Paintings of Mutated Insects
October 1, 2008 11:45 PM   Subscribe

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger paints watercolours of mutated insects from radioactively contaminated areas in Ukraine, Switzerland, the United States, and Europe. She has recently published a scientific article incorporating these paintings (5 MB PDF). site also available in German
posted by Rumple (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

I'd be a bit more impressed by her findings if she also carried along a geiger counter.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:59 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yet more radioactive US locations than I knew of. Government experimentation on the populace, and yet no one fights for compensation when it's discovered.
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:08 AM on October 2, 2008

Ah, a bit more meat in the abstract from the pdf:

The results of extensive field studies on the malformation of Western European true bugs (Heteroptera) are reviewed. More than 16,000 individuals were collected over two decades, and subjected to detailed visual inspection. Various types of disturbances were found and illustrated in detail. Depending on country, region, as well as local influences, severe disturbances and high degrees of malformation were noticed, especially in the sphere of nuclear-power installations in Switzerland (Aargau), France (La Hague), and Germany (Gundremmingen). Malformation reached values as high as 22 and 30% for morphological (MD) and total disturbance (TD), respectively. This is far above the values expected for natural populations (ca. 1%) or those determined for true bugs living in biotopes considered as relatively 'intact' (1 – 3%). A detailed chi-square test of the malformation data obtained for 650 true bugs from 13 collection sites near the nuclear-reprocessing plant La Hague showed a highly significant correlation (p 1⁄4 0.003) between malformation and wind exposure/local topography. Similar observations were made for other study sites. Currently, our data are best rationalized by assuming a direct influence between the release of anthropogenic radionuclides such as tritium ( 3H), carbon-14 (14C), or iodine-131 (131I), constantly emitted by nuclear-power and nuclear-reprocessing plants, as well as by Chernobyl and bomb-testing fallout, which is rich in caesium-137 (137Cs) and other long-lived noxious isotopes that have entered the food chain. The present work supports the growing evidence that low-level radiation, especially in the form of randomly scattered 'hot' a- and b-particles, mainly transported via aerosols, puts a heavy burden on the biosphere in general, and on true bugs in particular. These insects could, thus, serve as sensitive 'bio-indicators' for future studies.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:14 AM on October 2, 2008

Also from the PDF (worth downloading so you can see a bit more detail of the illustrations):
In summary, my field studies show that a significant percentage of European true bugs, living in their specific habitats, are highly disturbed, not only in terms of the actual number of individuals affected, but also regarding the quality and severeness of malformation.
posted by tellurian at 12:43 AM on October 2, 2008

This is very interesting; thank you.
posted by nihraguk at 12:47 AM on October 2, 2008

First of all, the paintings are really nice - beautifully detailed and delicately understated.

But I am confused. The confusion stems from this excerpt from her description of a painting from her stint at Three Mile Island:

In the summer of 1991 I started my field study in the environs of nuclear power plant Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which suffered through a near atomic disaster on March 26, 1979. Thousands of people were irradiated, but they were only notified two days after the incident [ 2 ] , and even then only 2,500 children and pregnant women were evacuated. After the accident many people suffered from a kind of sunburn, lost their hair and teeth, and died many years later of cancer. Their suffering as a consequence of the accident is still not recognized. When I arrived in 1991 the cleanup was still going on, with some serious incidents occurring during my study.

Startled that I could have so fundamentally misunderstood the Three Mile Island incident, I rushed over to the relevant article in good ol' Wikipedia, and found, like I had remembered, that very little radiating material was released into the environment and that the average health impact on the surrounding community was equivalent "to a chest x-ray". Sure, not great, but I sure don't remember any losing of hair.

Then I noticed she had two citations. I couldn't find the NRC report, but somehow I doubt it refutes the "official version", but I did track down this one, a letter to the editor arguing for fairer compensation for nuclear workers for radiation-related problems - tangentially related at best. Looking for evidence or counter-evidence, I ran across an article by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh in which they couldn't find any statistically significant evidence that the Three Mile Island accident resulted in radiation-related illness for the surrounding community.

Then I read (the abstract of) the paper, which sounded interesting, except the whole making sensationalist stuff up about a nuclear accident didn't digest well in my brain with the statistical studies and detailed chi-squared tests and it made me feel ill.

Maybe I'm just extra-defensive about slander against nuclear power because my support for it often causes me to disagree with my normal political allies.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:25 AM on October 2, 2008 [5 favorites]

Since the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986, she has collected, studied and painted morphologically disturbed insects, which she finds in the fallout areas of Chernobyl as well as near nuclear installations. As a result of her studies, she is convinced that in regions where the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, or from normally working nuclear power plants, hits ground, the vegetation is contaminated, and a certain percentage of the insects, like leaf bugs, become morphologically disturbed.

From what I know, excluding Chernobyl, the entire civilian nuclear power industry, over the entire world, for the two full generations it has existed, has released about as much radiation into the air as one coal power plant in the United States running for one year. If you include Chernobyl, the total release becomes roughly equivalent to all the US plants for one year. (don't take this as absolute fact, this is a little blurry in my head just now, but I'm sure it's within an order of magnitude.)

Something's not right here. Perhaps it's confirmation bias? Geiger counters aren't difficult to buy or build, and surely, if there were widespread releases of radioactivity, someone would have noticed by now. Even if you're a tinfoil hattist about the US, many other countries have nuclear plants.

It strikes me that this lady may be so convinced that Nuclear Power Is Terrible that she's willing to fudge her data.... or, in the colloquial parlance, to just make shit up.
posted by Malor at 1:40 AM on October 2, 2008

(coal plants, by the way, release tons of radioactivity because coal has lots of uranium in it. Coal plants are ENORMOUSLY more dangerous than nuclear plants.)
posted by Malor at 1:41 AM on October 2, 2008

Nuclear Power is totally evil. I always knew it, just, like knew it, and now these bugs drawings or whatever, like totally back that up. There's even footnotes to other science papers.

Awesome! Thanks Dude!
posted by From Bklyn at 1:53 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

(has switzerland moved?)
posted by effbot at 2:07 AM on October 2, 2008

Well, the paintings are beautiful, but she sure does seem to have an axe to grind.
posted by Harald74 at 2:11 AM on October 2, 2008

another thing to remember is that drosophila melanogaster (aka the fruit fly aka those tiny bugs hanging out near yr bananas) tends to mutate if you even look at it funny. hell, it likes to mutate. its one of the things that makes it so useful to developmental biologists....
posted by sexyrobot at 2:24 AM on October 2, 2008

I'm conflicted. They were born (hatched...) deformed, so I want to feel bad for them like baby Jesus would. But they're bugs. According to Starship Troopers they would dismember me or suck my brains out if they had the opportunity.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

But I am confused.

Oh, I see what's wrong. The problem is, she didn't put any scale on her drawings.

Here you go.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:58 AM on October 2, 2008 [7 favorites]

(I guess that ought to be like baby Adhinath would.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:00 AM on October 2, 2008

She forgot to add "1:50 scale" in the corner.
posted by tawny at 3:30 AM on October 2, 2008

Civil_Disobedient; thanks, much better!
posted by tawny at 3:33 AM on October 2, 2008

Nah. Everybody knows radiation is good for you. Every report states that. It's only hippies, tree-huggers and lame leftists who think otherwise. Cancer comes from eating fresh vegetables. And those damn flies shouls all die anyway. Sheesh...
posted by acrobat at 3:53 AM on October 2, 2008

Ever been to Utah? Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it's bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too.
posted by kcds at 4:56 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, Civil_Disobedient, that certainly puts me off nuclear power!
posted by Harald74 at 5:05 AM on October 2, 2008

Can very much relate to those beautiful paintings. What an awesome and fascinating site.

Can also relate to the following by another thyroid cancer survivor:

Radiation Exposure Is Only Known Cause For Thyroid Cancer

"Having survived a very agressive variant of papillary thyroid cancer (tall cell ) that had invaded my trachea, and caused me to have a total
thyroidectomy, tracheal resection, internal RAI in a large dose, and 6
weeks of external beam radiation to my whole neck and mediastinum by IMRT, I have become quite eductated in this area. First of all, there
are thousands of us who probably got our cancer as children when the US govt and its contractors conducted above ground nuclear testing which got into the high atmosphere, and traveled the globe with prevailing winds
. There are numerous well researched articles that show where radioactive debris fell ALL OVER the US and there are NIH charts that show numbers of rads various people were exposed to from fallout, as well as from drinking milk in the 50s and early 60s that was produced in areas that had lots of fallout on the grass the cows ate, who produced the milk we drank.

"When i was diagnosed at MSKCC in NYC, in 2002, there was a link to the NIH study showing numbers of rads per American depending on date of birth, state and county of residence, etc. That site was quickly removed, and no one seems to remember it was there. I did see it however, due to the lucky coincidence that I was diagnosed in 12/02 when it was a link to the hospital site."

"My onco nurse said its the fastest rising new diagnosis in women. More than breast cancer. It isn't just the ability to detect with ultrasound, it's the fact that we are all coming of age to show these tumors that have been percolating for 18 or 45 years."

The American Cancer Society estimated that 30,180 Americans would be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006. This is an approximate rate for each year's new cases.

During 1998-2002, the median age at diagnosis for thyroid cancer was 46 years of age.

"In Europe, 26 000 new cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed each year"

There may be something wonderful in the science of non-warfare use of nuclear energy but, imo, the building business, contractors and government administrations are still too corrupt for there to be -at this time- a genuinely safe use of this energy resource.
posted by nickyskye at 8:38 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Malor: I was all ready to go on a scavenger hunt for the data to compare radioactive contamination from coal and nuclear plants, but this article (which, if a bit old, seems trustworthy, as it is from ORNL) seems to have done all the work for me! It's an interesting read. Here is the conclusion - I'm paraphrasing a bit, and selecting the most damning statistics, but I am not making this up:

Estimated total release of radioactive material from coal combustion worldwide (over the 100 years that people have been burning coal):

Uranium: 828,632 tons (containing 5883 tons of uranium-235)

Thorium: 2,039,709 tons burned

For example in 1982, worldwide coal plants burned 2.8 billion tons of coal, resulting in the release of 3640 tons of uranium, and 8690 tons of thorium.

The population effective dose equivalent from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants.

Holy mutated flies! I didn't even think coal was that bad. Of course, I recognize that these particular statistics aren't evidence that nuclear power is good, just that coal is way worse. The article also discusses the advantage of capturing the THOUSANDS OF TONS of fissile materials dumped into the atmosphere or filtered from the smokestacks of coal plants - according to this article, "the energy content of nuclear fuel released in coal combustion is greater than that of the coal consumed." I like that datum - I think that one's going in needlepoint above my door :)

Also, here is a very sobering documentary detailing the dangers posed to marine life by environmental radioactivity.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:42 AM on October 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

There may be something wonderful in the science of non-warfare use of nuclear energy but, imo, the building business, contractors and government administrations are still too corrupt for there to be -at this time- a genuinely safe use of this energy resource.
posted by nickyskye at 8:38 AM on October 2

It's definitely a legitimate concern - there are plenty of dangers involved in nuclear power, and where there are dangers there are stupid greedy people who want to ignore the dangers for the sake of short term profit. However, the fact is that nuclear power is the largest power source that humanity has that doesn't just dump its waste products into the environment.

Chernobyl was awful, and the released plume is still causing cancer and other health effects across broad swaths of Russia and Scandinavia; I am sorely tempted to dismiss it as a Soviet mistake at the dawn of the nuclear era. But with the exception of Chernobyl, the worldwide nuclear industry has a nearly perfect safety record, at least in terms of regulated environmental release of radioactivity. I recognize that there are cleaner, safer energy technologies that are emerging, but I think they are too little too late without nuclear energy.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:01 AM on October 2, 2008

Holy mutated flies! I didn't even think coal was that bad.

wow. Didn't know that. Thanks for the info Salvor Hardin.
posted by nickyskye at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2008

the energy content of nuclear fuel released in coal combustion is greater than that of the coal consumed

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:33 AM on October 2, 2008

The American Cancer Society estimated that 30,180 Americans would be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006. This is an approximate rate for each year's new cases.
posted by nickyskye at 8:38 AM on October 2

Thank you for the info about thyroid cancer - I had no idea it was becoming so common :(

I guess I never really thought about what a horrible, horrible idea atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were....maybe that's why the US liked to test them on other peoples' islands .
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:48 AM on October 2, 2008

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