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Uploaded:2014-08-09
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Crash Course Chemistry Consultant, Dr. Heiko Langner talks to Hank about lab safety, geochemical research, and cleaning up super fund sites. Afterward, Jessi Knudsen from Animal Wonders joins them with Zapper, the Alexandrian Parakeet.

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Hank: Hello and welcome to the SciShow Talk Show, the day on SciShow where we talk to cool people about interesting things. Today we have Dr. Heiko Langner from the University of Montana who is also the consultant that made sure that CrashCourse Chemistry was correct most of the time. Thanks for doin' that.

Heiko: Yeah. Thanks for calling me one of the cool people.

Hank: Yes. You are one of the cool people.

Heiko: Aw thanks.

Hank: So, as a chemist, I used to be a chemist, I majored in chemistry, what is the stupidest thing you've ever done in the lab? Then we're gonna talk about, then we're gonna talk about your research. But first, I wanna know, what's the dumbest thing, you were just like, why did I do that?

Heiko: Well, I don't know. The most, kind of, stupid thing that had long term effects I would say is that, I got some acid in my mouth by just, pipetting.

Hank: See that's, they say, hydrofluoric?

Heiko: Hydrochloric.

Hank: Oh God. Your head would be gone. So you pipetted HCL into your mouth.

Heiko: Yeah.

Hank: And it had long term effects?

Heiko: M1 hydrochloric acid: I mean, you have it in your body. It's not that dangerous in low concentrations but when it gets really acidic, to M1, M2, it tends to dissolve a lot of, well it likes to dissolve minerals. It likes to dissolve your teeth.

Hank: Yes, you have minerals in your mouth.

Heiko: Yeah.

Hank: That's not good.

Heiko: Everything heals, I mean you get it on your [points to arm], we don't really worry about hydrochloric acid so much. I would dip in and pull something out [motions with hand] of one or two Molar acid then wash it off. But, the teeth you have only once, right?

Hank: So kids, don't pipette by mouth. When they told us that, I was like of course not, why would you pipette by mouth? But here we are. Someone did that.

Heiko: Well you know a lot of it has to do with, if you don't know what you're working with, you don't, you want to be extra cautious. I know hydrochloric acid isn't that bad.

Hank: Yeah.

Heiko: But I, you know, even chemists get fooled sometimes.

Hank: So you are doing some really interesting research right now that I'm excited to talk about with you. Let's just start at mercury. What is it, where does it come from?

Heiko: The globally largest source is mercury that rains down on us in what we call "atmospheric deposition." It's been generated through the burning of fossil fuels so everywhere there's a coal-fired power plant, especially in coal there's a lot of mercury.

Hank: Yeah, well in Montana, I know this, we have lots of mining and so I would imagine gold mining in particular is a source of mercury?

Heiko: Yeah.

Hank: Like, is that stuff that's already in the soil or is it used as part of the processing of the gold?

Heiko: Yeah. The second source of mercury that we are concerned with, especially in our area, is from precious metal mining. I also thought it's just the gold mining, but it's the silver mining as well. So it turns out that the mercury in the Clark Fork--

Hank: Which is a river we have here, it's an important river that goes through the middle of our town.

Heiko: Yeah. And it happens to be the largest Super Fund area in the United States.

Hank: Super Fund being, basically a legislative designation for "clean up of very dirty areas."

Heiko: Yeah, nicely said. So the Super Fund designation actually comes from other contaminants. Mercury had been ignored for the longest time and, but it turns out that, you know, that's the one reason why we can't eat a lot of fish from the Clark Fork River or from, you know, the rivers around here. It's the mercury. And we always thought it was mainly from the gold mining and turns out that it's actually from silver mining. You know that used to be one of the large silver producing areas in the United States and they used mercury to extract the silver particles from the ore. You know, gold, silver, and mercury really like each other. We call this process amalgamation. So when you have some mercury sitting in, you know, in some pot, and mix it with some ground up rock containing silver, the silver will go into the mercury and the rock will [motions "float upwards" with hands] because its density is lower than the density of the mercury, it will just float off and later on you can just collect the mercury and heat it up and it evaporates pretty quickly. It vaporizes and you are left with gold and silver. So the oldest - in the most primitive case, I want to say, is that the old miners used to pan their gold, had some little mercury in their pans, and at night over the fire they would just sit and burn off their mercury and breathe all that stuff and get really mad, you know, that's what you get when you breathe a lot of mercury. The Mad Hatters. Mad Hatters' Disease.

Hank: Messes with your nervous system and, yeah.

Heiko: Exactly. So anyway, long story short, most of the mercury that we see here comes from mining sources.

Hank: So it's important to know how much mercury there is in the river, where it's coming from obviously, and also what effect it's going to have on the ecosystem.

Heiko: Yeah. Basically the ultimate goal is to clean it up, to find the sources and we actually found some, through that research that we did, found some important sources that can be cleaned up pretty easily.

Hank: So tell me about the research, how did you actually figure out where it is?

Heiko: That's another coincidence. The reason that we sit here and talk about mercury is, really due to coincidence. We looked, I'm a chemist, right, not a biologist, so one day a person from a local nonprofit who works with raptors came by my office and asked about mercury and heavy metals because he's working with eagles, he's working with ospreys, and he's working with other raptors, and got all these questions about how high is the mercury there, how high is the heavy metals in these birds? And he's, kind of, like, birdy. I said, you know, Rob, this is really interesting, maybe I should look at that in a kind of scientific, systematic way. You know as a geochemist, what I had worked with was a lot of contaminants in the rivers, in the Clark Fork River, in Yellowstone Park, for that matter, and you know, we know a lot about the concentrations of contaminants in sediments in water, but are we really interested in that?

Hank: Right.

Heiko: What we are interested in is, the effects on us, the effects on the ecosystem. We just use these concentrations in rivers as a tool to get there. So to really address that question, you know how bad is this stuff, we had to test either ourselves or we have to test our ecosystem.

Hank: Something else. Something preferably eating out of the river.

Heiko: Exactly, yeah. And then, you know, we had this idea, hey Rob had all the permits to sample ospreys, we basically were looking for a top predator in the system, for something that lives at the top of the food chain, and here you go, you know, ospreys are great examples of that. What they, they eat exclusively fish, and the chicks that grow on these nests, all they have eaten throughout their lives were fish that had been caught within like one or two miles of the nest. So their nests are, you know, like beads on a chain along the contaminated river.

Hank: It's like a perfect sampling setup.

Heiko: Exactly. And even the nests are easily accessible because, these days, most of the ospreys have their nests on platforms and anything that are man made, and anything that's man made is accessible, right?

Hank: And the chicks don't fly away when you get up there.

Heiko: Exactly. So here was a project that was born, and it, you know, turned out to become a real big project. These days we get our funding from the Natural Resource Damage Program which is basically the entity that oversees the cleanup in this contaminated river and the Clark Fork basin. Every year we look at about 20-30 nests along the Clark Fork River and, after the first year of sampling, I have to say we were really surprised by the results. So it turned out that, you know, all the contaminants that we were really looking for, copper, arsenic, zinc, cadmium, lead, we didn't find in the ospreys. So now this is all pretty clear to us why, but it was puzzling, what we found was a lot of mercury and a lot of selenium. So, you know, long story short our heavy metal project that was really supposed to be devoted to what they call "priority contaminants" became a mercury project. And, yeah, it's really logical or really, well, you know, thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense, because those other contaminants, they are bad for the fish, they are bad for humans, arsenic is, but they don't bioaccumulate, they don't biomagnify in the food chain. So, actually, the link, the fish between, you know, the environment and the osprey, or the dead environment and the ospreys, the fish and these other organisms, they actually cope with these other contaminants like, you know, copper and arsenic, and they don't get transferred to the ospreys. But, mercury, certain forms of mercury, get bioaccumulated, or biomagnified.

Hank: And the process of bioaccumulation then is, in the environment it's fairly evenly distributed, but then when something eats, you know, the plant draws it up and something eats the plant, and then, you know, to become an organism, you have to eat a lot of pants, so you're eating a lot of mercury and the mercury all stays around, you don't excrete it, and the next thing comes along and a fish has to eat a lot of, you know, fly larva or whatever it is, in order to become the fish, so they're accumulating more mercury, so each step of the way it's like an exponential increase of the amount of mercury in the organism.

Heiko: Exactly. Yeah, so we sometimes assume about a factor of 10. So if they are big fish that eat small fish, they have to eat about ten times more than they actually weigh. So if you have a compound that doesn't get excreted by the big fish, all of a sudden you got ten times more in those big fish.

Hank: And then by the time it gets to the level of the osprey, or the human, we're talking about a dangerous level of contamination.

Heiko: Exactly. And that's the reason why a lot of mercury is linked to aquatic organisms. The only reason for that is, or the main reason for that is that the food chains in the aquatic ecosystems are so long. You know, the small thing gets eaten by the bigger, and the bigger, and the bigger, not so out in the meadow where the cow eats the grass, which is an extremely short food chain. And we eat that cow which, it doesn't have that much mercury accumulated.

Hank: Right. Fascinating. So have you been able to find - you've been able to find sources of mercury already with this?

Heiko: Oh yeah. The mercury came from these gold mines, not from the big copper mines around Butte. And so there is these hundreds and hundreds of gold mines in the upper Clark Fork. But it seems to not just take a gold mine, but also a place where the mining waste really can enter the river. So that seems to be the case in the Flint Creek area. There were these big silver mills that used a lot of mercury and probably spilled a lot of mercury. So there's, and I know that for a fact, there is some mercury reservoirs in the ground there, that people just, you know, get rid of it. And that interacts with the river. And yeah, there's Fred Burr Creek in the Flint Creek area, where it looks like, you know, 80% of all our mercury that ends up here, that actually ends up in the Columbia River, comes from. So, you know, having said that, we found that out.

Hank: Yeah.

Heiko: It's very exciting, because well if there is a source, you can easily clean it up. It's just a few point sources that we could fairly cheaply clean up, and help, not just those people over there, but maybe ten thousands of people along the river, and not just people but the whole ecosystem.

Hank: Wow, that's fantastic, that's really cool stuff. Well thank you for sharing, we're gonna, I think, get to hang out with a real, live bird. It's not gonna be an osprey, I'm pretty sure it's not gonna be a bird of prey at all, but Jessi from Animal Wonders is shortly going to appear, where you're sitting, with a treat for us.

Heiko: Right, that will be exciting. 


Hank: What on earth?

Jessi: This is Zapper. Zapper is, he's gonna talk the whole time, just so you know.

Jessi: [To Zapper] Yeah, you are, huh?

Jessi: He's an Alexandrian Parakeet.

Hank: Ok, what's the difference between a parakeet and a parrot, because I would have guessed that was a parrot.

Jessi: I know, I know, because he's a little big. Ok, he's the largest parakeet, and a parakeet is a large parrot- sorry, a parakeet is a parrot with a long tail. A small parrot with a long tail. But then a true parrot is going to have a short, blunter tail, with a bigger body mass.

Hank: That is a big tail.

Jessi: Yeah, he might not appreciate if you touch it.

Hank: Ok, I won't touch it. Well I wouldn't if there was something that, just hanging out of my butt with just one connection.

Jessi: Most animals are pretty particular about their tails. They like to protect them.

Hank: Yeah, that's a point of vulnerability for sure.

Jessi: [To Zapper] What's going on? Would you like a treat? Yeah?

Hank: I have those.

Jessi: [To Zapper] Hank has one for you.

Hank: This, do we...

Jessi: You know what that is

Hank: Uh, no

Jessi: That's an almond

Hank: Okay

Jessi: With the shell on it 

Hank: It's a shelled almond and we don't have to crack this

Jessi: Just give it to him

Hank: Okay, wow, I like that. This is not... I like that! Are you serious, are you really gonna..

Jessi: Watch him

Hank: I would not wanna be bit by this thing

Jessi: He has Zygodactylous feet which means two toes on the front and two toes on the back, short little toes on the back and he has this amazing, he has a hook bill so he has this amazing just perfectly shaped beak that psittacines have that allows him to get into hard foods that other animals wouldn't be able to consume. So, you know, we could, yeah.

Hank: We're gonna get there.

Jessi: [To Zapper] I know, it's hard work

Heiko: So he has a, he's just using the tips of his beak?

Jessi: Yeah,

Heiko: Don't they get dull? 

Jessi: Well they're going to constantly be rubbing them against things to clean them off, but they also sharpen them up and they're ever-growing. So they just keep growing. So he's the largest parakeet in the world, he is one of the oldest psittacines which just means parrot-type bird. So actually, the Romans were one of the first ones to take these guys from the wild and um, breed them in captivity, um, he's named after Alexander the Great, Alexander the Parakeet and the scientific name means of noble lineage, of noble lineage. So Alexander the Great, he'd breed these and then he would send them to his favorite people to try and appease them or make them feel special, so yeah, so these guys are pretty well distributed there. They're from India, Afghanistan, um, Sri Lanka, Laos, all those places over there, um, they're actually highly regarded over there, they put them on currency. They put them on their money there. 
It's illegal to, in India, it's illegal to buy, sell or kill an Alexandrian parakeet and you can get heavily fined and up to five years in prison if you do. 

Hank: Um, has this bird ever bitten you? 

Jessi: He has not bitten me, he has bitten one of my interns, sorry interns, um, he came to us about, how long ago? 8 months ago, I think, yeah, 8 or 9 months ago.

Hank: So, you haven't had too much chance to get bitten. There's still,the chance is still there

Jessi: I have many years to possibly be bitten by him. He shows that... He's kind of a passive-aggressive, so he's not going to launch towards you and like actively try and nail you with his beak, if he doesn't wanna step up or doesn't like you he's gonna just, he's gonna move away passively and then if you keep bugging him then he'll be like, hey, hey stop it. Knock it off. 
My intern was cleaning the enclosure, he was having enough, no, he was like, you're done

Hank: Outta my space!

Jessi: Yeah, But if you'd like, do you wanna see if he'd step up on you?

Hank: Sure!

Jessi: [To Zapper] Would you like to step onto another finger? There it is.

Hank: [To Zapper] Oh my gosh, you are not as light as I though you would be.

Jessi: He's pretty heavy and has a really strong grip. Can you feel that? You can feel it too? 

Hank: Does he fly?

Jessi: He does not fly, no, he's never tried to fly, but we keep his wings clipped just in case he were spooked he wouldn't you know, try and fly out of a window and really damage his head and neck. [To Zapper] What do you think?

Hank: But you've never, like, I mean they do fly but this bird...

Jessi: They do fly, yes, they do fly, they'll fly, you know, miles in a day from tree to tree looking for food. You can tell he's a male because of that ring there [gestures to neck], and they are sexually dimorphic. A lot of psittacines are not,you know, they look the same, males and females. But the females are not going to have that black ring. They're gonna have more of that muted pastel blues and pinks there. He's most definitely a boy. [To Heiko] Would you like to hold him? 

Heiko: Yeah.

Hank: I think if I tried to eat this almond, I would, my teeth would fall out of my head

Jessi: I think you can crack an almond

Hank: With my teeth? 

Jessi: Yeah, try really hard. 

Hank: Well Heiko's got...

Heiko: Oh this one's already open, this would be cheating

Jessi: Give Hank the ones so he can cheat. He just has molars. Come on, you can do it, give him another treat.

Heiko: Ok, here we go, I should have... [To Zapper] Done huh? 

Jessi: Yeah

Hank: That's weird. It's like he knows what we're talking about

Heiko: At home, we have a parakeet

Jessi: Oh, you do?

Heiko: Uh huh. 

Jessi: A little bit bigger than, what, just a budgerigar? A budgie? Yeah, not a true parakeet.

Heiko: Really? Jeez

Hank: It's all lies. What are they?

Jessi: I know, we're so confused. It's a budgie. 

Hank: It's its own thing?

Jessi: It's its own thing, yeah, comes from Australia, uh, these guys are from India and [To Zapper] Yeah, you are huh? [To Hank] So would you feed him that? It's a good question. Would you feed him that one that you've chewed on? Don't do it. It's a question.

Hank: Ok, I would have

Jessi: Most people would have. You shouldn't actually, um, there's saliva in our mouth can be very toxic to these guys. Bacteria in there. Yep.

Hank: Oh my goodness. 

Jessi: It's not gonna be like acidic or anything. It's the bacteria that can make them ill.

Hank: And here I was thinking we were gonna

Heiko: Our budgey eats out of my mouth all the time

Jessi: It's...not good!

Hank: I thought we were gonna get a little intimate, but I guess not. 

Jessi: [To Zapper] Good job Zapper. 

Hank: [To Zapper] Well thank you Zapper for coming along, nodding your head a lot, showing me the ways of almond eating. Heiko? Fascinating research, really cool to hear what you've been up to and thanks for all your help in all of our projects both of you. 
Jessi, there's a link to her YouTube channel in the description and Heiko doesn't have a YouTube channel. Come on man... 

Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow Talk Show. If you wanna keep getting smarter with us go to YouTube.com/scishow and subscribe.