© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Spending The Holidays At A Toxic Waste Site


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're heading towards the end of summer, and there's just enough time to squeeze in one last vacation getaway, but where? Maybe you're bored of the usual camping on white sand beaches, backpacking from Paris to Prague. You want something different.

You don't want to paddle the canals of Venice anymore. How about, then, picnicking near the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site or strolling along the Yamuna, the most putridly polluted river in India? That's what my next guest decided to do, to tour seven of the most polluted places in the world, pollution tourism, as he calls it.

But why go to the most littered, radioactive parts of the planet? And how would you even prepare to visit places like Chernobyl or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? There is no Lonely Planet guide to these sites. So maybe there will be, or is there? We'll find out. Andrew Blackwell is the author of "Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In The World's Most Polluted Places." He's a writer based here in New York City, and he joins us in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREW BLACKWELL: Thanks, Ira, happy to be here.

FLATOW: Are you nuts?


BLACKWELL: No comment, no comment. Yes and no, maybe.

FLATOW: I had to get that out of my system. I'm reading the book. You visit the armpits of the world, you know, the most polluted places.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, but, you know, we've all got armpits.


BLACKWELL: I'm not going to deny that I've got two armpits myself.

FLATOW: And what drove you, so to speak, to do this? Were you just bored of the regular places to visit?

BLACKWELL: Well, you know, it kind of started by accident because you would never start this kind of quest on purpose, maybe. I ended up visiting a really polluted city in India years ago and hanging out with a friend of a friend there, who was an environmental activist. And it was a really polluted place, and it had just won the prize from the Indian government for most...

FLATOW: What place was that?

BLACKWELL: Oh, it's called Kanpur, a city of a couple million people, I think, about halfway down the Ganges. It had been named most polluted city by the Indian government that year, and - which is a real prize in India. And, you know, it lived up to the reputation. It has all kinds of heavy metals and toxic waste in the river. There's feces on the river bank. The smog is really bad.

But, you know, coming out of there, I kind of had this revelation that I kind of - not even kind of, I really enjoyed my time there. And I couldn't - it made no sense at first. And so I thought about that for a long time: What was it about Kanpur, clearly a really gross place, that was so compelling and so fun? I'm going to admit it was fun.

And it's not about denying the problems that Kanpur had. It was sort of going around with this fellow, Rajesh Deshwal, who is an activist there. I realized that you get a totally different understanding of environmental issues if you can smell them, you know. And I've been reading about environmental problems all my life.

And I realized wait, I've been reading about this stuff, I care about it a huge amount, as many, many people do, and yet I've got almost no direct experience of these problems. I don't know what these places look like or feel like or taste like, not that I'm really trying to taste Chernobyl.

FLATOW: You did spill a little water on you from one of the polluted Indian rivers. I was...

BLACKWELL: And I did catch a fish out of an oil spill, and we did grill that up, and it was extremely tasty. But it just, it started to really eat on me that, you know, I think - I have engineers and scientists in my family. I've always been very kind of, like, a science fan I guess you could say. And it started to really annoy me that I talk about these things and care about these things, but I've never seen them for myself. So that was a big part of it.

The other part is just as a tourist, you're not going to have a lot of competition.


BLACKWELL: I mean, I love the Taj Mahal, but have you been there? It's crowded. There are these guys trying to sell you T-shirts. No one's selling you T-shirts in Chernobyl. They offer tours now, but no one's trying to sell you T-shirts.


BLACKWELL: And so in a way - you know, in a way they're kind of unspoiled from a travel point of view.

FLATOW: Well, then, how do you get a tour of Chernobyl? Is there Lonely Planet?

BLACKWELL: Well, back in the day, when I was there, you just - I mean, actually in the Lonely Planet, they do kind of - I think this was like 2007 or something, there was a number to call. You could get a travel agent to fill out the form work for you, the forms. Now there are actual official tours.

FLATOW: Right.

BLACKWELL: So you just sign up. That's easy. Chernobyl is the gateway drug.

FLATOW: And there was no fear of being there?


FLATOW: Did you learn something you did not expect to learn? That's what you want on a vacation, when you go visit a site, to be surprised by something.

BLACKWELL: I think of these as like the ultimate field trips. That's always really fun, you know, back in high school science, when you get to - you have some task you have to do, some research you have to do, but you get out of the classroom, and you run riot, you know.

FLATOW: Just to be out.

BLACKWELL: Just to be out, and you still have goals, things you need to learn and homework you've got to do, but you're outside, and you're active. I thought of these trips that way, and certainly Chernobyl, you know, because of the research I'd done, I didn't think I had anything specifically to fear for my health.

At the same time, you can't help but worry when your Geiger counter is beeping like that.

FLATOW: You took one with you?

BLACKWELL: Yeah, I had to do some searching in Kiev. Now they have much better Geiger counters. I just got a new one. It plugs into my phone. The level in your studio, by the way, is about 13 - 13 microsieverts per hour.


FLATOW: You're still not glowing, are you?

BLACKWELL: No, no, no.

FLATOW: OK, it wasn't setting off alarms. Let me go through the places that you went from the book.


FLATOW: You went to Chernobyl. You went to the Oil Sands Mining in Northern Alberta in Canada; Port Arthur, Texas. What was the attraction in Port Arthur, Texas?

BLACKWELL: Well, Port Arthur is a really poor city on the Texas gulf Coast, right near Louisiana. And it's just surrounded by refineries, huge refineries. I think of it as the refinery capital of North America. And so there's all kinds of things in the air, but it's also really interesting historically because right around there is where the first gusher came in about 110 years ago.

And it's - like it's basically the birthplace of big oil because the glut that came out of the land there really led people to start thinking about using oil mainly as a fuel for automobiles, and it's really sort of the place where our petroleum civilization really started.

So, you know, and everyone loves to hate Port Arthur because it's really poor, it's really ugly. There's a lot of deserted buildings. Nevertheless, the people you meet who are there, who are dealing with living on the fenceline of a refinery, who maybe work in refineries, are really compelling, and they have a really compelling take on sort of the tradeoff.

Obviously, they're still driving cars, and a lot of the environmental - the environmental activist I hung out there most with, a guy called Hilton Kelly, on the one hand he's really trying to fight the refineries and force them to operate more cleanly. On the other hand, he just wants them to give more jobs to the community.

And so, that kind of, sort of, paradox you find much more strongly there.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phone because some tourists are calling in, want some information. Roger(ph) in Santa Rosa, California, hi Roger.

ROGER: Yeah hi. Thanks. My question is, you know, I feel like this is a lousy job, but somebody's got to do it. And I mean, I'd rather go to Kauai, if you asked me. But what I want to know is when your guest is traveling to these places, if he has respite from the terrible conditions, if he can go to a nice hotel and have - and kind of get out of that for a while, or is he more immersed in it.

FLATOW: Yeah, is there a spa someplace at the end of the day? Are you there for - you're there.

BLACKWELL: I'm there for a couple weeks. Obviously, you know, in Port Arthur I was - there's no - for example, there's no hotels left in downtown Port Arthur. So I was staying at the Ramada up the street. And - but, you know, the fascinating thing about a lot of my destinations were that they weren't as viscerally repulsive as you would expect, not because the issues aren't real, but just sort of the gross-out factor doesn't always correspond to the severity of the environmental problem.

Port Arthur definitely smells. Linfen, China, which is extremely smog-ridden city in the coal region of China, it's really smoggy, but it's not like you, you know, can't breathe at all. It's not like you can't stand it for a couple weeks. So I didn't really feel a need to escape at the end of each day. Of course, I don't have to live there my entire life, so it's easy for me.

FLATOW: How did you arrive at the cut list for what would not appear in the book? I mean, are there - was it difficult to pick out the worst spots?

BLACKWELL: Oh I mean, the world is a candy store for polluted places, when you start thinking this way. Yeah, I wanted to get a good range of different places, and just as a traveler, like different things to do, you know? When I started thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is really hard to get to, but...

FLATOW: The Garbage Patch.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Once I figured out that I - once I realized that that was a possibility, I thought, I've got to find a way to get there because that's going to be the yachting chapter, and, you know, it's going to be completely different from every other place I went just in terms of how you get there and what you do to get there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you went to - that would be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that the...


FLATOW: You call that the eighth continent.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Well, I'm referring to a myth about the Garbage Patch being a solid island, which is not...

FLATOW: It's not.

BLACKWELL: It is not, for the love of God.

FLATOW: How do you know you're there then?

BLACKWELL: You just start seeing a lot of trash in the water. You know - I mean...

FLATOW: Big pieces, little pieces or...

BLACKWELL: It was a lot of - millions and millions of pieces of kind of plastic confetti, and then just kind of a bottle every 30 or 60 seconds, a laundry hamper, hard hats, things like that.

FLATOW: And you also talk about "Soymageddon," deforestation of the Amazon, and there was something surprising about going to the Amazon and about deforestation. Anything surprising there?

BLACKWELL: Yeah. You know - I mean, it's very hard - what's most surprising to me is it's very hard to think about something like deforestation in black and white. You know, I wanted to see the worst of the worst, so I wanted to see a forest being cut down and on fire.

FLATOW: That's what you see in the movies, right?

BLACKWELL: That's what you see in the movies, and there's a great Sean Connery movie from, I think, the early '90s called "Medicine Man." That's what you see, you know?

FLATOW: Right, right. He's up in the trees, looking...

BLACKWELL: They just nuked that place. And, you know, so I wanted to see the worst of the worst. I wanted to, like, hang out with the loggers, see how deforestation is done.

FLATOW: Right.

BLACKWELL: And so we're driving down the road with Gil, my translator, incredible ecotourist guide and a real character. We're driving down the road, and we see a piece of forest on fire. And I think: We have hit pay dirt. So we jump out of the car. We're taking a lot of pictures. It totally looks - you know, there's destruction everywhere.

But then I find out that this is just a farmer's land that has probably been cut down once 10 or 15 years ago - he's let it grow back while he was rotating his crops, and now he's just cutting it down again, and that, in fact, it's better to have that small farmer there on the land - even though 30 years ago he may have originally caused the deforestation of part of his land - than having him bought out by a giant sort of monoculture soy farm that's just going to really level the place and put it all under, you know, pesticide cultivation of soybeans.

And so it's sort of like, well, does that mean I think this guy with the machete and the forest on fire is actually some kind of guardian of the forest? It makes no sense. So that kind of not being able to have the black-and-white example of what deforestation is really, you know, pushes back on your expectations.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Andrew Blackwell, author of "Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Let me go through the other - well, let me stick with the rainforest again because...


FLATOW: ...I was surprised to read that when you were in the forest, you found that the good guys were actually the ones burning the forests and logging the trees.

BLACKWELL: Sometimes it looks that way.

FLATOW: It looks that way.

BLACKWELL: Sometimes it looks that way. I was in a national forest, the Tapajos National Forest - which is right where the Tapajos River, a huge tributary of the Amazon, meets the Amazon - beautiful national forest. And we went to see the sustainable logging project, and I'm thinking this is going to be a couple of local people with a couple of chainsaws very carefully pulling a couple of valuable logs out of the forest. And we get there, and there are - it's like a scene from the future - these giant machines...

FLATOW: Right.

BLACKWELL: ...moving logs around, dragging them out of the forest and so on. And, you know, it looks like what you imagine as being a nightmare of deforestation and logging. But a lot of people have really hailed this project as a way to have local stakeholders who are going to sustainably do that logging and keep less careful corporate interests from coming in and just taking it all at once and leveling the place.

FLATOW: Lesser of evil. Yeah.

BLACKWELL: Or - you know, I don't know exactly how well it's going. I've only heard good things about it. It may just not really be an evil.


BLACKWELL: It may just be that we need to see nature as including humans and including people living off of that, you know, and we want to put nature in a bubble and say, in here there's no people. It's pure, and we can never go in there. And I understand that impulse, but it's - I don't know if it's sustainable, really, in terms of keeping nature, the idea of it somehow being perfect and preserved over there in a bubble. We need to have some kind of integrated idea of nature that includes maybe local people living in a national forest.

FLATOW: And one other environment, one other garden spot on the Earth you visited is a chapter called "In Search of Sad Coal Man: E-Waste, Coal, Other Treasures of China."

BLACKWELL: Yeah, yeah. I went to a town called Guiyu in southeast China where all they do in this town is pull apart electronics and a lot of, you know, electronics with...

FLATOW: You mean stuff that's used, garbage, electronics, used material?

BLACKWELL: Yeah. Like - and I believe a lot of it is from the West, from the United States and Europe. You know, there's a lot of empty shipping containers going back to China once they've come over here to ship us stuff. So you put used, obsolete electronics in there; it gets shipped back to a place like Guiyu.

I met a family at a family workshop, and they just get them by the bale. It's almost like agricultural work. And they cut out the CPUs that are still valuable for resale, and they melt down or sort everything else and resell it, recycle it. And so, on the one hand, it's recycling, right?

FLATOW: Right.

BLACKWELL: On the other hand, it's really dirty work. You get all kinds of lead and other heavy metals just swirling around in your workshops. The kids grow up in that. It's really bad. Lead and kids in China is just a disaster right there. But there, you know, it was also, you know, it was also a very welcoming, warm family atmosphere in this workshop, which is not what you think of as sort of polluted child labor. So...

FLATOW: Small business.

BLACKWELL: Yeah, it was.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk lots more with Andrew Blackwell, author of "Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." Maybe you have a polluted place you want to suggest for his next follow-up book. 1-800-989-8255. He's just itching to get back to that river with the muck in India. We'll take a break and be right back. Stay with us.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Andrew Blackwell, author of "Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Seth in Washington, D.C. Hi, Seth.

SETH: Hi, Ira. How are you, Andrew?


FLATOW: I'm going to do any jokes about polluted places, meaning Washington, but go ahead.

SETH: Yeah, speaks for itself. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

SETH: So I work with a - I work on a website called Atlas Obscura, which is a guide to the world's hidden wonders. And we do a tremendous amount of stuff listing, you know, manmade environmental disasters. And one in particular is the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan, which is a giant flaming hole in the middle of the desert that was caused by a natural gas explosion that the Soviets set on fire, and it's been burning for about 40 years. My question is about sort of the legacy of the Soviet Union as far as creating these sort of polluted sites and the, sort of from a geopolitical sense, you know, how many are remnants of this sort of the Soviet Union? Are there any in particular outside of Chernobyl and other ones you mentioned that might be interesting?

BLACKWELL: Sure. Well, first of all, I just want to say Atlas Obscura, I love you guys, because you are exhibit A in why I'm not just some of kind of lone freak interested in this stuff. Just a couple weeks ago, I went on a walking tour of the Newtown Creek, a Superfund site here in New York City. That was an Atlas Obscura event. So I feel a great kinship. As far as the former Soviet Union, you know, there is a ton of stuff there. And since I had done Chernobyl and I wanted to move on to other parts of the world, I didn't continue exploring too much. But all that area has just incredible old chemical dumps, nuclear facilities, the site you mentioned. You know, there's just - there was not a lot of accountability and there's a lot left over.

FLATOW: All right. Seth, thanks for calling.

SETH: Thanks for having me. I'd love to talk more some time. Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Alrighty. So there's a lot of stuff waiting for you out there.

BLACKWELL: Oh, there's no shortage of polluted places, for better or for worse.

FLATOW: Do you have - do you still have a list for follow-up or an idea for...

BLACKWELL: I mean, you know, I never got...

FLATOW: Sounds like a TV series. You know, you see all these reality shows...


FLATOW: Who's that guy who goes, you know, the world's dirtiest job, like I think was the name of...

BLACKWELL: Oh, yeah, "Dirty Jobs."


BLACKWELL: Yeah, you know, you could go forever visiting these places. I'm already getting nostalgic for some of the places I already went to.


BLACKWELL: I would love to go back to the Amazon. I'd love to go back to Chernobyl and...

FLATOW: You think you missed something there or is it calling to you?

BLACKWELL: No, I just - I really enjoyed it. I wouldn't mind going back not having to write everything down in a notebook. It's like the whole idea was that I'm kind of going there on vacation, but obviously I'm writing a book, so I have to act like a reporter and write stuff down. And what a pain.

FLATOW: Well, give us a mental picture. What does it look like if...

BLACKWELL: In Chernobyl?

FLATOW: Yeah. Tell us - you get there, what do you see?

BLACKWELL: OK. So Chernobyl, it's, I don't know, a couple hours drive north of Kiev. You get to the border of this zone. It's called the zone of - the exclusion zone, which is kind of the quarantined area that everyone's been evacuated from for more than a quarter century. You go to a checkpoint. The driver you're with has to hand in some paperwork, and they look at your passport. And then you get inside. The first thing I noticed was that there's no centerline on the road anymore. And the driver sort of moved over and started driving right down the middle of the road.

FLATOW: You know that novel "The Road"...


BLACKWELL: Right. You know, but that's because it's sort of like outside of - it's in this bubble of non-civilization and...

FLATOW: Who's taking care of it? No-one?

BLACKWELL: Well, the Chernobyl authority is definitely taking care of it because it needs to be maintained. You have to keep the trees from catching on fire because they have radioactive particles.

FLATOW: So there are trees around you. What - the landscape...

BLACKWELL: And this is the first thing you realize is it has kind of gone back to wildlife. It's very radioactive, but the birds and the bees and the trees don't care about that, so almost all the people stay away. There's a bunch of workers that work there and a few squatters. And so if you go in the spring, it's sunny. It's beautiful, which is paradoxical for considering how it was created.

FLATOW: So it's sort of a nature preserve.

BLACKWELL: It is an accidental wildlife preserve, one of the largest in Europe, in fact. And so who's to say, is that natural or artificial? Is it good or is it bad? Obviously it has a lot of really bad, horrifying sides to it, but then it also has this sort of biodiversity quotient, which we tend to think of as good.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is there a ghost town feeling to it?

BLACKWELL: Yeah, there's a ghost city. It's called Prypiat. About 50,000 people lived there. So you get further and further into the zone, you have to get - go through a couple checkpoints and you get to Prypiat. I got out with my guide, a friendly young guy called Dennis. And we walked into the middle of downtown Prypiat. And it's just us and a lot of empty buildings and a lot of weeds and flowers and dragonflies and bees and the wind.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. My Twitter folks are saying it was Mike Rowe who does that TV.

BLACKWELL: Oh, that's him.

FLATOW: I think he's selling cars now. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phones. To Sarah(ph) in Phoenix. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH: Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

SARAH: Thank you so much for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SARAH: OK. Question: I'm more interested when you visit these sort of places, I supposed in the Amazon or the Niger Delta, where they either get no tourists or they only get, you know, environmental activists who really want to help with development. What are people's reaction to you when you say why you're there? Do you ever incur any anger about that when you say, well, I'm visiting the most polluted places in the world?


SARAH: Do they ever say, oh, well, thanks for coming here?

BLACKWELL: Right. Yeah. That's a good question. I haven't yet gotten to the Niger Delta just - by the way, I don't want to claim that. But, you know...

SARAH: I just thought you had, sorry.

BLACKWELL: That's all right. No, I would definitely love to have gone there. I was a little shy at first about saying stuff, like I don't want to say that I've come to your town because it's so terrible, because it seemed impolite. But I had to let it out eventually, and I didn't find people who are angry. I think people really respond to the fact that I was - responded that I was interested. And, you know, I don't like the way that really polluted places, sort of, epicenters of pollution are used as sort of horror stories just to make us feel like, sort of, motivate us by making us feel guilty or horrible. That's OK. But a real sort of disgust gets attached to those places.

And maybe I have a bit of an underdog complex. I want to go there and sort of see who does live there. Why is Port Arthur still an interesting town? Why is it still worth caring about and fighting for? And I think people, not that I would give that speech to everyone I met, but people realized I'm there because I'm interested and I want to know like where can you get a bite to eat, what it is like to work in a Chernobyl zone?

The guys who were leading me around, I think they appreciated that I don't just want the horror story and the picture of the reactor. I also want to know, you know, can we go canoeing? Where can we get a drink? Like, you know, what's it like to work here? Do people in Kiev look at you funny for working here? And I think people really respond to just you being open-minded and interested, which was encouraging.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Thanks for calling, Sarah. Have a good weekend.

SARAH: Oh, thank you so much. Fabulous work. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. You also visited a place many people have not heard of much about, that's Fort McMurray, Canada, and the oil sands.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people have heard about the oil sands, of course tar sands they're sometimes called. It's this kind of unconventional source of oil that Canada has in spades in Northern Alberta. And Fort McMurray is in the middle of it. This is the city that only exists in city form because of the oil sands industry. And there are just, you know, just 45 minutes north of Fort McMurray - well, first of all, everyone in Fort McMurray either works for the oil sands industry or works for someone who works for the oil sands industry. And just 45 minutes, an hour north of Fort McMurray, there are what amount to a series of artificial grand canyons that are being - that are just incredible strip-mine pits because this is a sand - sort of a sticky tar sand, and the main way they're retrieving it right now is to dig it out of the ground, these huge deep pits.


BLACKWELL: And so it's one of the most visually spectacular things you'll ever see. They don't let you go hiking unfortunately. I really wanted to get my feet - my boots on the ground and walk across the thing. And, of course, they thought I was an idiot and paid barely any attention to me. But eventually, I hired a plane to overfly the mines and it's astonishing.

FLATOW: It is - yeah. Is it the pollution from the mines - in the mines themselves or what seeps out or escapes...

BLACKWELL: Well, there's a lot of question - well, first of all, there's a lot of stuff. You - in order to get - separate the petroleum from the sand, you basically need to boil it in huge vats of water with - using incredible amounts of energy. And the leftover water is kept in these tailings ponds, which are basically giant toxic lakes. And a little while, maybe a year or so before I was up there, a flock of ducks had landed in one of these lakes and they just all died. And this became a national issue in Canada. There was a huge lawsuit. The prime minister got involved because the oil - it sort of crystallized and symbolized, you know, the cost of this kind of mining.

And then also, you just have an incredible amount of energy used to get that energy. It's much less efficient than just letting oil shoot out of the ground. And so, you know, all that natural gas that gets burned to process the oil sand, it's a huge energy cost. And so from a climate point of view, it's really sort of the biggest thing that people - or maybe tied for the biggest thing that people object to about oil sands.

FLATOW: So there's a CO2 given off?

BLACKWELL: Yeah. I mean, I put it in the book and I still can't believe it. So I went and looked it up again. Fort McMurray, I believe, has about twice the CO2 emissions of Los Angeles. And there's only, I think, something like 100,000 people, 140,000 people living in Fort McMurray. But because of all that fuel that's used in the industry, they give off something like - I don't know - it's something like 44 million tons of CO2.

FLATOW: Twice what...

BLACKWELL: A guy in Fort McMurray had said, you know, we give off the same as Los Angeles, and I thought that guy is totally exaggerating. That's not right. You know, put it in here. I'll mark it to fact-check it. I went, in fact-checked it and he was wrong. It was twice as much.


BLACKWELL: And this is like a small city in Northern Alberta.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Andrew Blackwell, author of "Visit Sunny Chernobyl." And a lot of people want to get in on the conversation. Let's see if we can get another couple of calls. Let's move around the country. Let's go to Gail(ph) in Brighton - Brighton, Florida. Hi, Gail.


FLATOW: Hi there.


GAIL: Hi. My question is - to your guest is - I'm wondering if he's ever visited Woburn, Massachusetts, where there is a famous landfill that caused a cluster of cancer to go on water that got contaminated and it caused a group of families in that city to come down with cancer? I'm wondering if he ever visited there or if he knows the status of that site now.

BLACKWELL: I don't know the status of it. I've been through there, but not on this mission. I've just been through there on my way to visit friends in that area. So I don't know the status of it right now.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

A tweet came in from Paula Steiner(ph), who says: Have you seen any visible effect of radiation on the wildlife?

Now, a whole industry in the 1950s was built around giant ants and things, you know, from nuclear fallout and stuff.

BLACKWELL: Not just the 1950s, there was just a movie, "Chernobyl Diaries," a horror movie. It came out the same week as my book. I tried to pitch it as being like the Hollywood adaptation of my book. But that did not work from a PR point of view, I don't think. You know, it's - actually one shocking thing to me just from the point of view of these being field trips, right?

FLATOW: Right.

BLACKWELL: Was how quickly I, as a nonscientist, an interested nonscientist, willing to do a bunch of reading and Googling, kind of came up against the limits of what we know about a lot of these places. Take Chernobyl. The - and you start with the human cost in terms of how many people died from the Chernobyl accident. The range of credible estimates from people who aren't just cranks is incredibly wide. It runs from somewhere down around a couple of thousand up to like half a million projected, you know, lifetime. And similarly, there's, you know, there's some science being done about wildlife in the zone, but it sort of feels like every other paper that comes out is kind of pushing one direction or pushing the other.

I believe there are some effects. I've heard about some birds that their coloration is a little different. I've heard that the litters of the wild boar are smaller and that maybe reproduction among birds is harder. But on the other hand, I sort of am under the impression, I mean, I really believe that those costs are more than offset by there not being any people around in terms of the wildlife being allowed to thrive.

FLATOW: Let's go to Ebony(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Ebony. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

EBONY: Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

EBONY: I really appreciate it when your guest alluded to the fact that people don't appreciate the urgency of the environmental injustices until you're really able to smell the odors. I live in one of the neighborhoods adjacent to a cluster of chemical plants that are referred to as Rubbertown in Louisville, Kentucky. And several of the neighborhoods are regularly bombarded with odors, which actually alert us to the presence of toxic chemicals. So I just wanted to say that, you know, even though we're often demonized and blamed for our own illnesses, we are good people who, you know, need the help of outsiders to advocate on our behalf.

BLACKWELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that's totally true. And I think a lot of areas like that, you know, they only become famous for this negative side and, you know, going there helps you realize that these are real people and real places that are people's homes.

FLATOW: Hey, Ebony, thanks for the call. Have a good weekend.

EBONY: You too. Thanks.

FLATOW: So what's next for you? Are you done traveling for a while or...

BLACKWELL: Maybe for a little while. You know, traveling is a real pain.


BLACKWELL: And I realized I can get a lot, you know, I live in an area of Brooklyn called Park Slope, but I like to think of it as East Gowanus because it's just east of a Superfund site called the Gowanus Canal.

FLATOW: Canal. Right.

BLACKWELL: There's good canoeing in the Gowanus. There's the Newtown Creek walking tours. Every city has a little polluted garden to offer, I think. So I think I might keep close to home for a little while.

FLATOW: So something - some polluted place might be right around the corner if you want to...

BLACKWELL: Exactly. If you're lucky.

FLATOW: If you're lucky. And that's the whole tenor of the book. "Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places." Andrew Blackwell, thank you.

BLACKWELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: And happy trails to you.


BLACKWELL: Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have today.

Try to think of where you're going to go this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.