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Here's What America Would Look Like Without the EPA

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Here's What America Would Look Like Without the EPA

By Brian Palmer

"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," said Richard Nixon, the founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in his 1970 State of the Union speech.

If only. While there was clearly a time when support for environmental regulations transcended politics, the GOP's broad support for EPA antagonist and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency he so maligns tells us that day has passed.

A collective memory lapse seems to have descended on lawmakers who seek to dismantle an agency that has transformed American life for the better. Since the EPA's founding in 1970, concentrations of common air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, have dropped as much as 67 percent. The EPA helped mitigate catastrophes like acid rain, leaded gasoline and DDT. The agency bravely classified secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen in 1993, paving the way for successful litigation against the tobacco industry and an incredible reduction in U.S. smoking rates.

Perhaps the EPA has been too successful for its own good. In the same way that vaccines have given parents the luxury of forgetting what measles and whooping cough were like, the EPA has nearly wiped out the national memory of the contaminated environment of the 1960s. But things were so bad then that support for creating the agency and our major environmental statutes was virtually unanimous—nearly everyone recognized the need for an environmental regulator.

"There were debates about the best approach to deal with the problem, but opposition to the EPA was pretty minimal in the beginning," remembers A. James Barnes, who was with the agency at its founding and served as deputy administrator from 1985 to 1988. "Most legislators got themselves personally involved in how to improve the environment."

As we embark on a terrifying new period at the EPA, under a president who called the agency "a disgrace" and promised to abolish it, it's worth looking back at the way we were before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to our rescue.

Disasters Were the Norm

If you ask people of a certain age about the environmental problems of the 1960s, many describe a series of discrete disasters: the Cuyahoga River fire, the New York City Thanksgiving smog, the Santa Barbara oil spill. Those incidents were shocking indeed, but they weren't one-offs. In most cases they were merely the most salient in a series of increasingly grave problems of the same kind.

Take the New York City smog. "The smog" is New York shorthand for the choking, three-day air pollution event that smothered the city over Thanksgiving 1966. That weekend, the city experienced a heat inversion—a stationary layer of warm air that prevented the normal upward circulation of warm air from the ground. As a result, low-lying pollution simply hung over the city.

New York City veiled in smog in 1973.National Archives

"I was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1966 episode," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney David Hawkins. "It was frightening, but while that is the best-known event, heavy pollution was an everyday fact of life those days. It was one of the things that motivated me to get a job at NRDC soon after I graduated."

As Hawkins points out, "the smog" wasn't really new. Thirteen years earlier, for six terrible days, a similar heat inversion spiked the sulfur dioxide content of New York's air from a tolerable 40 parts per billion to 860 parts per billion. (The current legal limit is 75 parts per billion.) At the time, American city dwellers hadn't yet settled on the term smog to describe the dark curtain of polluted air that was beginning to descend on them. Many newspapers referred to the disaster as "the smaze" and every day it accelerated the death of 25 to 30 people. Yet another multi-day smog event blanketed Gotham in 1963.

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By Bill Sullivan

Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.

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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.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

By Brett Wilkins

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