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Scientific Disciplines Mix At Chemistry Meeting

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Scientific Disciplines Mix At Chemistry Meeting

Scientific Disciplines Mix At Chemistry Meeting

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

At the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco this week, scientists presented work on everything from the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock to the effect of human skin oils on office air quality. Ira Flatow and guests discuss these stories and other news from the meeting.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Air pollution in your office, phytonutrients in maple syrup, cows (unintelligible) in feed lots, tabletop fusion reactors, the snacking habits of birds, ocean pollution, smart roof tiles that take their own temperature to save you energy: You know what all this stuff has in common? It's all chemistry research reported at the American Chemical Society Meeting in San Francisco this week, where around 18,000 scientists gathered to present their latest findings.

This hour, we'll be talking about some of that research, and to help us guide through guide us through some selected short subjects in science is Janet Raloff. She is senior editor at Science News in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Janet.

Ms. JANET RALOFF (Senior Editor, Science News): Thank you.

FLATOW: Good to talk to you again. To read more about the stories we'll be talking about with Janet, you can go to So give us a call if you'd like to discuss these stories. Our number is 800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, if you'd like to send us a note that way, and folks in Second Life are also gathering. You can join them.

Let's Janet, you've been here. It must have been one heck of an assignment to cover 18,000 scientists at the same time.

Mr. RALOFF: Well, there were only 12,000 technical presentations. So it was a little easier than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RALOFF: And I had a colleague who did a tremendous amount of work, too.

FLATOW: Did you have a favorite one that you liked to talk about?

Mr. RALOFF: Well, one that I thought was I found just sort of accidentally was this new program to try and treat the white-nose syndrome in bats. It was just sort of in passing that someone made reference to a brand-new trial that's just getting underway.

FLATOW: And how would they treat it?

Mr. RALOFF: They're using an athlete's foot medicine, a traditional, over-the-counter medicine.

FLATOW: Because it's believed to be a fungus, right?

Mr. RALOFF: It is a fungus, and it's really hammering bats all over the place. In fact, in several places in upstate New York, where they've been monitoring this plague, basically, over the last three years, bat levels are down to seven percent of the numbers that were there three to four years ago.

FLATOW: So there's - just the same stuff you sprinkle on your toes will be working with the bats?

Mr. RALOFF: Well, an ointment or a liquid, but yeah, they're swabbing it on bats, and at this point, they're going to try it was just a little sample trial to see how the bats responded. They're going to try big-time starting in September.

FLATOW: Another interesting story I heard about coming out of the meeting was having to do with medications that we take getting flushed down the toilet and into waterways. We've heard about that kind of stuff, but at this meeting, it also happens when we take a shower.

Mr. RALOFF: Yes, it does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How does that happen?

Mr. RALOFF: Well, it turns out people have been looking at drugs coming in, like in the mouth and out the other end, and figured that that accounts for most of the drugs. But it turns out in some cases, we sweat a lot of drugs out, and so actually our whole surface skin becomes a big drug pad.


Mr. RALOFF: So when you take a shower, it can wash off. When your clothes can pick it up. Someone who gives you, you know, a handshake can pick it up, and certainly you can be leaving, you know, little repositories of sometimes fairly toxic drugs on door handles, on food that you handle, just all over the place.

FLATOW: You're not advocating showering less often.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RALOFF: And it doesn't work for all drugs. It depends on how they're metabolized, how they're broken down, if they're broken down in the body. And so this was looking at it, and in most cases, probably you will excrete much, if not most, of a drug. But there's some really stunning examples that sort of counter the trend.

One of them they pointed to was this Fentanyl, a very powerful painkiller, and they said that ordinary, you would excrete maybe around eight percent of the drug, but in sweat, you could actually lose someone between three and 47 percent of what you had taken in.


Mr. RALOFF: Yeah.

FLATOW: Maybe they should give us a lower dose?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RALOFF: Well, in fact, I think part of the reason for some of the high doses, particularly in drugs like this which can be fairly toxic, they give them to you with a patch, a drug patch. Drug patches don't work all that effectively. When they're sort of done, you can still end up with 60 to 80 percent of the drug in the patch.

And so when you have to be disposing of these things very carefully, but it also means when this stuff is applied to the skin, or like if you have salves or other things that you're slathering on the skin, you can imagine it doesn't all get absorbed, and what doesn't is ready to come off.

FLATOW: And that patch has to go someplace with all that drug still left in it.

Mr. RALOFF: You bet, and that's something that an awful lot of patients aren't really aware of. There have actually been deaths from children, suck on these things, not knowing what they are, and picking up lethal amounts of drugs.

FLATOW: Wow, and what about washing your clothes? If you have some ointment on your skin, does it not get on your clothes, and that goes into the washing machine?

Mr. RALOFF: It does, and then it goes down the drain. So in that way, it's not much different than if it was excreted conventionally. It still goes into the water supply. But what they're looking at in this most-recent study is that you can't account for everything just going in the front and coming out the end, that it can be coming out the sides all over the place: your ears, your hands, your underarms, everywhere.

FLATOW: Places you never expected.

Mr. RALOFF: Exactly.

FLATOW: Tell us about the study with BPA in seawater?

Mr. RALOFF: Well, that was an interesting one. I've been covering BPA for a long time, which is Bisphenol A, normally a breakdown product of polycarbonate plastics. Those are those hard, clear plastics. And they reported at this meeting finding substantial amounts of this in both sand and seawater, and so they tried to figure out this was a team in Japan and they were trying to figure out where it might come from.

Their initial thought was it was probably some plastic degrading in the water, much as they had reported. The same team had reported at the ACF meeting last fall with Styrofoam.

It looks now, they think that there's just not even plastic out there to account for it. There's also a BPA-based resin that's used in some nautical paints, and that makes more sense that you would see it, then in the coastal waters and then washing into the sand. But there are substantial amounts showing up.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's let me bring on another guest. Let's talk about the air in your office. As you sit there in your cubicle or your desk behind the counter in your store, maybe you're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, you might not realize that your mere presence is changing the chemical makeup of the air.

Charles Weschler is an adjunct professor of environmental and an occupational medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry at New Jersey. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. CHARLES WESCHLER (Adjunct Professor, Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey): Thank you.

FLATOW: Welcome back. Talk to us about what's going on with the air?

Mr. WESCHLER: Well, when we last spoke, we discussed ozone reacting with occupants on aircraft. And since then, we've come to more fully appreciate the remarkable impact that humans have on any environment they occupy, including the offices you speak of.

We conducted some experiments in a 30-cubic-meter office setting without humans present and with humans present. And without humans present, we had set the ozone level in the office to be about 30 parts per billion, and when two occupants walked into that office, the ozone level dropped dramatically, dropped to about 15 parts per billion. So those two occupants cut the ozone level in the office by half.

FLATOW: Wow. So we're sucking in ozone, which is not a good thing, is it?

Mr. WESCHLER: Well, actually we're not sucking it in. This is not breathing. This isn't respiration that's chewing up the ozone. It's ozone reacting with our exposed skin and hair and clothing. This is ozone reacting with the body envelope, and it's the skin oils that certain chemicals present in the skin oil that ozone is reacting with.

FLATOW: So we're making the air cleaner, then?

Mr. WESCHLER: Well, yes, but at the same time, we're producing some chemicals that were not otherwise present in the room: oxidation products. Ozone is reacting with some of these chemicals in the skin oil to make a variety of products, and some of these go into the air, and some of these remain on our skin.

FLATOW: Wow, but we've been around ozone forever, haven't we not?

Mr. WESCHLER: Well, that we have, but we've not been in tight, indoor environments forever. Certainly, caves were a lot leakier than a modern office building, or for that matter, a relatively tight home. And furthermore, ozone levels today are significantly higher than they were when we were first able to measure them.

In the 1860s and 1870s, when we were first able to measure ozone levels in a city like Paris, were perhaps 10 parts per billion. And today, the average background levels are three times higher.

So this combination of higher ozone levels and spending more of our time in these relatively sealed indoor environments where the levels of these oxidation products can reach, oh, fairly significant values, it's a difference compared to eons ago.

FLATOW: If we're shedding our skin all the time, does that mean we're essentially littering the room with chemicals that are interacting with the ozone?

Mr. WESCHLER: Absolutely, and that's one of the things we spoke at, at the ACS meeting. We conducted a large study in Denmark. We collected dust samples from 500 children bedrooms and 150 daycare centers, and we analyzed these dust samples to see if we could observe constituents of skin oils, and we did indeed.

Squaline, one of the most important compounds in skin oil in terms of reacting with ozone, squaline was the third most abundant chemical we identified in the dust samples. And cholesterol was either the first or the second most abundant chemical we identified.

FLATOW: Are they harmful to us? Can they hurt us?

Mr. WESCHLER: Squaline per se is not harmful to us, but some of these oxidation products, although some of them are relatively innocuous, for example acetone, which you appreciate is present in nail polish removal, for some of the other chemicals, especially the dicarbonyls, we really, we don't know, but we're concerned that they may be toxic.

People have developed relationships that allow you to look at the chemical structure and predict whether or not the chemical is of concern, and so even though we don't have detailed toxicity tests on some of these products, the chemical structure suggests that they could be potentially harmful.

FLATOW: So this is all good news and bad news, then?

Mr. WESCHLER: Exactly.

FLATOW: And you'll keep studying it?

Mr. WESCHLER: Absolutely.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. WESCHLER: Well, thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Charles Weschler is adjunct professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He is also an ongoing visiting professor at the Technical University of Denmark.

We're going to take a short break and come back. We're going to talk about why Log Cabin syrup may not be as good as the real thing. You know, you're not getting maple syrup in a lot of these syrups, but when you do get maple syrup, the stuff may be good for you. I'll have more information coming out of the American Chemical Society Meeting. Stay with us. I've got Janet Raloff with us, and we'll be right back, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're doing a roundup of the news from this week's American Chemical Society Meeting, which took place in San Francisco, and the meeting wrapped up yesterday.

And my guest, Janet Raloff, who is a senior editor at Science News in Washington, was there at the meeting, and you can read some of her stories from the meeting at

And at the meeting, what was another interesting aspect of the meeting is that the meeting devoted some considerable attention to cold fusion, which has been in disgrace since 1989, and the research has gone underground, in small laboratories around the world, in quiet, government-sponsored labs.

Cold fusion, or as it's being called now, low-energy nuclear reactions, has been under study for decades very quietly. We've been getting all kinds of reports over the years, and this week, the American Chemical Society brought it out of the cold and into the open.

The ACS sponsored public talks and posters about cold fusion. The question is now: Is the field maturing? Is it finally getting a seat at the scientific table? Here to talk about it is Michael McKubre. He's an electrochemist and director of Energy Research Center at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY. It's been a while, Dr. McKubre.

Dr. MICHAEL McKUBRE (Electrochemist, Director, Energy Research Center, SRI International): Thank you, Ira. It's good to be back.

FLATOW: In all the years since we've spoken with you and the years that we have been watching cold fusion on and off, is it any further along the line toward commercialization now?

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, I think so. You know, it's very hard to know what the commercialization object will be until we fully understand the science, and there's still a lot of science to be done. But we've made a lot of progress since you and I last talked.

FLATOW: Tell me about that progress because we don't hear anything about it.

Mr. McKUBRE: It's available. And there are international conferences every year that 300 or 400 people show up to. There's a huge series of conference proceedings, a lot of papers published in the open literature. So the information is there if you look for it. And you led with the fact that we've been in disgrace for a number of years. I'd like to challenge you on that a little bit. I don't think we've been in disgrace, but we've been quietly minding our own business, working on the experiments and making good progress.

FLATOW: Tell us about the progress. Name some progress areas for me, please.

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, the issue that really caused cold fusion to go a little off the rails was, first, presented at the very beginning, if you remember, a number of prestigious institutions performed experiments rather hastily, but they performed experiments at Caltech, at MIT, at Harwell, Bell Labs also, and they basically didn't find what Martin Fleishmann and Stan Ponds had claimed.

They said that they didn't see a heat effect, and a lot of people were turned off at that time because here we have on the one hand Martin Fleishmann, who is a prestigious electrochemist, making a claim, but a number of prestigious institutions did similar experiments it seemed and did not see any anomalous heat. And the question really is why.

And what we at SRI have been digging into over the years is: Under what circumstances is what is now called the Fleishmann-Ponds Heat Effect, under what circumstance is this heat effect produced? It has to do with loading of deuterium into palladium. You need to keep it loaded for a very long time by electrochemical standards. You need to apply an appropriate trigger, and then when the circumstances are right, you observe the heat effect.

And what we've done, and what I presented at the American Chemical Society, was: What are the conditions under which this effect occurs, and were these conditions met? In the original negative reports from these prestigious organizations, we are now able to explain why they didn't see a heat effect when others did and to define the conditions under which one might expect to see the effect.

FLATOW: Are you saying that you can reproduce and re-create the effect anytime, at will, if you just do it the right way?

Mr. McKUBRE: Yeah. If you reproduce the conditions, you reproduce the effect. That's actually a statement that contains no information, and we're not claiming magic here. If you reproduce the conditions, you reproduce the effect.

The question is: What are the conditions? They weren't well-understood in 1989. Very little work had been done. The paper that Martin Fleishmann and Stan Ponds published was not that informative. So people were left to their own devices to choose the ways and means of their experiments.

But what mostly was missed at the time was the need for very high loadings, high deuterium-to-palladium atomic ratios, and the need to maintain that loading for a very long period of time, much longer than is customary in electrochemical experiments.

FLATOW: If it's a true nuclear reaction, don't you expect to see a lot of neutrons and daughter particles coming off?

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, nuclear reactions, of course, as you know, produce all sorts of products, and high-energy nuclear reactions, particularly occurring in isolation, two-body reactions. In order to conserve energy and angular momentum, you pretty much always have energetic particles, but as was very well pointed out by Julian Schwinger at the time, the circumstances of cold fusion are not those of hot fusion.

The reaction occurs on a lattice. So the expected products, the expected branching ratios, will be different from for reactions occurring in the solid state as compared to reactions occurring in free space. So what you say about neutrons is or energetic particles is largely true in free space, but it isn't always true in a solid lattice.

FLATOW: Do you is there a theory, a sustainable theory, about what is actually happening there when packing happens correctly in cold fusion?

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, one of the condemnations of the field of cold fusion, which is legitimate, by the way, is that there isn't a theory that fully explains it, but there are many theories, and there are too many theories.

I am not a theorist, and I pay attention to the people closest to me and the people that I can understand. We have worked over the years SRI and MIT in very close concert, working with Professor Hagelstein at MIT, whose theory I am closest to, I've spent the most time trying to understand it, and we've done a number of experimental tests of his theoretical ideas.

Certainly, his theories are moving in the right direction, but, you know, as I said, I am not a theorist, and when I fully understand the theory, I think that at that point, the theory will be, by my definition, right. That is, when it's simple enough for me to understand and use in my experimentation, then we'll have a theory that is, you know, contributing to the field.

FLATOW: But you, to get back to as an experimentalist, then, you're convinced that anybody can do a successful cold-fusion demonstration?

Mr. McKUBRE: Oh, I dont think so. You need a huge amount of skill as an electrochemist in order to obtain the high deuterium-to-palladium loading ratios. This is a skill that is by no means common in the general populace.

You also need very particular kinds of palladium. One of the areas that's received the most attention and interest in the last, let's say five or six years, is the structure of the palladium metal itself, the configuration of the lattice, how you make your piece of palladium that you are going to turn into electrode. It very, very much defines whether or not you're going to be able to obtain the conditions that we have defined as being necessary to produce the effect.

So it's not easy. I didn't say we'd solved and mastered the problems. What I did claim was that if you achieve the conditions that are set out, you will obtain the same results as we have and as Martin Fleishmann and Stan Ponds and scores of others have obtained.

FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you. You know, it's interesting that you're getting the attention from the Chemical Society, and maybe one of the problems early on was that people called it physics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It upset a lot of physicists. Why not may it be chemistry?

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, it's in the realm. You know, the energy that we see produced in these experiments is thousands of electron volts per palladium atom or thousands of electron volts per deuterium atom. So that isn't chemistry in any way. Chemistry occurs on the scale of electron volts. We're seeing thousands or tens of thousands of times more energy than can be explained by any form of chemistry that I'm familiar with.

FLATOW: You know, the final question that people always ask is: If you're so smart, why ain't you rich? In other words, if you can make one of these things work, why can't you make any commercial product out of (unintelligible)?

Mr. McKUBRE: Well, I guess I sort of resent that question, too. Maybe I should be rich, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKUBRE:, we well, first of all, we don't know what the product will be, really. Until we have a good understanding of the physics of the process...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. McKUBRE: ...all attempts to scale up what is quite evidently a nuclear effect without a better grasp of the fundamental physics than we have now, I think, would be a little bit irresponsible. So we have to understand what's going on. We have to understand what happens when we scale it up. The scale-up attempts that I'm familiar with - and there a number of them out there - really are just trying to capitalize on the heat at relatively low levels. The experiment that I'm most familiar with that would put us on a pathway to rapid commercialization was performed by Energetics Technologies in Israel. It's a U.S. company with research labs in Israel.

But they, in one experiment, put in 40 kilojoules of energy as electrical input power, and saw 1.14 megajoules of heat coming out of the experiment. They, in fact, boiled the water of their experiment. So you have 25 times more energy coming out of your experiment as heat than you put in as electrical power.

If you could do that every time with cheap materials and no dangerous byproducts, that is a practical technology. That is commercializable, just there.

FLATOW: All right. Dr. McKubre, thank you for taking your time to be with us. Good luck to you.

Dr. McKUBRE: Oh, thank you very much.

FLATOW: Michael McKubre is an electrochemist and director of the Energy Research Center at the famous SRI International in Menlo Park, California. I'm talking with Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News about research being reported at the Chemical Society. Interesting stuff, Janet.

Ms. RALOFF: Indeed.

FLATOW: Indeed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: As Dr. Hagelstein spoke to us many years ago about - when he -at MIT, when he was - people who are in the hallways would walk around him as if he's carrying a heavy refrigerator because they know he did cold fusion research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I see you're tiptoeing around it, too. Let's talk about something that you do know about that was at the meeting, and that was a study about walnuts and prostate cancer. Tell us about that.

Ms. RALOFF: Well, that was really sort of intriguing. There's a - it's a - I should start out upfront that its an animal study, so it was doesn't done in people. But it had some really interesting findings. They took some mice that were genetically predisposed to get prostate cancer. And they either put them on a low-fat diet, the normal diet for a mouse, or they put them on a high-fat diet. When they put them on the high-fat diet, they all produced tumors in their prostate fairly quickly, but the tumors grew much, much faster on the high-fat diet...


Ms. RALOFF: ...unless that high-fat diet - and the same quantity of calories of fat coming in - came from walnuts. And then, on the high-fat diet, they had the same tumor progression that you saw on the low-fat diet. You still got tumors, you still had these, you know, cancers growing, but they grew far more slowly. And that's, in fact, what you want, because if men grow old enough, they'll all get prostate cancer. And the goal is for having people, men...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...die with prostate cancer, not from it.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: So if you can get it to grow slowly enough, that's a real good end point. What they had here is when they put them on this high-fat walnut diet, the tumors grew 30 to 40 percent slower than...

FLATOW: That's amazing.

Ms. RALOFF: ...when they're on the high-fat diet. So it's a - and they don't know what it is about the walnuts. They sort of crushed up the walnuts and they put it in with the diet, so they're getting the whole thing. They're getting the minerals...

FLATOW: Right. There's no extract or something, walnut extracts...


FLATOW: ...that they're talking about. Yeah.

Ms. RALOFF: So if there's - they dont know what about the walnuts did it, but they were led to this because they have been doing earlier work looking at the heart benefits of walnut oil in walnuts. And they found a number of anti-inflammatory attributes - and because inflammation underlies a lot of cancers, they thought: Why not try it?

FLATOW: That's right. Okay. Let's move on to maple syrup. Navindra Seeram is an assistant professor of pharmacy, University of Rhode Island. And he's also head of the Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory there. He joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. NAVINDRA SEERAM (Pharmacy, University of Rhode Island; Director, Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory): Hi. Ira, can you hear me?

FLATOW: I can hear you very well.

Dr. SEERAM: Wonderful. It's good to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. What have you discovered about the nutritional value of maple syrup?

Dr. SEERAM: Fascinating, isn't it?


Dr. SEERAM: Well, it's a sweet project, I must tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You're sounding like me now.

Dr. SEERAM: No pun intended, Ira. I actually moved here to URI about two years ago from UCLA. And having come to the New England area, you know, I was looking around and saying, well, what's unique about Northeastern North America? Well, duh. Maple syrup, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SEERAM: True maple syrup, as you know, comes from the sugar maple tree. It's predominantly produced in Canada. About 85 percent of the world's supply of maple syrup comes from Canada. The rest is coming here from the New England regions. But my research focuses on plants. I'm a plant natural product chemist, and I'm very intrigued about what in plants are going to be beneficial to humans in terms of our human health. And it's probably - it's like, you know, my kids can understand this. Plants live for hundreds of years, and, obviously, plants are planted. They're rooted. They cannot get up and run away from harmful UV radiations or from pathogens such as bacteria or fungi, et cetera. So plants evolve the mechanisms - these secondary metabolites which are known as phytochemicals - to protect themselves. So let's, you know, switch - turn the switch on, and let's look at the sugar maple tree.

Here they are growing in New England, living for three to 400 years. And their sap, if you really think about it, can be considered as their "life blood," quote, unquote, because it's taking nutrients from the roots all the way up to the leaves. Now, during the spring months, what happens is that a tapping happens here in New England and Northeastern North America, predominantly in Quebec. Sap is collected from the tree and then it's boiled down 40 times to give on liter of syrup. Forty liters of sap gives one liter of syrup.

I think - you know, we speculated that the tree, obviously, is producing these phytochemicals, and it's getting into sap and then ending up in syrup, because you're really concentrating it down.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SEERAM: So we got pure Canadian maple syrup from some folks up in Quebec, where we're collaborating on this research project. And we look beyond sugars, what's in maple syrup, and lo and behold, we found about - and this is only the tip of the iceberg - about 20 plant compounds which are well-known antioxidants in maple syrup, a number of them which have never been reported before from maple syrup. And we're very intrigued by what's happening here in these plants.

FLATOW: And you think some of these things may be beneficial to humans?

Dr. SEERAM: Well, there have been reports...

FLATOW: But I'm going to have them let you hold that punch line...

Dr. SEERAM: Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...because we're running up against the clock. But stay with us, okay, doctor?

Dr. SEERAM: No problem, Ira.

FLATOW: And we'll talk about what's going on. It was a great introduction, the maple syrup, and realize about all that's going on in the sugar maple. Talking with Navindra Seeram about maple syrup - not the stuff that comes out of those other bottles, the stuff that actually comes out of the tree - and potential nutritional benefits. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about news from the American Chemical Society meeting this week. And I'm talking with Navindra Seeram about maple syrup. And you discovered all these antioxidants in maple syrup?

Dr. SEERAM: Right. That's right, Ira.

FLATOW: And how many?

Dr. SEERAM: Oh, more than 20 for now, and the work is still going on.

FLATOW: Wow. How much - how many pancakes do we have to eat to get the benefit of all these antioxidants?

Dr. SEERAM: Well, it's not the pancakes. It's the syrup on the pancake.

FLATOW: Ah, that's right. Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SEERAM: But look at it in this way. I think that, you know, consumers want to make healthy choices today in the world where we're faced with different types of diseases. I think the take-home message here simply is that among sweeteners, that consumer should know that maple syrup - at least the real maple syrup - it's a natural product. It comes from a plant. It's actually very interesting. It's a unique product in that in human's diet, in our diet, this is the only sap obtained from a tree that gets into our food chain.


Dr. SEERAM: So you can eat different types of vegetables and different types of fruit, but this is the only tree sap that ends up in our diet.

FLATOW: Where did - the funding for this...

Dr. SEERAM: The funding came from Canada, from the Federation of Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec, and also from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

FLATOW: Well, they would have a vested interest in having it - have some maple syrup.

Dr. SEERAM: Absolutely, because, you know, they produce 80 percent of the world's supply of maple, right?

FLATOW: Right. Right. But it doesn't mean that you haven't found what you found in the maple syrup.

Dr. SEERAM: No, research is research. And, you know, it's going to go through peer review before it gets published. And, you know, it is what it is. The compounds are there, and it is there.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Seeram.

Dr. SEERAM: Wonderful, Ira. You have a good one. Thank you.

FLATOW: You, too. Dr. Navindra Seeram, who was talking about maple syrup. He reported it out of - at the American Chemical Society meeting. He's assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Now, Janet Raloff is here with us. Hi, Janet.

Ms. RALOFF: Hello.

FLATOW: I didn't want people to forget that you were sitting there and waiting and listening and talking with us about what you - you actually attended the meeting. And then one group presented research at the meeting on pollution - were talking about food - produced by cooking food, correct?

Ms. RALOFF: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Tell us about that.

Ms. RALOFF: Well, almost 20 years ago, I was following some research where they were trying to figure out how much pollution comes from cooking meat.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: And to do that, they had to look at stuff that was up in the air and things that came on filters from up in the air. And they didn't know what part of it came from the meat, so they looked at cholesterol in the air. And they knew what share of cholesterol should be coming out the stack, and so they had to infer how much of the soot and stuff up in the air came from meat. This group in Minnesota has now looked at this stuff that's coming right off the meat and then right out of the stack, you know, the filter...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...coming through, to see how much is emitted and how much will be cleared up before it actually gets into the air. And they found surprising amounts. I mean, it was surprising for me, anyway. You cook some hamburgers on a mesquite charcoal broiler - you know, where there's open flames and it smells real good and the meat tastes real good. For every 1,000 pounds of meat that they cook, 35 pounds...


Ms. RALOFF: ...of gunk goes up in the air.

FLATOW: Well, let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News.

How many pounds was that?

Ms. RALOFF: Thirty-five.

FLATOW: Thirty-five for every 1,000 pounds.

Ms. RALOFF: Yeah.

FLATOW: You know, when you drive by some of these fast food places where they do flame broil, it looks like a locomotive, you know, exhaust coming out of the top of some of these vents.

Ms. RALOFF: But they weren't all the same. There was another one, and for that one, they actually got something that was more like, you know, a couple ounces.

FLATOW: Really?

Ms. RALOFF: Yeah. So it makes a real big difference on how the stuff is cooked, whether it's over, like, an electric range or whether it's over this open fuel.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: So it's quite variable. And now they're trying to focus on what kinds of chemicals are coming out and how big they are. And it turns out some of the cleaner broilers and cookers are actually making some of the smaller, more respirable particles. So it may be trade-off how good that stuff is.

FLATOW: So can you then retrofit your cooker, maybe catch more of these things?

Ms. RALOFF: Well, they have this things to try and catch them, and they do catch much of what goes up, but not all that much - like the 35 pounds that came out of one only went down to 21 pounds when you saw what was actually coming out of the sort of the smoke stack, or whatever.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Speaking of cooking hamburgers and cooking food, we, you know, we've all been told that we're contributors to greenhouse gases when we eat red meat or we drink milk from hundreds of millions of pounds of cow manure that it takes to make the milk or the hamburgers, and from cattle belching greenhouse gases. Well, my next guest has spent a lot of time monitoring the belches of cows and analyzing their impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and he says contrary, that eating less beef and or drinking less milk isn't really going to do much to reduce your carbon footprint. And I want to bring him on now. Frank Mitloehner is an air-quality specialist, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Science of the University of California, Davis. He joins us by phone.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Mitloehner.

Dr. FRANK MITLOEHNER (Professor, University of California, Davis; Air Quality Specialist): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: So, what is wrong with this idea that you've researched? And we've all been told that if we eat read meat and drink milk, that we are increasing greenhouse gasses?

Dr. MITLOEHNER: And you do. In fact, any kind of activity that you are involved in will increase greenhouse gasses, whether you drive your car or, you know, many activities that you're involved in will increase your contributions to climate change. But the question is: Is eating meat or drinking milk, eating cheese as big a contributor as has recently been claimed? And in my view, it's not.

Just to give you a quick idea, the United Nations' FAO said that livestock has a larger share in the greenhouse gasses than transportation. And when we looked at that comparison, we found that there were flaws in that statement.

FLATOW: And in what way?

Dr. MITLOEHNER: Well, they basically looked at the complete life cycle of livestock. They looked at all the contributions livestock have, from fertilizer to plants to soils to manure, application on crops and so on. So that's called life cycle assessment. So that was very well done. However, on the transportation side, they didn't do a thorough assessment of all the different contributing sources of transportation, but they only looked at the emissions of burning gas.


Dr. MITLOEHNER: And so they compared a complete picture for livestock with a very limited one for transportation, and that comparison was then quoted throughout the press, throughout media...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: ...and many people now think that eating less meat or consuming less animal protein will significantly reduce their carbon footprint, which I don't think is as significant as many people claim.

FLATOW: So you're saying that it's better to reduce your driving if you want to do something than to stop eating meat and cheese and milk.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: Well, according to EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, they have done an emission inventory last year in 2009, and they claimed that transportation contributes 26 percent of all greenhouse gasses versus the 5.8 percent for all of agriculture, and about half of that 5.6 or 5.8 percent is due to livestock.

So in the United States, approximately 3 percent of all greenhouse gas is associated to livestock, and about half of that three is associated to beef and dairy. So your relative contribution to climate change is not really a major factor when eating these products.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do healthy cows and cows that are not as healthy put out the same amount of greenhouse gasses?

Dr. MITLOEHNER: Yeah. The amount of greenhouse gas produced in the rumen of a cow is really a function of what they are being fed...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: ...what kind of diet they consume. Basically, the more roughage they eat, the more fiber they eat, the more methane is produced by those microbes that produce the methane.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So if you have a cow in this country that's being fed -the kind of feedlots that we have...


FLATOW: ...they're not going to produce as much methane as a cow in, say, in another - possibly a poorer company that's getting more roughage.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: Well, that's correct. And it's counterintuitive. People think that animals in pasture produce less methane, but the reverse is true. The more roughage, the more forage in the diet, the more methane.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Has the U.N. managed - you've pointed this out to them, the differences that you found, these - comparing apples and oranges are incomplete analysis. Have they reacted?

Dr. MITLOEHNER: Yes, they have reacted. And they have stated that my conclusions were correct, and that they will follow up with the future reports that will look into a more specific contribution of livestock to climate change by regions and by specific production systems, and so on. Because what they know and what they have found is that the more intensive you are - and with that, I mean, the more adapted you are to the environment that you live in and that you produce in - the smaller your environmental impact.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: And so they have recommended that intensification and the Western-style livestock production is the role model for parts of the developing world where livestock's impact is very large.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Does any of your funding come from the cattle industry or the beef industry?

Dr. MITLOEHNER: About 5 percent of my funding comes from agriculture as a whole, and approximately 3 percent from the beef industry interested in finding out what is their impact on environmental quality, and how can they mitigate those impacts.

FLATOW: All right. Dr. Mitloehner, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. MITLOEHNER: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Frank Mitloehner is an air quality specialist and associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at UC Davis. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. With me is Janet Raloff, a senior editor at Science News who attended the Chemical Society meeting. And, Janet, couple of other topics. I was going through the long list that you probably went through yourself, and I found something quite interesting about smart roofs.

Ms. RALOFF: Yeah.

FLATOW: What's a smart roof? Or roof, as they might say in another part of the country?

Ms. RALOFF: In my part of the country, it's a roof. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RALOFF: You know, they have - they're looking to try and have the roofing material be - absorb heat when you need it, like in the wintertime...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: keep your house a little warmer and reflect heat in the summertime when you want to stay cool, so you reduce your air-conditioning costs. And there are ways to make reflective roofs right now. But this particular technology that they were talking about at the meeting was going to be able to do both, and it was going to be able to decide when it needed to be reflective and when it needed to be transmissive all by itself, sort of reading the temperature. Sounds really cool...

FLATOW: Yeah. I mean, the - was it a tile? Was it a tar? Was it a shingle? What did it - did you see a sample of it? Or...

Ms. RALOFF: Well...

FLATOW: this hush-hush?

Ms. RALOFF: It is kind of hush-hush, unfortunately, because it sounds very cool, and I'd like...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. RALOFF: know how it works. They said you can just spray it onto standard roofing materials. So you could put it on to asphalt shingles, like I have on my house. Or you could put it on, in theory, to, you know, aluminum roofs, whatever you want. And it was - they claimed it was based on using recycled vegetable oils like, you know, from restaurants or something.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: But the reporters who were listening to this were asking, well, how does the oil do this? And eventually, this poor engineer who was sent to describe it said, well, it isn't the oil. So we said, well, what is it? And he said, well, it's proprietary.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RALOFF: So (unintelligible) asking him questions. So I finally said: Is there something in the oil? And he says, well, yeah.


Ms. RALOFF: I said: There's an additive in the oil. And he says, well, yeah.


Ms. RALOFF: What's the additive? It's proprietary.

FLATOW: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We're talking about the smart roof this hour at SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

I'm here with Janet Raloff. Well, you know, you hate that. As a science journalist, right...

Ms. RALOFF: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW:'re supposed to get down to getting the answers. You want to know what's inside, in that black box.

Ms. RALOFF: Well, absolutely. And that was the real frustration, because, you know, it was - they're coming here, and they're trying to sell people on this idea that it's something that's good to invest in. And they claim they're going to be able to market it in three years. Frankly, if it works the way they describe it, it would be wonderful. I mean, I'd want it on my roof, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. RALOFF: But they can't tell us what it is at this point.

FLATOW: Wow. And they didn't have a sample or a piece of the roofing material?

Ms. RALOFF: They had photos and...


Ms. RALOFF: ...they could sort of describe it. But, no, you couldn't see anything. And, you know, when I was asking what kind of additive might you have in there, they wouldn't tell you. But I, sort of, the hint for me is they were in a cellulose division of the...


Ms. RALOFF: ...ACS when they were presenting this. So I'm wondering: Where's the cellulose in oil? Maybe that's the additive.

FLATOW: But it would have to be smart enough, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Some sort of smartness...

Ms. RALOFF: Yes. Smart cellulose.

FLATOW: ...smartness in there, to know when to change.

Ms. RALOFF: Well, they're claiming you can tune it. Now, it wouldn't -you know, you tune it based on the formulation, as I understand it. And again, this is all inferred...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...but you'd have a different formulation for Connecticut than you would for Georgia or for Texas. And whatever that additive is would know that when it reaches a certain temperature, it starts to go from being...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...transmissive to reflective.

FLATOW: So you're not ripping up your current proof?



Ms. RALOFF: In theory, you could just slap this on top of what you currently have.

FLATOW: And it could be shingle. It could flat top, or it could be cedar shakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Fill in the roof over yours. Maybe - I bet you it's just not any of these grass roofs that people - what are people...

Ms. RALOFF: I know. I was thinking that, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RALOFF: They're beautiful. Over in northern Germany, you have these beautiful, thatched roofs. I don't think they would slap this on top of it.

FLATOW: Or people now are planting, you know, grass...

Ms. RALOFF: Green roofs...

FLATOW: The green roofs.

Ms. RALOFF: Exactly.


Ms. RALOFF: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: I mean, maybe oil might kill that stuff that you're trying to grow on there on your green roof. And...

Ms. RALOFF: But the good news is they say that they extract the things that would make it smelly. So if this is, you know, oil that they've French-fried potatoes in...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: won't smell like French fries on your roof.

FLATOW: Do they have any data they could present to show our roofs do this, and untreated roofs to that?

Ms. RALOFF: Well - I mean, how do you show that? They told us...


Ms. RALOFF: I mean, they said that compared to a conventional roof, that you would - you should be able to lower your temperature on the roof by 50 to 80 percent in warm weather.


Ms. RALOFF: So, I mean, that's a lot. I mean, if you have a lot of inflation in your attic...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: may not make a difference in terms...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...of the cooling potential in the house, I don't know. But then they said if you compare it to other cool roofs - so these are the ones that are reflective all the time...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. RALOFF: ...that you can - it can actually be taken 80 percent more energy in the wintertime. And that caveat there is they're comparing it to other always-reflective roofs.

FLATOW: Right. So this is not just white paint that you spray on in the summer and black stuff that you spray on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RALOFF: No. It sounds like it's supposed to - I have these little loopers(ph) inside that actually change color like that. But they claim they can make it sort of any color. They can, like, throw some stuff in there. So maybe that's colored cellulose, I don't know.

FLATOW: You know, it's good that they didn't present this in Utah sometime (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: They were selling it on - I'm not trying to - I'm not badmouthing the company. I'm not badmouthing the, you know, what's in there. But it's...

Ms. RALOFF: No, I...

FLATOW: ...but if you come on and you talk to a bunch of science writers, you're going to get laughed at if you don't tell them, because they want to know what's inside the stuff.

Ms. RALOFF: Well, absolutely. It's very - our job is basically to help explain science and make it accessible to the public. We get to ask them the questions that, you know, the public doesn't get an opportunity to ask. And here, you didn't get any answers. It's very frustrating.

FLATOW: And I know - I've known you, Janet, for decades. I know you want those answers, like we all do. And I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Ms. RALOFF: You bet.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Janet Raloff is the senior editor at Science News, in Washington. And you can track more science news stories at

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