Undark Podcast #12: Wear and Tear

Our latest Undark podcast looks at the textile and leather tanning industries, science journalism in the Trump era, and improving hospital food.


Join our podcast host and former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran as he discusses Undark’s recent four-part Case Study on the global leather tanning and textile industries with journalists Larry and Debbie Price. Also: Seth Mnookin talks about science journalism in the Trump era, and Alicia Puglionesi looks at efforts to improve hospital food.

A full transcript of the podcast is below.


David Corcoran: This is Undark where magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society and with this podcast. Hello again, welcome to episode 12. I’m David Corcoran. For our cover story, we travel with a pair of journalists to four very different manufacturing cities with one thing in common. They make goods that people wear.

The series is called Wear and Tear and it’s about the impact of the global leather and textile industries on workers, the economy and the environment. The journalists are Debbie Price and Larry Price and they join us now. Welcome.

Larry Price: Hey, thank you David.

Debbie Price: Thanks David. Hi.

David Corcoran: This is audio of course but a very big part of this story is visual. I’d like you to describe the first thing that Undark readers will see when they click on the first installment of your series. It’s a photo of a woman crossing a footbridge balancing a giant roll of red fabric on her head. Can you tell us about this scene?

Larry Price: Sure, the project opens in the neighborhood of Hazaribagh which is in the heart of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and of course this is the leather tanning district of Bangladesh where you have at least a 150 perhaps more tanneries and they produce about 90% of the country’s leather. The amazing thing about this area is that you can actually smell the Hazaribagh district long before you arrive there.

It’s like an overpowering mixture of a chemical smell and undeniable odor of rotting flesh. I spent a couple of weeks photographing in and around that part of Dhaka. Of course when you arrive there, you can definitely see the effects of the tannery pollution. I was trying to find a summary image that combined all the elements of this massive pollution and the affluent from the tannery districts.

Finally, I spent several afternoons looking for just the right angle. The people walking around, you see this enormous canal that discharges hundreds and hundreds of thousands of gallons of affluent that flows into the Buriganga River which is less than a mile away and the thing that strikes me of course with these massive mounds of leather scraps that are piled six, seven, eight feet high.

David Corcoran: At the same time, we’re not just seeing these scarps of leather and dead animal carcasses and so on, that very process that goes to make this leather is pretty toxic, isn’t it?

Larry Price: Well, the chemicals involved are the genesis of the toxicity. You’ve got all manner of chemicals that mixed together and ultimately they flow through these channels into these open canals and ultimately into the river but that river is now dead. There’s no fish or a little aquatic life that flows into that river and it supplies millions upon millions of people downstream with water that they drink, water that they use for their household chores.

These people are literally drinking and swimming and bathing in this toxic bath of affluent from the tannery. Most importantly, the chromium compounds that are used in the tanning process are some of the most volatile and toxic chemicals involved in the tanning process.

David Corcoran: What about the workers like the woman with the red bundle on her head? What kind of exposure are they getting?

Larry Price: Well, the workers generally they don’t have the protection that you would imagine. Men are working around these machines that stretch high, it’s cut high, in some cases injuries are common but most importantly it’s sort of the exposure of the workers in their skins. They’re barefooted for the most part of their work, the ubiquitous flip flops.

In some cases, they’ll wade in vats of chemicals that pull the skins in and out of the chemical vats. Almost all of them will have these lesions and cracks. One worker told me that unless his hands were wet that he couldn’t close his hands because his skin would crack constantly.

Debbie Price: One of the photographs that’s stunning to me is of a man who’s actually inside a drum that tumbles the rawhides and chromium and other chemicals. They climbed into and they’re basically bathing themselves in these chemicals and there’s terrible damage to their skin and they’re inhaling the fumes and they have problems from that.

David Corcoran: It’s pretty shocking just from a human right standpoint but as you right the leather and tanning industry, it’s hugely important to the economy of Bangladesh, isn’t it? What is the government doing about these kinds of basic violations of worker and environmental safety?

Debbie Price: Well, one of the impetus is for the story is that Hazaribagh now is going through a change and for 14 years, the government has been trying to move the tanners out to an industrial park and they’ve had various court orders to do it and it’s been delayed, delayed, delayed. There’s a move under way to move the tanneries into an area where there’ll be a central of affluent treatment facility which hopefully they’ll be able to stop polluting the water that way but as Richard Pearshouse with Human Rights Watch told us, he said “If they don’t do something about worker conditions, they’re just moving the problem from Hazaribagh to this other area which is called Savar.”

So far, the government has really not enforced any kind of worker regulations or environmental regulations or child labor regulations. They’ve basically turned a blind eye to that and even openly admitted it to Human Rights Watch saying, “We can’t until we move to Savar. There is a great need for enforcement once the tanneries get to Savar to prevent children from working in this very dangerous industry to ensure that the chemicals are captured and waste is treated and to ensure that workers are protected wearing gear and that their conditions aren’t so hazardous.

David Corcoran: Let’s step back now and talk about the big idea for this series. How did you get interested in the first place and when you started did you have any idea about the eventual scope of this project?

Larry Price: Well, I’ve been working for a few years in the environmental pollution sector and there was a report in 2013 authored by the international NGO Green Cross International and they’ve placed the leather tanning industry on their top ten lists of industries that pollute widely worldwide. I was interested in that, I started doing some research and I decided that the areas of East India and Bangladesh represented some of the more egregious examples of that and certainly were considered among the world’s most polluted regions.

Debbie Price: I think Tom Zeller deserves a lot of credit too because Larry had these pollution pieces looking at India and Bangladesh with the leather industry and the Citarum river with the textiles industry. Tom we talked about it and he really helped us connect the dots since what’s happened in the United States correspondingly. The story became one that looked at both the pollution problems and the impact of globalization and how those two are very closely connected.

As you know, we looked at what’s happened in New York with the tannery industry and what’s happened in North Carolina with the textiles industry.

David Corcoran: Yes, let’s go to Gloversville, New York. When I was in middle school in upstate New York, we had to memorize the leading industries and a bunch of cities. Gloversville was easy.

Larry Price: The namesake.

Debbie Price: The namesake. Gloversville named for the glove-making industry and of course there was a corresponding tannery industry which was very strong as you know in upstate New York for 100 years and toward the 70’s, the glove industry started declining because of basically off-shoring. Then in the 80’s, the tannery industry which had been and somewhat have declined because decreased demand because the gloves are now being made overseas.

The EPA and the clean water act which were passed in the 70’s began to be implemented and the tanneries were basically told they had to install their own affluent treatment systems which were very, very expensive. A lot of the tanneries that were already having a hard time just couldn’t do it and they closed. Within a very few short years, this industry that had been enormous in this part of the world almost disappeared and there are a few tanneries left today in Gloversville and a few that hung on and managed to survive but it really was a massive shift for this community.

David Corcoran: I’ve never actually been to Gloversville although I got a right on the test but you make it sound a lot like Detroit. The city that was once just a one industry town that was a hugely booming economy then it went bust and now it’s fitfully coming back with specialty industries and different kinds of activities that add up to at least some kind of revival. Is that how we should look at a place like this?

Debbie Price: I think that’s true, yes. There are some smaller leather businesses that are still there tanning, colonial tanning that we talk about and they do very specialty, high-end bare-skin and bison and there’s a leather finishing company that does take the tan leather they paint it and then they apply patterns to it for designers that want it for furniture or whatever.

They’re making a go of it with really high quality custom-work and then there’s this glove factory that’s been there a long time that actually was formed by people from other glove factories that went out of business Samco. They make 100,000 leather gloves for the military every year and they’re still doing it by hand mostly and they’re beautifully sown and very high quality.

The surviving tanning and glove industries are doing specialty work that’s very high-quality then the counties diversifying, they’ve got a Fage yogurt plant and a Walmart distribution center and a Spanish sausage plant to resew. They’re bringing the food industries in because they have now clean water. They always had a lot of water but it was polluted back in the day and now it’s very clean and it’s really good for these industries and the center of the city they’ve got a pretty ambitious plan to revitalize the downtown area and revitalize the neighborhood surrounding to create a walking community.

There’s some stuff going on that’s encouraging but they really had to – as Vincent DeSantis, one of the city council members said — they’ve had to bootstrap themselves back up. They had a very vibrant industry that disappeared and now they’re bringing it back themselves with new ways of doing it.

Larry Price: I was able to photograph inside a couple of the tanneries that are still operating there and inside Samco, the glove factory. One of the amazing things about that operation is that process is very similar to the overseas process but of course it’s much more environmentally friendly, there’s no affluent, it’s all contained and dealt with of course according to EPA regulations and so forth.

David Corcoran: The third and fourth stops in your series are in Indonesia and North Carolina. The industry is different but the trajectory you described is very much the same. The industrial revolution brings mass production of consumer goods and dominates the economy and the identity of cities and towns in the US like Gloversville and then as labor becomes more expensive and the government requires companies to clean up the messes they have made, the industry migrates other parts of the globe where it’s less expensive to do business and the cycle seems to start all over again. Is history just doomed to repeat itself all over the developing world?

Debbie Price: So far we are seeing a lot of repeated history. One of the tanners that I talked … the best thing we could do is export our regulations and if we export our regulations and our know-how and our technology to clean up these places, then we can … not only we can support American industry because then it’s not … it’s cheap to go abroad and dump and then we help the people who live in these communities because we’re not turning their neighborhoods into cesspools.

I think the awareness is very important the more the American consumer knows about what goes on, the more they can demand that their products be produced responsibly and ethically and environmentally sound ways.

Larry Price: Sure. There’s certainly hope. In India for instance in Kolkata, they’ve been successful in moving the tanning operations out of the deep urban environments and to remote facilities that are more environmentally conscious. That’s a start.

David Corcoran: This is such an instructive story that our partner the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has built a lesson plan for middle and high school students around part one and you can find that at pulitzercenter.org. Meanwhile, Debbie and Larry Price’s story is at undark.org and as great as his podcast is, it really demands to be seen and read. Debbie and Larry, thanks so much for doing this story and taking the time to tell our listeners about it.

Debbie Price: Thank you David.

Larry Price: Thank you David.

David Corcoran: Now we’re joined by Seth Mnookin who covers media and science for the Undark podcast. Seth, a slow month.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, exactly. I think just as everyone expected for those of us involved either in the media or in science, the first month of the Trump administration has given us all a lot of free time because of the lack of stories.

David Corcoran: Yeah. Snapping shot. I wanted to start out by asking you about an event that happened right here in Boston the other weekend. It was a rally tied to the meeting of the American Association for the advancement of science which is a big annual meeting. More than 8,000 scientists here in Boston. There was a rally in Copley Square with hundreds of scientists protesting.

Some of the news that’s coming out of Washington and it was a lead up to the big march for science that’s being planned for earth day April 22nd in Washington. Here’s my question to you. Is this a new found activism? Is this a danger for scientists? Are these kinds of expressions threat to the absolute empiricism that scientists are supposed to strive for?

Seth Mnookin: I think that’s a tough question and you could answer both yes and no. Certainly, a lot of people the march in Boston or talking about the march in Washington are talking about it under the rhetoric of supporting empiricism, supporting fact-based inquiry. On the face of it, it would appear that someone could support facts and not have that be a political statement.

One of the things that I guess concerned me a little bit about the march in Boston was that I wasn’t entirely sure what they were marching against which is to say the Trump administration has as of yet not cut funding to the NIH, not announced that they’re going to close down any of the institutes of medicine. There have been some things going on at the EPA which are potentially alarming but even though is I think at this point are more potentially alarming than outright alarming.

That’s not to say that there are not lots of areas of concern starting with the new head of the EPA, the number of people involved in terms of administration who are climate deniers including potentially the president himself but I think that what this march risked doing is setting up a conflict of science versus the administration and if there’s one thing Trump has shown, it’s that he’s incredibly thin-skinned and holds grudges.

If this narrative is created early on that scientists somehow oppose the administration, I’m not sure that that’s going to serve their interests well in the long-term.

David Corcoran: As we’ve said before on the podcast, scientists and journalists are in the same line of work that is we look at facts and evidence to try to make sense of the world. I’m wondering if what you just said about scientists could equally be said about the news media.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah. It’s interesting. There’s been over the past couple of weeks there’s been a lot of discussion and a lot written about this very issue about objectivity and impartiality and the relationship they’re in about personal identity and the ideals of American journalism, about the right or ability of journalists to participate in protest marches.

I guess my feeling is that the very patent answers that are being offered by either side are not very convincing to me. The idea that journalists should never make their views on current events clear seems ridiculous. Especially in a climate in which facts which are what journalists ideally deal in are in contention. I think it’s appropriate for journalists to very loudly proclaim that they are on the side of facts.

At the same time, I do think that it is important to strive for impartiality and objectivity. What’s tricky right now is there are a lot of issues that have come to the forefront that almost feel like moral issues and it’s hard to know what is appropriate in that case for journalists to publicly speak out about. A lot of people myself included think that it’s more long to close our borders to refugees whose lives are being threatened in their home countries.

This is a bedrock of American democracy. That’s fine. What I can do in my reporting is point to empirical evidence that also shows the ways that that is damaging to the country in terms of a potential brain drain, in terms of the benefits that the experienced after World War II when we were a refuge for scientists from all over the world and before World War II.

I don’t think it would necessarily be appropriate for me to say the Trump administration’s immigration policies are morally bankrupt but I do think it would be appropriate for me to highlight the ways in which they are also factually bankrupt and I think that’s totally appropriate for journalists to do.

David Corcoran: There’s been quite a lot of research lately about how to approach these questions where so much depends on facts than some truth versus falsehood and some studies reach the interesting and I think quite counter-intuitive conclusion that it doesn’t always help to martial facts when you want to persuade somebody who comes from the opposite conclusion that you do that somehow facts are not the most crucial thing.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah. It’s one of those findings that I think seems potentially counterintuitive at first blush but then as soon as you start to dig down a little bit, it makes a fair amount of sense. One person who I think has been way ahead of the curve on this and has been doing really both important and fascinating research on this for years is Dan Kahan at Yale.

His work is on cultural cognition and how someone’s cultural affiliations may have more to do with where they stand on various issues than other things including the factual information that they’re given. Also, this is something that I found to be very true in my writing about vaccines. A reason for that is that if you believe in a conspiracy theory, any evidence that is offered up against that conspiracy theory is only going to be taken as proof of the conspiracy by the people who believe that.

If you believe that CNN and the New York Times and NBC are fake news and they’re putting forth a non-fact-based agenda, when you then continually sight stories from mainstream media outlets showing that A or B is a fact, that’s just going to be taken as further evidence of those places’ dishonesty by people who believe in what’s coming out of Infowars or Breitbart.

That presents a real challenge and I think it’s foundation-shaking in some ways to a lot of us who truck in facts. I think one thing that we will see over the next couple of years is what strategies are effective for reaching people with whom you disagree on seemingly fact-based issue. There’s some evidence that empathy and talking to people about their views and how they’re formed might be more successful than just throwing facts at them but there has not been enough to say anything with any degree of certainty there.

David Corcoran: Yeah, perhaps a much harder job to figure out where your audience lives and to try to meet them there.

Seth Mnookin: I think one way to combat this is on a political level. I’ve been astounded by the cowardice that elected officials have shown in the face of some of what’s happening in the Trump administration. I think it’s something that is going to come back and haunt us all but if politicians made clear that there are such things as facts that just because the New York Times might write a story that they do not agree with on a political level, that does not mean that they dishonest.

I think changing the rhetoric coming out of politicians could go a long way. By the same token, I don’t foresee Infowars changing its tactics but some place like Fox News which I think increasingly is straddling the line between being a legitimate news organization and trucking and what is essentially fake news. There are an enormous number of incredibly skilled and passionate journalists who work there and if news organizations like that took a firmer stance, I think that could be pretty impactful as well. I don’t necessarily see that happening in the near future unfortunately.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin covers media and science for the Undark podcast. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism and he is the director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT. Seth, thanks a lot. If you’ve ever stayed in a hospital, you might have choked down some mushy flavorless meals or you might have been pleasantly surprised.

Many hospitals put a lot of effort into what they feed people. The push to improve hospital food isn’t just about customer satisfaction, it actually connects modern nutrition science with very ancient healing practices but food preparation is almost invisible to patients in today’s high-tech facilities. It’s still an essential medical function.

For a behind the scenes view of this hidden work, Alicia Puglionesi takes us into a sub, sub-basement of Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

Tyrese Curtis: Thank you for calling food service, Tyrese speaking, how many I help you?

Alicia Puglionesi: Tyrese Curtis works two stories below the street in the cavernous network of supply tunnels underneath Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Tyrese Curtis: The location is you have no windows, no circulation but other than that, the people are good that you’re working with.

Alicia Puglionesi: Curtis is a nutrition assistant. When an inpatient or family member picks up their bedside phone to ask for a meal, they connect to her office.

Tyrese Curtis: Okay. I have a regular diet, what would you like to get for the patient?

Speaker 7: A beef broth.

Tyrese Curtis: Okay.

Speaker 7: Chicken broth [inaudible 00:26:27]. Chicken and beef. Okay, beef broth.

Tyrese Curtis: Okay.

Alicia Puglionesi: The call sets in motion a chain of events that stretches across multiple city blocks. The hospital’s two kitchens prepare three meals a day for up to 1,100 inpatients. Hopkins offers an array of options from meatballs to sushi. Not all hospitals can afford to channel resources towards diversifying their menu or sourcing quality ingredients.

The chefs at Hopkins have kept costs down by cutting back on waste. They want to shed the old stereotype of boring hospital food. Right now, their breakfast requests printed on paper slips are traveling through a maze of steaming vats and cooking stations.

Sean Field: [inaudible 00:27:19] is organized confusion.

Alicia Puglionesi: Sean Field is an executive chef at the hospital.

Sean Field: This is a hundred-gallon soup [crosstalk 00:27:29]

Alicia Puglionesi: Everyday he and his staff tend to complicated diseases, allergies and dietary restrictions.

Sean Field: Where they’re from, the age, how long their illnesses. As a chef, for me, I found this more rewarding. I know this is more to the patients and this is helping for their healing process.

Alicia Puglionesi: Most of us have heard plenty about the connection between nutrition and health but today’s high-tech drugs and surgeries that rescue people from the brink of death overshadow the medical significance of food. For fields, the ordinary act of eating shapes everything before and after those crisis moments.

Sean Field: The medical staff will tell you that when they eat, they heal, they go home.

Alicia Puglionesi: That wisdom goes back to the most ancient medicine. Long before pharmaceutical care is for typhoid or tuberculosis, doctors prescribed specific preparations of food at specific times to strengthen their patients and combat disease.

Mary Fissell: A lot of what was healthcare in a paradise study was an expectant, watching and waiting and care for the body of the patient to an affect to support that patient through the episode of illness.

Alicia Puglionesi: Mary Fissell, a historian at Johns Hopkins University studies English medicine of the 1600’s. In those times and until the mid-19th century, people believed that before humors, yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm explained why they got sick.

Mary Fissell: What you eat is processed by your body into these fundamental four components of your body — the four humors. If you want to change the balance of how the humors are, you can change the diet.

Alicia Puglionesi: The greatest doctors of Renaissance Europe mastered this balancing act. Physician William Bullein’s 1559 Medical treatise, “The Government of Health,” includes a guide to meal planning based on a patient’s humors, temperature and the season. Bullein, though, would not have gotten his hands dirty in the kitchen.

Speaker 10: In terms of he’s doing it, it’s mostly the women of the household.

Alicia Puglionesi: Paintings, prints and sketches from the middle ages through the 1800’s depict scenes of healing in which women, family members or hired nurses prepare and deliver essential nourishment.

Mary Fissell: Here we see the contrast between the physician who comes and goes.

Alicia Puglionesi: Fissell pulls out a copy of a black and white woodcut print from 1562 that shows physician paying a house call to a sick nobleman. The patient is confined to bed with a sorely look on his face.

Mary Fissell: The physicians [inaudible 00:30:02] turned. He’s not even looking at the patient, he’s looking at the urine and he’s clearly … he’s got his outdoor keep on, he’s going to leave again. She’s the one that’s doing the real work of healing which is the dietary part.

Alicia Puglionesi: Fissell points to the other caregiver in the room hidden in plain sight at the patient’s bedside.

Mary Fissell: We see the woman carrying this dish of some kind of gruel that she’s going to feed to the sick guy.

Alicia Puglionesi: Fissell studies what went unrecorded and uncelebrated in the work of these female healers. They shared traditional knowledge and recipes that probably saved many more lives than the elite doctors of their time.

Zachary Carter: Just a little heavy cream, egg, wash and cheese on top.

Alicia Puglionesi: Back in the Hopkins Hospital kitchen, chef Zachary Carter fills a late breakfast order. He’s working fast but carefully.

Zachary Carter: You got to understand, you have to have a special place to take care of the patient because I know if I have a family in here, I wouldn’t want anybody to just throw something together and put it on a plate.

Alicia Puglionesi: When everything is running smoothly, patients might not think twice about how their food arrives freshly made or why the hospital feeds them certain things and not others. In the obscurity of the call center, Tyrese Curtis uses a computerized system to pull up the profiles of patients she will never meet and make sure that their food choices match the doctor’s assessment of what their bodies need.

Tyrese Curtis: The pork sausage is something that they want and they can’t have.

Alicia Puglionesi: Gently talking a cardiac patient out of that pork sausage is a small but important piece of how the hospital takes care of people. Americans tend to see caring work as less valuable than that of neurosurgeons or cancer researchers but professor Fissell sees it as the foundation of medicine.

Mary Fissell: Much of the work of care taking in the history of healing is what is unspoken and it isn’t written down because it’s just normal every day, it’s women’s work. It’s not worth writing about.

Alicia Puglionesi: Nutritionists, chefs and food workers at the hospital spend every day translating their care and expertise into meals that travel from the basement kitchen to the bedsides of people from around the world who have come in search of the latest that modern medicine has to offer. For Undark, I’m Alicia Puglionesi.

David Corcoran: John McCone produced that story and that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the united science journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by [Katie Hiler 00:32:30] and we had help from radio station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and a society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran for Undark.

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