed for recreation.

People who live near the spill site want local officials to conduct a long-term health study.

Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist from Alaska. She’s spent the past two decades charting health problems from people who live near the site of the Exxon Valdez spill and last year’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She’s in Battle Creek this week to talk with people affected by the Kalamazoo River spill.

“I could have zipped back in time and it would be the same things as Exxon Valdez residents and workers, the same thing I’ve heard in the Gulf for a full year and here now. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, these things are not going away. People want answers.”

Ott says it’s too early to rule out the potential of long term health effects from the Kalamazoo River oil spill.


“If the state is acknowledging there could be short term health effects, then that means there could also be long term health effects.”

The Calhoun County Health Department has petitioned the federal government for a long term health study on residents.

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

Swimming Upstream: A documentary from The Environment Report


The Great Lakes hold a massive amount of water. They contain one fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. In the U.S., there are more miles of coastline along the Lakes than along the entire Atlantic seaboard. We think of the Lakes today as a great place to play on the beach, to swim, to go fishing.But those huge, beautiful lakes are changing. So fast that the agencies which manage fishing cannot keep up with the changes. On average, a new foreign species gets into the Lakes every seven months. Each could be a threat to the lakes and the fish in the lakes. In this special one-hour documentary, we explore the health and future of the Great Lakes, and hear stories about fish and the people who catch them.

A Virtual Farmers’ Market for West Michigan

  • Barbara Jenness (left) and Amy Sherman (right) chat during the meet-up. Part of FarmLink's goal to create communities of people interested in promoting locally grown food. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

Michigan farmers grow the most diverse crops of any state besides California. Agriculture is Michigan’s 2nd largest industry and it’s growing.
But Lindsey Smith reports many Michigan farms aren’t big enough to distribute through grocery stores:

Barbara Jenness owns Dancing Goat Creamery in a small town in West Michigan.

“I was asked by Meijer to have my cheese, which is a joke. He asked me, ‘How much can you give me?’ And I said, ‘Five pounds a week.’” (laughs)

Jenness only has 28 goats…definitely not enough to supply all the Meijer stores.
Distribution is sort of a nightmare for small and medium sized producers. Jenness sells most of her cheese directly to restaurants around Grand Rapids. Her husband spends hours each week delivering it all. Then he helps her haul the rest to farmers’ markets.

Jerry Adams figured there had to be a better way.

“So much stuff is created here but because there aren’t easy distribution systems to get it into the hand of people that can use it, a lot of our food just goes bad.”

Last spring Adams created FarmLink… a virtual farmers’ market. It’s specifically aimed at chefs in schools, restaurants and hospitals. Farmers list all of the produce they have on the virtual store shelves. Chefs login to FarmLink and build a virtual shopping cart with the local food that’s available.

A couple days later, the virtual FarmLink store becomes a brick and mortar one.

(sound of people gathering)

Chefs and farmers meet up at Adams’ office…an old furniture factory turned into an office space. People casually come and go…grabbing a pint of locally-brewed beer before loading up plastic bins full of produce.

“The real jist of this all is that we are too removed from our food. I want you to talk to the guy growing your green beans or the woman making your goat cheese.”

I meet Steve Vanhaitsma, the guy growing your lettuce. Today he brought 57 pounds from his farm 20 miles west of here.

“All this lettuce was picked this morning. And they have it today so it’s incredibly fresh. Whereas if I’m buying from a normal wholesaler it’s coming from California, it’s already been in transit for over a week. And you can ask any of the chefs here, there’s just no comparison.”

Chef Chris Perkey picks up pork belly, leeks and 20 pounds of Vanhaitsma’s lettuce. Perkey is executive chef at the Kent County Country Club. Perkey adjusts his menu to reflect what’s in season.

But he’s also got farmers adjusting to his menu. One farmer starting raising ducks this year knowing Perkey will buy at least six a week.


“Our trouble’s going to be – we’re going to have to overcome and see what happens in the fall and the winter. January is not exactly the greatest time of the year for Michigan produce.”

Chefs will still be able to get lettuce in January because Steve Vanhaitsma’s greenhouse produces it year-round.

But Barbara Jenness’ goat cheese will be gone in the fall.

“As a mother of three boys I can tell you nothing was meant to lactate their whole life and so my girls all get the winter off.”

FarmLink is still working through kinks like this as the seasons change.

Other than that the business model is pretty simple – FarmLink takes a 5-percent cut of farmer’s sales and chefs’ orders. Sales are still pretty small – $2,000 on a good week, but the business is growing almost every week.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.

Jerry Adams wants the Farmlink idea to catch on throughout the state, so he’s giving away his software to anyone who wants to start a Farmlink in their town.

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

Collapse of Salmon in Lake Huron (Part 3)

  • C. J. Baker operates a salmon fishing charter boat for Puddle Jumpers Charters. He moved his boat from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan after the salmon fishing collapsed in Lake Huron. (Photo by Lester Graham)

The Environment Report in a collaborative project with Michigan Watch is looking at salmon fishing on the Great Lakes. Salmon fishing has meant a lot of tourism dollars for cities along the coasts. But, changes in Lake Huron have caused a collapse of salmon. In the final report of the series “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” Lester Graham looks at what happened and whether other lakes will lose their salmon.

Fishing for salmon on some parts of Lake Huron is still a big deal.

Ad: “This July for the first annual Mackinaw City Salmon Festival…”

But for most of the Lake Huron port cities, salmon fishing has collapsed. Blame it mostly on zebra mussels and quagga mussels. They were brought into the Great Lakes in the ballasts of foreign cargo ships. Quagga mussels now cover most of the bottom of Lake Huron… filtering out the algae and plankton which are the base of the food chain. That’s caused the collapse of alewife, a fish that salmon eat.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources continues to put about 1.4 million small chinook salmon into the lake each year, but last year. But, last year only a thousand chinook salmon were caught. Considering the cost of raising all those salmon, that comes to about $475 per fish caught.

The DNR is now proposing to dramatically reduce the number of salmon it releases into Lake Huron because there’s no food for the fish.

When the salmon started disappearing, so did the charter fishing boats and with them tourism dollars for the communities along Lake Huron… about a million dollars for each port city.

Many charter boats moved to Lake Michigan where salmon fishing is still good.

C.J. Baker operates a boat for Puddle Jumpers Charters. He moved from Alpena on Lake Huron to Ludington on Lake Michigan. He’s angry that the government hasn’t done more to stop invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels from ruining the Great Lakes.

“Because this stuff should be regulated by the feds and these ships should not be hauling this stuff in here. It’s a billion dollar industry here.”

Back along Lake Huron, the restaurants, motels, and other businesses that relied on salmon fishing tourism couldn’t just pull up anchor and move.

“The collapse of the salmon fishery out here has been devastating to the area.”

Russ Wellman operates Wellman’s Bait and Tackle in AuSable.


He says while many other bait and tackle shops went out of business, he’s changed the emphasis of his store, turning it more into a party store, offering snacks and whitefish sausage… and fishing lures for other fish still in Lake Huron.

He says, of course, for the DNR to continue stocking a million salmon a year makes no sense.

“When they plant these salmon in the river right now, I mean, that’s the only small fish out there and that’s what the walleye are eating, you know.”

In fact, since the disappearance of alewife and salmon, other native fish like walleye are doing well, eating those little hatchery raised salmon.

Jim Johnson is a biologist based at Michigan’s Alpena Fisheries Research Station. He says the small towns along Lake Huron have been hurt, collectively losing tens of millions of tourism dollars. Now the worry is whether we’ll see the salmon fishery in other Great Lakes collapse.

“In Lake Michigan, we’re talking a billion dollars lost in the coastal communities of that side of the lake if the chinook salmon fishery were to collapse — not that it will.”

Johnson is quick to stress Lake Michigan is different from Lake Huron. In fact, this year there were more alewife in Lake Michigan and the salmon fishing has been good. But fisheries experts are concerned.

Mark Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission which monitors fishing across the Great Lakes.

“It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario for that matter which are similar as well would follow the same pattern as Lake Huron.”

They’re worried that the Pacific salmon that helped make the Great Lakes a world-class fishing spot might disappear.

With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.

This series “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” was reported and produced by Lester Graham and Bridget Bodnar in a collaboration of Michigan Watch and The Environment Report.

I’m Rebecca Williams.

Big Returns for Subsidized Fish (Part 2)

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery in Brimley, MI on Lake Superior. The trailers are 'mass marking trailers,' used to tag every hatchery fish introduced into the Great Lakes. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Fishing in the Great Lakes wouldn’t be what it is today without stocking Pacific salmon in the lakes. But it costs a lot of money. Michigan fisheries managers say it’s worth every dime. In “The Collapse of the Salmon Economy,” a joint collaboration between The Environment Report and Michigan Watch, Lester Graham reports on the economic benefits of subsidizing salmon fishing in the Great Lakes:

In the 1960s, the state of Michigan first put salmon into the Great Lakes. It was a gamble to create world-class recreational fishing.

Michigan spends about $8 million a year stocking salmon and other types of fish. But the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t really know how many fish we’re catching for those millions of dollars.

Gary Whelan is in charge of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries.

“I wouldn’t say we have no idea. I think we have a ballpark. We don’t have a great estimate. We would like to have a lot better estimates than we have now. I would absolutely agree with that.”

A Michigan Watch analysis found the cost for each fish caught in Michigan waters ranges from a couple of dollars to $150 per fish caught, depending on species and depending on year. We used catch estimates used by some other Great Lakes states.

The Michigan DNR’s Gary Whelan questions those estimates and our calculations.

And… he says besides, we’re looking at it all wrong. It’s not about the cost per hatchery-raised fish caught; it’s about what those salmon mean to Michigan’s economy.

“You have lots of people, for example, who are catch-and-release fishermen who will never take fish home. But, they’re spending a lot of money to go fishing for this fish or the opportunity to fish for them.”

And stocking Pacific salmon does attract anglers from all over.

Depending on whose estimate you want to use, recreational fishing contributes between $1.5 billion to $4 billion each year to Michigan’s economy.

And it’s the anglers’ license fees and excise taxes they pay when buying boats and bait that pay for stocking the fish. Whelan says it’s a really good return on investment that’s funded by the excise tax dollars and fees of the people who want to catch those fish.

But, the same reason Michigan and other Great Lakes states really don’t have a good numbers on the value of fish caught causes other problems. They’re not really clear about how many fish they need to raise in hatcheries to make sure there’s enough fish for the anglers… without putting too many fish into the lakes.

Michigan and other states are now getting some help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They’re marking and tagging every fish that’s released this year.


We caught up with that operation at a federal fish hatchery on Lake Superior.

(sound of mass marking trailer)

Converted horse trailers are filled with equipment that puts a tiny wire tag on about 60-thousand fish a day.

Allen Lane is the Fish and Wildlife Service agent prepping things here.

“By tagging every chinook salmon, we’re able to determine how much natural reproduction is going on.”

Not knowing has caused some problems. In Lake Huron, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been releasing about 1.4 million chinook salmon each year, but had no idea how many chinook salmon were reproducing naturally in the lake.

Dave Spratt is a journalist with Great Northern

“These chinooks were going into all these un-dammed Canadian tributaries of Lake Huron and multiplying like fiends. I mean, it was clearly way more than the lake could support.”

The Michigan DNR now estimates that natural reproduction in Canada could have been adding 10 million to 15 million chinook salmon each year on top of those being stocked by Michigan.

Lake Huron couldn’t handle all those salmon at the top of the food chain. And at the same time the bottom of the food chain was collapsing because of invasive species such as the quagga mussel filtering out plankton in the lake. The salmon fishery in most of Lake Huron has now collapsed. That’s had huge repercussions for the businesses and communities that came to rely on salmon fishing.

With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.

Tomorrow, Lester looks at the collapse of the salmon fishery in Lake Huron… and concerns the same thing could happen in Lake Michigan.

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

The Collapse of the Salmon Economy (Part One)

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

The Great Lakes are changing so fast that the agencies which manage fishing cannot keep up with the changes. Some types of fish populations are collapsing and others are thriving… at least for now.
In a project between The Environment Report and Michigan Watch, Lester Graham has a series of reports on what’s happening and why. This first report looks at some of the history of fishing on the Great Lakes:

It used to be the lake trout was the fish to catch. It was big. It was tasty. But, by the late 1950s, that fish and others had been severely over-fished. And an eel-like, blood-sucking parasite called the sea lamprey further reduced lake trout numbers.

And those weren’t the worst problems for lake trout. A fish called the alewife invaded the Great Lakes through manmade canals. Lake trout starting feeding on alewives. But alewives caused a thiamine deficiency in lake trout. A lack of vitamin B1.

Mark Gaden is with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“The thiamine deficiency that the alewives cause is one of the top reasons why natural reproduction has been very slow to occur over the decades in the Great Lakes of these species.”

Catching a lake trout became rare.

With not enough lake trout to keep the alewife in check, the invasive fish population would grow to immense proportions and then a food shortage or a harsh winter would cause the alewife population to crash. In the 1950s and 60s, dead alewives washed up on the beaches of the Great Lakes in piles stretching miles along the coasts.

“If you were living in the Great Lakes basin at that time and your shorelines were choked with stinking masses of dead fish, would you want to go to the beach?”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources had no idea what to do. In 1964, the agency hired a Michigan native, Howard Tanner. He says right after he was hired, the Director of the agency, Ralph McMullin, a wildlife biologist and his deputy, a forester, met with Tanner.

“And they just said, ‘You know, we don’t know anything about fish, but the fishery division hasn’t done anything in years. Just take it and DO something.’ And Ralph, as he was going out the door, said, ‘Make it spectacular!’”


Tanner says he saw the alewife as simply food for a predator fish. Something needed to replace the lake trout as the Great Lakes’ top predator. His experience as a fish biologist out West told him Pacific salmon would do the trick and it would be “spectacular.”

“I’ve got the world’s biggest chunk of fresh water and it’s full of food and I’ve got a species of fish to put on it. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist — you had to be a fish biologist maybe — but there wasn’t any doubt.”

Tanner introduced Pacific coho salmon. His successor, Wayne Tody, introduced chinook salmon a little later. Over the course of just a few years, Michigan anglers rediscovered the Great Lakes. People from out of state started coming to the Great Lakes. Salmon fishing caused a boom in tourism.

And… suddenly dead alewives were not washing up on the beaches. Howard Tanner says it was just a cycle of boom and bust for the alewife, but people assumed it was the salmon.

“We said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not true. We must have said that for at least a minute-and-a-half and then we said, ‘Okay, we did it.’ (laugh) But it was serendipity all the way through.”

((Sound of boat))

It’s sunrise on Lake Michigan near Grand Haven. I’m on a salmon fishing boat with former Michigan fisheries chief John Robertson. He remembers when fishing just wasn’t that great on the Great Lakes.

“Over on this part of the state and, you know, the better part of Lake Huron there just wasn’t all that much, there wasn’t that much of a sport fishery.”

But now, a couple of generations of anglers have been catching Pacific Salmon on the Great Lakes. Communities along the coasts have become dependent on salmon to attract tourists and their money.

With Michigan Watch, I’m Lester Graham for The Environment Report.

Tomorrow, Lester looks at the growing cost of stocking salmon in the Great Lakes. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Special thanks to Bridget Bodnar for her research assistance with this series.

Oil Spill Update & River Gypsies

  • Dr. Emma J. Rosi-Marshall and technician Dustin Kincaid from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies introduce a mix of nutrients into the Manistee River, so they can track how the river processes the nutrients. (Photo by Tom Kramer)

Last night, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency
held a meeting for people living near last summer’s Kalamazoo River oil spill. Steve Carmody reports:

EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman told an audience in Marshall last night that cleanup crews have removed 766,000 gallons of oil from the Kalamazoo River during the past year. But she says there’s more work to do.

“There’s still significant submerged oil that’s spread along 35 miles of the river system that was impacted by the initial spill. Much of this is in three distinct areas: around Ceresco (Dam) in Battle Creek and at the point where the river enters Morrow Lake.”

Because there are still a thousand government and contract workers on the river, Hedman is not as optimistic as she was a few months ago that the river will completely reopen soon. The current cleanup operation is undergoing a periodic reassessment. Hedman says that will decide the future direction of the cleanup.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody in Marshall.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

This summer, a group of scientists are studying five large rivers in the Midwest… including the St. Joseph, the Muskegon and the Manistee rivers in Michigan. It’s part of a three year study of how large rivers process fertilizers – and how things like farming and wastewater affect the rivers.

Tom Kramer spent some time with this group that calls themselves “The River Gypsies”:

The forecast says there is a 50/50 chance of thunderstorms, but the River Gypsies can’t slow down for a little rain.

This group of 13 scientists, PhDs, grad students and undergrads has had three weeks to study five rivers in two states – packing up and moving to a new campground every three or four days. Picnic tables have become temporary laboratories.


Jennifer Tank, a professor at Notre Dame, says one of her students wasn’t all that prepared for this nomadic lifestyle.

“Now he did bring a Samsonite suitcase that weighs about 100 pounds into the field with him, but I know that next year he’ll have a great dry bag… so he’s learning as he goes along.”

Last year, the team studied five rivers in Idaho and Wyoming.

They’re collecting data on rivers ranging from pristine and crystal clear, to cloudy with mud and debris, and rivers that flow through farm fields and cities.

The goal is to determine how well these rivers remove or retain nutrients from the water. Specifically: nitrogen and phosphorus.

Too much can lead to excessive plant growth and the loss of oxygen in the water – impacting aquatic life.

Tank says for years, people have assumed rivers like the Manistee act like pipes carrying water and everything in it from beginning to end.

“We dump in our effluent. We let our agricultural runoff come into these systems. Because that’s what rivers do, they move stuff downstream. They are these pipes. But what we didn’t know is just how biologically reactive are these pipes. ”

And before now, there wasn’t a study that looked at how a large river processes nutrients. What this team does is introduce nutrients into the river and use sensors to measure how far downriver those nutrients travel.

Bob Hall is a professor at the University of Wyoming. He’s checking some of the instruments tied to some submerged limbs along the river.

“So here are three sensors, two of them are measuring oxygen concentrations every five minutes.”

The level of oxygen in the water confirms what they’ve come to expect. Jennifer Tank says rivers do remove a good deal of nutrients from the water.

“We probably were overestimating just how much was getting downstream or downriver at the mouth of a watershed. We were underestimating the potential role of the river.”

That means with all of that lawn fertilizer and wastewater pumped into rivers, much more of the nutrients are retained by the river than previously thought… and less makes it to the end of the river.

Tank says this means we need to manage these rivers for their nutrient uptake, not just recreation or scenic beauty.

“We owe it to the environment to manage the nutrients effectively. And not just use these as pipes to transport it to the middle of Lake Michigan.”

A few days after arriving on the Manistee River, the data is collected, the tents are folded and the caravan continues.

And next summer, the River Gypsies will be at it again.

They’ll be back out west studying five rivers in five weeks in three states.

For the Environment Report, I’m Tom Kramer in Manistee County.

And that’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Deconstructing Detroit

  • This 1930's bungalow in Southwest Detroit is being deconstructed. But first, the team has to clear the home of everything inside. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Nearly a quarter of the homes in Detroit are empty. That’s more than 79,000 vacant homes, according to the last Census.

Of those, Mayor Dave Bing’s office considers 12,000 to be dangerous. They’re burned out, or falling apart. They attract squatters and drug dealers. So the city is paying contractors to demolish them.

But another group of people says these homes don’t have to be demolished. They can be taken apart board by board… and the materials can be salvaged.

The non-profit WARM Training Center is teaching deconstruction classes to residents of Detroit who are unemployed. They want to create a new industry in the city and put some people back to work.

(sound of guy with sledge hammer)

Today, the student work crew is clearing out this 1930’s bungalow in Southwest Detroit. The porch and the roof are crumbling. The team’s pulling out bag after bag of trash.

“All the neighbors, they’re just delighted this is happening. It’s been a long time coming.”

Dorothy Young is sitting on her front porch next door, watching. She says most people on her street have gardens and they mow their grass. But the people who lived next door were hoarders, and the house filled up with junk. Eventually, they were foreclosed on. Then the house sat empty. And kids started breaking in, smashing the windows.

“People were coming in and staying over. I was afraid they would start a fire.”

She says she’s glad to see the house taken down… but she’s not sure there will be anything good left inside.

A video on deconstruction by’s Matt Grocoff

GQ article about demolition in Detroit


(sweeping sound)

James Willer is the site supervisor and one of the class instructors. He’s helping a group of guys clear out the garage. Once the site is safe… they’ll start the painstaking work.

“The last thing that went on in building the house is the first thing that comes off.”

The hardwood floors and the kitchen cabinets will go first. Then the windows and the doors.

Next, it’s the roof, then the walls, then the foundation.

Then, a crew will backfill the site, and you’d never know there was an 80 year old house here.

Willer says there’s a lot of value in these old homes. He says the lumber can be especially valuable. For example, a lot of older houses were built with heart pine – it’s from centuries-old trees, and you can’t buy it at your typical home improvement store.

“If we just treated everything as wholesale from the last house we did, there’s about $40,000 of materials there.”

That’s for everything from hardwood floors and windows to steel and siding.

But taking a house apart literally nail by nail is not fast. It can take two or three weeks. Demolishing a home takes just half an hour.

And demolished homes – along with their contents – usually go to the landfill. This is the third house the WARM Training Center has taken apart, and so far with the first two, they’ve diverted about 90 percent of the materials from the landfill.

James Willer says this could be a viable new industry.

“We have the building stock to be able to start to kind of jumpstart that economy, with the residents of Detroit, teaching them valuable skills that are going to make them more marketable in their professional careers.”

Dwayne Brown is one of the students working on the house. He says he feels like deconstructing the house helps preserve some of its history.

“I think about the people who first moved in here: what were they like? How excited they were when they first moved into their home, despite where they came from.”

Brown says he’s hoping to start his own business.

“And If we are to help the city of Detroit save its neighborhoods, well they need more people out here in the field. This is a dream and it will be a challenge.”

So far the city has demolished more than three thousand homes. The WARM Training Center is hoping officials will start letting them save some of the materials from the homes that remain.

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

Special thanks to Matt Grocoff for his production help with this story.

Big Rigs Get a Tuneup

  • The Obama Administration issued the first ever fuel economy standards for the biggest trucks on the road. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

When you’re on the highway, you see all those big 18-wheelers… the cement trucks and trucks hauling logs… the refrigerated trucks heading to the grocery store… pretty soon, all these kinds of trucks will be seeing some changes.

David Friedman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says these trucks are cleaner than they used to be.

“We’ve seen a lot of progress when it comes to the pollutants that cause smog or the particulates that get deep in your lungs, causing asthma and lung disease. Thanks to regulations from California and the EPA we’ve seen those big rig trucks cleaned up a lot on that end.”

But… he says when it comes to fuel consumption… and greenhouse gasses… not so much.

The Obama Administration is stepping in, and has just issued the first ever fuel economy standards for new medium and heavy trucks. It’ll start with trucks and busses built in 2014. They’ll have to reduce the fuel they use and their greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 20 percent… depending on the type of truck.

“These trucks represent about four percent of the vehicles on the road but account of 20 percent of our highway fuel use.”

David Friedman says these heavy vehicles also emit a lot of carbon dioxide.

“In many cases, they end up producing about three times the global warming pollution as your typical car. They have an outsized impact on oil dependence and global warming from transportation. That’s why this is such an important step.”

The White House says the regulations will save businesses $50 billion dollars in fuel costs – and more than 500 million barrels of oil.

The trucking industry and manufacturers played a big role in drafting these new standards. They met with officials from the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency over the past year.

The result is a pretty massive book of regulations – about a thousand pages.

“The rule is very complex – it’s because the nature of this industry is quite complex.”

Allen Schaeffer is the Executive Director of The Diesel Technology Forum. The group represents companies such as Chrysler, GM, and Caterpillar. Basically, all kinds of companies that make diesel engines, and technology to control emissions.

He says the manufacturers are pretty happy with the new standards.

“We think the technologies to do this are ready on the shelf for the most part and can be put into motion pretty quickly. Some changes will be not so visible, some will be more visible – you’ll be seeing tractor trailers looking even more streamlined, more aerodynamic in the coming years.”

And he says you’ll see something called “super-single tires” replacing those classic dual tires on the big rigs.

Still, not everybody’s thrilled with the new rules.

More about the new standards


Joe Rajkovacz is with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He says the regulations will hurt small businesses… such as the stick haulers who move timber in northern Michigan. He says it’ll cost a lot to comply with the regulations.

“U.S. EPA estimates are roughly $6500 per truck. We are incredibly, not just suspicious, we don’t believe it for a minute.”

He says big companies with larger fleets will have an easier time adapting.

“It’s going to severely handicap small businesses.”

But Rajkovacz says there’s no question truckers want to use less fuel.

“Look, I ran my own trucks for 29 years. I didn’t need the government telling me how to wisely use that most precious resource that was costing me the majority of the money I was earning.”

He says there are less expensive ways to cut fuel use, including the way you drive. So he wants to see more flexibility from the federal government to make it easier for small businesses to comply with the new standards.

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