Podcast #22: The Poisoning of Michigan

Join our podcast host and former NYT editor David Corcoran as he talks with Carrie Arnold about her Undark Case Study on the toxic legacy of a 1973 chemical mixup. Also: commentator Seth Mnookin on the biggest science stories of 2017, and Randy Scott Carroll on what it means to be alive.

A full transcript of the podcast follows.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast. Hello again; welcome to Episode 22. I’m David Corcoran.

For our cover story, a chemical whose toxic legacy refuses to go away. Reporter Carrie Arnold traveled to central Michigan to tell a story full of intergenerational tragedy and mystery. She joins us now. Carrie, welcome to the podcast.

Carrie Arnold: Hi, David. Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: So, set the scene for us, would you? What happened in Michigan in the early 1970s, and why is it still a problem?

Carrie Arnold: So what happened in the early ’70s, sometime in late summer of 1973, there was a mix-up at a chemical plant in the town of St. Louis, Michigan, which has the nickname of Middle of the Mitten — it’s located in the geographic center of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Michigan Chemical was one of the biggest chemical factories, production facilities, in the state of Michigan at the time, and they produced a number of different chemicals including a new flame retardant called polybrominated biphenyl, PBB, under the name of Firemaster. It also produced supplements for cattle feed that they then shipped down to a plant in Battle Creek, where it was mixed with other types of cow goodies into a cattle feed. The magnesium oxide supplement that they made for cattle was called Nutrimaster. All their products had some sort of name followed by “master.”

When one of the drivers was loading the trucks to take the magnesium oxide down to Battle Creek, instead of grabbing a bag of Nutrimaster, he grabbed bags of Firemaster. Ironically, the two different chemicals ended up looking very, very similar. They were both a silvery-white pellet, basically. The PBB had been mixed with a number of anti-caking agents so it could be mixed in with plastics more easily. So when the truck driver got to Battle Creek and unloaded all these big brown paper bags full of silver-white pellets, no one at the Michigan Farm Bureau mixing plant recognized that they had gotten the wrong shipment, and so what happened is this PBB flame retardant was actually mixed in with a whole bunch of cattle feed.

David Corcoran: This sounds like such a small mistake, and yet it has very, very long legs. Can you talk about what happened after they mixed up these chemicals?

Carrie Arnold: Sure. The Michigan Farm Bureau mixing plant outside of Battle Creek was one of the leading, if not the leading, suppliers of cattle feed to dairy and beef farmers throughout the state of Michigan. They received somewhere between 800 and 1,000 pounds of PBBs, and it got mixed into one of their most popular cattle feeds, known as Dairy Ration 402. Magnesium oxide is really great for cows. It really increases their milk production, so dairy farmers all over the state were just clamoring for the stuff because it was really good. It really worked.

PBB is also very potently toxic. It doesn’t take a whole lot to really cause serious health effects. Another factor was that there was a lot of cross-contamination, so the Michigan Farm Bureau produced feed for sheep, feed for chickens, and they didn’t necessarily deep-clean the different hoppers after they’d mixed the feeds, because there was a lot of similar ingredients in all of them, and so PBB residue ended up getting mixed into a whole bunch of livestock feeds, and this was distributed all across the state. So that’s how a small mix-up ended up contaminating a lot of the cattle throughout Michigan’s lower peninsula.

David Corcoran: And then it also wound up contaminating people.

Carrie Arnold: Yes, because people either were exposed by just touching and handling the cattle feed. People working in the Michigan chemical plant didn’t have adequate safety gear. There were some internal documents showing that it was toxic, but they figured it wasn’t going to be entering the food chain, and so you didn’t really have to worry about it, and so some of the plant workers were exposed. And also people who ate the contaminated beef and dairy and eggs and any sort of lamb, even pig, could also get sort of secondary exposure.

PBB is not broken down by the body. It’s what’s known as a lipophilic chemical, which means it really binds to fat and can be stored for decades in body fat. Cow’s milk has a very high fat content. Beef generally has a pretty high fat content. Eating these animal products could also expose people to PBB.

David Corcoran: So what kinds of health effects did we see from people who ingested PBBs? And I guess we should also ask what kinds of health effects did they lead to in the cattle?

Carrie Arnold: It was really the cattle that got the highest doses. It was initially discovered at a farm, also outside of Battle Creek, by a farmer called Rick Halbert who had ordered just his own bags of what he thought was magnesium oxide. He had worked at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, about 20 to 30 minutes west of St. Louis, and so he kind of mixed his own dairy feed, with his background in chemistry and everything. His cows probably got the highest dosage. Each cow probably ate at least a half a pound of straight PBB. At first, his cows just stopped eating, and they began losing weight. Also, their skin got really dry and cracked; they called it elephant skin. There were hoof malformations, and the cows began rapidly losing a lot of body weight and body fat, partly related to the fact that they weren’t eating, but also probably as a side effect of the chemicals. A number of his cattle had to be euthanized, and not surprisingly, they also stopped producing milk.

Farmers across the state were seeing these effects in their livestock, but they were really hesitant to talk to each other about this. It was sort of the stiff upper lip culture among farmers at the time. They were also afraid to admit that anything might be wrong with their livestock because it could impact ability to sell beef and milk and everything later on.

It was happening all across the state, but because farmers weren’t necessarily talking to each other, no one realized that there was this huge chemical contamination going on. It wasn’t until eight months to a year after Rick Halbert had first noticed signs in his own cattle that the State Department of Agriculture and the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture really became aware that anything had happened.

As for people, some of the health effects were a little similar to what they had seen in livestock. As with the cows, Halbert and other farmers had noticed an increased risk of miscarriage and spontaneous abortion. A number of females reported having fertility issues, difficulties getting pregnant and carrying a pregnancy to term. They also seemed to find a small but meaningful increase in breast cancer rates and among thyroid disorders, as well.

David Corcoran: And the health effects seem to be persisting to this day, although it’s of course becoming much harder to tell what’s due to PBB and what might be due to other things. But can you talk about the family, the Hall family, that you opened your story with? Tell us about them and why they’re important.

Carrie Arnold: Sure. Jim Hall, he grew up in the town of St. Louis. He spent a lot of time with his grandparents who lived right across the street from the chemical plant. His house was only a couple of blocks away from it, and so any sort of chemicals that the Michigan Chemical Company produced, any excess or any byproducts, were dumped in the local river. They used that basically as their personal sewer system, and there was also airborne residue.

He grew up in the town of St. Louis. He had heard about the PBB issue when it happened, and obviously a number of years later when the chemical plant shut down, but he really wasn’t thinking a whole lot of it. About 10 years after the chemical plant had shut down in St. Louis, his brother was diagnosed with lymphoma, and it was part of a cluster of cancers in the town of Breckenridge, which is about five miles directly west of St. Louis. No one really found a cause of the cancer cluster. One of the chemical companies tried to suggest that it was due to increased navy bean consumption, which just seems kind of ridiculous. Jim Hall himself ended up diagnosed with thyroid cancer. They found nodules all over his thyroid.

But one of the main reasons that I focused on him as a character was due to his daughter, who was born in 2003. Her name was Jerra, and Jerra was born with a congenital heart defect. It was one of those exceedingly rare, one-in-a-billion kinds of events. She never quite seemed to thrive, although she was a very happy baby, happy toddler. At 2 years and 2 months old, she ultimately passed away as a result of her heart condition. She spent more than half of her life in the hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

David Corcoran: And we should emphasize that this is a child who was born more than 30 years after this contamination happened. It’s clear that she didn’t consume any products that were contaminated with PBB, so what’s the thinking here? How could she have been affected by this toxic event?

Carrie Arnold: This is really the crux of the story and what scientists are discovering. It’s a type of inheritance called epigenetic inheritance. Usually when we think of inheritance, the genes we get from our mother and father, we think about actually genes in the DNA, those billions of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs. For most of us, that really is what we inherit, but there’s another layer of information in our genome that’s not so much the order of the letters themselves but rather how they’re regulated, how they’re switched on and off. This type of regulation is called epigenetics. “Epi” means on top of or in addition to, so it’s not just your DNA but how it’s switched on and off.

You can think about it as the lights in your house. The light bulbs themselves are the DNA. You can have a 45-watt bulb or a 60 watt bulb or a fluorescent bulb or an LED or a traditional incandescent, but the epigenetic regulations are how they’re turned on and off, and it can also create kind of like a dimmer switch of just how much of a particular gene is turned into a protein.

This type of epigenetics was discovered in the 1950s and ’60s, and initially researchers believed that right after fertilization all the epigenetic marks that might have been from the mother and the father were wiped clean, and this happened very early in embryonic development — and so each child was in a way considered to be a fairly blank slate from an epigenetic standpoint. But as time went on, researchers began discovering more and more exceptions to this rule that some epigenetic marks might be retained.

In 2005, a researcher named Michael Skinner at Washington State University began to provide some of the first evidence in mice that these epigenetic markers could be inherited through multiple generations, so from parents to children and to grandchildren and even possibly great-grandchildren. Also, importantly, he discovered that different chemicals create different epigenetic fingerprints, so to speak, but they have a very specific pattern of genes being switched on and off.

With that, as researchers in Michigan and an epidemiologist at Emory University named Michele Marcus who began taking over some of the Michigan State Health Department research on some of the individuals exposed to PBB in the 1970s — as she began taking over some of this research and tracking health effects in the children and grandchildren of the people initially exposed to PBB, people like Jerra Hall, she began seeing these health effects, and she began wondering whether it might not be an example of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. That’s currently the project that she’s working on, trying to see if she can show if she can find epigenetic signatures of PBB exposure and then if she show that these are inherited through multiple generations.

David Corcoran: So it’s a hypothesis at this point. Do the scientists you spoke to have any sense of when we will know whether this happened or not in Michigan?

Carrie Arnold: They’re hoping to have early results in 2019 or 2020. I’m not sure whether they’re doing any animal results to show if this does in fact happen in animals, although it’s definitely been shown in very similar chemical compounds. There’s very good reason to believe that it is going on, but there’s not enough data to say for sure that it’s happening in humans.

David Corcoran: When we talk about environmental disasters in Michigan, everybody thinks about Flint, of course, where people are still dealing with poisons in their drinking water. Potentially, this situation affects even more people, and yet I have to say it totally came as news to me when I read your story. How did you learn about it, and why isn’t it more broadly known?

Carrie Arnold: It’s funny that you say it came as news to you. I grew up in Michigan. I was born just a few years after the PBB event, and I had never heard of it. I have a degree in epidemiology from the University of Michigan, and I had never heard of it. My parents lived in Michigan at the time, and I asked them what they remembered, and they said, “What PBB? It sounds vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t tell you anything more.”

Part of the reason that it’s really not that well known is that it largely affected rural farmers. These are not areas with major media outlets, and it was hard for reporters to get to the area. And it was pretty widespread. It wasn’t focused in and individual area, so it wasn’t like you could go and visit Town X and get a story. You had to basically travel around the whole state to get an idea of just how widespread it was, and so it really wasn’t seen as much of an interest to people in cities like Detroit where there weren’t that many farms around. It was seen largely as a farm issue, not as a human health issue.

David Corcoran: Except people in cities like Detroit were drinking the milk and eating the meat from these contaminated animals.

Carrie Arnold: Yeah. There were some news stories. It wasn’t like there was no coverage, but there really wasn’t the coverage that you would have expected that a disaster like this would have warranted.

David Corcoran: So how did you find out about it?

Carrie Arnold: Actually, I was speaking with a physician who had done his residency in Michigan. I was speaking with him for a completely unrelated story, and he was commenting about how something was similar to “that whole PBB thing.” I asked him, “What PBB thing?” and he told me the story. That’s when I immediately just became obsessed with this whole story because I couldn’t believe that I had lived for 27 years in Michigan and I had never heard of this.

David Corcoran: So many unresolved issues in this story, Carrie. Do you think there is any chance that this will have some kind of happy ending someday?

Carrie Arnold: I think they’re working towards some sort of resolution. The EPA is finally getting around to cleaning up the main chemical plant in St. Louis, Michigan, after years and years and years of wrangling. It will probably be one of the most expensive Superfund sites in the whole country — and in the history of the almost 40 years of the Superfund program — to clean up, but they’re actually finally getting around to doing that. For the town, even if they can’t erase the effects of the pollution from their DNA, they can at least begin to move forward as a community and hopefully not be known as the toxic town of Michigan.

David Corcoran: And it sounds like the whole epigenetic question, while very much up in the air now, is on its way to being resolved?

Carrie Arnold: Yes, and the reason that the PBB study is such a good way of testing this hypothesis is that the PBBs were only manufactured in the United States and specifically at this one particular plant in St. Louis for a very short period of time. The food distribution systems of the time meant that basically everything stayed within the state of Michigan. And so it’s this very limited exposure period with a very defined population, so it’s much easier to find a group of unexposed individuals — that might have [been] other farm families or other chemical factory workers that may have been exposed to other similar nasties in the environment but would not have had that PBB exposure. That’s one of the reasons that researchers are really excited about this work is because it’s much easier to find a control group and to really be able to show for a specific chemical exposure that this has been going on.

David Corcoran: Well, Carrie Arnold, thanks so much for reporting this story for Undark and coming on the podcast to tell us about it.

Carrie Arnold: Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: Carrie Arnold is a science and environment reporter based in Virginia, although as she mentioned she’s a native of Michigan. She’s a contributing editor at NOVA Next and Mosaic Science. Her work has been published in the journals Nature and Science, and now in Undark, where you can find her report on PBB contamination at undark.org — just scroll down to Case Studies.

Joining us as always is Seth Mnookin to talk about science in the media. Hello, Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello, David. How are you?

David Corcoran: I’m doing fine, thank you. Believe it or not, this is our last podcast of 2017.

Seth Mnookin: I actually believe it.

David Corcoran: OK, well, sort of less believable is what kind of year it’s been, and I wanted to ask you to kind of revisit a few of the stories that we talked about over the course of 2017. Why don’t we start with what is perhaps the hottest-button issue of the year — and that is sexual harassment, and particularly when it comes to science. Would you talk about that?

Seth Mnookin: Yeah. Obviously, we’ve been over the last couple of months going through a really incredible nationwide reckoning, and it seems that this is going on in not every industry so far, but a really high number of industries, and a lot of very high-profile people are being affected. One of the things that’s really interesting about this is in some ways the science community, and science journalism in particular, was kind of ahead of the curve on this, in that it’s been now a couple of years that we’ve seen a number of hard-hitting stories about inappropriate and really in some cases shocking behavior taking place in laboratories with principal investigators or professors harassing graduate students or their employees. We’ve seen some of this in the science journalism community, although not as much as we have seen, at least reported so far, in the science community.

So it’s just been interesting to me to see the reckoning that’s been going on with men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Al Franken, that some of this was actually happening a year or more ago in the scientific community.

David Corcoran: What do you think is behind the fact that some of this bad behavior was brought to light years ago in the science and science media and hasn’t really boiled up since this Harvey Weinstein story brought everything in to the national conscience? Are science journalists just more enlightened than other journalists?

Seth Mnookin: I would say no, and in fact when those stories started coming out it wasn’t because the science journalism community as a whole was started to all of a sudden get enlightened about this. It was really because there were a couple of reporters and a couple of outlets, mainly BuzzFeed, that really went after this. I don’t think that science journalism is particularly enlightened. In fact when some of these stories came out, the reaction from science journalists who’d been covering some of these figures for years and years was not quite being an apologist, but kind of treading pretty close to that line.

David Corcoran: Let’s turn to another story that we spoke about several times during the course of the year, and that is another science magazine, a very highly regarded one, called Nautilus. What’s the story there?

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, so Nautilus, I think when it launched a couple of years ago, was something that a lot of people were heartened by and felt very optimistic about. It was producing really, really high-quality work. It was a print publication that was gorgeous, printed on heavy stock paper and doing the type of long-form narrative work that, I think, people had been concerned was going to be less prevalent in the always evolving media landscape.

Unfortunately over the last eight or 10 months, that story has really soured. Undark did a story about eight months ago detailing how a number of Nautilus writers had not been paid, some of them for over a year, and the total amount of money that these writers were owed was in the tens of thousands of dollars. What was, I think, really shocking about that was that while this was going on Nautilus was continuing to actively solicit new work from other writers without telling those writers about the difficulties that they’d had in paying people with whom they had contracts, and contracts that the writers had fulfilled.

It’s now eight months later, and the same thing is still happening. Nautilus has continued to solicit new work. Those writers have still not been paid, and I think that any sort of goodwill that the publication might have built up has really disappeared within the science-writing community. What Nautilus has said is that they’ll have no chance to pay off their debts unless they continue to try and publish and raise money and sell subscriptions and everything else.

While I am not completely unsympathetic to that point of view, I think the fact that they are not informing new writers about the difficulties that they’ve had, I just think there’s no excuse for that whatsoever.

David Corcoran: Another story that was very big earlier in the year and has kind of faded, at least from the media that I have seen, is that big March for Science on Washington in April. Remind us what the March for Science was and whether there’s been any follow-up since then.

Seth Mnookin: So the March for Science was largely a response to the political climate and the election and concern that we were entering into a period in this country in which science was not being valued, in which not only policy decisions but actually decisions about what research to fund, were being made according to preconceived notions of what people wanted to be true. There was this pretty significant march in Washington, D.C., called the March for Science. I think it’s true that that did not launch a movement the way that there was also a women’s march in Washington this year, and I think that the aftershocks of that are things that were still being felt — including the conversations about sexual harassment, but also about gender equality and representation.

I think one of the reasons that the March for Science didn’t have that same effect was because even at the time its goals and purpose were a little bit more inchoate. It was unclear exactly — I think one of the reasons was they didn’t want to, the organizers of the march and I think in general the scientific community didn’t want to, set itself up in opposition to the administration or to Congress because those were still gonna be the people that were controlling the grants. So I think that’s one reason.

Another reason that I think we have not seen that, sort of, coalesce into a movement is because there have not been the across-the-board research cuts that I think some people feared. There’s been a lot of extremely concerning decisions made surrounding climate science, surrounding what gets funded, surrounding even what type of research proposals you can write and submit. The same has not been true at the NIH, for instance, where they have not seen a slashing of their budget, and there was some concern about that.

I think that because of that, it’s hard to get a broad movement of people agitating towards both greater representation for science at the table but also just for more valuing of science, because there is this concern of alienating people who still do have the power to make these decisions and still could take funding away from things like the NIH.

David Corcoran: Yeah, and denial of human-caused climate change is certainly alive and well in Washington, and I’m sure that’s something we will be talking more about in the coming 12 months.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, I think that what is more likely to coalesce is a movement surrounding climate science specifically. Traditionally, there has been a sort of divide between activists and scientists — not always, obviously, and not in every circumstance — but speaking in broad generalizations, I think scientists like to treat their work as research and research that is not intended to advance any specific cause. I think that we might see that changing a little bit because the denial of human-based climate change and the lack of EPA enforcement, the taking of federally owned protected lands and de-protecting them, there are a lot of things that really directly go against all of the prevailing science. So I think you could see that those researchers become even more politicized. But at the moment, I would be surprised if that happened on a broader level.

David Corcoran: So, Seth, you got a crystal ball app on your smartphone? Any other big stories you think we’ll be talking about in the months to come?

Seth Mnookin: I think one thing that the last 15 months has shown us is it is a fool’s errand to try and predict the future at this point in time. I think one thing we have not talked about this year, which could have a potentially enormous impact on the future of science and scientific research, is the tax bill and the fact that that could add, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars to graduate students’ bills because of the way it would potentially classify tuition waivers as income. That would take graduate school from something that is a difficult proposition for a lot of people to something that could be an impossible proposition. If we want to talk about something that five, 10, 15, 20 years down the line could have enormous repercussions, I think that’s one story that we’ll be looking at.

I think also we will see more of a reckoning in science and in science journalism about the lack of gender diversity and the lack of diversity in general at top levels in labs among tenured faculty, among editors of science sections. I think those are two stories that we could see bubbling up for sure, along with, I think, climate change, the coverage of climate change, and how climate change is discussed, will obviously continue to be a huge story next year.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus,” and he’s director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. Seth, as always, thanks, and Happy New Year!

Seth Mnookin: Yes. Thanks to you, and I will talk to you in 2018.

David Corcoran: What does it mean to be alive? There’s a scientific definition, but it doesn’t quite get at the whole picture. In the second installment of this two-part feature, reporter Randy Scott Carroll takes us on a journey to explore a question humans have pondered for centuries.

Randy Scott Carroll: How old is he in that picture?

Raymond Will: That was right before the accident, I believe.

Randy Scott Carroll: I’m at the home of Raymond Will in Sellersville, PA. He’s showing me pictures of his son, Mark. Mark was an engineer with a couple of kids and an ex-wife. It was Friday, March 24th, 1995. They were running tests for an environmentally friendly freon, and as he looked to his left to read the gauges …

Raymond Will: It blew up. The compressor, about the size of the alternator on your car, weighing about 15 pounds, was under 350 PSI, and when he turned to his left to read the gauges, it went and hit him right above the right eye.

Randy Scott Carroll: I’m visiting with Raymond to further understand the definition of life. If you remember from our last episode, it isn’t as clearly laid out as I had thought, and Raymond’s son, Mark, blurs that definition even more by teetering between life and death in what’s known as a persistent vegetative state, a place that isn’t legally considered death but isn’t quite alive either. And it lasted nearly four years.

Raymond Will: It was March the 24th of 1995 until December the 22nd, 1998. It had been three years and nine months.

Randy Scott Carroll: For those first few years, they thought maybe he would come back, but eventually …

Raymond Will: I was working, and I got a call from his doctor. I forget exactly what her words were, but better come over, so I got my wife, and I called his siblings, so we were there when he took his last breath.

Randy Scott Carroll: I asked Raymond how he defines life and death now, having been through everything with his son.

Raymond Will: I had talked to one of Mark’s doctors on more than one occasion about that, and nobody really knows. My belief now is that the spirit of God and my spirit communicate. When that communication is broken or when that communication is no longer available, even though the heart is pumping and there’s breath, I think that’s death, when there’s no communication.

Randy Scott Carroll: At what point do you think that communication for Mark ended?

Raymond Will: When that compressor hit him in the head.

Randy Scott Carroll: For many people like Raymond, the definition of life is deeply entwined with a kind of spiritual connection. But for Joseph Brisendine, things are a lot more secular.

Joseph Brisendine: Life emerged because the earth was building up potential energy and it had to go somewhere. So in the same way that hurricanes occur, the wind energy builds up in a concentrated form, it has to find a way to dissipate, to produce entropy, to disperse.

Randy Scott Carroll: Joseph is a biophysicist and a science writer.

Joseph Brisendine: The chemistry that sustains life emerged on this planet for those reasons alone. It had nothing to do with the desire of matter to be alive. That was never in the agenda. It was all physics.

Randy Scott Carroll: But even though Joseph’s definition maybe feels a lot more scientific than Raymond’s, he admits even his explanation falls short in answering the question of what it means to be alive.

Joseph Brisendine: It’s not physically impossible to give a completely clear answer to when and where life emerges and evolves, but we don’t have that yet.

Randy Scott Carroll: He says life isn’t a collection of things we see or believe about something with checkboxes we can easily cross off. It’s a lot messier than that. He says life is living. It’s something that things do.

Joseph Brisendine: Things are alive because of what they do, and from that perspective whether it was made out of carbon or silicon or anything like that, if there’s an arrangement of matter anywhere in the universe that is growing and responding in a meaningful way, in a goal-oriented way, to its environment, then that structure is alive in my mind, no question, because of what it’s doing.

Randy Scott Carroll: Before I leave Raymond’s house, he shared with me something he’s learned since Mark’s accident. Much like Joseph’s own interpretation of life, Raymond says it’s not the definition that matters but what you do with it.

Raymond Will: I think if I could add one more thing, is that life is not only communication, but if we can do something to help somebody else along in whatever way we can do it, I think that’s a big thing in life as well.

Randy Scott Carroll: This has been a Prismatic Radio production. For Undark, I’m Randy Scott Carroll.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced bye Katie Hiler. Special thanks to Adrianna Gallo. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran for Undark.