This Toilet Given to the Glory of God

Years ago, I lived in Austin and went to a historic Episcopal church. The parish house needed major renovation, and when the parishioners were surveyed for what they wanted from the renovation, more and better bathrooms was at the top of the list. Considering how few and far between the bathrooms were, this request was predictable. Like others, I donated money to support the renovations, and the new parish house was wonderful, and the multitudes of new and bigger bathrooms were glorious and much appreciated.

My current DC area Episcopal church is also historic with a parish house needing major renovations. Once again I find myself being asked by my church to donate money to support renovations. The space is small and not used efficiently partially because the parish house is an old house. It has this tiny little ancient elevator that scares me. Also like my former church, at or near the top of everyone’s wish list is more and bigger bathrooms.

As I’ve contemplated how much money I want to and can give, I’ve also thought about what I’d like to sponsor if I had enough money to request something being acknowledged as being sponsored by me. I don’t actually know if anything in the renovations will be designated as being sponsored, but churches do that all the time with big donations. The church has brass plaques on all the pews, stained glass windows, and other items.

So I’ve thought about it just because it’s fun. The same way I think about if I died famous what would I’d like dedicated to me. I’ve already decided should I die famous that it will be written into my will that if anyone tries to name a freeway after me, my estate will sue them for defamation and pain and suffering, and I’ll come back to haunt them. A park or library would be lovely, but a freeway would be an insult.

I realized what I’d like to sponsor at my church. I want to sponsor the new toilets. I want a plaque next to a toilet that reads “This toilet donated in glory of God by GGE.” As much as the vast majority of people don’t want to think about toilets, when there are not enough, or they are not working, they are all you think about. I speak for all women when I say public places never have enough of them, and we spend too much time in line to use one. [More of my Opinions on public restroom design.] We have all sorts of euphemisms to avoid having to say the word toilet, and God forbid someone should mention the words urine or feces or urination or defecation in polite company. I’ve spent years in the lab analyzing urine and spent part of my career in wastewater treatment and conveyance. I could speak for hours on bodily human waste.

The truth is the toilet is one of the greatest inventions of all times. It effectively and efficiently takes human waste away to where it can be treated and not spread disease. Toilets prevent smelly and dangerous gases from the waste from coming inside. Humans no longer walk outside avoiding streams of human waste and falls from above from people emptying their chamber pots. Because of toilets and sanitary sewers and treatment plants, most of us do not have to worry about cholera, typhoid, Guinea worm, and many other diseases.

Be thankful that you have a toilet. When my church’s renovations are over, I know all the members of the parish will be grateful we have more of them.

“These toilets given to the glory of God and in appreciation of the past, present, and future people who ensure bodily human waste is removed from this premises and properly treated, by an environmental engineer who understands a toilet’s importance.”

Man Swims the Gowanus Canal

I was planning to come to New York for the weekend, and by pure chance this was the weekend Christopher Swain announced he was going to attempt to swim the Gowanus Canal again. He tried in April but the threat of rain and then actual lightning, which caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to order him out of the canal, prevented him from swimming the entire length. This time he was successful. He said he did it to raise awareness of the pollution of the Gowanus Canal. When being interviewed by reporters, he said he was concerned this would be perceived as a stunt. He said they would actually be collecting data that would be given to school kids, so they could help solve the problems affecting the Gowanus.

As an environmentalist, I appreciate him bringing awareness to the plight of the Gowanus. I even appreciate him wanting to bring awareness to school kids. Honestly though, as an environmental engineer, who works in the field of cleaning up hazardous waste sites, I can’t see what he is doing as anything other than a stunt. I seriously can’t think of any information he could gather that couldn’t be gathered from a person in a boat, a person who would not be exposing herself or himself to the risk that Mr. Swain is. At one point, Mr. Swain stopped swimming to collect data and told anyone listening that the water had a temperature of 64ºF and had a pH of 7.5. He started by saying “for the scientists out there” and then said he wished he had studied science harder or something to that effect. First, both those two pieces of data could easily be collected from a boat. Second, neither of those pieces of data tell me anything about the state of the Gowanus. The temperature just reflects that it is fall, and a pH of 7.5 is close to neutral and what is expected for a body of water. [Yes, thermal pollution, where water that is too hot is released into a body of water, is a thing that can affect water bodies because hot water has less oxygen, and the reduced oxygen would affect any wildlife in the water, but it is not a concern for the Gownaus.]

Also, I fail to see what school kids are going to do to help solve the problem. I completely agree in bringing awareness of environmental issues to children, but it is environmental professionals and perhaps community organizers who are going to solve the pollution problem with the Gowanus. The Gowanus has two main issues. First, it has hazardous pollution from years past that needs to be cleaned up. This is where the US EPA and Superfund comes in. Hazardous waste includes PCBs, heavy metals, and whatever other fun chemicals might be polluting the canal. Second, it has wastewater pollution from the past and current that needs to be cleaned up. New York City, like many old cites, has a combined wastewater system. This means that wastewater, the stuff that flows from your toilet and sink drain, and stormwater, the stuff from street drains, flows to the same destination. When it is not raining, it is not an issue. The wastewater all flows to various wastewater treatment plants where it is treated before being released to a river or ocean. During rain events, there can be a problem because the wastewater treatment plant may not be able to handle all the water flowing to it. In this case, untreated wastewater is generally directed to some location (technical term is outfall) where it enters a body of water, like the Gowanus. This is actually the main immediate risk to Mr. Swain. Most of the hazardous pollution is in the sediment at the bottom of the canal, and drinking one mouthful of the Gowanus water probably will not kill you, in terms of the hazardous chemicals, or at least not immediately. [DO NOT TRY THIS. THIS IS AN EDUCATED GUESS.] However, because of the untreated wastewater that flows into the Gowanus, the canal has a lovely concoction of viruses, bacteria, and who knows what other pathogens having their own little party. This would be my more immediate concern for him or anyone else who might accidentally ingest Gowanus Canal water, getting an infection of who knows what pathogen. [According to news reports I’ve seen, after the swim, he stated that he swallowed three mouthfuls. My advice is to go see a medical doctor.] It is also not clear to me if there is other pollution concerns to Gowanus, like outfalls from nearby business or stormwater from the nearby area that may contain things they shouldn’t.

The Gowanus Canal absolutely needs to be cleaned up, and regulatory authorities and the community are already working on it. It may not be proceeding at the speed Mr. Swain and the community would like. I completely understand that. Cleanups, such as the Gowanus Canal, take time and money. It takes professionals, the regulatory authorities, the groups being regulated, and the community to determine the best path forward. Unfortunately, it generally takes patience also. My completely biased opinion is that not enough money is dedicated by politicians to cleaning up all the different pollution in this country. Hence even more patience is needed. One final note, in all the news reports, Mr. Swain and the reporters keep making reference to the Gowanus Canal being a Superfund site. It is, but the issue of untreated wastewater being released into the canal and causing, in my opinion, the more immediate risk to him or anyone else who wants to go for a dip, does not normally fall under Superfund regulation. Superfund (aka CERCLA) regulates hazardous waste, and pathogens are not hazardous waste. However, when the U.S. EPA finalized the Record of Decision for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, they did require the City to build two very large tunnels to capture combined sewer overflow during rain events. [Edited to correct my statements regarding Superfund and the untreated wastewater contamination.]

Christopher Swain being interviewed before his swim

Christopher Swain being interviewed before his swim

Mr. Swain and his support crew paddled to the start of the Gowanus Canal before he entered the water.

Mr. Swain and his support crew paddled to the start of the Gowanus Canal before he entered the water.

Christopher Swain swimming with his support crew behind him

Christopher Swain swimming with his support crew behind him

Christopher Swain swimming the Gowanus Canal in a dry suit.

Christopher Swain swimming the Gowanus Canal in a dry suit.

He takes measurements of the water.

He takes measurements of the water.

After he reached the 3rd Street bridge, the NYPD provided an escort (either the water wasn't deep enough or the bridges prevented it before).

After he reached the 3rd Street bridge, the NYPD provided an escort (either the water wasn’t deep enough or the bridges prevented it before).

Mr. Swain and escorts nearly at the end of the Gowanus Canal, just after the Gowanus Expressway bridge.

Mr. Swain and escorts nearly at the end of the Gowanus Canal, just after the Gowanus Expressway bridge.

Newtown Creek

Manhattan skyline behind Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Manhattan skyline behind Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Newtown Creek is a natural creek that now resembles more of an industrial waterway and serves as a divider between Brooklyn and Queens in New York. I recently got a boat tour of it through Open House NY with superb guides from Newtown Creek Alliance and was able to see all the industrial facilities that are on it as well as a few places where its natural state is peaking through. Newtown Creek is heavily polluted because of New York City’s combined sanitary wastewater and stormwater system, which has led to untreated wastewater flowing into the creek during heavy rain events, and also industrial pollution, which has led to it being a Superfund site. A trip down Newtown Creek is almost history lesson down NYC’s past with some historic sites still visible like an old Standard Oil building. More modern parts of NYC also lie on the creek, most famously the newly redesigned and rebuilt Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and its eight stainless steel digester eggs.

Brooklyn Queens Expressway

Brooklyn Queens Expressway

cement plant

cement plant

DEP boat

DEP boat

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and DEP offices

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and DEP offices

Fuel tanks and barge

Fuel tanks and barge

LPG (or possibly methane) tanks

LPG (or possibly methane) tanks

mud flats

mud flats

Recycling facility

Recycling facility

Sailboats at entrance to Newtown Creek

Sailboats at entrance to Newtown Creek

old Standard Oil facility

old Standard Oil facility

swing bridge

swing bridge

Tanks

Tanks

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

Sewage outfall with birds on boom line

Sewage outfall with birds on boom line

Gowanus Canal

Last month while in New York, I spent some time walking around Gowanus Canal because I’m an environmental engineer, and I couldn’t resist an opportunity to visit a body of water, infamous for being incredibly polluted. The Gowanus Canal is a Superfund site due to contamination with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic contaminants (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, and metals. However, the Gowanus Canal is also polluted with more ordinary pollutants such as bacteria from untreated wastewater from combined sewer overflow outfalls and other urban pollutants from surface runoff (and possibly illegal outfalls). The area residents are understandably pushing to get the canal cleaned up quickly, and the cleanup is a joint effort between the city, state, and federal government. The area around the canal is an interesting mixture of industrial, art galleries, and up and coming residential. It is actually a nice area. There is a Whole Foods Market next to the canal that has a nice little canal walk on the property, which features signs that say “This is the greenest supermarket in New York State. No smoking, please.” I will take them at their word about being the greenest supermarket, as I did notice solar panels and wind turbines in the parking lot. However I still had to laugh at the irony of the sign. On the bright side, the Gowanus Canal is not so polluted that should someone smoke near it, it is not in danger of catching on fire, like the Cuyahoga River did in 1969. While I was walking along the canal, I spotted a small boat with two people who seemed to be monitoring the water and also two people in a canoe. I guess the canal is safe to canoe on, if you just make sure you don’t touch the water to your skin and most definitely don’t let any get into your mouth, nose, eyes, or any other orifices. The canal does not look that polluted. There are areas with floating trash, but there are very few places where I saw a sheen. When I was there it did not smell either, but evidently especially in summer, it can smell. However, it is a good example of how appearance is not a good way to tell if something is polluted. If you want to read more about the Gowanus Canal, this article in Popular Science is pretty interesting.

Northern end of the Gowanus Canal

Northern end of the Gowanus Canal

Bridge on northern end

Bridge on northern end

Carroll Street Bridge

Carroll Street Bridge

Carroll Street Bridge

Carroll Street Bridge

Stormwater discharge warning sign

Stormwater discharge warning sign

A wooden dolphin that had a book attached to the top as some sort of art or memorial

A wooden dolphin that had a book attached to the top as some sort of art or memorial

View from the Third Street Bridge

View from the Third Street Bridge

Survey boat

Survey boat

Third Street bridge

Third Street bridge

People actually canoe on the Gowanus Canal

People actually canoe on the Gowanus Canal

Barge sitting on the canal

Barge sitting on the canal

Fourth Street Basin, next to the Whole Foods Market

Fourth Street Basin, next to the Whole Foods Market, with some sort of art in the sculpture in the water

Gowanus Canal southern end

Gowanus Canal southern end

Gowanus Expressway

Gowanus Expressway

Liquid storage tanks

Liquid storage tanks

When an engineer gets to comment on building maintenance

One nice thing about where I work is that we get to fill out surveys about how we like the building we work in and comment on it. I have my doubts about how much they act on the survey results, or how much they pay attention to the comments if an employee bothers to give comments, but hey, it’s a great place to vent. I actually for the most part like my building. It is relatively new and doesn’t have the problems that many older buildings that my employer has has. It is kept clean and and looks nice. One big problem I have with it is the same that I have with almost every other office building: the temperature is set at a temperature that is comfortable for men not women. By about 11 am, once the HVAC has fully gotten the ambient air to the set point (as opposed to earlier in the day when it is ramping up after having been off during the night), the vast majority of women are walking around in sweaters, jackets, or blankets that all of us keep at our desk. [Spoiler: When I rule the world, I will dictate two things. Office buildings will be set at temperatures that are comfortable to women, not men. Also, public restrooms will be designed better. In particular, the stalls will be longer so that women don’t have to climb on the toilet to close the stall door. Truthfully there are many things that need to be improved in public restrooms, most of which I and many other people have covered is this somewhat comical, somewhat serious past blog post.] However, the building I work in has some of the worst plumbing issues I have ever seen, especially for a building that is less than ten years old. Ironically it has LEED certification, but whoever certifies it appears to ignore the obvious water wasting issues it has, as I detail below. I’ve decided to share below the comments I gave in the building survey, not because it will really accomplish anything, just as a way to vent and possibly to serve as a warning why if you let an engineer comment on a building with design and maintenance issues, you may get more than you wanted. Thus, my full comments are as follows.

With all the dual flush toilets, only one flush button actually works. With some toilets it is the half flush button, with some the full flush button. However whether or not the working button is actually whichever button it appears to be is unclear, or if they have possibly all been disabled and all converted to full flush. They constantly run. Almost every time I enter a restroom, I have to push the flush button on at least one toilet to get it to stop running. The restroom auto soap and water sinks are like sink roulette. Which sink will give me soap? Which sink will not continuously squirt soap at me? Which sink will give me water? It takes forever to get repairs done on issues in the pantry/kitchens. It took them two weeks or so to put a new aerator in the sink faucet. A part that can be bought at any time at Home Depot. It is not special. Maintenance blames pantry sink issues on reasons that are not the problem. On numerous occasions, water has come bubbling up from the drain pipes into the sink. Sometimes so much water has bubbled up that the sink has overflowed with disgusting brown wastewater. Then maintenance posts signs saying not to put coffee grounds down the drain as that caused issue. While coffee grounds will cause a sink with a bad garbage disposal to not allow the sink to drain (and putting coffee grounds down the drain is a bad idea), it will not cause water to flow up from pipes below. (I’m a chemical engineer I can prove this with fluid dynamics equations!) There is obviously some issue with the drain pipes below our floor, which any competent plumber or chemical engineer could tell you.

While there was no place to attach photos or videos, below is a photo of the backed up kitchen sink and video of it overflowing.

My office's pantry/kitchen sink when it was backed up and overflowing with wastewater. Photo was taken 1/8/2013.

My office’s pantry/kitchen sink when it was backed up and overflowing with wastewater. Photo and below video was taken 1/8/2013.

Blue Lagoon

Day 1 in Iceland. I think I got about 20 minutes sleep on the plane. We drove to the western edge of the Reykjanes Peninsula to see the lighthouses in Garður. Then it was on to Iceland’s most visited tourist attraction the Blue Lagoon. Some genius turned what was a pool formed by wastewater from a geothermal power plant into a rather expensive, somewhat posh hot pot to which all tourists flock. It is really cool though. The water color is this gorgeous, cloudy sky blue. Also, they give excellent massages while you lay on a float in the lagoon. When you’ve been on a plane for six hours with no sleep, walking around a wonderfully heated pool and then getting a massage is quite frankly, a great cure for your exhaustion. Walking around the lagoon is great exfoliation for your feet, and they have buckets of silica from the lagoon to rub on your face for a facial. From a geology standpoint, the pool is really neat because you can walk through micro heat spots, not to mention to entire heated by geothermal heat thing. In some areas the pool is warm and in some areas, the pool is hot. The lagoon was also a great place for me to play with my new GoPro camera, which can be used underwater.

The area around the lagoon is bizarrely pretty. It is dark craggily, sharp volcanic rock that is covered with this lush, soft in appearance, green plant. I am guess the green is actually lichen or a moss, but I need someone to educate me on what it actually it.

Power plant which caused the Blue Lagoon to form

Power plant which caused the Blue Lagoon to form

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Bridge over Blue Lagoon

Bridge over Blue Lagoon

I'd be curious to know if this bridge is ever not slippery

I’d be curious to know if this bridge is ever not slippery

Not often you see a lifeguard dressed like that

Not often you see a lifeguard dressed like that

Rock edge of Blue Lagoon

Rock edge of Blue Lagoon

Precipitate on rocks

Precipitate on rocks

Surrounding terrain

Surrounding terrain

Lichen? Moss? It covers the volcanic rock

Lichen? Moss? It covers the volcanic rock

Las Vegas Wash

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I think of Las Vegas, I think of the Strip, casinos, shows, and desert. The only wildlife I think of is that of the human variety, generally in an inebriated form. Thus, on my recent trip to Las Vegas, I was surprised to learn about the Las Vegas Wash. It is the lowest part of the valley in which the Las Vegas metropolitan area sits. All storm water and urban runoff in the area drains to it, and it eventually drains to Lake Mead. The Wash has been increasingly eroded due to the increased flow into it from the increased Las Vegas metropolitan area urban runoff. In the past decade or so, the LVWCC has constructed numerous structures to reduce erosion in the Wash and increase the wetlands in it. Structures such as this.

And this weir.

They have also been removing non-native plants and planting native plants. None of which I can identify in the photos below.

Plants that can amazingly grow in the desert that is Las Vegas.

All of this has created a very pretty area, which is really nice to hike along, assuming the weather is nice. It has some lovely views of the nearby mountains.

And beautiful sunsets.

In some places, it allows some nice views of the Las Vegas Strip.

Next time you are in Las Vegas, if you like the outdoors and want to get away from the Strip, I highly recommend checking the Las Vegas Wash out. In a later post, I will be posting photos of the wildlife I saw on it.

 

Empathy for Technophobes

I was in a discussion recently about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) otherwise known as mad cow disease. The important background of it and why I am mentioning it, is that dairy cows need protein supplements because of how much milk they produce. In North America, the protein supplements were mainly in the form of soy, but in the United Kingdom, the supplements came mainly from rendered animal parts. These animal parts included other cows. I can remember when BSE first became a huge news item, and the practice of feeding cattle rendered animal parts came to light, I was disgusted like I imagine many people were. Part of my disgust was my questioning why would you take a herbivore, and not only turn it into a carnivore, but also a cannibal? Leaving aside the point that BSE showed that this practice had serious risks, there is a more basic question I have to ask myself, which is protein is protein, so does it matter where it came from? In this case, of course, the answer is yes. On a molecular level, amino acids like lysine and tryptophan, are the same no matter where they come from. However, the proteins and other compounds in soy differ quite a bit from the proteins and other compounds in rendered animal parts. Also, in the case of BSE, it is the shape of the proteins in animal parts that was really important. Thus in this case, it really does matter where the protein is coming from.

The turning a cow into a cannibal is still a bit of a different issue. The idea in general just seems wrong and repulsive to me. It is not natural. I think that reaction I have is somewhat common, and it has implications for how people react to certain technology. Humans are naturally repulsed and scared of certain things, and this has for the most part served us well through history. Humans in general, are repulsed by human excrement. We all urinate and defecate, but once we do, we all want the urine and feces to go away, never to be seen again. This is not a bad reaction in that, feces can have multitudes of infectious agents in it, so having it go away is a good thing. I am speaking personally to a only certain extent though. I have worked in wastewater treatment design, I have sampled at a wastewater treatment plant, and I spent several years collecting and analyzing other people’s urine for my dissertation research. I am kind of fascinated by human excrement and the information it can provide about the health of an individual. That being said, I would never touch it with my bare hands.

Humans’ natural repulsion to their own excrement causes an interesting reaction to its treatment. In urban and suburban areas, wastewater is collected, treated, and then normally discharged to some body of water such as a river, lake, or the sea. What many people don’t seem to realize, is that if the wastewater is discharged to a river or lake, then there is a very good chance, it will flow some distance and then be collected and pumped to a water treatment plant where it will then be treated and become the water supply for some other municipality. Due to the scarcity of water in many areas, some municipalities are starting to take some of their wastewater effluent and reuse it for purposes where potable water (drinking water quality) is not needed, like watering golf courses. There are normally some differences in the treatment of water to be reused than water to be discharged, but not a great deal. Once water is discharged to a river or lake, the only real, further treatment that occurs to it is dilution. Depending on the water to which it is discharged, it can be diluted by a factor as low as three (and possibly lower in a drought) or as high as 1000. A certain amount of biodegradation and other treatment may occur after discharge, but sometimes the water source into which it is discharged, can be polluted in its own way. However, the wastewater once put into a water source, does not become magically clean. Also, the amount the wastewater is treated before being discharged is based on regulations and also money and design. Regulations require it to be cleaned to a certain level. The technology exists to clean wastewater enough to turn it back into drinking water. It is not that difficult. It just requires the plant to be designed to do that, and extra costs, both in capital costs and operating costs. Years ago, a colleague once told me of a wastewater treatment plant that was designed to do just that. The wastewater was cleaned enough to meet drinking water standards. It was designed for a municipality with constant water shortages and thus needed to recycle water. However, the municipality required the water to discharge into a lake before it was then used as drinking water. By requiring this, the water actually became dirtier and picked up contaminants while in this lake. The municipality required this purely for the ick factor. They did not think the public would drink water that came straight from a wastewater treatment plant. The municipality was worried people would have the reaction of being disgusted to drink treated wastewater. This is a somewhat normal and understandable reaction, but it is completely ignorant of the treatment process nonetheless. It should be noted that even highly educated people suffer from the ick factor. Mary Roach in her wonderful book “Packing for Mars” describe how astronauts are not completely enthusiastic about recycling urine to drink.

There is a good chance that even if you educate people about the treatment process, some people would still not be able to get over the ick factor. I, at least, can’t really blame them. It really is natural to be repulsed. I’ve seen discussions among scientists that I am afraid sometimes almost borders on contempt for the ignorance of people who are scared of certain technologies. If people were educated about certain technologies, many would accept the technologies, but many still wouldn’t. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are an example of this. I fully admit I have a problem with some GMOs but not all. I have a serious issue with plants that have been modified to produce Bt toxin, but my issue with this is not about the plants ability to produce the toxin, but the effect it might have on organic plants, which many times are treated with Bt toxin to kill insects. I like organic foods for a multitude of reasons that I won’t go into here, but I don’t think there has been enough research or even concern about how GM plants that produce Bt toxin might have on organic plants. I also have an issue with GM plants that have been modified to be resistant to herbicides, but again I don’t actually have an issue with the actual genetic modification. I have a problem with the fact that this allows greater use of herbicides, and the effect this can have on the ecosystem and also the effect this can have on the workers who work with the herbicide. Conversely, I don’t like certain GM animals such as GloFish, and I would put this into the category of just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Perhaps it is ignorance and the ick factor. I’m not scared of them. I just think sometimes humans do things that perhaps we shouldn’t. Sometimes, it really isn’t nice to play with Mother Nature.

I have discussed my issues with GMOs to a certain extent with a person I know who works on GMOs. She is constantly fighting ignorance and fear about GM foods. We have discussed a little the issue of labeling GM foods. I support the labeling of GM foods, and she has stated it is not that simple. I don’t have all the facts, but I think part of this has to do as to where “traditional” plant hybridization and breeding end and where does genetic modification start. The problem is that when GM foods are not labeled, it gives people who don’t like GM foods more ammunition to fight GM foods because they can say the public is being lied to and information withheld. I have heard the argument that if foods that include GMOs are labeled as such, then people won’t buy them out of ignorance. I don’t think this is a valid argument. That is a consumer’s right. Some people who oppose GMOs when educated about what GMOs are and are not, will probably start to accept them, and other will never accept them. However people must be free to make their own choices even if out of ignorance and fear. [I am leaving aside the issue of ignorance and fear leading to people making decisions that not only affect themselves but others, which is a whole other issue.] Further, taking the attitude that people don’t need to know certain things because they wouldn’t understand, is arrogant, and educated people must stop themselves from becoming arrogant. Educated people need to fight harder to educate others.

Nuclear power is another example of technology of which many people are scared. A large problem with nuclear power of course, is that it is a relatively safe technology, but if something goes wrong, it can really go wrong. Nuclear accidents are thankfully relatively rare, but they have the potential to affect a huge number of people as seen with the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. Considering how long nuclear power has been around, I think it is unlikely that some people will ever accept nuclear power even if fully educated about it. Nuclear power may also be one of the technologies where people think we are doing something we should not be, as in it it not natural. I am not sure, but I also think nuclear power suffers from an engineering problem. From my limited knowledge of both Chernobyl and Fukushima, both had design flaws, in that possible, known “what ifs” were not properly addressed in the design and construction. I learned recently of new nuclear power designs that would not have the risks associated with current nuclear power plants, like meltdowns. I am very excited to see if these designs will discussed and used in the coming years, but I worry that bad memories of old technologies will prevent people from accepting these new technologies.

People have a very long memory when new technology goes wrong. Scientists and engineers are really good about learning from when things go wrong. However, if when things go wrong, people, the environment, property, or something else is harmed, then not only do scientists and engineers have to learn how to improve the technology, but we also have to regain people’s trust. That can be an even more difficult process. Some people fear technology that they don’t understand. Also, when the previous technology had problems, and people don’t understand what has changed between technologies, it is going to very difficult for them to accept the newer technology. Then again, some people fear technology that they do understand. Perhaps the fear is due to the ick factor or the your-playing-God factor. I am empathize with this fear. Education can help to alleviate fear but not always. Sometimes fearing, distrusting, or not accepting a technology is not just an education issue. Sometimes it is a deep-seated, human instinct. Perhaps this is both good and bad. I think those of us who work with and on technology would be best served to remember that.