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Jeff Manes: Expert says insects tell tale of pollution

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Updated: August 22, 2013 6:36AM



“...Hey farmer farmer

Put away your D.D.T. now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

Please”

— Joni Mitchell

It was my friend Jim Sweeney who tipped me off a few years ago about environmental activist George Bunce of Griffith. Well, Sweeney has another green Griffith George for me. He says George Smolka is probably the most intelligent man he’s ever known.

Smolka, 72, is a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Griffith for 20 years. He has been a small business owner, patent holder and is an expert odonologist (dragonflies and damselflies).

***

“I was born in Whitchurch, England,” Smolka began. “It dates back to the 900s. I came to the United States in 1950 and lived in Chicago until I was 22.”

Education?

“I graduated from Elgin High School. For my undergraduate work I went to Illinois College in central Illinois where I earned a double degree in biology and chemistry. For my graduate work, I attended Iowa State where I received my master’s in biochemistry.

“I didn’t go directly from Illinois College to Ames (Iowa State) because I got drafted. When I came out I had a disability, which I still have. The G.I. Bill helped pay for my schooling at Iowa State.”

What years were you in the service?

“From 1965 through 1967.”

How did you become disabled?

“It was a fungus of some kind I picked up in Vietnam. It did a great deal of damage to my lungs. It kept getting worse. Eventually, medicine caught up to my condition. With the advent of certain steroids I am better, but it doesn’t go away.”

You’re also a rabid enviro.

“I’ve always had an interest in that area. Indiana has one of the worst environmental records around. The damage is outsourced to the public. A significant number of Indiana corporations are doing this and the general public doesn’t understand it. We are paying the price for the air and water pollution. It can eventually lead to certain diseases.”

Example, please.

“Do you know the percentage of deaths in Indiana from cancer? I’m talking dead people only, not the ones who survive. Forty-eight percent of the people in Indiana die of cancer. It’s very suspicious.

“We need to stop trying to cure cancer. We need to start trying to prevent it. The amount of money we are wasting looking for cures is a travesty. In the mid-19th century in London there were studies done on all sorts of cholera. They discovered it was related to the water. Eventually, they traced it to some wells. Seepage from cisterns and septic tanks and from the river itself were oozing into these wells and contaminating them. Did they try to cure the disease?”

I don’t know; tell me.

“They took the sewage and instead of dumping it in the river like they had been, they piped it way out into the estuary which is right next to the channel. By the time any contamination came back, there were only harmless organisms. They solved the problem with an engineering solution, not a medical one. Is that maybe the way we need to go now? What was the guy with the rope? The comedian?”

Will Rogers?

“Thanks; I had a senior moment. Will Rogers said, ‘When you find yourself in a hole what is the first thing you must do? Stop digging!’”

George, let’s switch gear. You’re into dragonflies.

“Yes, I became interested in them in the late ‘80s.”

Do you attempt to net or film them?

“All the time. The adult dragonflies and the nymphs are both carnivores. A large dragonfly can eat as many as 200 mosquitos a day. They go back about 250 million years.

“Dragonflies and damselflies are useful from the standpoint of ecology because they are the top predators as far as insects are concerned. Dragonflies are also food for a lot of other creatures. If dragonflies feed on other flying insects that have fed on polluted substances they in turn cause problems with amphibians and birds. If you study the dragonflies, you get an idea of the rapidity with which some of these pollutants are being distributed in our environment.”

So, you’re telling me when the blue darner (dragonfly) engulfs pollutant-gorged mayflies or mosquitos and in turn gets slurped up by a bull frog which gets gored and gulped by a blue heron in the bayous of the Kankakee River, said heron is ingesting pollutants many times over.

“Yes.”

Disconcerting.

“You mentioned the Kankakee. I don’t have to tell you this, but the Grand Kankakee Marsh was one of the premier environments in the entire United States. It was a fabulous resource and everything was destroyed. Here we had a resource — if for no other reason — that would have made tons of money just from the tourist trade. And those idiots couldn’t see that far ahead.”

Tell me how you really feel.

“The Grand Kankakee Marsh was immense enough to sustain itself. We wouldn’t have had to do anything. They have now converted it to pick corn and that’s about it. Do you know how many miles of field tile were purchased when they were draining the marsh?”

I have those numbers at home. I know supply couldn’t keep up with demand.

“Pardon my French, but it was un-(censored)-believable.”

Let’s switch to overdrive. Genetically modified organisms?

“I have a very low opinion of GMOs. Because of a consequence of the misuse of GMOs, they are no longer working. Take bacillus thuringiensis corn for instance. You’re aware of Bt-corn?”

I think so. Not really.

“You’re kidding me?”

Sorry.

“It’s a genetically modified corn that supposedly makes it resistant to the attack of insects such as corn borers. Aside from the stupidity of that which was done, it has caused all kinds of problems. All of the pests that they were trying to control became resistant. Now they’re spraying more insecticides then ever.”

***

Space does not permit all that Smolka and I discussed including subjects such as community collapse syndrome and genetically modified apples that don’t bruise or brown.

And although he’s an academic and a scientist and I’m more a blue-collar river rat kind of guy, we concur on at least one thing.

Leave us the birds and bees.



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