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Learning More is a podcast that brings new stories about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. Join us as we take an in-depth look at new interesting topics by talking with fun and informative storytellers. Learnin
9/1/2021

Peter Funt, Candid Camera, and Laugh Therapy

Season 1, Ep. 19
We can all use a good laugh every once, and a while, some days more than others. Today we are joined by a guy that has been putting smiles on the faces of unsuspecting people his entire life. We are joined by Peter Funt as we learn more about Candid Camera and Laugh Therapy.Show Links:This is TodayPeter's Book, Self AmusedCandid Camera WebsiteCandid Camera Classic on YouTubeAutomated Transcript:[00:00:00] Russ: With the world today, you know what? We can all use a laugh, right? And sometimes, maybe some of us may just even want to hear...[00:00:19] Peter Funt: smile. You're on Candid Camera[00:00:22] Russ: Today, we learned more with Peter Funt about Candid Camera and laughter therapy.Thanks for listening and subscribing to learning more where each episode, we bring you a new story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. I'm your host, Russ. And this week, we're going to discuss laughing. Yeah. Yeah, we, okay. So w well, we've had a pretty heavy couple of episodes over the last, uh, couple of weeks here.We've talked about climate change, global warming, all of these crazy things. You know, what. We've all been dealt some pretty heavy topics lately. So I figured, you know what, let's talk a little laugh therapy. Let's have a little fun today. And they say that laughter's the best medicine, right?And I am a strong believer, and I think making a joke at a tough situation can actually. Make it a little easier to handle. And one of the reasons for that is because I grew up watching Candid Camera and I think one of the best laugh lines ever is smile. You're on Candid Camera. I find it impossible not to smile after hearing that.So we're going to talk about Candid Camera laugh therapy and a new book to do. So I'm joined by Peter Funt. Peter. Thank you so much for joining me today.[00:01:45] Peter Funt: Thank you, Russ. Great to be with you.[00:01:49] Russ: Peter has hosted the TV show, Candid Camera, which his dad, Allen Funt, invented. Uh, he's also written for the wall street journal USA today.Too many places to mention it. As far as where you mentioned ABC news, uh, you've hosted other shows specials and you've authored several books, including his newest one self amused a tell some memoir. Uh, so Peter it's a tell some, not a tell-all did you, did you bring in some of the juicy stuff?[00:02:17] Peter Funt: I did. I thought tell some was appropriate just in case I want to write a second book.You know, I don't want to waste all my best material now. I'm just trying to be. There's a smart Alec there; it's a pretty, uh, insightful book about my little corner of the world and the experiences I've had. And there's plenty in there about Candid Camera. You know, I found already the book has only been out a few weeks and I've already heard from people that, you know, those who only want to know about Candid Camera wish it was entirely that way in the book, those who are fascinated by some of the.Quirky and strange experiences I've had off-camera wish. I did a little bit more than that. So as like a 50 50 balance and I gave it my best shot. And, uh, there's plenty in there about Candid Camera for the Candid Camera fans. You know, you mentioned the value of laughter and I know we'll get into that more, but certainly if people needed a good laugh or, uh, the endorphins that come with, uh, laughing out loud, there couldn't be a better time for it than right now.We're all feeling stressed. We're all shut-in. We're all worried. So many things going on and I am not suggesting that laughter is a cure for all of our problems. I'm simply saying it helps to feel better. If you can at least smile or maybe just segregate the things in your life. You've got the serious stuff, and you've got the other stuff.So let's start by at least getting a laugh at the other stuff. Which is to say, let's not sweat the small stuff. Right. Okay. So I[00:04:07] Russ: saw a quote and I'll, I'll, I'll get right into that here with, uh, with your dad. He said, when a tragedy occurs, people often feel the presence of humor is suddenly inappropriate.Their attitude seems to say, this is no laughing. Matter, but I feel the opposite. I believe that laughing matters, and it's more essential for me in tough times than ever. I feel like that's a great quote for right now for all the, all the stuff that we're[00:04:34] Peter Funt: dealing with in the world. Yeah. My dad was a very smart guy.I think what he was saying was an extension of what I just tried to say, which is he, he's not suggesting that in terrible times, you laugh at the terrible things. He's saying that during bad times, you find little things within your world that you can laugh about. I know for a fact, uh, as you know, that some of the funniest things believe it or not are said by emergency service workers, cops, surgeons in the emergency room of hospitals, uh, people on the front lines, my goodness.Battle humor from the world wars and Vietnam is, is legendary. And this is not because people were laughing at the risks they were facing, but rather they were trying to get some sort of comfort and release by finding a tiny little thing to smile about and laughing.[00:05:46] Russ: It's so important in life to do that.Why you though? I mean, basically you've been trained your entire life to look at the funny, I mean, so I, okay. So correct me if I'm wrong here, but you were born the same year that Candid Cameracame[00:05:59] Peter Funt: out, right? Yes. And a Candid Camera just celebrated its 73rd anniversary this month, August. And, um, so it's been around a long time.It's been on and off and on and back off and on right now, we're working on a new deal to get it back and new production on TV. But meanwhile, I'm encouraged by the fact that our YouTube channel during this stressful. COVID period is really booming. I mean, people are going to YouTube for a lot of things, not just Candid Camera, but on our site, which is called Candid Camera classics on YouTube.Boy, it's just growing and growing. And what I'm most interested in are the comments that people are leaving because they really appreciate a laugh. Right now, I'll tell you, though, something that I noticed about those comments for us. And in fact, I wrote about it this week in the wall street journal.People get very confused about nostalgia. We all, especially in tough times, yearn for the good old days. Well, here's the problem with that? When you look at YouTube clips of Candid Camera, you're seeing a mixture of things that were shot as long ago as 50, 60 years ago. And as recently as two or three years ago, and many stops in between the YouTube viewers seem to be confused about that.And they view it all as in the past and almost equally. So, so I find, and I kind of chuckle when somebody watches a sequence that we shot three or four years ago. They don't realize that. So the comment, oh boy, those were the good old days. I'd never do that today. And wasn't it wonderful back then.You're just confused about that. Right? Somebody smarter than me once noted that is relative. Yeah, things tend to look either much better or sometimes much worse in the rearview mirror. So I ended my wall street journal piece by quoting a Carly Simon from 1971. When she's saying these are the good old days.And that's what I think where we're, this is pretty good right now, despite all of our stress and problems for me, these are the good old days.[00:08:45] Russ: Yeah. That actually, that's a great way to look at life. If you can, it live in the now and just enjoy what's going on. I mean, there's always something funny.There's always something good. Despite all the bad there's there's always something good going. And okay. So we gotta, we gotta go way back to the beginning here. Uh, talk about growing up on the set of Candid Camera.[00:09:09] Peter Funt: So just to be clear, there was never a set before for our show. It's true,[00:09:15] Russ: right? Yeah. Cause you're, you're out and about, which makes it even[00:09:18] Peter Funt: more difficult.I wish there had been a set because then you'd have a craft service table and a makeup lady and all that stuff. And we were usually shooting in gas stations or, you know, very cramped and unappealing conditions, but. It is true that my dad gave me my first taste of this when I was three years old. And he put me out on the street corner in New York City with a shoeshine box and told me to try to charge $10 per shoe.I don't know. I don't know if it was funny. And in fact, we'll never really know because back then they never thought to save the footage. Not only the unused footage, they didn't even save the finished shows once was on me. Tape was expensive. Yeah. We dreamed that we'd be sitting here so many decades later wondering about it.So I don't know how I did that day, but I moved on and by the time I was 15, I, uh, managed to do something. Uh, led to the cover of my book. The book that I just put out is called self amused, but the cover image is a black and white picture from when I was 15. And my dad decided that he could make an upside down room and this would be a windowless room and an office building where everything that should have been on the floor was connected upside down and hanging from the ceiling.And in order to complete the effect, he needed someone young enough, nimble enough. There I say, stupid enough, hang upside down and talk to unsuspecting people as they came into this room. And that was me. Well, all we learned right away was you can only hang that way for a minute, minute and a half. And then all the blood rushes to your head.And you guys rushed out to bring me down and, you know, get me straightened out and then back up. And we did this all day long and it made a good picture. Good enough for the cover of my book, but it did not make a particularly good Candid Camera sequence. The people who came into the room were just too shocked to react.There is a point of diminishing returns in our title. Comedy and, uh, experimentation, if you go too far, you get no reaction. And so these folks just bolted out of the room, and we didn't get much out of it, but for me, that was quite a baptism. And so it went right.[00:12:12] Russ: That's fine. So you basically got to travel all around, cause you mentioned you didn't really have a set.I would think that shooting on the road would be very difficult, especially for something like this. You're walking into situations where you've got to do the lighting, hide the cameras. Uh, I, I read in the book, uh, about a time in, uh, a small hotel. I believe it was in Albuquerque and there was an incident with a cactus[00:12:36] Peter Funt: happened.You know, I cited because mercifully for all that I've done on the show. And I think it's several thousand sequences that I've been in personally. We've really been pretty lucky. I've never been physically assaulted. Uh, I've never gotten injured, and I was only sued once, and that's a whole chapter in the book and not the point right at this moment.Right. In that little hotel-motel set up in New Mexico. Uh, I was talking well, well, I'll tell you what the gag was. I was the clerk and I was telling the customers that the rates are very low, but of course, to make up for it, we do charge a little bit extra for each thing that you might need. So for example, hangars, uh, metal hangers are 50 cents each and, uh, wood is a dollar.Towels are a buck and a half for the big ones and yada yada. So I'm talking to this one woman, and there's a guy who I guess was with her in the back of the room in the back of the shot. Could barely see him, but at one point he backed up and, uh, became impaled on a big cactus that was there. And it stuck to his fag, just like a cartoon.And the guy is running around the room with this cactus hanging off his back. And I don't believe I've ever seen anything quite like that. We finally got it off him and then needed pliers to pull out the remaining prongs back in back. I guess if we were going to be sued, he could have sued us, but he did.It wasn't an accident, but it happens, you know, go out doing our kind of work and we love to catch people and we love to not know who we're going to catch next. But with that comes the fact that maybe they're having a hard day, maybe they got things on their mind. So what my dad and I. Sorta tried to perfect in the course of our respective careers was not just trying to be funny in some respects.That's the easiest part. The more difficult part was to take people's temperature. To figure it out as quickly as we could, how much they wanted to play along, how far we could push what their mood was, et cetera, because we don't want to push people too far. Uh, and Candid Camera has always been a people loving program.It sounds so fundamental, but if you compare our work with other so-called reality or hidden camera shows. You find that many of them seem at least to be trying to prove that people are stupid, and that's not our mission at all. We think people are great and we think they're good sports the way they smile.When we tell them they're on Candid Camera. And for many of the people we photograph being caught by our show. Could very well be the single most exciting moment of their life. I'm not exaggerating when I say so it's a big responsibility and we we've always taken a very seriously.[00:16:12] Russ: Yeah. Well, you know, it's, uh, it's one of those things.I remember growing up watching this, and I don't know how many times in my life. Life. I said, smile. You're on Candid Camera to people just because, you know, it was a F it's a funny laugh line. It's it's there. And, um,[00:16:28] Peter Funt: you can mail your check for that to my PO box. Yeah. Well,[00:16:33] Russ: there you go.I got to pay you for each time. I say it all right. And you know what, what I like about Candid Camera though? It's so lighthearted, like you said, it's like, you're not trying to hurt people. Like you see these natural reactions. I watched a couple of clips on your YouTube channel, which by the way, I'll put a link in the description.So anybody listening can go check it out. I strongly suggest that you do. I watched some old clips from the fifties where you had like, uh, attractive teachers coming in. And introducing themselves to a pair of kids, the reactions to the kids. It was just so funny. And so like, they didn't even have to say anything.You just watch it on their faces. I mean, it's. It's feel good humor, and yeah, we do need that right now. Um, okay. So we talked a little about laugh therapy. We will talk a little bit more about that. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll have more.If you enjoy history, maybe you're just feeling a little nostalgic, or you wonder who's having a birthday today, or maybe you need a reason to celebrate. Well, we've got the perfect podcast for you. It is called, this is today and each and every day we talk about the historic events, celebrity birthday. We also talk about whatever is going on today.There's always something to celebrate when you listen to this is today and it just 10 minutes each day, you can make it a daily habit. You can even add it to your Alexa flash briefing, click the link in the description, or just search in your favorite podcast app. Or this is today. Thanks for listening and subscribing to learn.More I'm Russ with you. And yet we're talking about having a good laugh here. I, as I've mentioned before, we're happy. We've had some pretty heavy topics on the show, and we're all going through a lot these days. So I figure, you know, let's talk, laugh therapy. Let's talk, just smiling, laughing in the moment.Uh, I have to tell you, Peter. When I walked into the interview today, I was a little nervous. I actually, I looked for cameras in the, in the studio here. I wasn't sure that, you know, maybe I would be on the show. I didn't think[00:18:54] Peter Funt: we were nervous. My father and I have been nervous almost our entire respective lives because we fear that we would go someplace and somebody would try to trick us.And the fear wasn't that we would be triggered. The fear was that we wouldn't react graciously. That's a lot of pressure. We used to go visit affiliates, TV, affiliates around the country. And invariably, we get off the plane or come out of the car and, you know, we got, we got pretty good at spotting it, cause they'd have a fake cop trying to arrest us or something going on.But yeah, we were, we were kind of worried about how would we stand up to the test that we put so many other people, right.[00:19:46] Russ: Have you ever been actually tricked.[00:19:50] Peter Funt: No simple answer. No. Wow.[00:19:54] Russ: I guess you've, you've been trained[00:19:55] Peter Funt: to spot it. Yeah, I guess you could say that, you know, the truth is my dad and I were never particularly inclined toward practical jokes.I didn't grow up in a house that had dribbled glasses or whoopee cushions or something like that. My dad really fancied himself, a student of human nature and the best parts of Candid Camera as he saw it or observing people and how they handle situations. Sometimes that could be a little bit of stress and how they handle that.And I mean, very mild stress. Other times it was really just a fly on the wall. He did terrific sequences about such simple things as how people chew gum, how people either shoot. How people walk up and downstairs. I did one just a few years ago about how women try to put on false eyelashes. And, you know, you could have gimmick that up.You could have made, I don't know, played with the glue or made them too long or bony, didn't we, it was just what you saw was what life presented. And we just thought it was fascinating. And it was so candid. Camera has always edits best, been or rich blend of little bit of joke. And a little bit of studying human nature and a little bit of laughter therapy.You're[00:21:36] Russ: you're recognized from Candid Camera. You've got the last name. How do you walk into a bank and ask for a loan, or there are people just looking for cameras? I mean, is it, is it[00:21:47] Peter Funt: tough to the extent that people recognize me or, or did my dad were just flattered by that? You know, the only thing worse than the burden of being recognized in public.Is the horror of not being recognized. So, so if that's the price of admission, I don't mind it. And I'm, I'm glad if people think, uh, where's the camera, uh, when they see me, you know, for all the people we've photographed over now, eight different decades going on nine, uh, For all those people. I hear tell there's a vastly larger number of people who have thought at one time or another, they were on Candid Camera, and they really weren't.We weren't there at all, but they write us letters and emails saying that the darndest thing happened. I had to write to you because. My dog did this, or my husband did this and I could have sworn I was on candid.[00:22:58] Russ: That's funny. Well, I mean, you guys have had such a, an impact on everyone's life. Uh, so, okay. So before the interview here, we were talking about, uh, you're out in the Monterrey, which is famous for, uh, clinics would, uh, be in being mayor at one point of view, have you run into a Clint?[00:23:14] Peter Funt: He lives here in pebble beach where I live. And of course his former wife no longer, but at the time Dina was my co-host for three years on Candid Camera. When we did a cable version of this show, just a wonderful lady, Dina, Eastwood, and Clint. Yeah. I, I I've played golf with Clint. I've uh, I write in the book that I, he is such a quirky man.He was kind enough to give my family. And I arrived on the Warner brothers jet to go back and forth from Monterey to Burbank. And the first time we took that flight, we're on the plane waiting for Clint. And here comes this guy down the aisle to take us. And he is carrying a baby pig. Let me, let me just pause while you process that this is the Clint Eastwood and he's cuddling a baby pig.I'm told it was a Vietnamese Potbelly pig. And it turns out that he and his family just love various animals, and they're way beyond dogs and cats, they're into pigs and all sorts of stuff. But what a juxtaposition, you know, this is one of the most powerful guys in Hollywood. One of the toughest guys you'd ever want to meet.And here he is just sorta fawning over this little pig. I write in the book any time. I think I've seen it all. I just remember that, that moment.[00:24:59] Russ: Yeah, I was, I was, uh, trying to try to get you to tell that story. So now I read that and I'm like, really, this is crazy. There's plenty of more like that in this book.And I feel like, yeah, uh, this book was sort of laugh therapy for me, but let's talk a little about the laugh therapy foundation.[00:25:17] Peter Funt: That's a nonprofit that my dad began back in. I guess the late seventies, early eighties, and we still operate that today. It just basically involves us sending specially selected Candid Camera videos to critically ill people at no charge whatsoever.If you know someone who you think could benefit from that, you can go to our website, Candid Camera.com, and then you can find your way to laughter therapy. We'll take it from there, but my father learned back then principally from the author, Norman Cousins. Way back in the seventies, Norman cousins, who was a writer-editor of the Saturday review smart guy, he was sick, and he wrote a very successful book called anatomy of an illness.And in that book, he mentioned that when he was feeling his word. He called. My dad asked if he could borrow some Candid Camera film, and back then he even needed a projector in his hospital room to look at the stuff, but they set it up and he reported that if he could get maybe 15 or 30 minutes of laughter watching this stuff, he could be pain-free for three or four hours.And he did it over and over and found that it really worked. Now. I'm no doctor, I'm no scientist. I'm not making any medical claims. I simply point out that laughter is good. It can make you feel better. It might even increase healing. And, and as Mr. Cousins found out a little bit can go a long way, but most importantly, what he wrote was it was something about the reality of it because he tried Marx brothers and he tried, you know, sitcoms and stuff and laugh is good.No matter how you get it. But Candid Camera in particular, just struck such a responsive chord that it worked well. And my dad decided to call that laughter therapy. It's so[00:27:39] Russ: real, it's real emotion that you're witnessing from these people. It's kind of like, I guess the, you know, the, the, the comparison that I would make is I've watched so many of these, like, uh, uh, you know, soldiers coming home.Uh, reunion type videos. I just, those always get to me. And it's because of the real emotion it's not staged. It's not fake. It's, it's real. And it's funny to say with, with Candid Camera, I mean, so many of the situations are fake, but the emotions are so real.[00:28:07] Peter Funt: It's the relate-ability as well. When we pick our topics properly, we're keying in on things that people experienced themselves.So if they see something happening in one of our sequences, I like it when they're saying in the living room there. Oh yeah. I hate it when that happens or, oh right. That I went through something like that the other day. I don't mean an elaborate joke. I mean the little things in life that drive us all crazy, whether it's the yogurt machine that turns on, but won't turn off one of my favorites that I think everyone can relate to.We just exaggerated. Have you ever left a parking lot? That has one of those wooden bars that is down. And then once you put in your money or your ticket, the bar goes up and you go through. But sometimes it seems that's going too fast, especially if you can't quite reach the machine. So you've got to get out, do your thing.And then by the time you get back in the bars back down again, so we rigged it so we could control the bar with us at the controls. No one could get out. All right. And it was just up and down, up and down, back and forth. And yet, even though we exaggerated the situation, the basic premise was right out of everyday life.Everyone who's ever parked a car in that type of lot can relate. And that's what makes it what I called relatable. And as you said, Funny because it's real. Yeah. And you[00:29:50] Russ: know, actually you bring up too, and I, some of the inventions that you guys came up with the tanning machines or whatever, it was like these, these funny inventions that were out there, you do, how much work did you guys put into R and D the[00:30:06] Peter Funt: R and D usually takes place in our private lives.I mean, I'm always on the lookout for little things that drive me crazy, or, you know, I like to. Well, you know, the phrase don't, don't get mad. Get, even in my case, it's, don't get med, do a Candid Camera sequence. That's how I like it when things play out. But look, there are formulas, and we follow them. One of them.And I outline a bunch of these in the book. Uh, one of them is reversal. So you in a shorthand reference said a tanning machine. But there are tanning machines. So the one we made reversed that and we produced and on tanning machine. So the customer thinks you can go in. Maybe you're just a little too dark today.You got to be, you go into this marvelous machine, push a few buttons and voila you're come out. Two shades lighter. Now the secret to that machine, like so many of the props I've built identical twins. That's a magician's favorite tool, and we've used it for years on Candid Camera. If I hired two twin actresses, and then I sort of put a lot of makeup on one, so they looked darkly, tanned, and then white type stuff on the other.So they look very pale. And they switched places inside the machine. You would swear that this one person went from darker to lighter in the tanning machine[00:31:52] Russ: and it worked great. Yeah. Some of these it's, it is, it's like magic. You guys had a study, uh, all the magicians and learn all those tricks as well to do this.Uh, okay. So. Are people like now we've got technology, we've got all these advancements are our people do these things. There may be harder to full now or are they[00:32:13] Peter Funt: easier to full I'm so glad you asked. I am a hundred percent certain that people are easier to fool than ever before. And I know that runs against your intuition, but I believe it's true.Yeah, these are more high tech times and complicated times, but here's the thing. People my dad used to have to work at distracting people so that he could do his little trick. Now, a days people are self distracted. Right. They're multitasking. They're on the phone. They're texting heaven forbid while driving, but I mean, they're, they're doing all sorts of things.They got multiple things on their mind. We step in and do a little trick, and it's easier than ever to fool them as too high tech. So you say that untangling machine, would people be more or less likely to believe that today? Then in my father's day, easier to believe because there's so much technology in our lives.Why not? That. I mean, think about, you know, we've got self-driving cars, and we've got drones. And so why can't we have, uh, I'm making myself emotional here. Why can't we have tanning machine[00:33:42] Russ: you're right. We would be easier for those reasons. What about the changing of like kind of standards of comedy? What people think are funny, people are, are, are way more sensitive now, I guess, to some comedy.Do you think that that would have any issues as far as like, you know, censorship or what you guys could do now versus[00:34:02] Peter Funt: what you could do before? Censorship has always been a problem on Candid Camera? Not because people said bad words very often, that always surprised me. Real life conversation is nowhere near as salty, as you might assume.Yeah, sure. You go to certain places at certain times or certain to hear some colorful language, but the average person on the street when encountering a stranger does not use four letter words. It just doesn't often happen. But the sensors have networks, and they don't even use the word sensor. They like to call themselves standards and practices.And they are very troubled for decades by Candid Camera, because it was too real. They were happy with double entendre in sitcoms, but if a real person said something. Then, the standards and practices, people got very nervous. Now there were subjects that my dad and I, I say subject, I don't mean the unsuspecting people.I mean, topics that my dad dealt with that I don't think I'd want to touch today. For example, he endured Kirby once went out in the, on the street in bar Harbor, Maine in the sixties. And stopped strangers and said, do you have any idea where we could go to buy a bomb? Now? You know, the thing is in 19 62 63, that was actually funny.We looked at them like, well, what do you mean dynamite? You want to, you know, uh, something in construction, but nobody thought terrorism or anything like that. It was just an innocent surprise. I would not do that today. So of course change and people's sensitivities change, and that's as it should be. And my job as I see it, especially when we get back into new production short.Yeah. It is to stay one step ahead or at least keep pace in an episode.[00:36:21] Russ: How, how much actually ends up on the, on the cutting room floor? Are we seeing, you know, 10% or 1%, it's trying to get a feel of how much[00:36:29] Peter Funt: work this is? Yeah, it's a lot of work, but, and it's like fishing, you know, you put your line in the water and on a good day, you might catch a nice fish in 10 minutes.But another time you're there all day and nothing's biting. And it's no different in our work. I would say that the percentage of stuff that we wind up on the air is, is fairly high. And when it's cut out, it's really not because people said the wrong thing on our show. There is no wrong thing as far as I'm concerned, but it's perhaps because it was redundant or we had a technical problem and, and things like that, uh, I'm all a related question, of course is how many people give us permission or to turn that around?How many people refuse to give us permission? Yeah, you're,[00:37:24] Russ: you're reading my mind[00:37:25] Peter Funt: there on the next one. I'm not changed since my dad's day. The answer is most people are happy to sign this little release form unless. Unless we happen to have caught them at the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong other person, because I'm here to report.If you photograph a guy who's out with someone else's wife. Yeah,[00:37:57] Russ: I can see that. That's funny. So, okay. You've done so much in your life. As I mentioned, kind of in the credits early on, you know, you've, you've written for wall street journal, you worked for ABC news. Of course, all the work with Candid Camera. What would you say is your proudest.[00:38:14] Peter Funt: Oh, my, uh, I, I know, I wish I could say I had one, you know, you mentioned these various things I've done.And I do recount some of the crazier ones in the book, but, uh, it's kinda like how I talk about sports. I play a lot of baseball, and I play a lot of guts. When I'm on the golf course, I like to make an excuse by saying baseball is my sport. And when I'm playing, I point to how good I can be at golf. Let's just same thing in my career.When I'm writing, I say, well, I'm not a good writer, but I can do television. But when I'm trying, struggling on TV, I say, well, I'm basically a writer. So I guess my pride Russ is. I'm staying one step ahead of my own game and trying as many different things as I can. And hoping to smile while I'm doing it.[00:39:12] Russ: Uh, okay. Can you, you you've said smile every time you say it. I think you're going to say the line. Can you give me that would be[00:39:17] Peter Funt: surprised if sometimes somewhere someplace when you least expect it, someone steps up to you and say, Smile. You're on Candid Camera[00:39:31] Russ: theater. Thank you so much for[00:39:32] Peter Funt: joining me a real pleasure us.
8/25/2021

Water, Floods & Sea Level Rise

Season 1, Ep. 18
Water is becoming a real issue in this country. Either we have too much, or we have too little depending on where you are. And for some reason, we keep building houses in flood zones. Why don't we do it today? We learn more about water floods and sea levels.Guest:A.R. Siders - Assistant Professor, Disaster Research Center, University of DelawareShow Links:This is Todayhttps://www.udel.edu/udaily/2021/june/managed-retreat-ar-siders-coastal-cities-future-climate-change/https://theconversation.com/managed-retreat-done-right-can-reinvent-cities-so-theyre-better-for-everyone-and-avoid-harm-from-flooding-heat-and-fires-163052https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/climate/sea-level-managed-retreat.htmlAn overview paper of managed retreat in the USA map of which states disclose flood risk ( by NRDC & Columbia Center for Climate Change Law):https://www.nrdc.org/flood-disclosure-mapAutomated Transcript:[00:00:00] Russ: Water is becoming a real issue in this country. Either we have too much, or we have too little depending on where you are. And for some reason, we keep building houses in flood zones. Why don't we do it today? We learn more about water floods and sea levels.Thanks for listening and thanks for subscribing to learning more where each week we bring you any story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life I'm Russ, and this week. Okay, well, we're continuing a series here in case you haven't noticed, we're talking about climate change. Okay. This one is really interesting to me because there are such extremes here in the United States.I'm in California and each night when we run the dishwasher, we have to see, should we run it? Do we have enough in there? Maybe we should wait a couple of days. We just don't have the water here in the state. So it's a huge problem. On that side of it. And then you turn on the news and you look in various other states and they're literally underwater.We've got a huge problem here and we've got to solve it. We've got to figure it out. So I am joined today by, A.R. Siders an assistant professor from the disaster research center at the University of Delaware. Thank you. Joining me[00:01:31] AR Siders: today. Yeah. Thanks for having me. Uh, as you're talking about the water, the drought, and the flood.I'm reminded. I, I started working on climate change issues when I was working for the US Navy at the time, my boss Admiral Titley used to say that the problem of climate change is all about the water. It's too much, or it's too little it's in the wrong place or at the wrong time. And so I think about that a lot.When it's climate change, it's drought or flood, where's the water coming from? When is it coming? Is it snowpack? Is it melt? What's happening with it, but yeah, water. Is that thebasis of all of this?[00:02:00] Russ: Totally. And you summed up the whole issue right there. I mean, there's too much or too little.I have this dream of like, why don't we just put pipes somewhere and pipe it to California? We can use it. We don't[00:02:16] AR Siders: have any, no, and it's true. Right. But then, so I grew up in Minnesota on lake superior. And so when you talk about pipes, you know, at one point there was, I don't know if it was an urban legend or a real plan, but at one point there was talk about putting a pipe out of lake superior, taking water from the great lakes up to California, or, you know, after the west and the dry.And of course, then everyone who loves the great lakes and their ecosystem sort of, oh no, we're going to destroy these ecosystems. Cause it sounds so simple to move it around, but actually it becomes really complicated in terms of how you, you spread out those,[00:02:48] Russ: those effects.Okay. So let's talk through it first. Okay. We've got the drought issues, but right now, you know, and you don't know when this is going to happen, it can happen at any point. There's coastal flooding and there's sea-level rise, and they're still. Building houses in these areas.[00:03:12] AR Siders: So sea-level rise, this is one of the climate change consequences that we talk about the most.I think it's because it's one of the most obvious and it's the one you sort of see happening. Right? You can watch the tide gauges go up, you can see how that's, uh, coming and it sort of. It's still uncertain, but in some ways, it's more predictable than saying how climate change will affect hurricanes or will it affect hurricanes.Right. There's a lot more uncertainty about that than sea-level rise. Uh, and then, yeah, you, you said it we're building in the. Flood-prone areas we're actually building faster in the United States, in flood-prone areas than we are outside of cleverly. Uh, in Delaware, for example, we're building two and a half times faster in some places inside, uh, inside flood zones that are, have a 10% chance of flooding every year.So. It sounds crazy, but there's such a demand to put housing there. And so you have this mix of demand to put more housing, people wanting those sort of short-term economic benefits. They want to be near the coast. And then the long-term consequences of what happens when then the sea level rises when the beach erodes, when these floods happen and all of that is put at risk, uh, and it creates this, this huge problem, which from an academic standpoint is fascinating to study and try to dig into.All of the[00:04:25] Russ: complications. Should we be really like living next to the coast and doing this? Making mistake after mistake and building these houses.[00:04:33] AR Siders: The real core of the question, right, is what is the value? Why do some people feel the need to live there? Whereas other people feel like they could live nearby and visit the coast.Uh, and I think different states in different communities have really different answers to that. Thinking about this. Like living on the coast because they like being near the beach. It's forms part of their identity. It has all these wonderful amenities. Um, but yeah, there is this fundamental question of, is that a place where people should live?Like when you go back in history, you know, a hundred years ago or 200 years ago, a lot of people didn't build next to the coast that wasn't desirable housing. Risk Chrome, because they knew that if a flood happened or a hurricane happened, their house would be damaged. And it's more recently as we've built more levies and we've done engineering that people start thinking, oh, maybe that's okay.Maybe we can engineer our way out of this problem. And so we build more and more. And now I think we're getting, we're swinging back on that pendulum to the point where maybe we actually can't engineer our way out of this entire problem. Right. I mean, we can limit that problem, but in some places. That doesn't work.And so we're trying to find other solutions. And I think that's what we're starting to talk about. One of the things I study is managed to treat as people who actually relocate away from these risk-prone areas because they started to realize that maybe living there. It isn't the safest idea or the best idea economically.[00:05:54] Russ: I saw some of that in your research. Okay. Let's get into that a little bit. The managed retreat. I thought these were some great ideas, but share that a[00:06:04] AR Siders: little bit with us. So when we think about adaptation to risks in general, I think about climate change adaptation, we talk about categories. Options.So you can sort of resist. And we talked about resist. Usually. We mean, say building a flood wall, you prevent the water from reaching your house. You can accommodate the water. So maybe you elevate your home. The water comes and it goes, but you're high and dry. So there's less damage being done. You can retreat.Move your house away from the floodwater. So the water comes and goes and you're not there. So it doesn't matter. Or you can avoid, which is don't build there in the first place. Uh, and we're not doing a great job at avoiding, but you know, now that we had these buildings there, like once you've put a home in the flood, plain, Then you're kind of looking at it thinking, well, what do we do now?Right. And those are the big categories of options. There are tons of options within each of those categories, but those are the big options. And historically the US like in the last century, we've mostly been doing resistance and accommodation. So we've been elevating homes, building levees, building floodwalls, trying to shore up the shore and keep people in their homes.And more recently, just in the last few decades, we started to see more people, more communities thinking about. Maybe some of these homes need to move. Maybe some of these homeowners want to move, right? They're sick of living behind a floodwall or they're sick of being flooded all the time, but it's a really challenging strategy, right?People live where they live for a lot of good reasons and some of them are really loath to leave[00:07:24] Russ: there. What about like a hybrid solution where you've got multiple different ways of, uh, or, or you're taking those various managed retreat solutions and putting them all together?[00:07:37] AR Siders: I think this is what we're going to have to see in the future because we tend to talk about these as though they're alternatives.Like either, we're going to build a floodwall or we're going to do manage a retreat, or we're going to elevate. And one of the reasons they can feel like alternatives is different federal agencies fund different strategies. So the US Army Corps of Engineers mostly funds building seawalls. Whereas FEMA mostly.Uh, home elevation and property buyouts and HUD helps with property buyouts. So you kind of have to do different agencies and it could feel like you have to do one or the other. But the best solutions are probably going to involve all of the above. Right? When we think about Miami and how it's going to deal with sea-level rise, it's probably going to have some seawalls, some home elevations, some neighborhoods relocating, and some other strategies, dune renourishment and wetland restoration, all types of things.Uh, you know, you think about the categories, like the ingredients in a recipe, and you can create different recipes depending on how you mix them and how much you have of each different option. We don't want to have one thing. That's all retreat or one place. That's all resistance. You're probably going to have a mix of the above.And the tricky bit is figuring out how much of each one makes sense in a given[00:08:46] Russ: that's kind of the happy medium in all of this, right? Like you're getting the best of both worlds. You know, because you're doing this. Okay. Well, you think about the seawalls, like, and you know, we have, uh, in the city I live in, we do have, there's a small seawall.Uh, that's protecting some of these houses that they built below flood level, which is why did they do that? I don't know, but they did. So they have the sea wall. And, you know, they've got like some areas where you can walk on the seawall and all of that, but really those houses, they have zero views of the water now because of the seawall.So it's like, okay, you're missing out on that. So perhaps if there was a hybrid solution, you can have the seawalls a little bit lower. The house is a little more elevated and maybe it is making things a little bit[00:09:37] AR Siders: better. We, we are going to see a lot of hybrids and, you know, you raise an interesting point, which is that.All of these strategies have trade-offs they all have pros and cons, right? You're behind a levee. Great. Your home is safer. The water can't get in, at least as long as the Levy's maintained. And if it's well, it's a good levy. Uh, but yeah, you lose your view of the ocean. And I think this is the part where we start having to have some really tough conversations as communities to think about what matters most to you.Do you care most about living here? You know, in this exact neighborhood, in this exact house, do you care most about having a view of the ocean? Do you care most about having access to the beach? Because building that levy might destroy access to the beach. If the water rises up to the point where it meets the levy and there's no sand on the beachside.So, you know, we have to start thinking about which of these things is our priority, and those are really hard conversations. And that's an answer where there isn't a writer. Engineering answer, right? That's not something you can plug into a mathematical formula and say, this is right or wrong. That's our value.Yeah. That's our personal,[00:10:38] Russ: emotional attachment to the area.[00:10:41] AR Siders: What are your emotions about it? And people have really strong emotions, really strong opinions about their communities. And so, so these conversations, aren't going to be scientific engineering. Here's the right answer. They're going to have to be these harder, more emotional conversations about what we want the community to look like in the future.Right. That's really challenging because those emotions are hard. So it's really difficult conversations, uh, you know, examples of communities that start fighting over this and, and it can really, really cause a lot heartache at the same time. Uh, mostly because climate change can be so depressing to talk about.I try to find the optimism and I think this is an area where you can be optimistic like while we're thinking about what really matters to us, let's talk about how we could do better at emphasizing whatever. Yeah. That we care about most[00:11:31] Russ: well, and that's going to be so different per person, like in, in one community, you could have people wanting different things in one city.You're definitely gonna have that. How do we keep this equitable? How do we keep this fair? When making these typesof[00:11:45] AR Siders: decisions? The big question that comes up with this sort of equity and fairness is. Whose homes are going to be protected behind a flood wall and whose homes are going to be relocated.And what you worry about, what you don't want to see is you don't want to see all the rich homes, the wealthy homes being protected and the low-income neighborhoods being relocated and forced out. Right? You want to make sure that this is being done in a way that's fair to everyone and is, and doesn't just give the amenities of being on the coast to wealthy homeowners.And that's a problem. That seems to be what we're seeing right now is that more wealthy homeowners are getting protected with, by floodwalls, uh, because they can pay for them on their own or because the local government wants to protect those property taxes. Aright and lower-income neighborhoods maybe are getting relocated more often because it doesn't, it's not cost-effective to them.A flood wall in front of a lower income[00:12:37] Russ: neighborhood right now. Okay. So I didn't write this down, but you mentioned earlier some of the, um, government organizations that are managing this there, the retreat method is different per the organization. Is that just, we're seeing certain communities move because that's the organization or the government organization that's going in.Is that why that changes? Well, so[00:12:58] AR Siders: this, that's actually a really interesting question and it's one I want to learn more about. Uh, so that's actually one of the research questions I'm hoping to find out more about. Uh, I, I wonder if that's happening, right. A disaster occurs. And if the US Army Corps is the first person to show up and they say, Hey, we have money for a flood wall.And if FEMA shows up first and says, Hey, we have money for flood out for home elevations, you elevate homes. Right. And I don't know how much the community is really sitting down and say, Is a flood wall best or is the elevation[00:13:25] Russ: best. Yeah. And that's perhaps the only advice that they're getting and, you know, when, when the only, uh, tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right.That, that old saying everything was[00:13:34] AR Siders: like, yeah, well, and this is an area where I think it's one of the reasons, um, that historically we've built so many levees and so many flood walls, right. It's like, uh, they worked for a while. They worked in certain circumstances. Using that hammer. And so everything looks like a build a flood wall solution.Right? Right. And now we're starting to see that, Hey, maybe putting levies all along the Mississippi actually has caused some real problems because of the way it's changed sediment and change flooding. And we're not maintaining those levies. Right. Those are expensive things to maintain. So when they're not maintained, Think they're safe, but they're actually not safe.And when those levies are over-talked or they break anyway. Yeah. It's, there's a problem with relying on just one strategy is that you can tend to overuse it in scenarios where maybe it wasn't the right answer, just because it worked somewhere else doesn't mean it's going to work. All right.[00:14:23] Russ: So we got to get into some of the money spent by the government and some of the ways that the government is handling this, we'll get into that.We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll continue the conversation.If you enjoy history, maybe you're just feeling a little nostalgic or you wonder who's having a birthday today, or maybe you need a reason to celebrate. Well, we've got the perfect podcast for you. It is called, this is today and each and every day we talk about the historical. Celebrity birthdays. We also talk about whatever is going on today.There's always something to celebrate when you listen to this is today, right? And it is just 10 minutes each day, you can make it a daily habit. You can even add it to your Alexa flash briefing, click the link in the description, or just search in your favorite podcast app or. Is[00:15:23] AR Siders: today.[00:15:26] Russ: Thanks for listening and subscribing to learning more we're underwater.In this episode, we're talking water, we're talking ways to adapt to our changing climate. It's a frustrating and interesting topic, and we're also trying to put a positive spin on it. I'm talking with AR Siders and assistant professor. I want to talk a little about the money behind all of this and specifically the government.Yeah. That was spent on this billion of dollars spent on cleaning up after a disaster. But I don't really hear about the money going in to help us upfront to prevent that disaster. It almost feels like the government is like, let's have the insurance companies pay for this, or let's have personal people pay for this instead of us.Yeah. Is that happening or what's going on here?[00:16:15] AR Siders: All right. All right. There are these two pieces, right? So the first bit is like the mitigation. So reducing the risk, preventing the disaster from happening versus paying for it afterward. And you're spot on that. Historically, the US has done so much more on post-disaster recovery.We spend hundreds of billions of dollars post-disaster recovery, right. And we spend very little pre-disaster. Mitigation, uh, there's an effort to change this. Uh, FEMA now has a program called brick building resilient infrastructure and communities, and it's supposed to be aimed explicitly at trying to reduce risk.It's had other programs in the past. FEMA has, but this is supposed to be a bigger program with more emphasis on how do we reduce risk? One of the real challenges. Is the federal government doesn't have the authority to stop people from building in floodplains or fire-prone areas? That's a local guy. And the local government doesn't have an incentive to do it, right?So if a local government gets more money, the more houses they build, cause they get property tax revenue, they get the population boosts, et cetera. So there's some great work by Linda Shai showing that local governments actually have a financial incentive to build more homes. Even if they know that they're in a hazard prone.And the federal government doesn't have any authority to prevent that is then left holding the bill when those homes are flooded or burned down or destroyed in a disaster. So there's this real mix between who's paying for it. And who has the authority to reduce the risk in the first place? It's a FEMA stuck in the middle, trying to use this money to try to incentivize local governments to take action.That's hard cause they're fighting against all of these, these incentives. And then the other thing you mentioned with the insurance companies is like that's a whole, uh, that's a whole kind of worms on its own. Um, so the real question was insurance. What do you do when the insurance companies won't insure a property when it's too risky?So with flood-prone properties back in the sixties, a bunch of flood insurance companies said it is too risky. You are building homes in areas that are so risky that we will not insure them. So the federal government created the national flood insurance program, and we're still running it today. And so the federal government actually provides flood insurance for homes that are located in the flood plain.And I love the quote. One guy writes about this. He says it's like a car insurance company that only provides policies to drunk 16-year-old boys. That's it? That's the only, like the only people you give this to are people who, you know, will have access, right? Because we're all living in flood insurance policies to people we know we'd be flooded.And so as a result, this program is bankrupt. Like it, you know, it's, it's overdrawn. Yeah, it doesn't get enough money. So there are all kinds of efforts trying to fix it. And it's a huge problem. And now we're seeing the problem happen with wildfire because now wildlife fire insurance companies are saying, Hey, these wildfires are so big.We don't want to insure these homes anymore. And states like California are saying, whoa, if you don't insure these homes, what's going to happen to the homeowners when that home burns down. And so I think there is this idea. Do you have, like, you want the insurance companies to do more and they're trying to do more because they are?Hundreds of billions of dollars. And look at reinsurance companies who insure the insurance companies were paying all this it's hugely expensive to them and they want more action taken. But again, you have to create an incentive for the local government to actually step in and say, no, you shouldn't build there in the first place.And that's really hard to convince a local government to do you have to stand up to a developer to stand up for a homeowner and say, no, you can't build, or you can't rebuild. Right?[00:19:43] Russ: Yeah. Well, you know, you mentioned California. I mean, one of them, the issues that we have in California is the the state is essentially forcing more houses to be built because they want lower-income houses, which makes sense.There's also this factor. Where, where are those being built? Are they being built in areas that are[00:20:05] AR Siders: disaster-prone? It's a huge, huge problem. Uh, I mean our most work, mostly in flood, but nationally government-sponsored housing. So government-subsidized, affordable housing. Yeah. Some estimates are 10% of that is inside the flood plain.Wow. So we're building affordable housing for people who need government-subsidized housing, and we're putting it in areas where these people are going to experience floods. And it's a real challenge everywhere, right? The housing crisis, but it does suggest that we have to come up. Some new strategies.And this is, you know, trying to be optimistic again like this is where I try to see the optimism that I think there are a lot of creative strategies for how we can build affordable housing, how we can build more densely in the cities we have. If we choose to go that route, right. It's about, are we really ready to prioritize, building safe, affordable housing, right.And I'm not sure that that's really been a priority. The wage. And if it were, we could find strategies to do that.[00:20:56] Russ: Okay. I said we tried to take it on a, on a bit of a problem. No, it's hard[00:21:02] AR Siders: sometimes I know.[00:21:03] Russ: Yeah. Let's talk about some of the spendings on infrastructure bills. Uh, there's one that could happen right now.Let's talk about that. If you were in charge, what would you put inside of an infrastructure bill?[00:21:16] AR Siders: I think one of the things is long-term maintenance for our folks. Management infrastructure. Uh, so the United States has hundreds of miles and more than that, of levees and floodwalls all across the United States, uh, and the American society of civil engineers, it goes in and grades, this infrastructure, right?A through F and only 8%. Is considered an acceptable condition. Wow. So that means 92% of the floodwalls that people are living behind are not considered to be an acceptable condition. They need to be updated and they estimate that it would cost a hundred billion dollars just to repair them, not to put them up to climate change levels, not to increase them, not to do any future maintenance, just to get them all to an acceptable level.And then you're talking $15 billion a year after that every year, just to maintain them. The infrastructure bills that come in and they give a short, uh, influx of money are great. But you have to wonder about where is that 15 billion every year going to come from, not from the next five years, the next 10 years of the bill, but for the next hundred years.Yeah. Right. And that's, that's a really big question. And when we're thinking about climate change adaptation, we're thinking. We have to be thinking in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Uh, I mean, I mean the price tag is going to be enormous, whether we do retreat or we built floodwalls or we elevate homes, it's going to be gigantic.And it doesn't feel like we've actually started planning for that in a, I don't know, in a realistic way. Well, so when you see[00:22:45] Russ: the price tag of $15 billion a year, I would think we probably spend more than that on like, you know, fixing the issues after they've happened. Right. Well, this[00:22:56] AR Siders: goes back to that push of where do you spend your money?Right? Most of the calculations that come out estimate somewhere between. Well, I've seen as much as for every dollar you spend on flood mitigation. So building flood walls, relocating homes, elevating them, you save $4 down the road. Uh, and some people will go as high as $8 saved. So if you think about that, that's a 400%, you know, the 800% investment.That's a, that's a really solid investment. But convincing, especially local governments or especially spending say small towns who maybe are struggling with their budgets anyway, to try to combat that cash upfront is really hard. Right. They know they might save money down the line, but, but coming up with that tax, the upfront capital investment, I think is part of the trick.So how do we do that? Well,[00:23:46] Russ: it just feels like, I mean, you know, every year. Every podcast. I talk about either, you know, about city planning or, you know, future-proofing or future planning. Like we're, we've always been, um, very much about today and not about tomorrow. So it goes along with that theme, unfortunately, and there's very little that we can do aside.You know, vote, I guess, as far as the federal government[00:24:11] AR Siders: level is really important though. And actually, I've become convinced that, uh, anyone listening to this podcast, like one of the real challenges is get involved in your local planning board because your local planning board is the person who's deciding whether affordable housing is built, whether they invest in repairing flood infrastructure and whether or not they build new homes in the flood plain.And so few people actually participate. In local planning boards that you can have a real difference if you show up and make your voice.[00:24:41] Russ: Yeah. Well, that's what I was saying on the federal level. You can't do much, but on the local level, yeah. You can jump in and actually[00:24:47] AR Siders: make a different levels where we need, we need action at the local level right now.That's where we need people to speak out. Right.[00:24:52] Russ: So I, uh, one of my first jobs is a cameraman at a city council meeting. Wow, that sounds like a tough, uh, there were nights, I felt like they would never end, but the thing was, you know, you got the same few people going in there over and over and over again, to try to make this point.And I just always thought as I was sitting there, um, aside from how do I stay awake tonight? Um, but I always thought like if more people came in here and actually made a point about something. I think more things would get done. Yeah. Okay. So outside of the government, let's talk about just us personally, what can we do to make a difference?[00:25:38] AR Siders: Well, okay. So usually my answer to that is to go to the planning boards, right. Is engaged with the local government because I think it. The United States has had such a tradition of wanting local governments, like towns and cities to have authority. But that really depends on the people who are participating, but so really engaging, I think is incredibly important.The other thing I'll note is to educate yourself because, so for example, when you purchase a new home, right? If you're, if you're buying or if you're renting some stuff, You're the seller is required to tell you that your home is in the floodplain and that you are at risk and that you'll have to buy flood insurance and so forth.But in some states you're not, there's no requirement like Florida, Massachusetts. There is no requirement for the home seller to tell you that the home has a history of flooding, that it is in the flood, plain, that you will be required to purchase flood insurance. So. Uh, it really puts the onus on the buyer to educate yourself about flood risk.And I say this because I really worry about you reading these news stories about people whose homes flooded and they say, wow, I wish I'd known that it flooded before I bought it before I made this huge financial decision and put my family at risk, et cetera. And we need to fix the systems we need to.Create systems that will give people that information. But in the meantime, you can really help by educating yourself about it and trying to, to take that step because that'll, that'll help push the system to fix it. Yeah.[00:27:02] Russ: The other thing I would mention is if you're buying a home in a flood area or a wildfire look up the insurance before you actually make that offer.Because it can be expensive. It can be.[00:27:15] AR Siders: Yeah. Sometimes you're talking tens of thousands of dollars[00:27:17] Russ: a year. Yeah. Hey, thank you so much for joining me today and talking to us about,[00:27:20] AR Siders: yeah. Thank you for discussing this issue. It's always great to have more conversations about these things. They're hard to talk about, but they don't get easier for avoiding them.[00:27:30] Russ: And you know what? There is another positive. We're not avoiding it. We're talking about it right. At three episodes on climate change over the last three. Weeks. I thank you for listening to those. I thank you for subscribing. If you missed any of those episodes, Hey, they're right there. Just subscribe to the podcast, go back and listen to the last couple of ex episodes and you know what next.
8/18/2021

Climate Change, Wildfires and Smoke

Season 1, Ep. 17
Wildfire has become the smell and sight of summer in many locations throughout the United States and worldwide. What is it doing to our health?In this episode of Learning More, we learn more about wildfire smoke and its effects on our health. We speak with Luke Montrose, an Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Health, Boise State University.Show Links:Luke's department website.Luke's lab website.PurpleAirAirNowHow to make a DIYair filter with a box fanShow Transcription (Automated)Environmental Toxicologist===[00:00:00] Russ: Wildfire has become the smell and sight of summer in many locations throughout the United States and throughout the world. What is it doing to our health? We learn more about wildfires and our health.All right. Thanks for listening. And thanks for subscribing to learning more, where each episode, we bring you a new story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. I'm Russ. And this week, I am joined by Luke Montrose. He's an assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise state university.Thanks for joining me, Luke. Thank you for that. I live in California, which many people call the golden state, but here in California, we know that it's actually become the orange state, at least over the last few years. It's like weeks of the summer are just filled with orange skies here from the wildfires and okay.Yeah. Obvious. Problems with the wildfires are the homes that are being burned down the, you know, lives lost in this, but you've also got to start to think about what is this doing to me and to my health. So you're an environmental toxicologist. Can you tell us a little about that? And then we'll get into kind of what this is doing to each one?[00:01:38] Luke:Yeah. So environmental toxicology is broadly the study. Yeah. The world around us and how it interacts with our bodies causes biological, adverse reactions. So this could be anything from table salt, water, all the way up to cyanide. And so, I specifically study wildfire smoke and what that does from an acute standpoint.So short-term exposures as well, as, as you've mentioned now, these long-term exposures being exposed for multiple months. And maybe even if you live in California for 50, 60 years, what is 50 years of being exposed a couple of months at a time?[00:02:17] Russ: So what does it do[00:02:18] Luke: so we have a wealth of information about what particulate matter does to our lungs and the rest of our body.But what is particulate matter, and why is that different than wildfire smoke? So particulate matter is a very broad term. That essentially means anything that can be suspended in the air that you can breathe into your lungs. So that could be urban particulate matter. So think like car pollution industrial pollution coming out of it.That could be silica dust. So you get that when you're in a farming environment or if you're driving down a dusty road, and then you also have a particulate matter that comes from wildfire smoke, and these do different things to your lungs. And we don't have as much information about wildfire smoke as we do about general air pollution, particulate matter.But what we do know is that it's some particles are small enough that they get all the way into ours. And once they're there, they can call—all kinds of damage. And in particular, they can cause inflammation, and they can disrupt the natural immune response that your body is supposed to have.[00:03:28] Russ: This makes me think instantly about secondhand smoke.We did all these things here, here in California, a little longer ago where you couldn't smoke inside, you know, like bars, restaurants, things like that. We banned that, like, I don't know, years ago I happened to be working as a DJ at the time. So I was in a lot of bars and clubs, and it was amazing once they did this band.Cause I would smell the smoke on my clothes when I would get home. So I'd have to like shower and change when I got home. Just cause it smelled so bad[00:03:55] Luke: here in Boise, Idaho, we get a lot of secondhand smoke from our neighbors to the west. And so that's why and we can get into this, but you know, mitigation strategies to try to tamp down wildfires and the smoke that.It can't be just a state-by-state prerogative. We need to be thinking. Sort of more nationally more globally about this because smoke doesn't know when a zip code changes or when state boundaries change. So we have these issues with it being transient. Okay.[00:04:26] Russ: So there's that issue of the secondhand smoke?I'm thinking what about the issues that we might see with the firefighters going right into the smoke and having to experience this for a longer period of time? So, this is a[00:04:41] Luke: really great question that I am putting a lot of effort into trying to move the needle on this. And spoiler alert, I guess the wildland firefighting community does not have a robust cohort design long-term study going on.So what I mean by that is we are not actively recruiting and following, tracking and monitoring the health of wildland firefighters in the way that we should be doing. Such so that we can answer your questions. And as an example of what I would say. Let's say that we wanted to know the relative risk of lung cancer for a wildland firefighter.Who's worked 50 years versus twenty-five years versus five years. The cohort needed for that does not currently exist. There are no ongoing studies where we would be able to tap into those resources and ask that question. But those are important questions, but that's the spoiler alert. We don't have the answer, but if we were going to have me.I tell my students that environmental exposures environmental toxicology is all about three main things: dose duration and frequency. And so a caveat to that is I'll get asked a lot of times in an interview or in my classes or at a conference, you know, you're talking about Woodsmoke and how bad it is or how bad potentially.Do you sit around a campfire? Do you know, does your family partake in campfires while you're camping? Of course, we do. Again, this gets back to that central sort of idea of toxicology, dose direction, duration, and frequency. So let's talk, let's talk about dose first. While in firefighters job is to engage in with a fire.They're going to try to stay away from the fire as much as possible. They're going to try to stay out of the downwind side. Cause obviously, that's going to be the way that the fire's moving, so they don't want to be in the smoke. If I'm around a campfire, I don't want to be around the smoke. I'm going to do my best not to have an extended duration of exposure, which impacts a dose.As far as duration goes, wildland firefighters like that their job they're going to work an entire season, likely around a fire. They're going to work multiple seasons in a row. Cause that's their career. They're trying to make money. I'm exposed to a campfire on a good year. When I, when I'm trying to go out and go camping as much as possible, you know, maybe four or five weekends out of a year.And that gets into frequency. So how many times in my lifetime will I be exposed to a fire? A how many times throughout my life will I be exposed to a campfire? You know, multiply that out as many good years as I have to go camping. And you know, we're talking, you know, around 50 times maybe, whereas these firefighters.You know, they're exposed to year after year, day after day two. These guys work 14-hour shifts. They go on two-week rolls what they call a, a like a deployment. They call them roles 14 hours a day. These are extreme exposures that we're dealing with. And unfortunately our, we used to say that the the dichotomy between occupational exposures, like wildland firefighters, Public health.So community exposures were so different that we shouldn't even compare them, but now we see communities that can be exposed for months at a time, year after year. The community exposures are starting to look a lot more like our wildland firefighter counterparts, which goes to. We definitely need to be tracking, studying, and monitoring their health because it's probably going to shed light on what's happening to us and our lungs and potentially the rest of our bodies.So[00:08:14] Russ: we're going through, in some cases, six weeks of smelling smoke day after day after day. Sometimes you can't even open your windows because there's so much smoke, but still, there's that exposure. Every single day, especially for those of us that are working outside or I'm spending a lot of time in the[00:08:35] Luke: outdoors.You sparked another idea in my head that I want to make sure that we clarify here. One of the big differences between community exposure and wild wildland, firefighter exposure, or other outdoor. Folks who work outside. So let's list some of those off real quick. So we're talking about agricultural workers.We're talking about construction workers. We're talking about wildland firefighters and all of the other personnel that goes into helping to contain fires—the big difference between community exposure and wild, wild, and firefighter exposure. Let's use you as an example. I'm assuming that for that month and a half, that you were being exposed, you weren't outside, or if you were you're outside infrequently, us standard is about 90% of our time is spent, spent indoors that's in some kind of a structure or in your car.And the reason that that is important is that. For the most part, your structures, your car, all of those have the capability of filtering air. And so it's likely that their indoor air that you're breathing nine out of 10 breaths every day is filtered to some capacity. Now. That depends on where you are.That depends on what type of HPAC system or the air handling system that you have in your house, work car, any differences. Okay. So[00:09:55] Russ: for those of us out there that are exposed for multiple days, multiple weeks, is there data out there? Sorta gives us a little information into what the future.[00:10:06] Luke: holds for.So there is some very, very new data that's coming out right now. A lot of it's coming out of the 2018 fires that happened in California. And there's one specific example in a community in Montana. Researchers from the University of Montana, got a grant to go to this small rural community called Seeley lake.And I'll use that as an example cause these are colleagues of mine who did that study. They essentially, this community, Seeley lake was inundated with smoke for multiple weeks. There was so much smoke there that they were advised by local authorities that they should evacuate. And the majority of the community did not evacuate.So there was this natural experiment essentially set up. And my colleagues went in they started asking some questions. They started asking questions about reasons why they didn't evacuate. They started asking sort of biological questions. Like what was their current immune status? And then with the idea that they wanted to track the immune status of folks who were exposed in Seeley lake and folks who lived in that area but weren't exposed.So just outside of the Seeley lake valley in the path of the smoke, essentially to get a con controller as best control as they could. And what they're finding, doing repeated measures from right after they got exposed to now a couple of years out, they see that their immune response was dysregulated.And that for some. That dysregulation was persistent. So the military its effects, the negative effects of that smoke that they had on their lungs. Their ability for their lungs to respond appropriately was, was being mismanaged by their biological system. And that mismanagement continued. Even after you remove the smoke, the smoke was no longer in their valley.And a year later, it was almost as if you took a snapshot of their immune system. AF right after it had been exposed to smoke. And if you looked at that snapshot a year later and you compared it to what was actually in their lungs a year later, they still look the same, and that we wouldn't have necessarily expected that we would have expected the lung to be able to bounce back if you will.Right. And in this case, that does not appear to be the case now that study's ongoing. And we'll see if, into the future, these folks get some type of return to.[00:12:35] Russ: Wow. Yeah, that's crazy. I bet. I look, you know externally I pull out that the filters that you mentioned earlier, you know like I have a filter on my car.I just changed it. I don't know, about two months after dealing with the fires last year. It was black. You know, it was unrecognizable as, like an air filter. There was so much on there with the pandemic. We were sort of all introduced to our own little filters, the masks that we wear, either the N95 or a cloth maths.Do those actually help in this case with the[00:13:11] Luke: wildfires, that is a very important and frequently asked question. I guess not a complex answer, but it's one that has nuance. Right? So let's break it. Let's break these two masks apart and talk about what they're both good for. So when we're in the COVID pandemic, and we're being advised by our authorities or public health authorities that we need to be wearing a mask for the purposes of containing the spread of a virus, you need to be wearing at minimum a cloth mask, and there are all kinds of resources.The different layering techniques and why that works. And one of the common questions that I get is why does that mask work for a virus that is so, so small, and that is accurate. The actual virus on the individual virus particle is extremely strong, small, but it doesn't travel alone. It travels in groups, and it travels normally agglomerated or stuck to. You can think of them as essentially spit part of.And that's why that cloth mask that's why that cloth mask works. Now let's compare that to the N95 masks that you're going to be advised to wear during a wildfire smoke event. The N 95 mask gets its name because it scrubs out 95% of the airborne particles that are capable of traveling deep into the lungs.So, this is very different than just a cloth mask, which would probably scrub out less than 5% of those particles. It's it would do a pretty good job on the larger part. But you already have a system in place for scrubbing out those large particles, and that's your nose and your nose hair. And you know that from being in a dirty place for a while, you know, you go blow your nose, the tissues, all dirty, you know that your nose is doing a pretty good job at, at scrubbing out those large particles.So another small caveat to this, about those in 95. Is the folks who listen to this podcast won't may not know this, but I have a beard. And that's a very important feature to think about when you're talking about an in 95 in 95 need to be essentially fit tested. So you have to go to an industrial hygienist or another author.A person who checks the actual fitment of the mass, not just the size and shape of your face, but also the seal. And there's some training that's involved in that. And so, a guy like me with a beard will not ever get a satisfactory fitment of a mask. All of the particles just are able to go around the mask, through my beard, and then into my nose and mouth, providing me limited to no.Protection. So those are the two types of masks and what they're good for. It's a little bit of a nuanced answer, but it's really important for folks to know.[00:16:04] Russ: that. Yeah, yeah, no, I also have a beard, you know, maybe what we need to do is like have these like reverse goatees. So that just underneath the mask,[00:16:12] Luke: that would be, that would make a great cartoon, I think.[00:16:15] Russ: Yeah. Yeah, it would. Hey, we're going to take it a short break here. We've got more to talk about on this topic. We'll be right back.[00:17:15] Russ: Thanks for listening. And thanks for subscribing to learning more where each episode, we bring you a news story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. I'm Russ.And this week, I'm talking to Luke Montrose. He's an assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise state university and an environmental toxicologist telling us about the air that we breathe. So, okay. I went down to Los Angeles just a couple of weeks ago. And looking over this. There was definitely less smart.Now I was only there for a day, so I just saw it a little bit, but you know; usually I'm used to not being actually able to see the buildings when I drive through LA anyway, continue down the road. And then, all of a sudden, now I'm dealing with wildfire smoke for so long. We have been talking about clean air, and you know, the EPA X, long ago of trying to make our air better.Are the wildfires just kind of taking all of this progress that we've made? Away some[00:18:16] Luke: of the most recent projections that I've seen on wildfire smoke and its contribution to the overall amount of particulate matter that the United States is exposed to throughout the year, suggest that we're on track for wildfire smoke to reach 50% of our annual particulate matter.If, think of it like, wait, if it were all put on a scale, all other sources on one side. And wildfire, on the other, they would balance each other out. Now what's even more disturbing about that is these projections suggest that in some Western communities that wildfire smoke may make up as much as 70% of their annual.A weight of particulate matter. And this really gets at that idea that we talked about, where I said that different types of particulate matter impact our body in different ways. This is because you can think of particulate matter like a vehicle or a car that's carrying passengers. And in this case, those passengers are chemicals, and that chemical profile is different.Based on where the particulate matter was generated from. So wildfire smoke generated from a wildfire has a very different profile chemical profile on the outside of particles than does urban particularly, let's say, car exhaust. And what we're finding there was just a study recently published from a group in California that looked at some recent California wildfires and then looked at what.Rates of hospitalization, mortality, and some other aspects were it was a wildfire when there wasn't a wildfire, and they were able to model out essentially non-wildfire days, they were able to compare what, what are they, what are the health metrics when it's just urban particulate matter?And what are the health metrics when it's just wildfire? They found that wildfire smoke days produced more hospital visits and mortality. This is small, this was a relatively small study in just California. But this is troubling data when we think about this transition to more wildfire smoke by weight compared to all other particulate matter sources.And we see that wildfire smoke is particularly toxic. And then we look at what's been done so far and we, and we really. We know, we know a lot about urban particulate matter, but we really don't know that much about wildfire smoke. So I think that this is a timely thing to consider, and hopefully, we're able to put some more effort behind producing the types of data that we would need to make some of these conclusions.Wow,[00:20:46] Russ: just jeez. So, okay. Let's, let's go to this if I were to give you a magic one. And environmental toxicologist, what would you do? How would you help to address the issue of wildfire smoke?[00:21:04] Luke: So that's a great question. There's there would be a reactionary approach, which would be, well, we can't fix the wildfires or the smoke, but we could maybe help.And so these would be intervention and money for intervention and mitigation strategies and educational resources for all the people who are going to be exposed to smoke. But reactionary strategies are most often not as effective as you know, mitigation strategies that go toward them, of the cause.And in this case, there's an open debate on what that is, which makes answering your question problematic because you have one camp of people who say, you know, this could be climate change. Do you have one camp of people who say this is more about forest management or mismanagement over the last five or six decades?And then you have folks who say, you know, this is the way that we put out fires. Is actually causing this so fire management. And so it depends on which camp you're in as to which strategy we might, you know, proceed with. And I think what we need to do is come together and whether you're in any, either of those three camps, there's probably a solution that we could all agree on.If we take the, the buzzwords or the hot button issues. If, if, if climate change rubs you the wrong way, you know, let's talk about you know, let's talk about drought-related issues. I think we can all agree that we're in the middle of like a 20 year in some of our Western states, we're in a 20-year drought, whether you agree with, with the folks on whether that's due to climate change or global warming here, that's neither here nor there.If you're forest management if you're in that. Let's talk about the types of strategies that we could be used across the state borders so that everyone's on the same page that we should be implementing. And when it comes to fire management, let's talk about that. W when should we let fires burn, and when should we put them out?What are the, you know, the tools and the matrices that we need to use to address those types of issues? And then let's not forget about, you know, the community impacts of this. So when we're going to let these fires burn, what can we be doing to protect the downwind communities? It's going to be a comprehensive look at this question.That's going to result in a viable solution, and fighting between those three camps is not going to do anything. To help find resolve as[00:23:38] Russ: far as what we do in the meantime is to you know, limit, you said what dose duration and frequency try to stay out of this if, if we can, as much as possible, what other things can we do to kind of protect our own health?And let's say the health of our kids.[00:23:55] Luke: Yeah, this is very, very important. And what I tell colleagues, friends students. You, you should empower yourself. You should become a citizen scientist, and you should look for any resource you can to help bolster your knowledge on how you can lower your exposure to wildfire smoke.And I'll give you a few examples of how to do that. One is to have an HVAC professional come and service your air conditioner and furnace. And while they're out there, ask them. What is the highest level of filtration? So they measure filtration in what's called a Merv, and Merv stands for a minimum efficiency reporting value.So ask your HVAC personnel. What's the highest Merv rating filter I can put in my HVAC system. The next thing I would do is look into purchasing a HEPA air filter, a standalone air filtration unit. I would encourage you to think about where do you spend the most time in your house. If that's your living room and you're only going to buy one, put it in your living room.In my house, we have two; we have one in our living room and one in our bedroom. The next thing I would do is. Somewhere in this conversation, we were discussing whether or not indoor air quality is actually better than outdoor air quality. The best way to find that out is to measure it. And there are so many cool new, low-cost monitors on the market.Today, you can pick these things up for free. So $100, and there definitely aren't a regulatory monitor. They have the limitations, but for home use and for your own educational purposes, ask yourself, what's my air inside today. What's my air outside. What's the air like that at the gym. What is the air like at night?Place of business. Now, if you're using your one monitor to do all of those different tests, whether or not it perfectly matches with a regulatory unit that your department of environmental quality uses really doesn't matter all that much because you're comparing apples to apples, to apples, to apples.Right? And so, by doing that, you are empowering yourself to learn more about the air. And hopefully, that motivates you to think about some of those mitigation strategies that I mentioned.[00:26:11] Russ: buying one of these devices is one way of doing it, but there are also places online where people can go.[00:26:16] Luke: So another thing that people can do is follow along either on Twitter or Facebook or just on their internet webpage with your local department of environmental quality.Your state may have something like Idaho has, which is called the Idaho smoked blog, where they consolidate a lot of information on where fires are burning, where the smoke is going and what your local air quality is. If you don't have that in your community, you can go to the EPA resource.They have a smoke since act, and they also have an air now app, and both of these will tell you about your local community air. And then there's a lot of new sort of crowdsourced resources on the internet. For example, purple air is a fairly low-cost monitor that has such a robust network that it's now being adopted by a lot.Local authorities, you can go onto the purple air website, and you can view the purple air map, which will show you air quality from all around the world, including if there is a monitor in your neighborhood.[00:27:16] Russ: Awesome. And Luke was nice enough to provide links to some various places where you can go to get air monitors, a link over to purple air, and other resources.All of those links are in the description. Luke. Thank you so much for joining me today and helping us learn or about wildfires and our health.[00:27:37] Luke: Thank you so much.[00:27:38] Russ: All right, we continue the conversation next week. It's a three-part series. We're talking about climate change. Last week we talked how it's going to affect our finances.If you miss that show, definitely do go check that one out. And next week, you're going to want to hang in there for this one. We're going to learn about sea-level rise and all of these floods, all of these issues with water. Well, and in some places, lack of water, like here in California. That is next week.The best way to remember to listen to Learning More is to subscribe. And the best way to help us out is to share the show and also review the show wherever you can. Oh yeah. Also, check out our daily show. This is today. There's a link available for that in the podcast description. Thanks for listening.I'm Russ. And I'll talk to you next time.