How the Hudson Got Its Flow Back

Question: How did Riverkeeper clean up the Hudson?

Alex Matthiessen: Well the Hudson is actually a terrific success story, it’s hailed internationally as a model of waterway restoration because of Riverkeepers work on the Hudson River and helping to restore the river which we’ve been largely successful at over the last 40 years along and in coalition with many other environmental groups and concerned citizens and so on. This has become as I said a model for waterway restoration and Riverkeeper has become a model for water, clean water advocacy. Riverkeeper is the first water keeper if you will, we were started in 1966, there are now 175 other Water Keepers working locally to protect their sounds and their bays and their coastal areas and their lakes and streams, all over the world. I think we’re on 6 continents now, 15 to 20 countries.

So we’re the fastest-growing grassroots environmental organization in the world and it’s all based on a very simple model which is local people taking into their own hands the need and the responsibility and the privilege of working on and restoring a local waterway that’s been abused through, you know, decades or centuries if you will of industrial activity. So it’s a terrific success story, I would guess that if the Hudson River was a ten, if you rated it a ten, you know, when the Lanape Indians were living along its shores and before Columbus showed up, it was probably a two by the mid ‘60s when we got our start and I’d say we’re probably roughly a 7 today and that’s real progress and, you know, you can swim the length of the Hudson on most days in most areas of the Hudson, absolutely safely, and people do that by the thousands every spring and summer and fall. There are some problems with swimming, which I’ll get to in a second, but people are back out on the river fishing, people are picnicking, kayaking in record numbers. The bald eagles have returned to the Hudson in droves, you know, ecologically speaking the Hudson has really come back to, you know, not to a fully restored river, but much, much better than it was in the past.

Question: What work still needs to be done on the Hudson?

Alex Matthiessen: So, you know, we’re in good shape relatively speaking, however that’s not to say that there aren’t some remaining obstacles and they’re serious ones. One is General Electric as everybody knows dumped 1.3 million pounds of PCBs, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, which are highly toxic to humans and to animals, into the river up around Hudson Falls over a 40 year period, a 30 year period from the mid ‘40s to the mid ‘70s. Those PCBs were banned in the ‘70s, but the damage had been done, the PCBs had made their way throughout the upper Hudson and the lower part of the river, the estuary and spread throughout the entire eco system. The Hudson River as a result is the largest Superfund site in the country; we have been working for 30 years, again, in coalition with some of our other environmental partners and concerned citizens, to try and force General Electric to clean up that mess, and at this point they can’t meaningfully remove PCBs from the lower part of the Hudson because they’re so dispersed, it’d be impossible to try and collect them.

But that 40 mile stretch between their facilities up in Hudson Falls and the federal dam at Troy is a hot spot, there’s PCBs shore to shore, bank to bank and there’s a great opportunity to clean those up because that 40 mile stretch serves as an ongoing source of 500 pounds of PCBs that come over the dam every year, down to the lower estuary and that means that the PCB levels in fish are being maintained at levels that are too high, that exceed the FDA and the EPA regulations. So that’s why we had to close a number of the commercial fisheries on the Hudson like the striped bass and eel and others because of the PCB contamination. So until we remove, you know, the couple hundred thousand pounds of PCBs that are in that hotspot area, we’re not going to remove or eliminate the source of PCBs down in the lower part of the river and until we do that we won’t be able to reopen those fisheries.

So that’s one issue, another issue is sewerage, you know, the Clean Water Act helped us to force municipalities to build these sewerage treatment plants up and down the river. But now these plants are 30, 40 years old some of them and they’re starting to fail. So we need serious help from the federal government in particular and from the state government as well to get these municipalities the money they need to upgrade or to replace these plants because we’re now starting to have ongoing regular discharges, unintended discharges of raw or partially treated sewerage into the Hudson and if we continue at this pace, swimming in the Hudson at one point will no longer be safe and even now, you don’t wanna swim after it’s been raining, near one of these sewerage treatment plants, especially ones that combine their sewerage and their storm water because you almost certainly will have a discharge.

So it’s a major problem in New York City; it’s a major problem in Albany; it’s a problem in Yonkers and some of the other larger towns along the river. So, you know, there’s definitely still a number of issues that are of concern. One more that I just really wanna mention because it reflects a new report that we’re just about to issue, which is despite what we had thought, while there were improvements over the last 40 years, a lot of the signature fish of the Hudson are actually in various states of decline; 10 of the 13 fish that our researchers looked at are in various states of decline. We’re talking about the American Shad, the Atlantic Sturgeon, the Tom Cod, the American Eel, these fish are in trouble and there’s all kinds of possible explanations. One is actually global warming, potentially, we’ve already started to see the Hudson River average temperature’s going up by a couple of degrees even now and that can radically affect a lot of these species ability to come up into the river and spawn, reproduce successfully.

Secondly, you’ve got a lot of invasive species like the Zebra Mussel which have radically changed the food chain in the Hudson and basically removed a lot of the phytoplankton and other food sources of some of these fish. You’ve got these old, 5 old antiquated power plants on the Hudson which withdraw huge volumes of water from the Hudson every single day. Indian Point, which is the nuclear facility, alone, withdraws 2.4 billion gallons per day from the Hudson. That is almost twice as all of New York City combined uses on a daily basis in terms of water consumption. So this one plant is causing enormous impacts.

The inside story of one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in U.S. history.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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