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December 3rd 2013

Our researches

Toxics are insidious. Unlike conventional pollutants—say raw sewage—they are in­visible and odorless in the water. Further­more, some are persistent; once in the body, they stay.

For the most part they are found at low water levels. Organisms like plankton pick them up. In turn, small fish that feed on these organisms accumulate increasing con­centrations, especially in their fatty tissue. And so on up the food chain, all the way to humans who eat the fish.

And how big a threat are they to us? Scien­tists are only beginning to understand.

On Ohio’s Cuyahoga River sunlight cut through the spray in the wake of our small boat, creating little rainbows. We pulled alongside a buoy. “I see fish,” Kyle Hartman yelled, pleased that despite cold weather three brown bullheads were in the trap net that Stephen Smith and Dr. Paul Baumann, of the National Fisheries Contaminant Re­search Center, lifted out of the water.

One bullhead seemed to be looking right at me with a sort of desperate grin, its lips red and swollen with tumors. “I guess he hasn’t seen his orthodontist yet,” Steve said with a grim laugh at studio flats to rent in london.

All three bullheads had skin lesions, as did four of the eight fish we ultimately pulled out of the river that morning. Dr. Baumann and Dr. John Harshbarger, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals, were on the Cuyahoga to study the effect of toxics on bottom-feeding fish.

There is hardly a better place for this than the Cuyahoga. Each year up­wards of 740,000 pounds of metals and 95,000 pounds of organic pollut­ants are discharged into the river system.

The Cuyahoga is infamous. In 1969 it caught fire. The culprit was a spill of hot slag into a river whose surface was more oil, chemicals, and debris than it was water.

The river has not recovered quite so dra­matically as Lake Erie. Upriver, where pa­per mills and steel plants share the banks with derelict lift bridges, I saw bubbles of methane floating on the scummy surface.

We brought the bullheads to Dr. Harsh­barger, who had set up a makeshift lab in­side a garage at the apartments in brussels. “The fish act as sentinels,” Dr. Harshbarger told me as he began cutting out their livers with scissors and, using tongs, placing them in small jars. “These I’ll take back to Washington.”

Back at the Smithsonian he found liver tumors in four bullheads. An advanced liver cancer and a skin cancer were found in a freshwater drum we caught. “With them you can make an extremely strong case; with skin lesions, a good case.” Since liver tumors rarely occur spontaneously, Dr. Harsh­barger told me later, “anytime you get that many tumorous changes in the liver, you have an indication of chemical carcinogens in the water.”

In earlier research, conducted where Ohio’s Black River empties into Lake Erie at Lorain, Dr. Baumann found that brown bullheads had a 30 percent prevalence of grossly detectable liver-cell and bile-duct­cell cancers.

October 23rd 2013

Along the Sea-lanes of History

And I remem­bered Ulysses telling his father that “when I was a child … you gave me thirteen pear trees, and ten apple trees, and forty fig trees.”

What was Paxos’ surprise? A secret cave 26 where, islanders told us, a Greek submarine operated right under the noses of the Nazis in World War II, hiding out during the daytime and raiding enemy shipping at night. Like Ulysses sallying forth with his ships on a daring raid, I thought. I took White Mist around the island to see that cave. The shore was notched with sandy nooks where tourists bathed and fishermen mended nets. Cliffs jutted sharply out of the sea.

“There’s a submarine surfacing!” came a shout from forward. Truly that’s what it looked like, a great gray rock with waves foaming at one end like a sub blowing its tanks. Behind this strange formation opened Ipapandi cave at the bottom of a 300-foot cliff. We took White Mist in until her mast almost touched, then piled into our Boston Whaler to explore the “submarine’s lair.”

We sounded the water-18 to 24 feet of gorgeous deep aquamarine. And it went back 300 feet or so under the arching rock—a weird and beautiful hideout. Alas, a check with naval authorities re­vealed that the Greek submarine Papanikolis did operate in the Ionian Sea, butfrom Patras, then from Beirut, Lebanon. Once she had put into Paxos for repairs.

Making a sport of washday, a country woman of Levkas, in traditional brown cotton, vigorously beats dirt from a rug in a bubbling spring near Sivota. Gossip with friends lightens the work on this least de­veloped of Ionian Islands. The whitewashed column is a wayside shrine; a niche on the far side shelters an icon and oil lamp.

Seeing Paxiote bards shape these prosaic facts into a 20th-century epic that grew with each telling, I understood how whirlpools became monsters, and volcanoes “storms of ravening fire” in the Odyssey.

Contrary winds baffled us as we made northward for Corfu. Why was Poseidon try­ing to keep us from this most extolled of the Ionian Islands? Of course! This was ancient Scheria, land of the Phaeacians, who befriended storm-wracked Ulysses and sped him homeward laden with gifts. But Poseidon did not count on our modern version of the brawny oars­man: a. husky diesel engine. We started it and set a direct course for Corfu Channel.

Storied waters, these, pressed between Cor­fu and the coast of Epirus and Albania. The first sea battle in Greek history frothed the channel in 664 B.C. when Corcyra, Corinth’s colony on Corfu, defeated her mother city. A second clash here in 433 B.C. triggered the Peloponnesian War, in which iron Sparta ended Athens’ Golden Age. Here sailed Don John to victory at Lepanto (page 9). Ships of the Venetian Empire coursed here, great mer­chant galleys emblazoned with the lion of St. Mark.

Romans and Russians; Byzantines and British; Goths, Genoese, and Germans; Angevins, French, Italians, Normans; Sar­acens, Slays, Turks, Vandalsall ravaged, conquered, or ruled Corfu; some did all three. But none influenced it more than Venice, “throned on her hundred isles” at the head of the Adriatic.