Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Dead and the Environment Part 3: The Talking Dead: What the Dead Tell Us About the Environment

Click for photo credit.
As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be spooktacular to introduce a new brief series on On the Brink that focuses on the dead and the environment. The third part of this three-part series is titled, The Talking Dead:  What the Dead Tell Us About the Environment. The previous posts on this series are listed at the end of this post.

When I was working on my Ph.D. on human alterations of soils, my advisor, Dr. Robert Eidt, told me that I needed to take archaeology courses so that I would have a deeper understanding of the significance of humans in environmental change throughout time. He always made the point that humans have been altering the planet for millennia and that this change could be mapped and quantified chemically and physically in soils. I took as many archaeology
The impact of humans on the environment is evident almost everywhere.
Here you can see the classic elevated "tel" or pile of debris present
in ancient cities of the Old World. This is the ancient city of Marib
in Yemen near where I worked for two field seasons in the 1980's.
Click for photo credit.
courses as I could. My experiences led me to work on a number of archaeological sites in Yemen, the Midwest, Florida, California, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Yet nothing demonstrated the direct impact of humans on soils as did work I completed with Dr. Lynne Goldstein on a cemetery excavation in California.

Here, we found that the soils impacted preservation of graves and human remains and that the graves impacted soil development. The soils in the cemetery were so incredibly variable that in some cases full coffins were preserved while in other cases we would find only coffin nails. In some cases bone fragments would be present and in other cases only teeth could be found. The high variability of the natural soils due to the complex geological setting of coastal California led to variability in preservation. At the same time,
The dietary choices we make are imprinted in our bones. What
will archaeologists learn about our modern diet if they ever
did you up? Click for photo credit.
we saw significant soil changes as a result of the decomposition of the coffins and their contents. Hard 
metallo-organic soil pans formed in some places that were too dense for standard archaeological excavation techniques. 

This specific example is but one way that the dead tell us about the environment. 

Over the past few decades, scientists have been examining the remains of the ancient dead to find out what we can learn from them about past environments. We can tell, for instance, whether or not their diet consisted of certain types of foods. These foods tell us about the relationship of our ancestors with their environment. It has been found, for example, that Neanderthals ate mainly a meat diet based on the ratios of nitrogen-15 to nitrogen-14. Their bones tell us that their diet is more akin to that of wolves than almost any other creature. 

What we choose to bury with the dead
can also tell us about the environment. What
common thing do you own that could tell us
about the our times? Click for photo credit.
Advances in skeletal bone chemistry allows researchers to reconstruct not only diet, but also environmental risks, such as proto-industrial lead exposure. By studying the chemistry of human remains we can also reconstruct environmental conditions such as climate, presence of particular ecosystems, and natural hazards. 

The way graves are preserved also tells us about the environment from the time of burial to the present. Perhaps the most obvious example of this comes from our understanding of the ancient bog burials of Great Britain. Here, peat cutters have found the nearly intact remains of bodies that were sacrificed hundreds of years ago. We know that the environment in these situations remained relatively stable their since the deaths otherwise they would not be preserved. This is in stark contrast to the recent findings of bodies released by a glaciers in Europe. In Italy, the bodies of soldiers from World War I have been found not that far from a body dating from over 5000 years ago. It is clear from their release that the environment that preserves glaciers and their entombed dead is changing.

But it is not just the skeletal remains that tell us about past environments. Did the ancient Norse treat their dead to a funeral on a burning boat because they couldn't dig into the frozen ground? Did some burial traditions evolve to prevent public health problems? Even the new rules put out by the Vatican  last week about handling the dead are responding to current environmental conditions. We have less room
What might your grave contents tell us about the present
environment? Click for photo credit.
for cemeteries and we are finding more compact ways to manage the ever increasing dead around us as our population continues to expand. How we handle the dead is a reflection, in part, of our current environmental condition.

Think about how the environment impacts the choices you make about your remains and how the environment will be impacted by your choices. What will archaeologists and other scientists find out about our times based on the choices that you make?

For previous posts in this series, click here and here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Dead and the Environment: Part 2, Arsenic and Cold Place: How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us

Click for photo credit.
As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be spooktacular to introduce a new brief series on On the Brink that focuses on the dead and the environment. The second part of this three-part series is titled, Arsenic and Cold Place:  How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us.

Like many in college, I earned my tuition and rent money by working lots of different types of jobs. The summers of my freshman and sophomore years I left the dorms at UW-Oshkosh and moved in with my sister and her husband who lived near where I grew up. I got a job at a unique midwestern small town institution: a furniture store and funeral home. The buildings were separated, but the tradition of the two businesses came out of the furniture and coffin making business. While I mainly worked delivering furniture, I did make occasional deliveries and pick ups for the funeral home which was located in an old colonial style home. One of the owners lived on the top floor with his wife, and the embalming and visitation rooms were on the first floor. Coffins were stored in a maze-like basement that I always imagined would be a wonderful setting for a horror movie. When new coffins were delivered, we always had to move the entire inventory around to make room. 

The smells of the furniture store and the funeral home were unique. At the furniture store, we often spent hours polishing the fine wooden furniture. The smell of Lemon Pledge was frequently in the air. When we got new deliveries of sofas, the "new car smell" of volatile organic compounds from the synthetic fabrics permeated the store. In contrast, the funeral home smelled of flowers and embalming fluid. Of course, the "new car smell" and embalming fluids are known to cause illnesses in humans.

Formaldehyde is often used to preserve biological specimens but
you wouldn't want to drink it. Click for photo credit.
Embalming fluids have changed over the years, but most embalming fluid today consists of formaldehyde, methanol, and glutaraldehyde. The most problematic component in the mix is formaldehyde which makes up anywhere from 5-50% of embalming liquids. Formaldehyde is extremely toxic to humans. Indeed, it is the toxic nature of embalming fluids which slows decomposition. Microbes and insects cannot do their natural job of breaking down flesh when it is infused with poison. Formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen by many agencies. Some countries have banned its use. In the U.S., we use roughly 5 million gallons of embalming fluid each year. 

Of course when bodies break down, and even embalmed bodies eventually decompose, the formaldehyde can enter the ground near the burial and eventually make its way into groundwater. Scientists have found high levels of formaldehyde in seepage water near cemeteries. This has caused concern in some areas of the world, particularly in Ireland, where gravediggers are worried about environmental exposure from formaldehyde as water enters graves they are digging. Low levels of formaldehyde are showing up in many groundwater systems. We are literally drinking the dead in some areas. The situation is so concerning that the UK published a document called, Assessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Developments

Click for photo credit.
But formaldehyde is not the only chemical of concern. Prior to the use of formaldehyde, arsenic was the main chemical used as a corpse preservative. The practice of using arsenic in the U.S. started in the Civil War when there was a need to preserve bodies so they could be returned home for burial. The practice soon spread and throughout the late 19th century it was very common to preserve the dead using arsenic. The practice was banned in the early twentieth century out of health concerns for those involved with embalming. Anywhere from 0.5 to several pounds of arsenic were used to embalm a corpse. Of course arsenic is elemental and does not break down in the environment over time like many organic chemicals. High levels of arsenic have been found in wells near some older cemeteries and there is great concern for archaeologists and cemetery workers who may find an arsenic infused grave in their normal activities. There is growing worry over this 19th century arsenic in the environment because it has been shown that even low levels of arsenic can be problematic for human health.

For many reasons, some of us choose to be cremated. But even in the fire we find there are issues. The biggest concern with crematories is mercury pollution. The source of the mercury can be found in the silver fillings that were common in my generation before the development of enamel fillings. When a body is burned, the mercury is released and enters the atmosphere. Scientists have found higher levels of mercury in soils downwind of crematories. There is very little regulation of crematories for mercury emissions since the total amount of mercury released falls below regulatory thresholds. For example, in Wisconsin, the release must be over ten pounds per year. Most crematories release far less than this.
Many cultures find ways to preserve the dead. How does the environmental
impact of preservation technology change over time? Click for photo credit.

All of these environmental concerns have prompted the development of the green funeral industry. You can be buried in organic baskets, be put in a box with a sapling growing from it, be put in a shroud and placed in a mass grave, or be part of experimental body farm. As I mentioned in the previous post, no matter what you do, your death will have an impact on the environment. We, or those who make decisions for us after we die, can opt to lessen that impact.

In the final post of this Halloween series, I will review what the dead tell us about past environments in a post called, The Talking Dead.

To see yesterday's post, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us, click here.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Dead and the Environment: Part 1, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us

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As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be spooktacular to introduce a new brief series on On the Brink that focuses on the dead and the environment. The first part of this three-part series is titled, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us.

Cemeteries have always impacted the environment in some way. Their very construction disrupts ecosystems and the concentration of decomposing bodies can cause public health problems. Indeed, the catacombs in Paris were constructed during the French Revolution because the cemeteries were full and the decomposing bodies crammed in poorly conceived graves, some of them missing heads, caused significant unease and health challenges for the multitudes that lived near the burial grounds. In cities like Paris, one has to find places to put the dead where they are not an inconvenience to the living. Sometimes, these choices have significant environmental and social impacts.

The creepy abandoned buildings on Hart Island, home to
New York's largest potter's field. Over 1 million people
 are buried here. Click for photo credit.
Let's take a look at the Hart Island Cemetery for a very scary example.

Hart Island is located in Long Island Sound just at it narrows to become the East River in New York City. It had many uses over the centuries. However, in the last two hundred years, it largely served the uses of the city of New York. It was a prison, a psychiatric ward, a drug clinic, and since the middle of the 1800's, New York's main potter's field. This is where New York buries the unclaimed dead. There are over one million people buried on this very small island in unmarked mass graves. Some notable New Yorkers were buried here. For example, the child actor and mid-century Disney star Bobby Dricoll, who is perhaps best known for his lead role in Treasure Island, was buried here after he died penniless in New York after a tumultuous adulthood. The first child to die from pediatric AIDS is buried here as well. What is notable about this grave is that it is the only one that is a single grave with a marker.

Perhaps the reason the cemetery is so frightening is that the government limits access to it. For years, the only ones who were allowed on the island were the prisoners and their overseers from Rikers Island prison who had jobs as grave diggers. Each borough of New York has a day that they can bring their dead to the island. Upon arrival, the prisoners put the modest coffins one on top of the other in trenches--one for adults and one for children. Recently, the city instituted a ferry service that brings family members to the cemetery once a month so that they can visit the final resting place of their loved ones.

The multiple uses of the island over time--from prison to Nike missile launch site--left many ruins on the island which add to the overall gloom of the place. It is not a place to venture to at night.

These hundreds of people enjoying a film screening in Bryant Park are
relaxing on the very place where hundreds of New Yorkers
before them were laid to rest. When it is their turn, where will these
New Yorkers find their final resting place? What will that place be
like 200 years later? Click for photo credit.
But Hart Island isn't the only potter's field in the city. Perhaps the most surprising cemetery in the city is the one that was located at today's Bryant Park. This lovely park was once the home to the city's main burial ground for the indigent. In 1853, when the city was looking for a place to hold an international exposition and fair called the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, it built a fancy crystal palace on the site of the cemetery. Perhaps the spirits were unhappy with all of the disturbance because the crystal palace burned down during an exhibition in 1858. It has been a park since that time. Yet, the burial ground is long gone. An extension of the New York Public Library now sits under the park where the dead once rested. Many of New York's most notable parks, particularly Union Square and Washington Square parks were once cemeteries. Some of the dead are still there.

A headstone in Trinity Church Cemetery in lower Manhattan. Why
did this very old cemetery survive centuries while other New York
cemeteries are now parks? Click for photo credit.
The use of space for cemeteries and how they are managed is certainly a contested issue. In the case of the Hart Island cemetery it was difficult to find information about who was buried there over the long span of time it operated (it is still an active cemetery). Records were destroyed in a fire and few care to maintain records of potter's fields. Compare this to some more notable cemeteries in the region where records are meticulously maintained and where one can get informative tours that showcase the resting place of famous New Yorkers.

Regardless of how cemeteries are managed, space is needed for the dead. How are cemeteries managed in your community? What impact do they have on the environment? How has cemetery management and use changed over time in your region? How are they integrated into the built landscape of your community? How have cemeteries been repurposed?

None of us get out of this world alive. But how will we impact it when we are gone?

In the second essay in this three-part series, I tackle the haunting problem of how the dead pollute our environment in a post titled, Arsenic and Cold Place: How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Top 5 Environmental News Stories We Missed During the Presidential Election

Every four years, the U.S. presidential election takes all of the news oxygen in the room. Newspapers and television stations focus on the day to day election dramas that have us all breathless waiting for the latest gaffe, insult, or faux pas of the candidates. As a result, we often miss other significant events. Today, I highlight the top 5 environmental news stories we missed during this year's presidential election.

Click for photo credit.
1. Hottest summer and hottest months on record. During last several months many worldwide temperature records were broken. We had the hottest summer on record and we broke record temperatures for all but one month in the last year. We continue to see that planetary temperatures are ramping up.

2. Hurricane Matthew devastates parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. The environmental damage from the storm continues to evolve, but public health issues in places like Haiti and North Carolina from flooding remain a concern weeks after the storm. Some point out that the warming waters in the region will only increase the intensity and likelihood of large storms in this region.

3. North Dakota Access Pipeline controversy heats up. In recent years, fracking of oil shale in North Dakota made it one of the most productive energy states in the U.S. However, the region has limited infrastructure for moving the oil from the sparsely populated state to places that can process the crude and distribute it to consumers. Recently, in an effort to improve infrastructure for the movement of oil, a pipeline called the North Dakota Access Pipeline was permitted to cross Native American lands. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is suing the government for permitting the pipeline without proper consultation. The case has many interesting implications that include issues of tribal sovereignty, fracking regulation, and economic development.

4. Sinkhole in mining area causes polluted water to enter subsurface. In August, a major sinkhole opened up underneath a slightly radioactive mining waste pile that held millions of gallons of polluted water. The water entered the subsurface and local residents were not told about the potential risk for weeks. 

5. Paris agreement moves forward. After the Paris climate agreement of December 2015, countries had to ratify the agreement. This was achieved on October 5th and the agreement goes into effect November 4th. It is the most aggressive global agreement on climate change to date, although it is probably not aggressive enough to stop global climate change. The targets are not as aggressive as many hoped. Plus, much of the agreement is not binding.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

James Lovelock Quiz

James Lovelock. Click for photo credit.
It's time again for an On the Brink Quiz! Since we are a few days from the Day of International Climate Action (October 24th), I thought I would feature a quiz about James Lovelock. He is without a doubt one of the more controversial figures of the modern environmental movement. Answers to the quiz are in the comments. Links to previous On the Brink quizzes can be found after the questions.

1. James Lovelock, an English scientist, first came to prominence while working for this important scientific organization. Name the organization.

2. His first major scientific claim was the invention of this device in 1957 that measures the presence of particular atoms or molecules in a gas. Name the instrument.

3. As a result of the invention referred to above, he was one of the first scientists to recognize the significant concentration of this anthropogenic chemical in the atmosphere. Name the chemical.

4. His work on atmospheric chemistry led him to develop a very important hypothesis that focused on looking at the earth as a living organism. Name the hypothesis.

5. The hypothesis, which influenced the thinking of many scientists in the 1970's and 1980's noted that the Earth can be seen as a living organism was developed in the early 1970's with an American biologist. Name her.

6. There are several components of this hypothesis that continues to intrigue scientists. Essentially, the hypothesis states that the Earth is a self-regulating entity and that it can process tremendous change, such as a volcanic eruption, by modifying itself. In other words, every action has a reaction and that there are feedback loops that regulate the atmosphere and biosphere. These feedback loops are symbolically like metabolic processes which led to the metaphor of earth as a living organism in the hypothesis. This idea of feedback led to extensive study of natural cycles on the planet. Name three important elemental cycles that demonstrate that the planet has feedback loops.

7. The hypothesis has been criticized in recent years. Why?

8. Interestingly, Lovelock has been a strong component of nuclear energy. Why?

9. In which field does Lovelock hold a Ph.D.?

10. Lovelock has most recently spoken about another emerging threat to humans that has nothing to do with the atmosphere? Name the threat?

Previous On the Brink Quizzes:

Gifford Pinchot Quiz

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bugs! It's What's for Dinner in 2030

A bug salesman in Thailand. Bugs are coming to the
American diet soon!. Click for photo credit.
Yesterday Hofstra University hosted a fascinating lecture by David Gracer called Bugs: Amazing, Beautiful, and Delicious. It was a terrific lecture that made the case that our modern society should be incorporating highly nutritious insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and wax worms into our diet.

In many ways this makes sense. We have more people on the planet than any time in history and difficulties in feeding everyone will emerge in coming decades--particularly if we continue to see an expansion of the western diet focused on beef, pork, and chicken. It takes a tremendous amount of land to produce the food for these animals. Plus, agricultural soil quality is declining at the same time concerns are accelerating over pollution caused by fertilizers. One solution to these problems is to add bugs directly into one's diet.

Gracer is preparing snacks for Hofstra
University Faculty and Students.

Of course people have been eating bugs forever and today bugs are part of the diet of many people in many corners of the world. I remember a bowl of sand worms in China a few years ago as part of a lazy Susan buffet--no, I did not eat them.

David Gracer is one of the leading advocates in the US for adding bugs into our diet. He is interested in the field of entomophagy, or the study of insect eating, and he has appeared on a number of television shows demonstrating how to eat bugs and add them into one's diet.

He also notes that there are a number of economic opportunities at the moment around insects. He believes that insects will appear more regularly in our diet in the coming years as proteins like beef become more expensive. It is a good time to get into the ground floor of insect entrepreneurial activities.

Some of our faculty enthusiastically went for the crickets.

After his lecture, Gracer invited our students and faculty to try a variety of crickets and grasshoppers. Unfortunately, I have a deep visceral disgust for eating bugs and I found the whole demonstration revolting. I felt my stomach turn over as he pulled out his bags of roasted insects. But, most of the other students and faculty members gave it a try. I was amazed that the audience was so open to chewing on the crunchy creatures. Perhaps Gracer is right. It is time to recognize that in a few decades bugs will be a regular part of our diet. New businesses will open to grow and process insects for consumption. Maybe we will see insect brands emerge like the microbrewery trend we have today: Millipedes for Millennials, Williamsburg Wax Worm Works, High Point Hives, and Montauk Moth Worms.
Gracer pointing out some particularly yummy

I don't think my generation is fully ready for the upcoming bug craze. I don't see us salivating over the delightful cilantro taste (according to Gracer) of stink bugs. However, by 2030 I suspect bugs will be a more regular part of our diet. There are already sources of bugs you can buy online for cooking or you can grow your own. Plus, you can buy the bugs processed in flours so that you don't have to deal with the ick factor of eating them whole.

If you want to learn more about David Gracer and entomophagy, check out his Ted Talk below.