Tweeting the Flu

  • A map the Johns Hopkins' team made using their Twitter method shows that the U.S. experienced a high flu rate the first week of January 2013, which the team says tracks well with CDC data. (Image by Michael Paul/Johns Hopkins University)

Flu season started early and came in swinging. Health officials say it’s been a moderate to severe flu season for most of the country.

Curtis Allen is a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In Michigan, it’s still at a high level of activity. Hopefully you’ll see less and less as we go on. But influenza is notoriously unpredictable and there could also be another peak,” Allen says.

He says a strain of influenza virus called H3N2 has been circulating this year.

“The H3N2 strain tends to lead to more severe seasons and a greater number of illnesses and hospitalizations and deaths among those who are 65 or older and those who have underlying health conditions.”

Allen says the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot this season if you haven’t yet.

Ugh… I feel terrible today.

It seems like every day somebody’s complaining about being sick on Facebook or Twitter.

It turns out that tweeting that you’re sick with the flu can be actually be useful for science.

Mark Dredze is an assistant research professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University.  He’s designed a method of tracking flu cases using Twitter.

I asked him how he can tell who’s really sick with the flu and who’s just talking about some celebrity getting the flu.

“In order to figure out if someone’s really sick, you need to go beyond just looking at what words they happen to use, like ‘flu’ or ‘sick’ and use a deeper level analysis of what they’re saying to figure out if they’re saying ‘I am sick’ or ‘I’m worried about getting sick’ or ‘I hope I don’t get sick.’ And what we’ve done here is we’ve developed some new algorithms that can do exactly that. They go beyond just the shallow words and try and get the real meaning of what the person’s trying to say.”

He says Twitter is a great resource for tracking illness because it’s publicly available.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do a very good job of putting together what the flu rate is in the United States, but they do it on a fairly broad level and it takes them a while to do that. It takes about two weeks for the CDC to put out today’s flu rate. So, that’s a little bit slow for making critical decisions about how to respond to flu epidemics, much like we’re seeing this year. It would be much more valuable if we could have up to the day or up to the minute estimates of what the flu rate is, so we could respond much more quickly as epidemics arise, with the critical pieces of information.”

I asked him how closely his Twitter method tracks with the CDC’s data.

“So we looked at this for the current flu season, and it’s still early because we’re in the middle of that flu season, but it seems our new method tracks much more closely with CDC data than previous methods for doing things with Twitter.”

But there aren’t a lot of elderly people or really young kids tweeting – and Dredze acknowledges that’s a limitation of tracking diseases with tweets.

“The demographics of Twitter are really key here. Certainly if we were interested in studying the elderly population, Twitter would be a very bad resource. Beyond that, Twitter is actually a very good resource for studying the population, at least in the United States, as it’s really become an incredibly popular tool. Right now, Twitter has about a half a billion tweets a day, and while many of those are from outside the United States, the U.S. makes up a significant percentage of that data. So, we really have a lot of people in the United States using this, which makes it great. Tracking the flu is really just the tip of the iceberg here. There’s a lot more data here, and a lot more interesting applications, and I think we’re going to start to see those emerge in the next couple of years.”

Michigan’s Energy Future

  • (Photo by Arnold Paul/Wikimedia Commons)

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

In Michigan, we get more than half of our electricity from coal.  All of that coal is imported from other states.

In a couple weeks, you’ll get a chance to weigh in on how we’ll use energy in the future.

When Governor Rick Snyder gave his Special Message on Energy and the Environment last fall, he said he wanted to hold forums around the state to talk about energy.

He talked specifically about our current energy policy. There are a couple big things in there. One is our renewable portfolio standard. Utilities have to get 10 percent of their retail sales from renewable sources by the year 2015. And there’s also an energy efficiency goal utilities have to meet.

“My belief is we need to increase the goals but let’s spend the next year, let’s spend 2013, having an open dialogue with all the participants, understanding where we’re at… how well we’ve done, and we’ve done well on some of these things.”

So, that dialogue is starting up with seven public forums beginning February 14th. (You can find a full list of locations and dates here.)

But state officials don’t want these forums to be a wrestling match with a lot of shouting.  You might think of them more like helping the government do its homework.

Steve Bakkal directs the Michigan Energy Office.

“Sure, will there be groups out there that will come and try to advance their interests? But what we’re asking for is not that specific policy recommendation. We’re asking for the facts that they base their policy recommendations on.”

In other words… the state wants your data.

If you go to the website they’ve set up for this purpose, you’ll find a dizzying set of 100 questions on all things energy.

Many of them are really technical… for example:  brace yourself… “What has been Michigan’s experience with self-implementation of rates?”

Not exactly casual water cooler chat.

But Steve Bakkal says the point of all this is to throw a wide net and get some solid facts.  Then, Governor Snyder will make recommendations to lawmakers at the end of this year.

The big elephant in the room is whether we should move away from using so much coal, and use more wind, solar and other renewables.

Governor Snyder thinks utilities should be required to get more energy from renewable sources.

Michigan’s two biggest utilities both stop short of saying yes or no to that idea.

Alejandro Bodipo-Memba is a spokesman for DTE Energy.

“It’s still a little too early to say whether it should or shouldn’t from our perspective in that we’re still trying to reach the 10 percent goal by 2015. But certainly, and we’ve said this from the beginning, that once we reach that threshold and assuming we’re on all cylinders to reach that, we are more than open to talk about next steps and I think that that’s kind of the tone the governor was taking with regard to that.”

HOLYFIELD: “Our position is that the process established by the governor should be allowed to proceed and move forward.”

That’s Jeff Holyfield with Consumers Energy.

“And then any decision about the renewable energy standard can be based on good hard facts and then there can be a discussion about ‘well, what is appropriate?'”

Others argue we shouldn’t spend too much time talking.

James Clift is the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. He says it makes sense to continue slowly raising our renewable standard.

“There’s a lot of businesses that have been created over the last five years in Michigan in this new field, and if we wait too long there will be a gap where we’ll go a year or two without building anything, unfortunately I think that would result in the layoff of Michigan workers.”

Study: Triclosan Increasing in Lakes

  • Bill Arnold and a student collecting sediment samples. (Photo courtesy: University of Minnesota)

When you use anti-bacterial soap, there’s a good chance there’s an ingredient called triclosan in it. It’s also added to things like body washes, some toothpastes, and dishwashing soap. You can find it listed as an ingredient on the label for many of those products.

But the Food and Drug Administration says there’s no evidence that using soap with triclosan in your home or office is any better at keeping you from getting sick than regular soap and water.  (Health experts say a good rule of thumb is to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds: the length of time it takes to sing the “happy birthday” song twice.)

The FDA says triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans. But the agency is re-evaluating the safety of triclosan in light of animal studies showing the chemical alters hormone regulation… and also because of studies suggesting that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology finds triclosan is showing up in freshwater lakes, including Lake Superior.

Bill Arnold is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota and an author of the study, and he joins me now. Professor Arnold, you and your team took core samples from the sediment of eight lakes of different sizes in Minnesota. What’d you find?

Arnold: “We found that in all the lakes there’s triclosan in the sediment, and in general, the concentration increased from when triclosan was invented in 1964 to present day. And we also found there are seven other compounds that are derivatives or degradation products of triclosan that are also in the sediment and also increasing in concentration with time.”

RW: How are these compounds getting into the lakes?

Arnold: “So triclosan goes through the wastewater treatment system, and the wastewater treatment plant actually does a pretty darn good job of removing it. 90 to 95 percent of it is taken out, but we use so much triclosan that the rest of it gets through, and three of the compounds we found are chlorinated triclosan derivatives, and they’re formed in the last step of wastewater treatment, when the wastewater is disinfected before it’s discharged and the disinfectant is chlorine. So that creates these three new compounds. And then triclosan and these three new compounds, when they’re exposed to sunlight, each of them undergoes a reaction that forms a dioxin, so that’s where the other four compounds come from.

RW: Are these at levels that could be of concern?

Arnold: “The triclosan appears to be approaching levels that could be of concern, because it’s known to be toxic to algae. So – we didn’t look at the levels in the water, but in the sediment, but in some cases they’re rather high in the sediment. For the other compounds we’re not sure, because the toxicity of them really hasn’t been studied.

RW: The trade group for the cleaning products industry continues to maintain the safety of triclosan.  But at the same time… both the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency are re-evaluating the effects of triclosan on human health and the environment… at this point, from your perspective, what’s the bottom line here for consumers?

Arnold: “I think this is a case where consumers can certainly put pressure on the market. So if consumers look at their products and don’t buy things with triclosan, they’re making their voice heard. Or they can also talk to the retailers and the manufacturers and tell them they don’t want this product if that’s the choice they make, if they don’t like the fact that it’s going beyond their sink and into the environment.”

RW: Do you think that we know enough yet to evaluate whether it’s hazardous – either to human health or to other organisms?

Arnold: “I don’t think we know quite enough yet. The toxicologists need to get involved and look at the full suite of compounds that are formed and then the human health people need to do their thing as well. I’m not qualified to do either of those. That said, Canada has decided they’ve got enough information and last year, deemed it toxic to the environment.”

Bill Arnold is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota.

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

Water Quality & Climate Change in the Midwest

  • Lake Michigan, as seen from the Empire Bluff hike. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

Leaders from the U.S. and Canada are getting together to talk about water…

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

There’s a pact between the two countries. It’s called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  It takes on all sorts of threats to water in our region… from toxic chemicals to runoff from farms and sewer overflows from cities.

Lyman Welch is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says when the agreement was first signed 40 years ago… it was promising.

“However, over the years, we have found the agreement has become somewhat more ineffective as new challenges have arisen.”

Challenges such as climate change and prescription drugs getting into drinking water. The two countries updated the agreement last fall.  Tomorrow, leaders will try to figure out how to implement it.  Both countries pledged to do more to tackle invasive species, adapt to climate change and clean up polluted areas.

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This is the Environment Report.

You probably remember that extreme weather was not kind to Michigan crops last year.

“We lost more than 80 percent of our apples and peaches, we lost grapes and cherries.”

Frank Szollosi is with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Our cherry farmers saw 90 percent of its crop destroyed because of the unusually warm winter last year followed by hard freezes.”

The federal government has put out a new draft report on how our climate is changing. More than 240 scientists wrote the report.  It’s called the National Climate Assessment.

Agriculture is one of the key messages of their chapter on the Midwest. The report says in the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops.

“And so that could initially be good for agriculture. But then you have to think about what’s happening with precipitation.”

Don Scavia is a lead author of the Midwest chapter. He’s the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

“We’re getting more and more extreme rainfall events and floods in the spring, coupled with a longer, drier summer. So that increase in the frequency of storms and heat waves could actually end up being bad for agriculture.”

He says the agricultural community will also need to find ways to deal with the potential for warmer springs with sudden cold snaps.

The report also notes that ice cover on the Great Lakes has been going down since the 1970’s, especially for lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario.  

Don Scavia says less ice could mean a longer shipping season. But it could also mean more lake effect snow.

“Because there will be more evaporation off of the Lakes, so initially that increased water vapor will end up as larger snow events and lake effect snow events, but as temperatures warm, they’ll probably turn into rain events.”

This is the third National Climate Assessment.  For the first time, it includes a chapter on ways we might be able to adapt to a warming climate.

“Much of the focus is rightly placed on mitigation – on what the countries need to do around the globe to reduce emissions, so we can stop this progression of moving towards a warmer climate, but we have to start helping people adapt, because no matter what we do at this point, the climate is already changing and it’s going to continue to change.”

He says that means, for example, looking at the infrastructure in our cities and making sure we can deal with heavier storms, and protecting people who are at risk from increased heat waves.

The report is open for public comment.

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

Group Questions Use of Fracking Fluids & Sturgeon Season

  • Michigan DNR Fisheries Biologist Tim Cwalinski with students from Michigan State University and a sturgeon. (Photo credit: MSU)

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

A group that wants to ban hydraulic fracturing in Michigan says the state didn’t follow its own rules in disposing fluid from wells that were fracked. Ban Michigan Fracking has learned the fluid was spread on public roads close to a lake and in a campground near the Mackinac Bridge last summer. Bob Allen has more:

State officials have said the fluids used to fracture deep oil and gas wells are to be disposed of carefully. Those fluids typically are millions of gallons of water per well plus a mixture of chemicals necessary to the fracking process.

Last summer, the Department of Environmental Quality allowed 40,000 gallons of fluid from fracked wells to be spread on public roads.

Paul Brady drives Sunset Trail in Kalkaska County to get to work.

He noticed it stayed muddy during a dry period last summer so he traced the wet road directly to a well site.

BRADY: “We know that tons of chemicals went down that well bore. And it came up and it was spread on our roads. And that is why we should be concerned.”

When the issue was raised, the DEQ tested the water coming out of the wells and tested the roadbeds.

Hal Fitch is in charge of oil and gas development in the state.

FITCH: “It turns out there really wasn’t anything in that water that was deleterious above normal oil field brine. But still…”

Still, the state has decided not to allow brine from fracked wells to be spread on roads to keep dust down.

But it says the group trying to ban fracking altogether is overblowing the issue.

Ban Michigan Fracking says it’s been waiting for months for the DEQ test data so it can confirm the results.

And it questions how the state agency “can be trusted to protect the environment when it apparently can’t follow its own rules in treating the liquid waste.”

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This is the Environment Report.

Lake sturgeon are amazing fish. They can weigh several hundred pounds and they can live to be a hundred years old.

Sturgeon used to be abundant throughout the Great Lakes region. But they were overfished, and construction of dams on rivers where they spawn hurt their reproduction. They’re now a state threatened species.

Tim Cwalinski is a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

He says these days, sturgeon are carefully managed.  There are a few fishing seasons for sturgeon in different parts of the state.

The season for sturgeon in Black Lake in Cheboygan County opens February 2nd. Tim Cwalinski says there are about 1,200 adult sturgeon in the lake.  The quota this year is just six fish total for all the fishermen combined.

“If you get a fish you have to report it in right away to DNR as one fish if another person gets one 20 min later on the ice, that’s the second fish. Once it hits six the season’s over.”

So the fishing season can be over in just a matter of hours.  Canons are fired and sirens go off when the season closes.

Cwalinski says fishermen typically use spears to catch sturgeon on Black Lake.

“This is all big holes through the ice, big shanties, warm heated shanties. Big holes size of bathtubs or even larger. You get your shanty blackened out so you can see down that water, down the 10, 15, 20 feet and people wait patiently, with decoys.”

He says the sturgeon population in Black Lake is strong enough to support a limited harvest.

“People were spearing sturgeon in there many, many decades ago. If we can manage a small type of harvest and keep that fishery going, that’s part of our culture too.”

The lakes around Cheboygan have a long history of spearfishing for sturgeon. There’s even a festival celebrating sturgeon season called the Black Lake Sturgeon Shivaree.

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

The Future of “Green” Cars

  • A demo of the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid drive train at the North American International Auto Show. (Photo by Mark Brush/Michigan Radio)

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

It used to be that fuel-efficient cars were not taken all that seriously. But that’s changed.

Jim Motavalli is the author of High Voltage and a blogger for the New York Times and Car Talk. He joins me from the North American International Auto Show.  Jim, there’s no such thing as a “green car” section of the auto show – because everyone is seeking better fuel economy. What’s driving that?

Motavalli: “I think what we’re seeing is green technology has been incorporated into pretty much all of the cars on display here, so the green cars aren’t in a little special penned-in area. That’s inherently a good thing. And maybe at this auto show 2013, we’re not seeing a lot of electric car introductions or plug-in hybrid introductions; what we’re seeing is “eco” incorporated into every model that’s introduced here, including the Corvette Stingray and the Grand Cherokee Jeep SRT, both of which have eco modes or eco buttons, because every automaker is being driven towards the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg fleet average, which the federal government is demanding. And also, California has standards: automakers have to produce zero-emission battery cars to meet that mandate. So, these things are very powerful drivers. Also, people want very fuel-efficient cars. So, even the big performance vehicles that were V8s in the past tend to be V6s or even turbo four cylinders now. So, we’re moving downscale and we’re moving up in terms of the average fuel economy. Even that Corvette could maybe get 30 mpg on the highway, and that would’ve been unthinkable 30 years ago.”

RW: You mention the 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 standard – how are automakers going to meet that?

Motavalli: “Automakers are trying very hard to meet the 54.4 mpg standard by 2025 with a whole panoply of technologies. It’s electric cars, yes, battery-electrics, nearly every automaker has that, but they also have plug-in hybrids and it should not be discounted that they have these regular gasoline cars with very fuel efficient engines. They’re also getting into the very low end of the subcompact market, with cars like the Ford Fiesta and the Chevy Spark, which they probably would not have competed in previously. American automakers are really looking at the lower end of the market in a way they hadn’t done before. So it’s no one technology is getting them to the goal; it’s a lot of things combined, but they are very much mindful of reaching that 54.5 mpg goal.”

RW: What kind of cars do you see most of us driving 20 or 30 years from now?

Motavalli: “I think 20 or 30 years from now most people will be in some form of plug-in hybrid or battery-electric cars. And I also think we’ll see degrees of autonomy in cars – that means self-driving. I think by that time if we’re not in just totally self-driving cars, we will be in vehicles where many of the functions are done for you. Like the car will be retrieved by pushing a vehicle on your remote control – it’ll come out of the garage and pull up for you. And then, when you need to put it away, you’ll push a button and it’ll go away. There will be things like that. Maybe not total autonomy, maybe you’ll have some function as a driver. But I think we’re definitely moving away from your having to control the car totally. I think that’s pretty much going to be a thing of the past – every trend is pointing that way. So I think you’re likely to be driving a semi-autonomous electric car at that time.”

Jim Motavalli is the author of High Voltage and a blogger for the New York Times and Car Talk. Thanks so much, Jim!

“Thank you.”

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

A Crystal Ball for the Great Lakes

  • Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr

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

The Great Lakes are incredibly complex. There are just a lot of moving parts.

A new project is taking on a giant task… to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes and what we might want the region to look like.

21 research institutions from the U.S. and Canada are collaborating on the Great Lakes Futures Project. 

It’s not just a classroom exercise.  Along with researchers and grad students, government officials from the U.S. and Canada are involved, and so are industry and environmental groups.

This week, people from around the basin got together for their first workshop. 

“I’ve witnessed us doing haphazard good things in the Great Lakes, but it’s always repairing the damage done, it’s always reactive.”

That’s Gail Krantzberg. She’s the director of the Center for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University. She’s also the co-chair of the project.

“This is an opportunity to actually set a path forward for the next 20-50 years, where everybody understands what needs to be done and we finally have a forward-looking vision about how to make the Lakes excellent and resilient to change.”

One of the things that’s sort of unusual about this project is that it’s not just a bunch of professors sitting around debating each other. Krantzberg says they intentionally put grad students in charge of the research.

“There’s a lot of gray hair here. We really need to get youth mentored now, so that when I retire in… whatever… 20, 30 years – I’m being optimistic – that there are excellent leaders who have taken up the charge of making the lakes great.”

So – these teams of grad students (with faculty mentors) spent the past three months researching the biggest things that drive change in the Great Lakes region.  Things like energy, economics, pollution… climate change… invasive species.

Matt Cooper is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame.

“You can imagine just pulling all this information together and trying to find a picture out of that and then projecting that into the future, we’re talking about literally hundreds, maybe thousands of variables that affect conditions in the basin. So daunting, very daunting.”

Yesterday, the student teams presented their work. They laid out a couple different scenarios for the future. So… for example, the team assigned to invasive species had four different possible futures.  They had to imagine what the future might look like if regulations on ships change… or what might happen if we don’t close canals.

It was a tough crowd.  The students got grilled.

Scavia: “The room was filled with some very hardened, practical people that’ve been dealing with these problems for a long time.”

Don Scavia directs the Graham Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s another chair of the project. He says they set things up this way on purpose. He says he likes making people a little uncomfortable.

“So what we have is a mix of innovation and ideas for the future with a sort of been there, done that mentality, and we think the tension between those two things are going to get us new ideas that wouldn’t come to the table if we did either one by themselves.”

And in fact… that’s one of the things that drew George Kuper to the workshop. He’s with the Council of Great Lakes Industries. 

“We look at future scenarios quite often and we too rarely have gotten the perspective of the people who are going to have to live in that future.”

Next, everyone – with all these different points of view – will sit down together and imagine four possible futures for the Great Lakes.  They’ll take a look at what policies are in place and where we’re heading as a region… and whether we want that kind of future. They’ll have another workshop, and then they’ll take the show on the road to Ottawa and Washington D.C. to get lawmakers involved.

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

Tax Credit Extension & More Uses for Treated Sewage

  • Green Energy Futures / Flickr

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

With all the buzz around the fiscal cliff in Congress… something happened that you might’ve missed.

There’s a federal tax credit – it’s called the wind energy Production Tax Credit.  And it was about to expire at the end of last year.  At the final hour, Congress extended that tax credit, and President Obama signed the bill. It now covers wind projects that start construction in 2013.

Peter Kelley is a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association.  He says the credit gives tax relief for the first ten years of a wind farm.

Kelley says companies had started laying people off last year with the future of the tax credit up in the air.

“We believe that factories that had a lack of orders for 2013 will start to get orders as contracts are signed and as development companies agree with utilities that they’re going to provide more wind energy. It may take a few months; it won’t be an instantaneous call back.”

He says in Michigan, there are at least 41 factories that make components for wind turbines.

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This is the Environment Report.

A new law in Michigan will make it easier for sewage treatment plants to sell or give away what’s left over when they’re finished. Rina Miller explains:

All the water we use in our houses and businesses goes down a municipal drain and ends up in a wastewater treatment plant. It’s processed and decontaminated and eventually becomes something called a biosolid.

Some of it then goes into landfills… and some is used as agricultural fertilizer.

A law signed last week will allow Michigan’s sewage treatment plant to sell or give away what’s called “exceptional quality” — or EQ biosolids.

Mike Person is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He says other states have allowed this for years. In fact, Michigan’s been buying a product called Milorganite that’s been generated and bagged by the city of Milwaukee.

“It’s often used on golf courses and things of that nature. It’s pelletized and what it does is provide a nice, slow-release form of organic nitrogen.”

The new Michigan regulations eliminate a layer of bureaucracy. It means these biosolids could be used in public parks, athletic fields, cemeteries, plant nurseries… and on your lawn and garden.

Person says that’s an environmentally smart thing to do… rather than putting biosolids in landfills or incinerating them.

Now, in order for these biosolids to be given or sold to the public, they have to meet certain criteria.

Dawn Reinhold is an assistant professor in biosystems and agricultural engineering at Michigan State University.

She says pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and viruses have to be eliminated. So do harmful metals.

Reinhold says she’s researching another aspect of biosolids: What happens to all those personal care products when they get into the water system?

“When you use things like antimicrobial soaps, and you’re washing your hands, that antimicrobial chemical is actually going down the drain, ending up in your wastewater treatment plant. A lot of that chemical actually ends up on the biosolids.”

Reinhold’s studies looked what would happen if you were to eat only fruits and vegetables grown in a garden amended with biosolids. She says the health risks would be a thousand to 10,000 times less than from using things like antimicrobial soap in the first place.

But there’s one area that still needs work. Reinhold says all those pharmaceuticals Americans use also end up in those treatment plants.

“And so we’re starting to understand what is occurring with these chemicals, but as far as being able to completely 100 percent answer that there’s no risk from pharmaceuticals in these biosolids, we’re not there yet.”

So Reinhold says using biosolids for landscaping limits your exposure to pharmaceuticals to just about nil, and if you’re not comfortable using biosolids in your veggie garden? Go organic.

For the Environment Report, I’m Rina Miller.

2012: One Hot Year

  • The redder the area... the higher the difference from average temperature, June-August 2012. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

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

The experts are still finalizing the data, but it looks like 2012 will go on the books as the warmest year in the U.S. in recorded history (ever since 1895).

Jeff Andresen is a professor of geography at Michigan State University. He’s also the state climatologist, and he joins me now. So… 2012 looks like it’ll be the hottest year on record for the U.S. What about in Michigan?

“Michigan, we’re very close. We can say with certainty at this point that it’ll be at least in the top three, if we average over the state as a whole, and if the average for the month of December turns out to be more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, we would move into first place. But right now, based on preliminary data that we have, I think we’re probably going to fall just short and either be the second warmest or perhaps the third warmest, again it depends on what the final version says, but we’ll have missed the all-time record only by maybe a couple tenths of a degree, so it’s very, very close.”

RW: I think it’s useful to clarify what we mean when we talk about weather vs. climate. So weather is essentially what you see out your window…

Andresen: “Right. And it’s a very, very important distinction between the two. We are essentially looking at the same variables, whether that be temperature or wind speed or precipitation, but we’re looking over different periods of time, or with respect to time. Weather tends to be associated with relatively short term: minutes, seconds, days, perhaps. Climate, on the other hand, is looking at the same variables, but over extended periods of time: decades, sometimes centuries or more. So it’s a very subtle but important distinction to make.”

RW: One of the analogies I’ve heard is that climate change is loading the dice so there’s a higher probability that we’ll roll more extreme weather events. Looking into the future, what kinds of extreme events could we see more of in Michigan?

Andresen: “Well, the projections for the future, in general, all of them call for warmer temperatures in the future for our part of the world, without exception. They also suggest wetter… some of the projections say wetter, some actually say drier, but the majority say that we will have more precipitation in Michigan. The key or the caveat there is that the timing of it might be different. Increases in precipitation are thought to perhaps be concentrated during the cold season, in the winter; maybe in the spring, we’ll have some of that precip falling, maybe in liquid form. And that is a concern because the forecasts for summer precipitation are basically level. Some of them even call for less precip in summer and certainly for agriculture, for natural systems, that’s when our water needs are the greatest. Plants need water during the warm season, the growing season, and that is a red flag certainly as we look ahead.

But in terms of extreme events, there is some suggestion that we will certainly see more extreme high temperature events; also more extreme heavy precipitation events than we have in the past. And one that seems almost counterintuitive or doesn’t make sense: but at the same time we have more heavy precipitation events and that would be like a 24 hour total – we may also see more or higher frequency of drought at the same time. It’s referred to as intensification of the hydrologic cycle, so we just have more extremes, whether they be high or low.”

RW: Jeff Andresen is a professor of geography at Michigan State University. He’s also the state climatologist. Thank you so much!

Andresen: “My pleasure.”

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