Monday, July 30, 2012

Art at Texas Disposal Systems
Published in the Sun July 28, 2012

Back in high school nobody suspected that Chris Anderson was an artistic genius.  His experience with art was limited to a ceramics class at Colville High in northeastern Washington State where he enjoyed throwing a few pots on a potter’s wheel.  He also took metal shop.  The steel was less pliable than clay, but Chris gradually learned to mold it into useful items and tools.  When he graduated, he went to work in his dad’s shop building steel blades for snow plows.  But every spring when the snow melted his dad laid him off, so Chris took a job at an air conditioning coil plant where he expanded his repertoire to copper and aluminum.

Chris got a reputation for being clever with metal.  The people at Boise Plywood called him with a problem.  After all the plywood layers are spiralled off the giant logs they were left with skinny eight foot posts that they wanted to sell as fence posts.  Chris built them a giant pencil sharpener.


Chris had been making tools and parts out of steel for about 10 years when a rancher who catered to buffalo hunters asked him to make a steel buffalo skull to decorate his fancy gate.  Chris had never done any steel sculpture before but agreed to give it a try.  Not only did he manage a realistic skull, but he threw in some chrome plating to add some pizzazz.  From that moment, it was like the scales fell from his eyes.  Chris began to see creations in rusty pieces of steel where others saw only junk.  The ideas started coming one after another.  He made life size animals, bears, and a moose.  The Forest Service commissioned him to build a memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps and Chris fashioned a six foot man building a stone wall.

Chris used scrap steel because he could get it for 25 cents a pound.  He didn’t care if it was a little rusty.  “You just clean it up and it’s good as new.”  Gradually he gave up snowplow blades and air conditioning coils and supported himself by displaying his creations at art shows.  His favorite show was the Safari Club International in Reno, Nevada.  It was there in 2011 that his life abruptly changed.

A Texan walked into the booth at the Reno show and eyed the big steel animals.  He casually mentioned that he owned a couple of scrap yards and a recycling business and was looking for a resident artist who could do big animals.  Chris and his wife had just built a new home in Washington, and weren’t that interested in relocating to a Texas scrap yard, so Chris didn’t pay too much attention to the suggestion.  But the Texan left his card.  Just for grins, Chris checked the website.

He discovered that Bob Gregory, CEO of Texas Disposal Systems, has some really big scrap yards and a really big recycling business.  He also really likes exotic wild animals, and in fact has over 2000 of them on the Exotic Game Ranch surrounding the TDS landfill.  Mr. Gregory invited Chris to come to Texas and look around.  When Chris got off the plane in Austin on an 80 degree February day, the former snowplow maker thought to himself, “Holy Mackerel, this ain’t too bad.”  He liked what he saw at the TDS facility, and he liked the Gregory family.  Mr. Gregory had mentioned that he might be interested in an elephant sculpture, so Chris went back home and secretly whipped up a stainless steel baby elephant head.  In March Chris came back with his wife to sell her on Texas and brought the baby elephant head to seal the deal with the Gregorys.  The offering worked, and Chris became the resident artist at TDS in November 2011.

It’s a good thing that Chris has a big shop, because the lion he is building now stands 16 feet high at the top of his mane.  All around the shop are the bent and damaged dumpsters that have completed their lives as trash receptacles and are about to be reborn as lion skin and claws.  Using springs and hinges, Chris plans to have the lion’s tail and mane wave gently with the passing breeze.  Scattered around the shop are other projects in various stages of completion:  a couple of gargantuan sunflowers whose heads rotate with the wind, a saguaro cactus fashioned from old rebar, a rhinocerous.

Already completed and on display in front of the TDS offices are a magnificent eagle nesting high up in a recycled steel tree and a hungry bear family raiding a bee hive in a tree.  Every steel leaf on the bears’ tree is cut from the side of an old dumpster and attached with a fishing swivel, fluttering and chiming with the breeze.  Chris is just getting started.  We can expect some really great things to come out of those old dumpsters.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Some thoughts about pesticides
published in the Sun July 14, 2012

Dr. Maggie Stummer and Schnitzel, who is flea-free

At veterinarian Maggie Stummer’s home there are at least three dogs, two cats, a cow and calf, two rabbits, plus a flock of chickens, ducks, and baby turkeys.  I have come to visit with her about flea collars.  When Dr. Stummer sees a dog or cat wearing a flea collar she pulls it off and throws it in the trash.  A flea collar works by coating the animal’s fur with insecticide.  The insecticide is licked off by the pet and rubbed off by anyone who touches the pet.  Not only can flea collar insecticides be toxic to the animal, but Dr. Stummer wonders why anyone would risk exposing their children, who hug and kiss the pet, and maybe even sleep with it.  She prefers flea medications given by mouth.  “The oral products are safe and your kid doesn’t touch it.”

Most of us don’t like insects very much, so we have invented insecticides to kill them.  I’ll admit that when wood ants threatened to turn my dining room into a pile of dust last week even yours truly grabbed a can of Raid.  The problem is that insects and humans have a lot in common.  We are both carbon-based life forms with DNA, for example.  A chemical that is poisonous to a bug will likely have some bad effects on people as well.

Many flea collars are impregnated with the organophosphate tetrachlorvinphos.  Organophosphates are a class of insecticide that interferes with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  Insects and humans both use acetylcholine as a chemical signal from nerve cells to muscles, releasing just enough acetylcholine to cause purposeful movement.  When an insect is exposed to an organophosphate, acetylcholine floods the synapse and the insect twitches uncontrollably until it dies. Luckily people and dogs are much bigger than insects, so a fatal dose of organophosphate for a bug is a tiny dose for us.  If you got a dose proportional to your body weight, you too would lie on your back and twitch.  Sarin nerve gas, an organophophate, was one of the chemical agents used by Saddam Hussein to massacre Kurds in 1988.  Worldwide about 300,000 people die every year from exposure to organophosphate pesticides, and 3 million become ill.  Organophosphate exposure has been linked to attention deficit disorder in children.

The other day a salesman came to my door and asked if I have bugs in my house.  Of course we have those tiny spiders that catch bugs in the corners and make those little spots on the floor so I said yes.  He offered to come in and spray, but I told him we prefer a few spiders to toxic chemicals.  He told me, “It’s not toxic – it’s made from chrysanthemums,” conjuring up the wholesomeness of a homecoming queen.  I still preferred spiders.  The salesman realized he was dealing with a nutjob and left to search for a more meticulous housekeeper.  But let me explain this chrysanthemum thing.

Chrysanthemums contain an organic neurotoxin called pyrethrum.  During the Napoleonic Wars, French soldiers used powdered pyrethrum to control fleas and lice.  Pyrethrum is still available today, but chrysanthemum powder was NOT what the salesman wanted to spray in my house.

He wanted to use a pyrethroid, which is a synthetic insecticide similar in action to pyrethrum.  Pyrethroids are found in many, many household products and can be recognized by a chemical name that ends in “thrin.”  Pyrethroids have largely replaced organophosphates in bug sprays for home use because they are generally considered safer for people.  Safer, but not totally safe.

Pyrethroids are used in large doses on lawns to treat fire ants, mosquitoes, chinch bugs, et cetera.   Insecticides on the lawn are very effective.  They kill all the insects, both good and bad, and leave nothing for the birds and lizards to eat, creating an ecological wasteland.  Even though these lawn treatments are supposed to be safe for pets, every week Dr. Stummer sees dogs that develop vomiting and diarrhea two or three days after their yards are treated.  Cats are especially sensitive and can be killed by a dose that would be safe for a dog.  Pesticides for the yard are formulated to persist for months, so animals and people continually track the residue into the house.  Children crawl on the floor and contaminated little hands go into little mouths.  In lab animals pyrethroids can cause thyroid, liver, and nerve damage.  They can also act as endocrine disruptors, affecting reproductive development and stimulating breast cancer cells.  Pyrethroids are frequently combined with piperonyl butoxide, a chemical which increases effectiveness by inhibiting an insect’s ability to detoxify the pyrethroid.  A study at Columbia in 2011 showed that children exposed to piperonyl butoxide in utero had a drop in IQ equal to that caused by lead poisoning.  Dr. Stummer worries about this chronic low level exposure of our children to multiple pesticides, which may be present not only in the home but also on food sprayed at the farm.  “What are we going to know in 30 years?”

Here are Dr. Stummer’s general suggestions about insecticides:

1.  Avoid flea collars, except on rare occasions such as hunting trips.

2.  Check with your veterinarian for appropriate formulations and dosages before treating your pet.

3.  Avoid spraying your whole house or yard with pesticides.

4.  If you must use a pesticide for an out-of-control situation, learn to do it safely and spot treat the involved area only.

5.  Change your attitude about bugs.  Small crawly things are not our enemies, and can be beneficial.  We are all in this together.