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Can Elon Musk Fix Flint’s Water?

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Can Elon Musk Fix Flint’s Water?
Bill Pugliano / Stringer / Getty Images

By Fiona E. McNeill

The Michigan community of Flint has become a byword for lead poisoning. Elon Musk recently entered the fray. He tweeted a promise to pay to fix the water in any house in Flint that had water contamination above acceptable levels set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


On Twitter and elsewhere, people argued whether this offer was a big deal or not. Some said his follow-up tweets that most houses in Flint had safe water were wrong. Some said the issue had already been fixed so he was doing nothing.

Others argued that his clarification that he would pay to fit water filters in the small number of houses with high lead levels ("outliers," as he called them) meant he was backtracking.

Important Offer

Even as controversy swirls this week around Musk's financial contribution to a Republican fundraising committee and his comments about a British cave rescuer in Thailand, I argue the Tesla founder has made an important offer regarding Flint. What's more, he's clearly explored the issues surrounding lead in the town's drinking water.

I have studied lead exposure for 30 years. I develop biomedical devices to measure long-term exposure. I recently showed that long-term exposure to lead in Canada has been reduced by half since the early 1990s.

I know that removing lead from drinking water is important because lead is such a toxic metal. It lowers children's IQs, and my colleagues and I showed that lead-exposed children have higher blood pressure late in life. We also found that women exposed to lead undergo menopause earlier than non-exposed women.

In Flint, controls of lead levels in drinking water failed, and an increased number of children were exposed to high lead levels for months. These children will suffer long-term consequences to their health and quality of life.

The children were lead poisoned in Flint because of poor management, complacency and intransigence.

Like many municipalities in North America, a proportion of the water lines in Flint are made of lead. Water running through lead pipes picks up small amounts of the metal, but more lead dissolves when the water is warm and/or acidic.

In April 2014, the city switched the source of water to the Flint River. This water was corrosive, and they failed to add corrosion control. More lead dissolved into the water and children drinking tap water were poisoned. The switch in water supply increased the number of children with blood lead levels above the U.S. action level of 5 µg/dL by 50 percent.

Government Officials Prolonged Crisis

It took months for the problem to be acknowledged and some state officials "stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss others' attempts to bring the issues of unsafe water… to light" and "prolonged the Flint water crisis." The source of water was finally switched back, and slowly lead levels in drinking water and the number of children with blood levels above the action level fell.

As of 2018, the state of Michigan's sampling data of high-risk areas in Flint shows that four per cent of water samples in Flint over a six-month period had lead level levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory level of 15 parts per billion.

As Musk noted, most of the tap water in Flint (more than 90 percent) is indeed safe by the EPA standard. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the withdrawal of supplies of bottled water in April 2018, arguing that tap-water testing met federal guidelines and declaring the crisis over.

But that doesn't mean that lead has been completely eliminated. There are still properties in the city in 2018 with tested levels that exceed the EPA standard. While ongoing work to replace pipes, some the result of lawsuits, should mean lower levels of lead in the community's tap water in the future, it can cause spikes in lead water levels as particular pipes are cut apart and replaced.

Musk went further in his Tweets than a commitment to water levels below the EPA standard. He committed to fixing the water in any house that exceeded Food and Drug Administration (FDA) levels.

Regulated Differently

In the U.S., bottled water and tap water are regulated at different levels. The FDA (bottled) water level is three times lower than the EPA limit at five parts per billion. The state data from high-risk areas in Flint from January to July 2018 shows that 50 to 100 per cent more samples fail at this level.

And so by using the FDA standard, Musk is committing to paying to add filters to the water supply in potentially twice the number of homes in high-risk areas.

Lead can be removed from water by filtration. Some filters work better than others, but even low-cost filters can work well, so Musk's pledge to add filtration to house water supplies could work as an interim measure. Free water filters and replacement cartridges are available at City Hall, but as Musk noted in his Tweets, some local people distrust the state agency information and the filters. Who can blame them?

The official report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force notes that state officials tried to discredit the issue of unsafe water. Why would people in Flint accept on faith an offer of help from government, when governments have failed them?

Elon Musk may have an important role to play, not as an engineer and an installer of filters, but as an arm's-length third party whose help can be believed. The mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, has said her conversation with Musk's team gave her hope that Musk could help with improving local confidence in water quality.

If Musk can help achieve safe drinking water more quickly for every home in Flint, then he should be lauded. Water is life. Giving all of the residents of Flint confidence in the safety of the tap water in their homes helps restore their lives and dignity.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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