Free Radicals – On the Water

  FREE RADICALS- On the Water

   A Boston University Science Journalism Webmagazine  

class pic

Boston University’s 2011 Science Journalism Cohort

The final, and one of the most interesting projects I worked on during my Masters program at Boston University, was a webmagazine titled Free Radicals It was a group assignment that involved all seven students in our cohort and our chosen theme was On the Water, a dedication to Boston’s location on the Atlantic Coast, and our common love for ocean critters and seafood.

All of us sci-jos (as we jocularly called ourselves) assumed different roles to pull of this webmagazine, of course, picking and choosing what we liked and did best. My run, as you will see, demonstrates a penchant for audio-visual elements to communicate science, and my fascination for whales. Listed below are my stories for Free Radicals:

Boston’s Leaky Legacy


Boston’s old and decaying natural gas infrastructure has the potential for huge economic, health and environmental impacts on the residents of the city.

Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States and aging with the city is its infrastructure. Above the ground, stretches the Freedom Trail and epic architecture, but about three feet under, the city shrouds a network of leaky natural gas distribution pipelines. Some of these pipes are made of coated steel and plastic, indicating that they have been laid in the last three to four decades, but most are made of cast iron, dating as far back as the late 1800s when natural gas distribution first began. And some of those old pipes leak.

To some urban dwellers, leaking natural gas pipes may not come as much of a surprise, or even much of a worry. But that changes when losses are quantified. Nathan Phillips, professor of geography and environment at Boston University, has estimated that unaccounted-for gas in Massachusetts which amounts to eight billion cubic feet  or $40 million worth of natural gas per year. Of this, an estimated $4 million is being lost in Boston alone. Worse yet, methane, escaping from a punctured pipeline, is no longer a valuable domestic fuel but instead it’s a potent greenhouse gas, an explosive fuel and a health hazard.

Climate scientists have deduced that 7 to 15 percent of the global human-caused loss of methane comes from cities and urban centres. The main sources of urban methane are landfills, sewage treatment plants and natural gas distribution pipes. While expectations to reduce greenhouse gases are set globally, mitigation needs to happen locally. But in order to reduce levels researchers need first know how much methane is being released into the atmosphere from targeted sources. In the last few years, scientists have started measuring methane levels from individual targeted sources in cities and discovered that, in Boston, a significant amount is released from natural gas pipes. Leaking pipes are low hanging fruit, as compared to other urban methane sources. They are easy to identify and arguably simple to fix.

Phillips heads the Urban Metabolism project at BU to monitor greenhouse gas emissions in Boston. He started exploring methane leaks when his path serendipitously crossed that of Robert Ackley, owner of Gas Safety USA. One fall morning in 2010, Ackley was perusing the streets of Newton, MA with his flame ionization detector to find leaks in distribution pipes. The detector works on a simple principle- it uses a tiny flame which spikes upon contact with methane, a highly flammable gas. Phillips, who was taking his 5-year-old son for a stroll, had never seen the detector before and asked Ackley about it. The two researchers got talking and Phillips, immediately spotted a missing link in his own work. He used an instrument called the Picarro gas analyzer on the roof of a BU building to determine levels of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, in well-mixed samples of air. But if he could calculate the amount of methane leaking from distribution pipes, then his research could estimate the total amount of methane in Boston from independent human-caused sources. So Phillips, Ackley and Eric Crossan, Chief Technical Officer at Picarro took a drive through Boston in a car fitted with a Picarro greenhouse gas analyzer. Over the next ten months, Phillips patrolled the streets of Boston and its neighboring suburbs detecting and monitoring levels of methane from natural gas pipe leaks. One October morning, I joined the professor on a leak-detection tour in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

“Watch out, it’s hot in there,” said Phillips, as he opened the door of an SUV crowded with four Boston University students, lots of wires, some computer screens and other assorted gadgets. A baritone hum emanated from the back of the vehicle where a Picarro greenhouse gas analyzer sucked out the car’s energy to warm itself up to 1040F, its desired start up temperature.  The analyzer is a large metallic box with lots of buttons and blinking lights. A pipe, dangling from Picarro’s gas inlet, was waiting to feed it with air samples. At 7 am on a frigid Saturday morning, the BU crew looked surprisingly alert and ready for their mission.

Phillips quickly explained the rules of the hunt. “Baseline methane levels in Boston are about 2.1 ppm right now. When those numbers jump higher than that, it means that we are driving over a leak.” He twisted around under the tight grasp of his seat belt and tapped the corner of a computer screen resting on his student- Nurika’s, lap.  The students nodded their heads in acknowledgement and started parallel conversations about the impacts of methane on trees.  Methane molecules are lighter than oxygen so they easily rise and displace oxygen in porous soil, hampering respiration in tree roots.  Methane is a dry gas and also displaces moisture in the soil. An affected tree may die of methane asphyxiation. Researchers suspect that plants tolerant to swamp conditions have greater resilience to methane leaks in cities, as swamps naturally produce huge quantities of methane. “Honey locus trees are more resilient too,” Phillips said. Before he could explain why Nurika called our attention to the numbers on the screen that had suddenly jumped to 3.0 ppm.  The car had just turned around Kenmore square and onto Beacon Street, and the students were excited. Phillips nodded in acknowledgement and kept driving.

A study from The Netherlands published in 1986 established a connection between dying street trees and natural gas leaks. The Dutch researchers worked with municipal bodies and found that most trees in their cities died in the latter half of the 1960s, after the country made a switch from coal gas to natural gas. Ackley explains that city trees are exposed to several threats- road salt, insects and storms. Methane makes these trees more vulnerable to such threats. Some neighborhoods can afford  active replanting of dying trees. “But the damage has been going on for 30 years,” said Ackley “there are some places which have not re-planted for 20 years because of lack of funding.” Ackley is working with environmental attorney Jan Schlichtmann to represent the towns of Hingham, Nahant, Milton, Saugas and Brookline which are suing their natural gas distribution companies for tree damage from gas leaks.

Driving down Beacon Street, Phillips explained how to identify locations of gas pipes. “Those yellow spray painted arrows mean that there are gas pipes underneath,’ he said, pointing to the road-“Blue means water and red refers to electricity.” Again, he was interrupted by Nurika who called attention to a 5.3 ppm reading at the intersection of Park and Beacon streets. “Ooh that’s a big one,” said Phillips rolling down his window and sniffing violently. Phillips called gas companies, like N Star, efforts to repair leaks “Band-Aid solutions”, there are so many leaks in a given pipe that fixing one leak is almost never a solution.  Entire pipe systems needed replacement. The numbers on the screen jumped all over the place in testimony to the professor’s words.

The troupe headed towards Brookline reservoir, down Walnut Street. The well-to-do neighborhood offered a welcoming view with sprawling houses and cascading lawns. But the numbers on the computer screen presented a different picture.  Nurika read them out like a mechanical countdown that never reached below 3.  A 12.1ppm- reading stopped the car in its tracks and a pungent odor of gas wafted in as Phillips rolled down his window in front of a brick-fronted house, with pumpkins in its well-manicured yard.

Natural gas is colorless, and it’s rendered odorless after sulfur and water are removed from it to make it easier for distribution. Because it’s highly flammable, mercaptan- a chemical odorant is added to it to help identify leaks. Mercaptan smells like rotten eggs. Though he has smelt and identified leaks in many parts of the city, Phillips has been judicious about the ones he calls out. “I’d be stopping every couple of miles if I were to call out all dangerous leaks,” he explains “besides, most of these leaks have already been called in before and have not been fixed.” Earlier this year, Phillips called in a leak in Back Bay when the Picarro registered an explosive reading of 30 ppm. He added that he tries to call in most leaks that have a building foundation within a five foot radius from the leak to mitigate the threat of an explosion.

Methane’s flammability makes pipeline leaks a threat to climate-change deniers too. Since methane is lighter than atmospheric air, it rises from punctured pipes and collects in enclosed spaces like manholes and building foundations. If a manhole has 4 percent methane, gas companies grade it as a level 1 leak, which is dangerous and needs immediate attention. Phillips has seen manholes filled with 10 percent concentrations of natural gas. Ackley estimates that it costs about $3000 to fix a leak in a pipe. In most cases, gas companies don’t replace the worn-down pipe but replace the manhole cover with a slated one. A slated cover allows the collected gas to escape but the space created is immediately replaced with more leaking gas.  The result is either an explosion or a large consumer gas bill. In Massachusetts, both have happened.

In the last decade, there have been 19 gas explosions in the state of Massachusetts. Four blasts took place in 2009 alone, killing a 62-year-old resident in Somerset and critically injuring three others.  Ackley says that “no one cares unless someone loses an eye.” He had just returned from Allentown, Pennsylvania exploring a leak which had led to an explosion in February 2011, killing five people. When asked what prevents explosions from happening everyday in Boston, his response is authoritative- “Luck! Pure luck.” Soon after, he learned that I lived right off of Boylston aka Route 9 in Boston. “It’s a mess over there! All the trees are dying and Route 9 is crazy and filled with leaks.” The Cupertino, CA, gas explosion in September 2011 that destroyed an entire condominium is a clear indication that even plastic distribution pipes are not leak-proof.

Gas companies have few incentives to repair these leaks. The ‘cost of gas adjustment clause’ in the state of Massachusetts charges the consumer for lost and unaccounted for gas.  Massachusetts has the second-oldest pipe system in the country after Delaware but has the highest per capita distribution of cast iron pipes in the country. Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), notes the presence of wooden pipelines in Downtown Boston dating back to the pre cast-iron pipeline era. “Everyone’s concerned about the cost of repairing leaks,” she says “but we forget that tax payers are already paying for lost gas.” Cleveland explained that CLF is working with Phillips and his team to understand the magnitude of the problem and to create policy solutions. Phillips too feels that the problem is larger than the costs involved in fixing leaks- “The real question should be how much it costs us not to fix leaks- $40 million per year.” Using the Picarro, he had recently picked up a leak with a methane reading of 7 ppm in his own house in Newton.

This year, Massachusetts state representative, Lori Ehrlich filed four bills demanding more inspection transparency and environmental responsibility from gas companies in the state. She explains that the Department of Utilities pays gas companies to replace entire pipe systems and not for repairing leaks. Hence, unless there is a high threat of explosion, private companies don’t have any incentive to repair leaks. “But leaks don’t repair themselves, they only get worse over time,” said Ehrlich. This is the first time a representative has filed these bills in the state and they have received bipartisan and bicameral co-sponsorship from over 40 Massachusetts legislators. The bills will be out of legislature next summer and Ehrlich is hoping for constructive measures.

Explosions are only one of methane’s health hazards. In confined spaces inhaling methane can have the same effects as other forms of asphyxiation like carbon monoxide poisoning. Once it’s released into the air, methane is a key ingredient in a toxic soup of chemical reactions that lead to the formation of ground ozone.  The other ingredients for this reaction are nitrous oxides and light- both readily available in urban settings. Ozone molecules in the stratosphere are pivotal to protecting human health and other organic matter from the sun’s harsh rays, but- closer to the Earth’s surface-in the lower troposphere they do just the opposite. They are highly reactive molecules and corrode any biological tissue they come in contact with. The internal linings of lungs are extremely vulnerable to ozone-induced degeneration. For this reason, the EPA monitors ozone levels and calls for Ozone Code Orange Days when levels rise beyond safe limits (101-150 on the Air Quality Index). On such days children, the elderly and people with asthma or other respiratory disorders are advised to stay indoors and avoid heavy physical activity.

J. Jason West, Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences & Engineering at the University of North Carolina has found a direct correlation between morbidity and mortality rates and ozone levels. “Ozone is listed as one of six urban particulate matter that is regulated by the EPA but none of ozone’s regulatory factors include mitigating methane levels,” he said. Methane has a long lifetime in the atmosphere which means that it can contribute to the formation of ozone over a longer period of time even though the reactions are slow. “I wouldn’t want to put words in the EPA’s mouth,” said John Levy, professor of Environmental Health at Boston University “Methane is a very challenging pollutant to control emissions and, given its diversity of source, it’s much harder to mitigate.”

On Earth Day 2011, Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino released new goals for Boston’s Climate Plan. Heading the list was an optimistic endeavor to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions -25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. But how does one find out if these reductions have been met? Lucy Hutyra, assistant professor at BU’s department of geography and environment argues that “we need to have a framework to validate whether regulations are being met.” Hutyra represents a larger scientific community concerned about the 80 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases that come from urban centres.

Methane’s greenhouse gas potential is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide when measured over a 100 year period. This is a very worrying and frustrating fact for climate scientists who recognize that not enough is being done to mitigate human-caused emissions of methane.  According to Phillips “the best way to reduce the greenhouse gas potential of these leaks is to light them all on fire (which will break methane down to CO2 and water). Boston will be ablaze but at least the planet will have fewer greenhouse gases.”


  • Nathan Phillips: Professor, Geography and Environment, BU.
  • Robert Ackley: Gas Safety USA.
  • Eric Crosson: Chief Technical Officer, Picarro.
  • Lucy Hutyra: Assistant Professor, Department of Geography & Environment, BU.
  • Arlene Fiore: Physical Scientist, Atmospheric Chemistry, Physics and Climate Group, Princeton, NOAA.
  • Shanna Cleveland: Staff Attorney, Conservation Law Foundation.
  • J. Jason West: Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences & Engineering, University of North Carolina.
  • Jonathan Levy: Professor, Environmental Health, BU.
  • Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, CPA, MPA, Vice Chair Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, MA
  • Frank Gallagher-

Written for an ‘Advanced Science Writing’ class at Boston University with Ellen R. Shell. 

Listed-Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act (LOE)

My first assignment for my summer internship at Public Radio International’s ‘Living on Earth’ radio show, was to produce a story interviewing Joe Roman,  author of ‘Listed- Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act’.  The author is professor of conservation biology at the University of Vermont. Below is a short brief about the story, as it appears on the LOE website.

The Endangered Species Act was landmark environmental legislation. Now, the law itself may be endangered. Host Bruce Gellerman explores the Harvard Museum of Natural History with Joe Roman, author of the new book ‘Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.’

CLICK HERE to listen to the story and see a slideshow of photographs from the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

FIRST Robotics: The Right Stuff

For our final project in our science film documentary class with Professor Gino Del Guercio, I produced this video on FIRST, a nation-wide high school robotics competition, along with my classmates Arezu Sarvestani and Emily Greenhalgh. We followed Team ‘Overclocked’, the Boston University Academy participants, through their journey of making the robot and their many struggles and successes in the competition. FIRST is a great example of how STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education can be expanded beyond the classroom walls.

The video is part of a class assignment and is not intended for any commercial purposes.

Sunrise and Puppies

I created this fun video along with my classmate, Mary Parker. It was as part of a class assignment and was meant to be a descriptive and impressionist video of Boston. This video is part of a student film project and is not meant for any commercial purpose.

Boston Marathon- A Historical Timeline

Check out this new time line with historical events from the world’s oldest marathon!

Mark your calendar for future Boston Marathon dates

Here you go:

April 16, 2012
April 15, 2013
April 21, 2014
April 20, 2015
April 18, 2016
April 17, 2017
April 16, 2018
April 15, 2019
April 20, 2020
April 19, 2021
April 18, 2022

The Next Boston Marathon- 2012

For all you avid Boston marathoners who have just finished nursing your aching muscles back to health, here is news about the registration process for the 2012 marathon, The fastest marathon in the world is also the most popular and the Boston Atheletic Association has been forced to toughen up the registration process to deal with the vast numbers. According to the BAA the new registration process for the 2012 Boston Marathon is “more systematic and performance-based.”

Registration will begin on Monday, September 12, 2011 and will carry on till Friday, September 23 and will be conducted through a ‘rolling admission’ schedule. According to this, fastest qualifiers will be accommodated first though timings have not changed. On the first day, those who have exceeded their qualifying standards for their specific age and gender group by at least 20 mins will be allowed entry on September 12. On September 14, this time will drop to 10 mins and on the fifth day, i.e. September 16, it will further drop to 5 mins.

Once the registration window is closed, the fastest runners in relation to the qualifying standard to their age/gender will be entered into the race once their times are verified.

Registration Process for the 2012 Boston Marathon

Date registration opens for runners with times…
September 12, 2011 20 min., 00sec. or more below their qualifying time (based on age/gender)
September 14, 2011 10 min., 00 sec. or more below their qualifying time (based on age/gender)
September 16, 2011 5 min., 00 sec. or more below their qualifying time (based on age/gender)
Second Week
September 19, 2011 All Qualified Runners
September 23, 2011 Registration closes for qualified applicants

If the field size is not reached after the first week and additional space remains, then registration will open to all qualifiers at the beginning of Week Two (September 19) and those who have met the qualifying standards by any amount of time will be able to apply for entry. The application process will remain open for the entire week, closing on Friday, September 23. At the conclusion of Week Two, those who are the fastest among the pool of applicants in their age and gender will be accepted. All accepted athletes will be notified on September 28.
If space remains available after this two week process, registration will remain open to any qualifier on a first come, first served basis until the maximum field size is reached.

2013 Boston Marathon
Qualifying times for the 2013 Boston Marathon, will be lowered and must be run on or after September 24, 2011. Like the 2012 ‘rolling admission’ registration process, race entrants will be accepted based on qualifying times, with the fastest qualifiers being accepted first until the race is full.

Registration for the 2013 Boston Marathon will begin on Monday, September 10, 2012. The adjusted qualifying times will go into effect on September 24, 2011, and are as follows:

2013 Qualifying Times (effective September 24, 2011)

Age Group Men Women
18-34 3hrs 05min 00sec 3hrs 35min 00sec
35-39 3hrs 10min 00sec 3hrs 40min 00sec
40-44 3hrs 15min 00sec 3hrs 45min 00sec
45-49 3hrs 25min 00sec 3hrs 55min 00sec
50-54 3hrs 30min 00sec 4hrs 00min 00sec
55-59 3hrs 40min 00sec 4hrs 10min 00sec
60-64 3hrs 55min 00sec 4hrs 25min 00sec
65-69 4hrs 10min 00sec 4hrs 40min 00sec
70-74 4hrs 25min 00sec 4hrs 55min 00sec
75-79 4hrs 40min 00sec 5hrs 10min 00sec
80 and over 4hrs 55min 00sec 5hrs 25min 00sec
*Unlike previous years, an additional 59 seconds will NOT be accepted for each age group time standard.

Additionally, to recognize and to encourage longtime Boston Marathon entrants, the B.A.A. will allow those who have met the qualifying times and who have finished the last ten consecutive Boston Marathons to enter anytime during the registration period. Currently, there are approximately 500 runners who have run 10 or more consecutive Boston Marathons.

Run Alex Run!

Alex White at the Boston Marathon 2011. Credit: Anne-Marie Singh

If you were to ask Alex White about this year’s marathon experience, he would call it “a gift.”

Last month,  Kristen  and I were fortunate enough to get Alex White to talk about his preparation for the Boston Marathon. If you missed his interview, check out the YouTube video here.

Last week, White ran the Boston Marathon for a second time. He admitted that he ran his previous marathons with little training. This year, however, he took his training seriously and started doing track workouts with Somerville Road Runners in order to perform better at this year’s Boston.

As White prepared for this year’s Boston, everything was looking promising. The scheduled weather was temperate. He set a timing record for 2 hours and 35 minutes, twelve minutes shorter than his current personal record. He had a good schedule. He was looking forward to running with members of his club. More importantly, he wanted to finish without being taken away in a wheelchair!

However, on the morning of the race, Murphy’s Law seemed to take over White’s efforts. The watch he wears in order to pace himself would not work. He had to run the race without knowing his time. At first, he ran OK because he started with a friend who ran about the same pace.

However, he had to go off-pace for a while.

Three miles into the race, he started to feel unwell. His digestive system gave him several problems. He had to take several unanticipated rest stops—something that would certainly affect his timing. After several stops, he didn’t know how he was going to finish. Alex’s quote from the video, “food is poop,” mocked him in his efforts.

After a few rest stops, port-a-potty stops (or “speedy dumps” in White’s words), his pace picked up. We shot this picture of him at mile 21. He even saw us when we screamed his name.

He joked in an email “Good thing this photo is of me in great despair…ha ha, but I love it-great shot for how I felt pretty much the whole race.”

At mile 22, Alex caught up with his friend. Once he realized how much he caught up, he started running with more confidence.

However, it did not happen easily. Alex admits to feeling dehydrated during the race. He estimated that he lost 10 – 11 pounds during the run.

Then, he saw the clock that read “50 meters to go” and he realized how well he paced. He did not know until that clock that he was nearly running his goal time and that he would cross the finish line. He started hearing “USA chants” as he ran. He said, “My stomach was destroyed, but my spirits were lifted.”

So he crossed the finish line and did not need to be wheelchaired out. Molly, from our podcast, waited for him at the finish line in Copley Square. He considered the finish “magical, everything worked out.”

White made his personal record of 2 hours and 36 minutes. He finished 160th out of nearly 27,000 participants. According to Alex, “I feel that PR was donated to me.” Though he credits that his training efforts set him up, he thought that his stomach was going to set him back. White claims that the day and its experience was “surreal, don’t know how it happened. Time floated, time melted.”

White attributes his good performance, even with adverse circumstances, to his training with the Somerville Roadrunners. Training with that group for the last six months really enhanced his performance.

What’s next for Alex White? He will be running the Chicago Marathon in the fall. He is also playing ultimate frisbee with the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance. His team’s name is “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Additionally, his quote “food is poop” is very popular with his running group.

Popular Qualifying Marathons for the Boston Marathon

Interested in running a future Boston Marathon? Well, you have to meet specified running requirements at an approved course. Below is a map that Kristen Stivers and I made of popular qualifying marathons. Click on a little runner icon for more information about the marathon! There are also marathons in Canada; we only did ones in the United States.