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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 15, 2017

Air Date: December 15, 2017



Thousands of Lead-Poisoned Communities

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Flint, Michigan became a flashpoint for excess blood lead levels in children, putting their brains and social development at risk. Now a data based investigation by Reuters reporters Michael Pell and Joshua Schneyer has found over 3,800 neighborhoods around the country with children with blood levels of the toxic metal double those in Flint. Michael Pell tells host Steve Curwood where and for whom the risk is greatest. (14:03)

Sunshine Heals Hearts / Matt Hoisch

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Heart attacks cut off the supply of oxygen, often due to blocked arteries. Living on Earth’s Matt Hoisch reports that scientists from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania have found photosynthesis that generates oxygen could help damaged hearts recover. (01:46)

Rx Park

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Getting outside is a prescription for better health, says pediatrician Robert Zarr. Dr. Zarr, who founded and directs the nonprofit Park Rx America, prescribes going outdoors, because, he says, seeing trees and hearing birds can help treat childhood maladies such as obesity, depression and disruptive behavior. Dr. Zarr joins host Steve Curwood to examine just why a breath of fresh air is so healing. (09:14)

Beyond The Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra notes weaker enforcement of government smog standards, and with host Steve Curwood, looks into some of the political pressures that stoked President Trump’s decision to shrink two National Monuments. Then, they remember three decades ago when the troubling underwater phenomenon known as coral bleaching was first noticed. (03:49)

Spinning Arctic Waters

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In the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada, a massive, 60-mile-diameter pool of cold, fresh water and sea ice spins clockwise to the tune of the Arctic winds. The Beaufort Gyre is a natural phenomenon, but something has gone awry with the way it operates, since its periodic reversal is way overdue. Canadian journalist Ed Struzik tells Host Steve Curwood why climate disruption is likely the culprit behind this gyre getting “stuck,” and why its eventual reversal could send chilly water straight to western Europe, plunging it into brutal winters and disrupting fisheries. (14:36)

BirdNote®: Spruce Grouse in the Boreal Forest / Michael Stein

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The Spruce Grouse, a plump, chicken-like bird, is perfectly adapted to the harsh landscape of the boreal forest. In this week’s BirdNote®, Michael Stein explains how the Spruce Grouse survives on an exclusive diet of pine needles. (02:04)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood

GUESTS: Michael Pell, Robert Zarr, Ed Struzik

REPORTERS: Matt Hoisch, Michael Stein, Peter Dykstra


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Lead is one of the most dangerous and destructive elements for brain development, and kids in nearly 4,000 US communities have troubling levels.

PELL: So what we found was that Flint was not the only community that was suffering from this problem but there were hundreds of communities across the country that are suffering with childhood lead exposure. And we found that those county-wide maps not only didn't really show the problem areas, but they actually could provide a false sense of security.

CURWOOD: Also the growing popularity of a natural treatment for childhood obesity, depression and behavioral problems.

ZARR: Pediatrics used to be a field of, you know, runny noses, ear infections, vaccinations, and it really wasn't one of chronic disease. Well, it is now.

CURWOOD: Meet the doctor who cures with a dose of the great outdoors – even if it’s just a local park. That's this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]


Thousands of Lead-Poisoned Communities

St. Joseph, Missouri, has neighborhoods filled with aged homes and high rates of lead poisoning. Here, Kadin Mignery, 2, plays on his front porch. Kadin was diagnosed with lead poisoning, prompting his mother to change his diet and repaint the home’s interior. (Photo: courtesy of REUTERS/Whitney Curtis)

CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Homicide. That’s the charge in the form of involuntary manslaughter that five Michigan officials are still facing in connection with the Flint lead poisoning scandal that began back in 2014. But apparently Flint is hardly unusual when it comes to lead poisoning, which can stunt the brain development of children and increase their vulnerability to school failure, delinquency and crime. We now know there are close to 4,000 other places in America where children have blood lead levels more than double those found at Flint, thanks to an investigation by Reuters. And the problem is not just with lead pipes and contaminated water, as in Flint, but also from buildings and soil. Michael Pell is part of the Reuters reporting team, and he joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

PELL: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: How did this investigation get going?

PELL: So, after the Flint issue rose up a couple of years ago now, my reporting partner and I, Joshua Schneyer, started wondering what other communities had problems with childhood lead poisoning. I mean, was Flint the only city left in the United States that had this problem, or were there other communities that were also suffering? So, we set out to identify other Flints across the country.

CURWOOD: So, tell me about what you found. What do you have in this latest data report that you put together for Reuters?

PELL: So, what we found was that Flint was not the only community that was suffering from this pro blem, but there were hundreds of communities across the country that are suffering with childhood lead exposure, and what we wanted to do was find these neighborhoods that had not enjoyed the same success that other communities had, and to do that we needed to obtain data that would show at a granular level where kids were getting exposed. Previously, the only information available to the public was that these countywide maps that states made to show the percentage of tested kids in the county that had high lead levels, and what we found was that those countywide maps not only didn't really show the problem areas, but they actually could provide a false sense of security. Because if you look at the entire county, OK, sure, there's a small percentage of kids with high lead levels, but if you break that down by neighborhood level what you could see is that there are some neighborhoods where a lot of kids are still testing very high for lead.

Residents in Orleans, New York, are concerned about high levels of lead in their water. Andy Greene (left) and Stephanie Weiss (right), with their children Sam (2nd left) and Leo outside their home, are among community organizers pushing for clean water. (Photo: courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

And so, what we did was obtain data broken down by census tract or zip code from the states to identify these neighborhoods where kids still had high lead levels. And this was inspired by a story we wrote in East Chicago, Indiana. And in East Chicago there was this one housing development that was built on top of an old smelting site, an old industrial site, and the CDC study said there was virtually no chance of children being exposed to lead from that old site, and of course, then a few years later the mayor was evacuating this housing community. And we went back and took a look at the state's data and showed that the CDC's assessment was incorrect. The CDC claimed correctly that while the city as a whole had a low percentage of children testing high for lead, in the census tract where that housing development was located, there was a very high percentage of kids with elevated lead levels.

CURWOOD: So, where did you get your data for this project?

PELL: We have taken the data directly from state health departments and from the CDC. Many states provided the data very quickly, other states really dragged their feet and decided that they didn't want this information out there. States like Ohio, for example. And so what we had to do is go to the CDC and issue FOIA requests to them for the same data because in many cases the states report their blood lead levels results to the CDC.

CURWOOD: Now, you are building on some previous data. What are the changes or additions that you saw since you started this project?

PELL: Sure, so what we've done is publish stories as the data comes in, and the most recent data that we obtained was from the CDC for New York City, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, and this has brought the total number of neighborhood areas with the percentage of tested children with elevated lead levels to double the level of Flint during the peak of that city's crisis to 3,800.

CURWOOD: Wow. So, in your research, Michael, what did folks tell you are typically the major sources of lead poisoning in children? Flint, we know was water, but what else do they say?

PELL: Well, so even in Flint it's commonly perceived that it's water, but there are kids that had high lead exposure before the problems with the water, and it's a tricky situation because a lot of people, a lot of public health experts don't believe water contributes significantly to a child's lead levels. Although in Flint, in Washington DC, and other communities we have seen that when there are problems with the water system, the number of children with elevated lead levels increases. So, it's extraordinarily difficult to determine what the sources are. What the data tells you is that where the lead ends up, and that's in the blood of children. Typically, experts believe that the major source of lead exposure comes from old, decaying paint, but I think that more and more research is being done to determine exactly where lead exposure is coming from and a lot of people are starting to think that maybe it is a cumulative effect – lead paint still being probably the driving factor, but that old lead plumbing fixtures also contribute, soil in people's yards. When that lead paint comes off their houses, when the exhaust that contains lead in the past from car fumes, that gets into the soil and that doesn't go anywhere and so when you go outside, you play, kids stick their hands in their mouth, you track the dirt back inside your house, they're playing on the ground, that gets into a child's blood system as well.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about demographics here. To what extent do you see these exposures in lower income communities, communities of color, and that sort of thing?

PELL: Yeah, I think if you look at the map that we published you can see that these communities are often low-income neighborhoods, often neighborhoods, predominately people of color. You know places like Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia. High percentages of kids there are testing high. On the other hand, sometimes when you look at the map you find communities that don't fit that profile. In New York, for example, we identified the neighborhood with the highest percentage of tested kids with elevated lead levels in southern Williamsburg, and this is traditionally Hasidic neighborhood, and so it varies by community.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about the affected areas and what relationship if any there are among them?

PELL: Well, typically it's older housing, older housing that's poorly taken care of. And so, back to your question. These are often communities of color, these are often low socio-economic communities that are disproportionately affected by lead, but what we're also seeing is that gentrifying neighborhoods are also being affected. People move into these old houses, these historic homes, homes that have been painted for decades, if not 100 years with lead paint and they come in and they start renovating and that can kick up a lot of this old lead paint. What we also see is the communities that have a long industrial history. One census tract that we identified in Indiana, it doesn't have a tremendous amount of older housing, but what it did have was a lead smelter site in it, and there was a housing development built on top of that.

CURWOOD: So, in the course of this research you must have visited some interesting, and I imagine, alarming places. Give me your top five communities that you think are really in trouble from lead, if you're in a position to do so.

Antonin Bohac, a mechanic at the Brushy Creek Mine, a lead mine, discusses lead exposure with reporter Michael Pell. Mr. Bohac was diagnosed with high lead levels. (Photo: courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Wood)

PELL: Yeah, I mean top five, it would be very subjective here, but Buffalo, New York, has the perfect confluence of events. It's got a lot of poverty, it's got a tremendous amount of old housing, and we saw extremely high percentages of tested children there with elevated lead levels. In South Bend, Indiana, my reporting partner Joshua Schneyer visited that community and immediately found families that were dealing with this problem. They had almost run out of funding to conduct testing in this community, but after we published our report, the University of Notre Dame and the city stepped in to get more funding to test kids, and right now are working to identify lead exposures in homes there. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a terrible problem. All throughout Pennsylvania, really, there are communities that are suffering with this and we were talking to the leaders of the health department in York, Pennsylvania, and they feel like they're trying their best, but every year their resources seem to dwindle, and it almost feels like they're overwhelmed by this problem, they don't know exactly what they can do to get a handle on this.

CURWOOD: What do you think are the social and economic and political costs of all this lead contamination in our environment?

PELL: Well, I've spent almost two years now talking to epidemiologists, public health experts, people that run nonprofits to provide healthy housing for people, and I think ultimately what we can safely say is that we know lead is a problem. I mean, there's no safe amount of lead in a child's blood system and that there are costs down the road for society as a whole. Lead causes permanent learning disabilities in children, it can cause behavioral problems, so that problem is not going to go away until we focus more attention on it, and we're trying to provide information for organizations like green and healthy housing to identify communities that are in the most need. So, that way they can in the future, instead of having to spend money on behavioral services for children with learning disabilities, they can instead provide additional education resources that take children to the next step.

CURWOOD: Michael, there's been research done by folks in Cincinnati at that university and medical facility, also in Pittsburgh, also in Boston and Harvard, research that shows a link between childhood lead exposure and crime. What do you make of that research and what does all this lead in our environment say in terms of crime and delinquency and public safety?

PELL: There's been a lot of research that has linked lead poisoning to crime. The behavioral problems that I was discussing and the inability to control impulses has been linked directly to lead poisoning. Exactly how much that costs and what the direct link is is not absolutely perfect, but I think that there's enough smoke there that it suggests that there is a correlation. You know, in Baltimore, Freddy Gray, who was famously killed after an encounter with police, he had childhood lead exposure, and he had a history of run-ins with the police. The lead poisoning was probably one factor, and that's one factor that can be removed, you know, whatever else was going on in his life, it is possible to provide healthy, safe housing for people, and I think that there will continue to be research done showing that lead is a pervasive societal problem, both in terms of learning disabilities, in terms of its link to social unrest and hopefully the way that that's most conclusively proven is as housing becomes safer, as we provide better environments for children, the amount of crime in those neighborhoods will continue to drop, and the success in school will continue to increase.

Michael Pell is a reporter for Reuters who has been covering national childhood blood lead levels for years. (Photo: courtesy of Michael Pell)

CURWOOD: So, what plans are there to release these data widely and how are you going to do that?

PELL: So, after we published our first story we got a tremendous response from researchers, epidemiologists, other reporters who wanted to use this data, and we are now working on making the raw data that we received from states, from the CDC, available in a downloadable form. So you'll be able to go up and download an individual state or download data for every state that we received. And we hope that researchers will use this data to answer some of the tough questions that you asked today that, quite frankly, maybe we're just not smart enough to do. Questions about how does lead poisoning affect communities of color? How should public funding be used to identify children with lead poisoning and to identify where the communities that need this help the most?

CURWOOD: In what ways has your reporting prompted cities, towns, localities to act?

PELL: That's been one the most gratifying things about this project is that we have seen a tremendous amount of concrete action on the ground. The state of California just last month passed legislation that will hopefully get more children across the state tested for lead poisoning, and the author of that bill cited our reporting as playing a role and prompting him to do this. In South Bend, Indiana, the University of Notre Dame, started a course, a chemistry-in-the-community type course, to go out and actually test children for lead poisoning. We've talked to public health officials in northern California that are trying to pass a law right now that would require more inspections of older housing.

The other thing that we've seen is that by providing this data, by letting people know that it's out there, we've seen other local media start to pick this up as well, and I'd love to see communities that have problems in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Ohio, some of these states, I'd like to see the media there continue to report on this every year, make it kind of an annual story when the local blood lead level data comes out, they do a story on it to keep the pressure on public health officials.

CURWOOD: Michael Pell is a reporter with Reuters. Thank you so much, Michael.

PELL: Thanks for having me, Steve. I really appreciate it.

Related links:
- Reuters: “Reuters finds 3,810 U.S. areas with lead poisoning double Flint’s”
- Reuters: “Special Report: Thousands of U.S. areas afflicted with lead poisoning beyond Flint’s”
- CNN: Timeline of events in Flint, Michigan during the city’s water crisis

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[MUSIC: Alison Krauss and Shawn Colvin/Jerry Douglas, “The Boxer,” recorded live 2007 at the Library of Congress Paul Simon tribute, composed by Paul Simon

CURWOOD: Coming up ... how light could help heal damaged hearts. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth. Keep listening.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and from a friend of Sailors for the Sea, working with boaters to restore ocean health.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, “The Sinister Minister” on Live Art, Warner Bros. Records]

Sunshine Heals Hearts

Photosynthesis allows plants to convert sunlight into chemical energy. This process also produces oxygen and scientists believe it may be able to aid in heart attack recovery. (Photo: Shu Wu, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. In a minute, we’ll meet a physician whose innovative prescriptions bypass the drug companies. But first this note on Emerging Science from Matt Hoisch.


HOISCH: Photosynthesis isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about heart attacks. But it’s exactly what a team of researchers at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania thought of. The team knew that photosynthesis, the process in plants that generates sugars, also yields oxygen as a by-product. So maybe, the researchers hypothesized, it could help people recover from heart attacks caused by a blocked artery or blood clot that deprived the heart of oxygen.

To test the hypothesis, the team cut off oxygen to rat hearts to simulate a heart attack. They then injected photosynthetic cyanobacteria into some of the oxygen-starved hearts and found that in these rats, oxygen levels tripled. But to work successfully, photosynthesis needs sunlight. So the team exposed some of the hearts to light to see what would happen. In the light-treated rats, oxygen levels shot up to 25 times the levels observed just after the heart attacks. And photosynthesis also helped in recovery. Four weeks after the treatment, the rats that had received the photosynthetic bacteria showed less heart damage than untreated rats.

Heart disease is a major cause of death in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it kills more than 600,000 people a year. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

But the researchers say that adapting the treatment for humans will be challenging, as it’s tricky to get light to the heart, and injecting bacteria there is risky. However, the bacteria didn’t provoke a harmful immune system response in rats. So the team is now working with engineers to design devices to shine light into deep internal tissues. Moving forward, these researchers could give a new meaning to the phrase “light hearted.”

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Matt Hoisch.


Related links:
- ScienceNews: “New heart attack treatment uses photosynthetic bacteria to make oxygen”
- The journal article in Science Advances: “An innovative biologic system for photon-powered myocardium in the ischemic heart”

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Rx Park

Getting out in nature – whether that’s the wilderness, or our local park – can have big benefits for human health on many levels, says Dr. Robert Zarr. (Photo: Garry Knight, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Going for a jog, or even a long walk outdoors has well-known benefits to our health. But research suggests that even without much physical activity, just stepping into the natural world can enhance well-being. Pediatrician Robert Zarr is putting it to the test. He is founder and medical director of Park Rx America, and he not only encourages patients to spend time in nature, he actually prescribes it. Dr. Zarr, welcome to Living on Earth.

ZARR: Thanks for having me, it's a delight to be here.

CURWOOD: So, what gave you the idea to start prescribing time in nature for your patients?

ZARR: Well, I wish I could claim to be the inventor of this idea. Clearly this is an idea has been around for a while now and, frankly, you know, I was lucky that the Australian Healthy Parks Healthy People initiative was adopted by the National Park Service of the US. And so that's really how I kind of started to hear about this, and I was also inspired by one of the books has changed my life, "Last Child in the Woods." I've gotten to know Rich Louv over the last few years now and am very grateful for the ideas that he outlined in his book about why it actually has some substantial therapeutic effects to be in nature.

The National Arboretum in Washington DC is a public park that Dr. Zarr frequents. His organization, Park Rx America, works to link patients with local urban green space. (Photo: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: So, what prompts you to make these prescriptions? What sort of maladies can this treat?

ZARR: Well, I mean the science tells us that being in a natural setting and being mindful in particular in a natural setting, it has therapeutic effects on your mental health, so it actually makes you feel better. Depression can improve, anxiety can improve, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can improve and there's some studies that have looked at high blood pressure, diabetes, overall mortality. These are the things that are killing us. This is the modern day plague, chronic disease, which is largely driven by our behavior.

CURWOOD: So, what you're saying is if somebody comes home from work and pops open a beer and sits down in front of the television, or if they're a kid in school and they come home from school turn on the video game or flip on the tube and sit, that that's toxic.

ZARR: You know, that is part of our lifestyle. So, technology is there. Our fear of being outdoors is there. In some cases the risk of violence outdoors is there. So, there's a lot of stresses. I trained in pediatrics, and pediatrics used to be a field of runny noses, ear infections, vaccinations, you’re monitoring growth and development, of course, and it really wasn't one of chronic disease. Well, it is now, and the kids if you were to start taking their blood and looking for pre-diabetes and measuring their blood pressure, you find pre-hypertension or in many cases high blood pressure. They're suffering from mental health disorders, including depression, and all the things the adults, the parents are suffering from they're suffering from now too.

The National Mall may not be isolated wilderness but, according to Zarr, access to the outdoors of any kind, even in crowded, heavily traveled areas, can still have health benefits. (Photo: Sheila Thomson, Flickr CC, BY 2.0)

So, it's a different landscape now and now we have a generation of kids who, they don't necessarily even know what to do outdoors, how to be outdoors. Frankly, we hardly even know how to sit down without pulling out our cell phone. I mean, we don't know how to be bored anymore. Boredom isn't the answer here but certainly being mindful of what's around us and using our senses is a really important step to getting to understand what it is that is actually ailing us.

CURWOOD: So, doctor, why write a prescription? Why not just say, “Hey, get outside”?

ZARR: Because that's precisely what we've been doing for the last several decades, is we've been saying to people, hey, eat better, exercise, I'll see you in a year. They come back. They weigh 20 more pounds. Their blood pressure has gone up, and they're more anxious than when they saw you a year ago. It doesn't work, so we've been looking for ways for it to make better results, frankly. And, when you write a prescription, it's sort of a contract of sorts, right?

Listen, Steve, if you were to come in with a pneumonia, I wouldn't just say to you, “Take any antibiotic you like, take them for as often as you want, as many pills as you want at one time with or without water, do whatever you like and I'll just see you whenever.” I don't do that, and I shouldn't be doing that with my prescription for nature, and so we try to be very specific about it with the understanding that our patient right there is willing to take that step.

For some, a park prescription can be as simple as getting off the bus a few stops early and walking through green space the rest of the way. (Photo: Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Talk to me about some recent nature prescriptions that you've given to folks, what you were treating, what you told them to do, and what kind of results have you seen?

ZARR: Well, I probably do this. I see patients almost every day so it's a pretty common experience. So, I'm thinking of one girl in particular who I wrote a prescription for several years ago and, you know, when we had started having this conversation she was at a point where she was clearly overweight. She might have been obese actually, I'm trying to remember where she was on her body mass index, and she wanted to get active. And I said, “Well, where do you go to school?” She gave me her routine and when she gets up, she gets up pretty darn early, she takes two buses, she takes a train to get to school to go all the way across town. So, she wasn't super comfortable really doing something in the evening or the afternoon because she got home already after dark as it was.

So, I said, “All right, you take one bus, a train and then a bus in that sequence. What about getting out off that bus just a few blocks early? Would you be willing to do that and walk the rest of the way?” And she said she was. So, we mapped it out for her. Her prescription was exit four stops from the bus earlier than you normally would and walk through a green area. We found a park, at least part of that walk was through a park, and that's kind of how we started, and to do that basically five days a week. Soon after that she became active in organized sports, and I saw an increase in her self-esteem. She went from being obese to overweight to a normal weight, and she maintains that weight still today.

Park prescriptions can be especially effective when patients experience wildlife. Though wild animals are harder to find in major cities, they can be surprisingly commonplace if you take the time to look for them, says Zarr. (Photo: John W. Iwanski, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: And if you were to look at your patient load of over the past several years that you've been doing this, how effective do you think that your outdoor prescriptions, your nature prescriptions, your park prescriptions – that's for folks in the city, that's often where you find nature – how effective have those been?

ZARR: Well, we have about 50 prescribers across the country. The majority of them are in this area, the national capital region, but we're expanding. And so far it's been really positive. I have people stop me all the time from nurse practitioners to psychiatrists, podiatrists, medicine docs, telling me their stories, telling me how they wrote a prescription for patients suffering from depression to sit on a bench in a park and to see them back, to see that they are improving. So, from the stories, from the anecdotes, we're definitely feeling a bit of success in this.

We did a small study in 2013, when we started actually prescribing parks electronically, and from a more scientific perspective, we can say that we observed a significant change in people's time spent outdoors, so that was very encouraging, and we're in the midst of designing a study to look more deeply and more scientifically at whether the park prescription results in these changes in biometrics and health outcomes. The correlational studies I mentioned, they are just that, so it's definitely time for more of an observational study and eventually randomized control trial looking to see whether these actual prescriptions will result in not just a change in behavior, but in actual improved health outcomes.

ZARR: So, to what extent do you see public health as a factor in assessing how we conserve public parks across the municipal, state, and federal levels?

Robert Zarr, MD is the founder and medical director of Park Rx America. (Photo: Courtesy of Robert Zarr)

CURWOOD: This is all about public health. At the end of the day, I mean if there are no parks, if there is no fresh air, there's no clean water, if there are no birds, then we've got nothing to prescribe. Even the World Health Organization has been very clear to list access to green space as a social determinant of health. It should be just a no brainer, it's not to most people these days, and so that's part of we're doing is really making the case for why every human being on the Earth should have access to safe green space. Not just to recreate, not just to play – which, play is very important, recreation is important – but literally for your health.

CURWOOD: How much has this changed your life, doctor?

ZARR: Vastly changed my life. Sometimes, I don't have time to walk to the park myself. I'll go on the rooftop of our building and just get some sun for 20 minutes and there's some evidence as well that actually having sunshine is good for you in many many ways. In my work, as a pediatrician I've been really overwhelmed with the amount of chronic disease and the suffering that's just not necessary in people's lives. When I saw the connection, the scientific connection between being outdoors and relieving suffering, it's rare in a physician's life that we see a relatively inexpensive and effective intervention. It's amazing to me that we weren't doing this before and once I find a way to do something that is better than doing it before, I'm not going to go backwards.

CURWOOD: Pediatrician Robert Zarr is the Founder and Medical Director of Park Rx America based in Washington DC. Doctor Zarr, thanks so much for taking the time.

ZARR: Thank you for having me, Steve.

Related links:
- Robert Zarr on NBC’s “A dose of nature: doctors prescribe a day in the park for anxiety”
- Park Rx America
- Research from University of Essex and British Mental Health Organization Mind, on correlations between health and exposure to nature

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[MUSIC: Act Naturally, by The Beatles, played by Eric. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55zx4XEYczY]

Beyond The Headlines

Fourteen states are suing the Trump administration for failing to enforce smog standards. (Photo: lsengardt, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Let’s head beyond the headlines now. As usual, we join Peter Dykstra, an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org and DailyClimate.org, who’s on the line from Atlanta, Georgia. What’s going on, Peter?

DYKSTRA: Hi, Steve. There’s so much high profile news, it’s more difficult than usual to focus on the environment.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but that’s what we’re pretty much here for.

DYKSTRA: Indeed it is. EPA had an October first deadline to designate areas of the country in violation of ground-level ozone standards. They’ve designated none of these, which ties the hands of state and local officials to take action against smoggy jurisdictions. California, Washington state, and several Midwest and East Coast states have joined forces to sue the Administration to enforce this vital measure to keep the air – and our lungs – clean.

CURWOOD: And as I recall, President Obama had tightened the smog rules just a few years ago, right?


CURWOOD: Yeah, well I guess that’s more Obama regulations under the bus. Hey, what’s next?

Uranium mining already occurs in regions near Bears Ears, like the White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah where Energy Fuels, Inc. extracts uranium as well as vanadium. (Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

DYKSTRA: President Trump traveled to Utah in early December on a mission to drain the swamp, slashing two relatively-new national monuments. The Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, drew strong support from conservationists, Native Americans, outdoors enthusiasts, and more. A Trump proclamation cut the monument area by 47 percent, leaving three separate areas intact but excluding sites valued by Native Americans and scientists.

CURWOOD: Yes, leaving some sacred sites and potential dinosaur finds open to exploitation.

DYKSTRA: Yeah, and the more recent National Monument, Bears Ears, is apparently another swamp that needed draining.

CURWOOD: Yeah, you know, it’s kind of hard to find a swamp in a place that gets only a dozen inches of rain a year.

DYKSTRA: There’s no swamp there, and mining companies see a potential bonanza in uranium and other valuable minerals. One of them, Energy Fuels Resources, hired a team of lobbyists to push the decision to slash the size of Bears Ears, which the President did. The company’s CEO wrote Trump, and while he didn’t give a firm number on the uranium deposits in Bears Ears, he cited “many known deposits” of uranium and vanadium - another coveted industrial metal - in the Monument area. 85 percent of what President Obama protected a year ago is now open to exploitation. And the chief lobbyist is awaiting approval for a new job.

CURWOOD: I can guess where this is going.

Bleached coral. (Photo: budak, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DYKSTRA: Yes, his name is Andrew Wheeler. He was nominated by Trump to be Deputy Administrator of EPA where, if approved, he’ll possibly have a huge hand in Clean Water Act permits, which means of course he could be draining actual swamps.

CURWOOD: OK, let’s take a look at environmental history. What’s new – or maybe I should I say what’s old – this week?

DYKSTRA: It was 30 years ago this week that scientists first reported widespread bleaching of coral reefs in locations throughout the Caribbean.

CURWOOD: And since then, coral bleaching has been observed all over the world’s oceans, and it’s linked to the warming ocean waters.

DYKSTRA: Correct. The stress of rising temperatures prompts corals to eject algae that help sustain and grow the corals. Thirty years later, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef threw a scare into scientists with a widespread bleaching outbreak. In April, one scientist described the magnificent reef as “cooked and dying.” But by September, there were reports that some of the reef appeared to be recovering.

CURWOOD: Yeah you know that underscores what we know and don’t know about saving corals. The trend isn’t good, but ocean temperatures do seem to be the culprit, yet we still don’t know how much corals can adapt or recover.

DYKSTRA: One way and another we’ll find out, just like we’re going to find out with the swamp.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is with Environmental Health News. That’s EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. Thanks, Peter, we’ll talk to you again real soon.

DYKSTRA: All right, Steve, thanks, talk to you again soon.

CURWOOD: And there’s more on these stories at our website, LOE.org.

Related links:
- York Dispatch: ”U.S. fails to enforce smog rules, says Pa., 13 other states”
- Washington Post: “Uranium firm urged Trump officials to shrink Bears Ears National Monument”
- More on coral bleaching from NOAA

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[MUSIC: The Chris Barber Band featuring Ian Wheeler, “Paper Moon” on Stevedore Stomp, composed by Yip Harburg/Billy Rose, Moochin About

CURWOOD: Coming up ... at any moment Northern Europe could be plunged into years of frigid winters, thanks to a strange twist in the Arctic Ocean. That’s just ahead here on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from you our listeners, and United Technologies - combining passion for science with engineering to create solutions designed for sustainability in aerospace, building industries and food refrigeration. UTC companies such as Otis, Carrier, Pratt & Whitney and UTC Aerospace Systems are helping to move the world forward. You can learn more about United Technologies by tuning in to the Race to 9 Billion podcast, hosted by UTC’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Listen at raceto9billion.com. That’s raceto9billion.com. This is PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: The Chris Barber Band featuring Ian Wheeler, “Paper Moon” on Stevedore Stomp, composed by Yip Harburg/Billy Rose, Moochin About

Spinning Arctic Waters

Early ice breakup in the Beaufort Sea in April 2016, driven by the Beaufort Gyre. (Photo: NOAA/NASA)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. The Arctic Ocean off Northern Alaska is called the Beaufort Sea, where a current known as the Beaufort Gyre circulates the waters and ordinarily changes directions every five to seven years or so.

It’s important because when this ocean current spins clockwise as seen from above, it traps Arctic ice and freshwater melt. When it spins the other way, it ejects that ice and fresh water out past Greenland into the North Atlantic, making weather in Northern Europe cooler. But in recent years the Arctic has been warming faster than the rest of the planet and perhaps as a result, the Beaufort Gyre has been stuck in a clockwise direction for a dozen or more years, spinning faster and faster, all the while collecting more and more ice and gobs of cold fresh water.

So, when the Beaufort Gyre finally does flip and flushes all that ice and cold water past places such as Iceland, Ireland and the UK, those places could be in for some brutal winters until it snaps back. Journalist Ed Struzik wrote about the climate implications of the Beaufort Gyre for Yale Environment 360, and for his explanation I called him up in Edmonton, Alberta. Ed, welcome to Living on Earth.

The Beaufort Gyre. (Image: AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme), 2012. Arctic Climate Issues 2011: Changes in Arctic Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost)

STRUZIK: Thanks for having me on.

CURWOOD: So, first explain to me what is the Beaufort gyre and what does it normally do?

STRUZIK: The Beaufort gyre is this huge swirling ocean current in the Arctic just above Alaska in the Yukon Territory, and it turns clockwise. It's generated by the winds, the polar winds that blow, and it keeps turning it clockwise. And what this thing does is it captures all of the cold, fresh water that comes from Arctic rivers and from melting sea ice and also sea ice, and it just traps it there and it rotates it and it continues to rotate it. And so, in the past the ice tends to grow, that freshwater grows, but every five to seven years you get these erratic storms in the North Atlantic that move into the Arctic and then it causes the gyre to weaken and then turns direction, and then it spits out all of those icebergs, all of that ice and all of that freshwater into the North Atlantic. And if it's a large enough amount as it was in 1960s and 70s, it can really significantly cool that part of the world.

CURWOOD: So, where is this gyre exactly? Is it circumpolar, does it go around the North Pole or is it sort of off to one side or the other?

STRUZIK: No no, it's quite a ways south of the North Pole. It would be in what's called the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and the Yukon Territory, maybe centered, you know, around 75 degrees north, and it's about … think of a big fly wheel – a 60 miles in diameter. And this thing just spins around like a fly wheel and it just gathers up all of that fresh water and ice and it just traps it, and it's actually higher because as more that spins it elevates all of that water in that part of the world just a wee bit higher and it's like a top, and it just traps it there until it spits it out at some point along the way, and some-some of these pieces of ice can sit there be trapped there for four years.

Icebergs in Otto Fjord, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago adjacent to the Beaufort Gyre. (Photo: Ed Struzik)

CURWOOD: So, what's unusual about how the gyre has been operating in recent years?

STRUZIK: Well, it's no longer spitting it out every five to seven years. They've been waiting for almost 20 years for this to happen, and nobody really understands what's going on but it's probably a combination of climate change and massive runoff of freshwater coming off the Greenland glacier, which is preventing these big cyclones from forming over the North Atlantic and moving into the Arctic. So, this thing just keeps getting bigger and it spins faster and it collects more water. So, imagine all of the water that we have in the Great Lakes right now, that's the amount of fresh water we have that is trapped in the Arctic just waiting to get out.

CURWOOD: OK, you've been waiting for some 15, 20 years, whatever, for this to happen. When could this switch in the direction of the sea ice movement happen?

STRUZIK: Well, there's some signals that it could happen sooner rather than later, but they also thought that in 2013 when it appeared that things were weakening. It's going to happen at some point, and I think what everybody is watching for now, people from NASA, from Woods Hole, from the Ocean Science Institute in Canada is how much of that fresh water is it going to expel into the North Atlantic, because there's so much of it now, it's kind of unprecedented in modern-day history, and you know they're waiting for baited breath. It's not going to be The Day After Tomorrow, where suddenly everything goes into a deep freeze, but it's definitely going to have a chill on that part of the world.

Panorama of Otto Fjord. (Photo: Ed Struzik)

CURWOOD: So, talk to me about why scientists think that when this switch does happen it could cool the climate of Europe, I guess, temporarily, and change things in the North Atlantic?

STRUZIK: Well, it because, I would liken it to a tsunami of cold water that's trapped, and it goes into the currents and it just flushes into a relatively warm, salty ocean. It creates a cap on that warm salty water and so that warps that you get in the North Atlantic coming from the Gulf Stream. That's why Iceland is so warm, and Norway is so warm, and England is so warm. You know, if they're the same latitude as North America, they'd have the winters like we had 10, 20 years ago. That's probably what's going to happen if it's big enough, and I think everyone agrees that it's big enough but it's just confounded scientists so much right now that nobody really wants to make a prediction at this stage.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that in the late 1960s or the early 1970s, this happened, this dumping of the vast amounts of fresh water. What did it do back then?

STRUZIK: Well, think about all of that phytoplankton, zooplankton, those microscopic animals and plants that live on the surface, that the Arctic cod and Arctic herring feed on, they just went into shock, and it destroyed the food chain and so the herring fishery completely collapsed. People didn't know what was going on at that time, except the fact that the Icelanders suddenly woke up to ice on their north coast, which they don't normally get. And it didn't recover and we had another pulse of this water coming through in the 1990s, a smaller pulse. Scientists think that was that cold water that prevented the recovery of the cod fishery that collapsed as a result of over-harvesting. So, this has all kinds of potentially different impacts on both the ecosystem and on atmosphere climate.

The North Atlantic Cold Blob, seen in this image as a blue temperature anomaly from historic averages. Most of the rest of the Earth shows temperatures warmer than the 1951-80 baseline average. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

CURWOOD: And what was it like in Europe at that big event in the late 60s and early 70s. What were some of the weather observations during that period of time?

STRUZIK: Well, Western Europe went through eight of its most severe winters during the height of that expulsion of water. They got a lot of snow, they got a longer than normal winter. So, they really felt the effects of it. And they're probably going to feel the effects of it again down the road.

CURWOOD: What kinds of implications could this have for the weather systems here in North America?

STRUZIK: Well, you know, it's a guestimate at this point. But hypothetically, if we have this warming of the gyre if that continues in the future and you lose all that sea ice, what may and what appears to be happening is that it grabs the jet stream and it sort of holds it up there and it creates this loopiness. It stops that dragging of weather across North America that we used to have fairly consistently, and it will hold those weather patterns and sometimes bring the Arctic air a lot further down south as we saw recently in Corpus Christi which got two or three or four inches of snow just a couple of weeks ago.

It's that kind of event you know, that it just disrupts that flow of the jet stream so and creates a lot more extreme weather in places where you don't expect extreme weather, and I think that that's likely what's happening and we're going to see more of in the future, but then again we really don't know because this is sort of an emerging science that everybody's trying to study and everybody's figuring out. We've really got to understand what this Beaufort Grye is doing, what La Niña and El Niño is doing, and right now there is this North Atlantic cold blob that they talk about that no one really knows what it's doing, how it may affect fisheries, and how it may effect climate, but it's sitting out there.

Sea ice retreat in the Beaufort Sea was especially rapid in June 2012, when NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image. (Image: Jesse Allen / NASA Earth Observatory)

CURWOOD: You mentioned the North American cold blob. What is that? And where is it?

STRUZIK: Oh, it's the North Atlantic cold blob, they call it. It's sitting, I think, in between the southwest corner of Greenland and northern Canada and if you look at it, I think, maybe NASA and Woods Hole may have a map which shows just this big cold spot sitting in the North Atlantic. Everybody's been watching it. I don't know if you've heard about the warm blob that's been in the North Pacific, that many scientists think accounted for the death of a lot of birds in that part of the world because it also affected the food chain, but we tend to have these blobs that are carried by currents, and we really don't understand how they form, what the impact is on the ocean, but they're there and everybody's watching them with great anticipation.

CURWOOD: Ed, how does the El Niño, La Niña phenomenon relate to this Beaufort gyre?

STRUZIK: It doesn't really relate. It's basically this similar kind of phenomenon, you know, that it's a warming of the Pacific Ocean, a cooling of Pacific Ocean that we know has affect on drought and rainfall in different parts of North America and all around the world. And this is really a kind of a northern El Niño, La Niña type situation. It is a huge ocean current that tends to swirl one way for long periods of time and then reverses and it has a dramatic impact on climate. In this case, climate change appears to be having a profound impact on this plumbing system that we have in the Arctic. We kind of know La Niña has been a little bit more predictable than the El Niño events, and we just don't know enough about this Beaufort gyre to be able to say one way or the other how it's going to affect our future.

CURWOOD: So, Ed you've been writing about the Arctic for 30, 40 years. What changes have you seen while reporting from there over these decades?

STRUZIK: Just an enormous number of changes. You know, it used to be that you went up to the Arctic and it was all sunny skies because you had this you know you had so much ice reflecting all that warmth from the sun back up that these high pressure systems that come in from Siberia just sort of hung in there. And so summers were generally kind of pleasant. They might be a little bit chillier. Now we have a lot of fog, a lot of cloud, and increasingly more cyclonic activities. We had this huge knock ’em down storm that came through the Arctic in 2012 – and I was actually in a small sailboat at the time - that just rocked the Arctic. I mean it broke up sea ice like a bulldozer, you know plowing through a field. It was astonishing to watch. A lot of scientists kept their eye on that one.

CURWOOD: You know, in recent years, the commercial shipping interests have been rubbing their hands together saying, “There's a northwest passage and we can use the Arctic Ocean as a way to get from one side of the world to the next.” But if they're going to be these horrific storms that we haven't seen in the past, how wise do you think that is?

Arctic sea ice is thinning year after year. (Photo: NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

STRUZIK: I think the bigger problem for the shipping companies right now is that the Arctic between Alaska and Europe is really not well mapped out, and also it's a fairly narrow shallow strait, and this is the biological hotspot of the Arctic. You've got Polar bears, narwhal, Beluga whales Bowhead whales, you know, that gravitate towards these places and having ships pounding through the ice or through those waters at the time of year when all of these whales are migrating through you know I think is really really the big issue right now. They can get through, there's no question about it, but I think that we really have to consider what impact it's going to have on the ecology of that area.

CURWOOD: Ed, remind us just how much warming has been going on in the Arctic over these last 50 years, and Greenland as well.

STRUZIK: Well, the Arctic is the fastest warming place on the Earth, and Greenland right now, I think, it's 256 billion tons of ice has melted off that ice cap each year, that summer ice that we saw, you know, holding in persistently in places like the northwest passage are disappearing, and what is also happening is that we have southern species now starting to move north into those warmer waters. So, you're starting to see Killer whales starting to kill narwhal and beluga whales. People never saw Killer whales in the Arctic before. You're starting to see Pacific salmon into the eastern Arctic of Canada. In fact, the first Pacific salmon in Greenland was caught there just a few years ago.

So, the changes that are occurring are really dramatic. We're heading towards a seasonally ice-free season in the Arctic and we haven't seen that in our recorded history anyway. The 500-year search for a northwest passage was doomed because there is way too much ice in the Arctic, and now it's like I said, I was in a 46-foot sailboat sailing through the passage in 2012, and we got a lot of wind but we are hardly saw any ice.

Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing about the Arctic for three decades. (Photo: Ed Struzik)

CURWOOD: Wait a second. Here we are at the holiday season in North America and you're telling me that Father Christmas, that Santa Claus is set up on the North Pole, I mean there's no there's no place for him anymore huh?

STRUZIK: Well, you know, I think you know that's probably the message is that he's probably instead of a sled it's going to be a sailboat and maybe a flying sailboat that he's going to use in the future because at some point in time, maybe not December, but there has been open water at the North Pole in December in the past. Not a lot of it, but we're moving in that direction so if I were a meteorologist, I would just advising Santa, I'd suggest that maybe he changes transportation systems.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] Ed Struzik is a fellow with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queens University and author of “Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge.” Thanks so much for taking the time with me today.

STRUZIK: Oh, thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

Related links:
- Yale Environment 360: “How a Wayward Arctic Current Could Cool the Climate in Europe”
- Ed Struzik is the author of Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge

Back to top


BirdNote®: Spruce Grouse in the Boreal Forest

A female Spruce Grouse. (Photo: Todd and Conni Katke)


CURWOOD: This is the time of year when evergreens move into some of our homes, and scent the air and drop needles. But as Michael Stein tells us in today’s BirdNote, out in the forest, those needles are key to survival for one special inhabitant.


Spruce Grouse - Specially Designed for the Boreal Forest

[Chill, winter wind]

STEIN: In the boreal forest – the broad expanse of forest lying south of the Arctic – winter temperatures routinely drop to 30 below zero.

[Chill, winter wind]

Birds that spend the winter in this harsh domain of spruce, pine, and other conifers rely on remarkable adaptations in order to survive.

The Spruce Grouse is one such bird. Most Spruce Grouse – rotund, chicken-like birds that weigh about a pound – remain here all year. [Spruce Grouse clucking calls] In the snow-free summer, they forage on the ground, eating fresh greenery, insects, and berries. But in the snowy winter, the grouse live up in the trees, eating nothing but conifer needles. Lots and lots of needles. [Spruce Grouse clucking calls]

Simple enough, right? Just keep eating. But conifer needles are both low in protein, and tough to digest because they’re heavy in cellulose. To meet the energy demands of winter on needles alone, Spruce Grouse – this may seem hard to believe – grow a bigger digestive system. Their ventriculus or gizzard, which grinds food, may enlarge by 75 percent.

A Spruce Grouse on the boreal forest floor. These birds usually spend winters entirely up in the conifer trees. (Photo: Todd and Conni Katke)

So remember the hardy Spruce Grouse this holiday season. [Spruce Grouse clucking calls] As you stand back to admire a Christmas tree, somewhere in the northern forest a grouse is nibbling away at such a tree – one needle at a time.

I’m Michael Stein.


Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Spruce Grouse [2389] recorded by H. Lumsden. Ambient created from Boreal Chickadee [77204] recorded by C.A. Marantz.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2005-2017 Tune In to Nature.org December 2017 Narrator: Michael Stein


CURWOOD: And for pictures, fly on over to our website, LOE.org.

Related links:
- The Spruce Grouse story on the BirdNote® website
- More about the Spruce Grouse from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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[MUSIC: The Depue Brothers Band, “Good King Wenceslas” on When It’s Christmas Time, composed by John Mason Neale/Thomas Helmore, CD Baby]

CURWOOD: Next time on Living on Earth, storyteller Jay O'Callahan shares a true story about light and hope during the shortest days of the year.

O'CALLAHAN: When I was a little boy, Christmas Eve was very special. My sisters and I would run half way across the street and we would turn and look at our house. It was a big old house and it would be dark and but would be a lit candle in every window. Well, then came the Christmas Eve when everything was different.

CURWOOD: Celebrating the season with stories and music. That's next time on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Depue Brothers Band, “Good King Wenceslas” on When It’s Christmas Time, composed by John Mason Neale/Thomas Helmore, CD Baby]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Savannah Christiansen, Jenni Doering, Noble Ingram, Jaime Kaiser, Don Lyman, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, and Jolanda Omari. Tom Tiger engineered our show, with help from John Jessoe and Jake Rego. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org - and like us, please, on our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingonEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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