Silent Summer

Posted on July 20, 2011


Hot sauce on raw gulf oysters. Almost better than some BP crude! Do you taste the burn?

If I were to ask you what the top news of the day was, what would you be most likely to say for Wednesday, July 20, 2011?

Murdoch and hacking?

Obama and debt-ceiling?

The deadly heat wave?

Yet, in reality, the arbiters of information feed you what they want you to know, and bury what you really need to know.

One of the first things I review with my students in the Introduction to Journalism course is the definition of news.

While there aren’t any hard and fast rules about a “definition of news”, there are some basics that are readily agreed upon.

One part of the definition of news is that it must be timely and relevant.

Simple enough.  For example, I might suddenly say, “Oh, my gosh! There’s a new BP oil spill in Alaska!

Many of you might say, “Really? In Alaska?  Haven’t heard of it.”

Some of you might say, “I know! It happened a few days ago.”

So you see, that bit of news was neither relevant (it didn’t affect your life in any harsh way), nor was it timely (it happened on Saturday morning).

However, there’s something a bit more awful happening here.

Americans have the attention span of my dog Gwa-il.

. . . squirrel!!!


You see, we are a nation of forgetters.

We can barely remember what the name of last year’s super star talent was that won Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance?, or American Idol.

We can’t even remember what our POTUS said last week, and we have news media outlets try and tell us what he said without actually quoting him, or they try misquoting him out of context.

Which is why the BP oil spill should remind you of something that happened just last year and could actually be affecting you in ways you probably wouldn’t want to know about.

The recent Alaska spill was minute compared to the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.  They estimate that only about 2,100 to 4,200 gallons of oil spilled onto a gravel pad in a holding pond.  In contrast, the Deepwater Horizon spill was an estimated 210 MILLION gallons.  And, it happened into one of our most prolific fishing grounds supplying millions of pounds of seafood to Americans every year.

Luckily, back in March of this year, the NOAA and FDA authored a press release stating that gulf seafood was safe for human consumption.  They then also re-opened fisheries in mid-April, much to the relief and financial sigh of the local fishermen.

They dampened our fears by claiming:

Knowing that finfish can clear [contaminants] from their bodies within days, shrimp and crabs take a little longer, and shellfish like oysters take the longest time, we tested these various types of seafood individually to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

The seafood has consistently tested 100 to 1000 times lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the residues of oil contamination.

Thank god, for the FDA.  They sure do quell the nightmare of frankenfish wandering the sea eating oil-infested ghoulish crabs.

NOAA and the FDA also did an analysis of where the oil went.  About one-quarter of the oil was physically removed from the Gulf.  That left 75% of the 210 million gallons of oil to magically disappear into the waters of the Gulf.

A very small amount of the oil washed up on the shores of all the Gulf beaches.

So where did the rest go?

Back in July of 2010, Tulane University scientists found evidence that the oil and dispersant was entering the food chain.  The scientists found traces of the oil and chemicals in fish, shrimp and crab larvae.

More oil continues to wash up on the shore of beach towns along the gulf.

So why would the FDA and NOAA claim that the seafood was safe?

Primarily to alleviate the fears of the public.

But, now a new study is being done by the University of Texas to investigate the continued fears about Gulf seafood.

Fishermen are claiming that fish are sick, crabs are sick, and people are sick.

Despite initial tests that claim the fish and crabs and oysters are safe, there’s something that remains very unsettling.

We tend to forget.  Remember?

This summer, I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

In it was an interesting case study of Clear Lake, California.  This lake lies 90 miles north of San Francisco.  In 1949, the lake was treated for a gnat problem.  In 1954, the lake was treated again.  Both times, the lake was treated with a chemical substance diluted at less than 1 part per 50 million.  The lake was treated again in 1957.  At this point, grebes were dying at an alarming rate.

There was no evidence of infections.  Yet, when someone investigated the fatty tissue of the birds, they found DDD in the extraordinary concentration at 1600 parts per million.

So how did this happen?  The grebes were fish eaters.  The fish were plant eaters.  The plant eating fishes had built up accumulations up to 300 parts per million.  Fish-eating fishes had built up doses up towards 2500 parts per million.  The grebes were eating the fishes, and they were dying rapidly.  Their population dwindled from 1000 couples before the treatments, to just 30 couples after the treatments finished in 1960 (Silent Spring, chapter 4).

This isn’t the only case study that Carson presents in the book on water solubility of chemicals.  Yet, because Carson’s findings threatened the financial stakes of major corporations like Monsanto, and because those companies had direct ties to the government, she was highly criticized and attacked.

Do we really want to believe a government that allows tainted bottle water to enter our system with little to no oversight?  Are we really going to trust the government that allowed bisphenol-A (BPA) to be included in our daily intake of food?

So, while I was planning on driving out of the state of Florida in the general direction of a world-famous Gulf seafood location, I’m now wondering how concerned we should really be about the seafood coming from the Gulf.

I’m in favor of supporting local industry and local fishermen, but I’m not in favor of polluting my body or the body of the one’s I love.

Posted in: Environment, Politics