Sensitive stomachs, brute force reality


“Dad! Come quick! Matthew’s sick!” my youngest hollered as he ran down the stairs. I’d just put the kids to bed and had picked up my book and settled into the couch. I dropped the book and bolted up the stairs just in time to catch Matthew in the top bunk throwing up—a lot—all over the lower bunk, the floor and the toy box.

Our second son has a sensitive stomach. As soon as he was done he started feeling better, so I assumed he’d eaten something that disagreed with him; it’s happened before. This time it was some soup with onions, which was probably either a bit too salty or spicy for him.

As I cleaned up the mess—and fighting a psychosomatic impulse to get sick myself—I thought about how sensitive we all are. I’d been reading something recently about how we all absorb toxins from our food and the environment, and our Matthew seems to be one of those canary-in-the-coalmine types. Apparently the guy who’d been investigating the toxins studied himself after eating various foods. He noticed, for example, big spikes in the mercury levels in his blood after eating canned tuna fish, and he naturally concluded that we should be limiting our intake of fish.

Later in the day my mother phoned. She’d seen some documentary program on TV about modern chemicals in the household environment, and how boys especially were being affected. According to the program young men who’ve been exposed to these chemicals are unable to sire male children. I’d read this before. In fact, it’s one of the problems that’s facing the polar bear population in the Arctic. Scientists have been studying the buildup of the correlation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and reproductive hormones in female polar bears at Svalbard—the same place where the new “doomsday seed vault” is located. And, just like the TV documentary said, the male polar bears are being adversely affected.

PCBs have been around for a long time. According to Wikipedia, PCBs are very stable compounds and don’t degrade very easily. Most attempts to get rid of them create even more toxic chemicals. And PCBs readily penetrate human skin as well as PVC pipe and latex rubber gloves. It’s also odourless, tasteless and more or less colourless. So it’s tricky stuff. Among its unsavoury qualities are its carcinogenic and liver-destroying properties—as well as its non-solubility in water. Used to cool electrical transformers, it has leaked out into the environment polluting aquatic life from the Great Lakes to all the world’s oceans—as well as every creature that consumes ocean life.

In just one disturbing case alone, the GE plant on the Hudson River in New York discharged an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs over a 50-year period.

The PCB story is an old one, as industrial pollution stories go. Although there has been a lot of regulation enacted to ban its use, its effects are particularly long lasting. And I suppose its still in use. According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, PCBs are commonly used in adhesives, asphalt roofing, caulking, electromagnets, grout, lubricants, paints, pesticides, space heaters, submersible well pumps and even tarpaper.

The story of industrialization is filled with chapters similar to the one on PCBs. That’s just the way it is. But WHY is it the way it is? Is the problem with our inventions? Or is it with our ethics? Or is it with the entire concept of industry itself?

As we’ve seen dramatically over the past 100 years, we—and every other creature on the planet—are very sensitive to our environment. We’re all just Matthew’s stomach on a grand scale. It strikes me that sensitive organisms don’t coexist too well with brute technologies.

And could get you thinking about just basic issues around machinery. Like, have you ever pushed a car that’s run out of gas? Damn. Cars are hea-vy. Yet to drive a car with a full tank of gas is effortless. Just push twist the key, put it in gear and press the pedal.

On the other hand, there are some truly elegant machines. A bicycle, for example. Bicycles can go anywhere a car can go, and a lot of places a car can’t. Bicycles can be as light as 9 kilograms (20 pounds), and cruise as fast as 20 kilometers and hour. The modern bicycle I’ve read (though I’m not sure it’s true), is the most efficient machine ever invented.

These kinds of thoughts came to the surface this weekend at a fundraising dinner. I was seated next to an older gentleman who introduced himself as Jim. Jim was a retired CPR man, and as we got into the dinner I found out that he’d been at the forefront of containerization, roll-on-roll-off trucking and the startup of the NB Southern Railway. We got into the decline of rail and dismantling of rail lines, and the notion that rail will be one of the transportation choices of the future.

Interestingly, at first glance rail would seem to be a brute force technology. But one could debate the opposite. The concept of rail is quite elegant. The idea is to reduce rolling friction and drag to the barest minimum while carrying the maximum load. To that end, rail lines were designed and constructed with very shallow grades and very smooth roadbeds. Seamless track further reduced friction. And the very construction of a train—that is, linking long chains of cars— ensures that only one hole is poked through the air for several hundred cars, unlike automobiles, which have to poke separate holes through the air at great cost in drag—and in fuel. To feel the effect, just stick your hand out an open car window when you’re moving along at 100 kilometers an hour.

Ships are even more elegant. The longer the hull, the less drag and therefore the less fuel the ship requires. Jim and I got into that and more. He told me about a new concept to add railway wheels to transport trucks that would allow them to be “trained” and run on existing rail tracks. We also talked about sailing ships using airfoils instead of sails and other cool future technologies.

We live in challenging times. But the challenges are what make it so interesting. The job for the next 50 years will be figuring out how to do what we do with far more elegance and far less brute force. After all, our lives depend on it.


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