Lichens point to cleaner air quality

Saint John’s air is getting cleaner, according to the crusty, green vegetation that dots tree trunks around the city.

Stephen Clayden, the head of botany and mycology (the study of fungus) at the New Brunswick Museum, has been researching how tree lichens can tip off changes in air quality. He’s found evidence that there is less sulphur dioxide floating around Saint John. Sulphur dioxide – not to be confused with the gas that gives natural hot springs their signature rotten egg smell – is toxic. It emits a sharp, acrid smell, Clayden said, like burnt matches.

Breathe in too much of it, and a person could experience breathing problems, respiratory illness, or worsening of cardiovascular disease. Someone with asthma would be particularly sensitive.

High concentrations of sulphur dioxide also cause acid rain, which deteriorates buildings and poisons crops and lakes. It can also burn away lichens on trees.

“It’s a nasty pollutant,” Clayden said. Most of the area’s lichens appear to share the sentiment.

Lichens are picky. Different species can grow in some of the most extreme climates in the world, from Antarctica to the Sahara, but each kind is very sensitive to the environment that suits it. This makes lichens the canaries of the coal mine when it comes to the environment.

For instance, most of the lichens native to the Saint John area tend to die off when there is too much sulphur dioxide in the air.

In the mid-1970s, Saint John only had about a half a dozen species of tree lichens, Clayden said. Now there are more than 40 species just in King’s Square. More diversity usually means a healthier environment, he said.

While the general variety of lichens is going up, the population of one particular species is simultaneously declining. But this species was introduced from Europe and thrives in high-sulphur conditions.

Clayden’s study results haven’t been published yet, but from what he’s seen so far, the Saint John’s air quality in the core area is significantly improving.

“It’s a great success story,” said David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

A report on New Brunswick air quality, released Tuesday by the provincial Department of Environment, is similarly positive. It reported that the 2009 levels of sulphate in precipitation – a measure of acid rain – were the lowest on record since New Brunswick began acid rain monitoring in 1986.

In the same year, Saint John had the fewest instances when emissions exceeded air quality standards for sulphur dioxide.

Clayden said he thinks the shift might be because industries are trying to cut their sulphur emissions and are using cleaner fuel, in response to government capping.

Still, Statistics Canada recently reported that sulphur dioxide accounted for almost 40 per cent of substances released in the air across Canada.

Coon said while the government’s efforts to lower sulphur dioxide levels has been impressive, there is still lots of work to be done to target greenhouse gases.

Previously published July 14, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Research project to test viability of on-land salmon farming

Salmon farming is moving on land.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Fund are joining forces in a research project that will try to rear salmon in a freshwater closed-containment system.

“It’s huge, it’s groundbreaking,” Bill Taylor, the federation’s president, said. “Hopefully it will help us move towards much more environmentally friendly and wild-salmon friendly aquaculture.”

Over the next year, the federation plans to grow 10 tonnes of salmon in a circular, stainless-steel tank that is slightly larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

The Conservation Fund, an American non-profit organization, has successfully conducted similar trials with St. John River salmon in smaller qualities, but Taylor said this project is the first trial of this magnitude. Taylor said the project’s budget is $120,000.

Jonathan Carr, the federation’s director of research and environment, said the goal is to provide an environmentally friendly solution to the growing global demand for salmon.

He said there has been concern in recent years about farmed salmon escaping their confines and contaminating wild fish stocks. The on-land, closed-containment system would eliminate this risk, Carr said.

It would also result in a better product for consumers, since pesticides and harsh chemicals would no longer be necessary to raise the fish to maturity. And farmers would be able to charge more for the higher quality, making it cost competitive, Taylor said.

He added that commercial salmon farming is on the brink of maxing out its growth potential. On-land fish farms could be the answer to global demand for salmon, which continues to rise, he said.

But this may be a pipe dream, according to some. Pamela Parker is the executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

“Closed containment is not the magic bullet that some people make it out to be,” she said.

There are significant questions surrounding energy usage and the amount of water that a large-scale operation would use, she said.

Every minute, 5,000 litres of water would pass through the system. However, Taylor said 99.8 per cent of it would be recirculated into the ground, just as clean as when it entered their system.

While Taylor said he couldn’t see closed-containment farms replacing existing fish farm operations, he said it would be great to see in the future. But what may work on a small scale doesn’t always translate to a functional, large-scale operation, Parker said.

To be economically viable, Carr said they would need to grow two to three thousand tonnes. In comparison, Parker said, New Brunswick fish farmers produce a total of 35 thousand metric tonnes of salmon.

To match that output, the tanks would need to cover the space of about 8,000 football fields, Parker said.

“we’re very supportive of new research,” she said, “we’re just not convinced … (this) could be justified.”

The project will be housed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Taylor said, “there’s certainly risk but we think it’s very low.”

Previously published June 24, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Picture within a picture: Holograms hide confidential info

Telegraph-Journal archive

Holograms, in their most basic form, are an illusion. They make your eye see something that isn’t actually there. Dr. Habib Hamam is using them to hide secrets.

The Université de Moncton professor said he has developed software that takes a public image – say a photograph of the White House – and hides confidential information within the data – say blueprints for the inner sanctum.

The original White House picture will change, perhaps a tiny blue pixel of sky will blacken, but the naked human eye won’t be able to notice it. However, a hacker with the help of technology potentially could.

This is where Hamam’s holograms come in. Should a meticulous hacker pick up on the differences and dig deeper into the data, any suspicion would be wiped out when he or she encountered the hologram. But instead of a pixelated 3D Captain Kirk rising from a computer screen, they would see a mess of garbled numbers. Dismissing it as digital nonsense, the hacker would move on. At least this is what Hamam is counting on.

The method of hiding data within other seemingly innocent data is called steganography. When a teenage boy saves pornography in a computer file and calls it Tax Forms 2004, it’s the same basic technique.

Steganography, rooted in the Greek word for ‘covering,’ is the most recent advance in data protection. It joins other methods such as watermarking, which is usually used to protect intellectual property such as photographs, and cryptography, which takes information and makes it look jumbled to unauthorized people.

Cryptography has been used “since the time of Jesus,” Hamam said. It’s evolved from ancient ciphers to digital encryption.

But the problem with cryptography, Hamam said, is that even if it makes the data very hard to access or figure out, you still know it’s there. Steganography is about stealth. Hackers are less likely to decrypt an image that looks perfectly normal.

Hamam is the first to add the second level of protection with holograms. But they have another benefit: they make it possible to hide more information in a single image. Usually when cloaking information within other data, the host has to be significantly larger than the information you’re trying to hide so the changes aren’t as noticeable.

“You can insert the baby of the kangaroo inside the pocket of the kangaroo mother, but you cannot do the opposite,” Hamam said.

With Hamam’s holograph, the baby kangaroo could be a quarter of the mother’s size and stay hidden.

Hamam said he has already developed software that can produce a modified image from a public picture and your secret information with the click of a button. Now he’s taking it one step further. Hamam said he wants to see if he can apply the same holographic idea to audio tracks.

For this, Hamam – who holds a Canada Research Chair – is partnering with Sid-Ahmed Selouani, a professor at the Université de Moncton’s Shippagan campus who specializes in audio.

“I’m very advanced in images, but now I’m tackling a new road.”

Hamam estimates it will cost around $1.7 million to turn his research to product, and has received funding from a variety of sources, including the New Brunswick Innovation Fund. He said his research could be ready to commercialize in two years. When it does, theoretically anyone would be able to buy the software. He said he hopes to make it into an app for mobile devices as well.

Holograms could also be used by companies wanting to protect their own software from being illegally copied to another computer by branding the original computer’s information onto the software and hiding it.

Hamam also has a marketing partner connected to the Minister of Defence.

Everyone has information they want to protect, he said.

Previously published May 23, 2011; the Telegraph-Journal

Fish waste could one day help people live better lives

From the slimy, dismembered body parts of sea animals, scientists may one day be able to help prevent diabetes, obesity and brain diseases linked to aging.

Dr. Jacques Gagnon is spearheading a multimillion-dollar research project that turns leftover fish parts from fish-processing plants into useful oils. These oils are packed with antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, said Gagnon, the director of fishery and marine products at the Coastal Zones Research Institute in Shippagan.

When insulin production by a pancreas starts to slow down, it can lead to the high glucose levels that define diabetes. And when a brain becomes senile it can decend into degeneration. Eating antioxidants and omega 3s can help slow the process.

Gagnon said his project wouldn’t cure someone’s diabetes or reverse Alzheimer’s, but the project could result in valuable, and likely profitable, nutritional pills geared toward prevention. At this point it’s too early to know how much money could be made, he said.

And there is still lots of testing and licence applications to take care of before the product would be ready for human consumption.

“That’s what I call the star … right now we are at the bottom of the pyramid,” Gagnon said.

He is joined in his research by Dr. Sébastien Plante and Nadia Tchoukanova. Together, they take the byproducts from nearby shrimp, herring, sea cucumber and snow crap production plants they have partnered with, and save them from being wasted.

Take shrimp, for example. The tail counts for a quarter of the total body mass and usually gets thrown away. But those crusty exoskeletons produce a nutritious oil that can be mixed with food used at fish farms, Gagnon said. The pinkish liquid could be sold as a natural alternative to the chemical solutions usually used.

However, pollution is sparking increased public distress over toxins in ocean wildlife.

Gagnon admits that when a biological product is concentrated, it intensifies any existing contamination. That is why he and his team are careful to filter and test thoroughly, he said. “That’s something that we are really aware of.”

Gagnon is not the first to think of using fish waste to fight disease. Scientists in Norway and France have been working on it since the mid-1990s, but Gagnon said when he met with a few of them, they were impressed with New Brunswick’s progress.

It helps that the Coastal Zones Research Institute is very close to the plants that are the source of their base product, he said. So far, he has prepared a library of extracts from the leftover shells, heads, tails and other body part rejects, and is now trying to pinpoint the active ingredients. He said he can’t say what he’s found specifically until they finish testing and have patented the active component.

This year the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation gave the project $15,000 to hire university students as assistants. The researchers also receive $1 million each year from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for the duration of the project, and are two years into their five-year term.

Previously published May 16, 2011; the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

No safe radiation, expert says

Daniel Rudka looks like he’s a nuclear bomb survivor. Wrinkled, milky scars flow up his arms past his neck and discolour his pockmarked face. He walks with a cane, because he can’t always trust his radiation-weakened bones to keep him upright.

But Rudka is not the victim of a nuclear bomb, accident or meltdown. In fact, he’s never even been involved with any manner of power plant mishap. He simply used to work at a plant in Port Hope, Ontario, that constructs fuel rods for nuclear reactors. But at one point, he spent three weeks scooping powdered uranium with a plastic bucket that might have been obtained from an ice machine, while wearing a T-shirt, coveralls cut off at the bicep and plastic gloves that weren’t lead-lined.

“You didn’t have to bomb me to still have the same effect,” he says.

Whether it comes from nuclear weapons or nuclear power, radiation’s effects on the human body are the same, veteran antinuclear campaigner Dr. Helen Caldicott told a Mar. 26 conference organized by Physicians for Global Survival Canada.

No radiation is safe, the 73-year-old Australian physician and author argued during a “Facing off for Social Justice in a Militarized World” session of the conference, which explored issues ranging from handling radioactive waste to the public health consequences of radiation leaks, such as those now being experienced at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant complex in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of northern Japan.

Caldicott called radioactive waste one of the major unaddressed problems associated with nuclear reactors.

“There’s no container that can hold radioactive waste for more than a hundred years. Concrete cracks, plastics are no good, and iron disintegrates as it rusts,” she told the conference.

But radon is highly soluble, and once it leaks into the ecosystem, the radiation becomes bio-concentrated as it moves up through the food chain. It is also cumulative, meaning that later generations are more likely to experience the effects.

Caldicott cited Fallujah, Iraq, where it is alleged that the United States and United Kingdom used depleted uranium ammunitions during a 2004 raid, as an example of the long-term consequences. Fallujah’s recorded birth defects have become so prevalent that 80% of babies are born as cyclops, Caldicott said, adding that doctors have told women to stop having children.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency promotes nuclear reactors as a clean, green and safe solution to the ever-increasing global need for electricity, exalting nuclear reactors, while condemning nuclear weapons is hypocritical, Caldicott added. “They say: ‘You can have a nuclear reactor but you mustn’t build a bomb. We’ve got all the bombs and you can’t have them. But here’s a bomb factory’.”

Caldicott argued that government should take the money spent on nuclear power — $12 billion to $15 billion per reactor — and use it to refit all homes and buildings with solar panels.

Dr. Michael Dworkind, president of Physicians for Global Survival Canada, echoed the call for the elimination of both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons, saying it would be “the ultimate in preventive medicine.”

The health consequences of radiation poisoning, which have long been demonstrated, can include hair loss, recurring infections, anemia, weight loss and cancer.

Rudka, who worked at the Port Hope plant, then called Zircatec, from 1993 to 1995, says he still periodically vomits in the mornings as his body goes through “stages of decay.”

His is a classic case of the consequences of exposure to radiation and another example of why “nuclear is not the answer,” Caldicott said.

First published April 4, 2011; Canadian Medical Association Journal

Devastating disease threatens bat population in province

Karen Vanderwolf & Don McAlpine; Telegraph-Journal Archive

New Brunswick could lose its entire bat population in a few short years, researchers say, because of the devastating white nose syndrome that is ravaging caves from Nova Scotia to Oklahoma.

The fungus, whose scientific name is almost self-explanatory (geomyces destructans), was first detected by researchers in a cave in Albert County on March 15.

At that point about a quarter of the bats in the cave were dead, said Karen Vanderwolf, a University of New Brunswick graduate student. The cave floor was littered with dead bats and the air “smelled of death and rotting carcasses,” she said.

Dressed in HazMat suits, she and her research supervisor Don McAlpine, the zoology curator at the New Brunswick Museum, returned to the cave in late April. In little over a month, mortality had jumped to almost 90 per cent.

“And that’s a minimum,” Vanderwolf said, “A lot of the bats on the wall that we counted as alive were probably dead.” Half of them already had visible signs of the fungus.

The fact that Vanderwolf and McAlpine were able to go back at all is unusual. Many jurisdictions are prohibiting any human entry to the caves, to help prevent the disease from spreading.

“It’s a good thing we went back in because otherwise we wouldn’t have realized how serious a problem it is,” said Graham

Telegraph-Journal archive

Forbes, who is co-supervising the research. Forbes is a professor at the University of New Brunswick.

On June 29, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it may add two bat species to its endangered species list because of white nose syndrome. One of those species – the northern long-eared bat – is one of New Brunswick’s most common bats.

Forbes, who also serves as a co-chairman for the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada, said there has been preliminary discussion of whether Canada should follow suit.

Luckily, the disease doesn’t seem to have spread to other parts of the province, Vanderwolf said. But she expects that will have changed by next winter.

Forbes said New Brunswick is on the verge of losing a species that has traditionally been one of the province’s most plentiful creatures. And if that is the case, he said it could be up to 50 or 60 years before the population recovered. This is because bats are the slowest reproducing mammal in the world for their size, often bearing only a single baby per year.

If bats were wiped out, there is the possibility that its main food sources – mosquitos and moths – would multiply to irritating and dangerous levels. Crops could suffer from higher populations of harmful bugs, Forbes said.

The fungus works by seeping into the skin, irritating the tiny creatures into wakefulness during their hibernation period. More time awake means using more energy, and the bats’ fat stores soon run dry. Vanderwolf said researchers so far know the disease to attack nine different bat species, including the common small brown bat.

Vanderwolf said there is no chance white nose syndrome could spread to people because the fungus favours colder host habitats that fall below the human body temperature.

Previously published July 5, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Coastal communities fighting back against effects of global warming

coastal erosion; Telegraph-Journal archive

Communities along the Acadian Peninsula are slowly washing away.

The more frequent storm surges have caused problems with erosion all along the New Brunswick coast. Now a three-year plan has been put into action to help combat the effects of global warming.

The small New Brunswick towns of Bas-Caraquet, Le Goulet and Shippagan all sit on the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Each has suffered property damage from intense flooding and shoreline erosion.

But a plan is in the works to save the little villages from drowning.

Sabine Dietz is the provincial co-ordinator of the New Brunswick Regional Adaptation Collaborative. She’s working on a project that is part of a three-year, $30-million cost-sharing federal program geared towards preparing communities for change brought on by global warming.

The Acadian Peninsula project, which began in 2009, aims to assess high-risk areas, map out future erosion and sea level rise, and give the communities the information needed to make smart future zoning decisions.

The provincial Department of Natural Resources, the Université de Moncton (Moncton and Shippagan campuses) and the coastal zone research institute Inc. in Shippagan are working together on the project.

This is the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada, Dietz said. The idea is to focus on places that are already experiencing issues and find solutions that can be shared.

“They feel like they’re getting very little help,” she said, “but they’re not the only ones.”

Le Goulet, a small fishing community with a population of 950, is low-lying and relatively flat. These two features make it particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, and flooding from storm surges have become more frequent over the years.

For example, in the last 15 years, four major floods resulting from coastal storm surges have affected up to 30 homes in the village. The big concerns are drinking water contamination by the salt water, overflowing septic tanks, and flooded roads. Many people are still dealing with contaminated drinking water and mould issues, the report stated.

Le Goulet plans to adapt in three main ways: relocate homes and roads away from potential flooding, erect houses on pilings to accommodate rising sea levels, and build sea walls, dikes, beach nourishment and wetland restoration.

Jean-Marie Gionet, the deputy mayor for Bas-Caraquet, said things aren’t looking good. In his community, the issue at hand is mostly erosion. Cracking winter ice is leading to higher tides earlier in the season, and time is running out, he said.

Some people have lost 20 feet off their land, he said.

“The ocean just took it away,” Gionet said. “You can’t fight against Mother Nature.”

The hope, Dietz said, is that once they find an approach that works in these specific communities, it can be transferred to other communities throughout Atlantic Canada in similar geographic situations.

Previously published July 11, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Vancouver Sun