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America's Nastiest Toxic Waste Dumps (And Whether Or Not You Live Near One)

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Superfund is both an actual fund and a shorthand term for the list of America's nastiest toxic waste sites. One in two Americans lives within ten miles of a Superfund site. Currently, there are about 1,300 sites on the list, although it fluctuates. New Jersey has the most Superfund sites, with over a hundred. Nevada and the District of Columbia have one apiece. Here's a closer look at some of the notable ones.

Love Canal

Love Canal is the granddaddy of Superfund sites. It started out as a gleam in the eye of a developer named William Love. In 1892, Love proposed a seven-mile canal around Niagara Falls. Like any good developer, he named the project after himself.

Love had to abandon his plan after digging only one mile of the canal. Locals swam and fished in the canal while chemical manufacturers used it as a landfill. In 1953, with the canal full of toxic waste, it was capped. But later developers ignored warnings and eventually built houses, schools and playing fields over the abandoned canal. Predictably, residents started getting sick, and in 1978, Love Canal was declared the first federal disaster area created by a man-made disaster. The government ultimately bought out the homes of 278 families.

Spurred by Love Canal, Congress levied a special tax on oil and chemical companies to clean up such sites. It raised $1.8 billion—plenty, they assumed, to clean up all the toxic waste in the country. But as more and more toxic sites were identified—at one point, 30,000 were nominated—and as Love Canal recedes into memory, funds have dwindled.

Picher, Oklahoma

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One present-day Love Canal is in Picher, Oklahoma, which was once a boomtown for mining lead and zinc. Pollution has killed off many of the trees, and huge piles of mine debris create a stark, lunar landscape in the Oklahoma countryside. With the entire town on the verge of collapse due to unstable mineshafts, Uncle Sam has offered to buy out the homes of all Picher's residents. Still, some are staying out of loyalty to their hometown. [Photo courtesy of Red Fork State of Mind.]

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor contains a Superfund site. Actually, it contains 30 hazardous waste sites where stuff has been dumped or spilled over the years: mercury-contaminated sediments dredged from the harbor, waste oil, leaking landfills, you name it.

Anniston, Alabama

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Though New Jersey has the most Superfund sites, the most polluted place in the nation may be Anniston, Alabama, where Monsanto ran a huge chemical manufacturing plant. The company paid out $700 million to residents in 2003.

The Cleanup

What does it take to clean up a Superfund site? It involves removing a lot of dirt—contaminated dirt, that is. It's often trickier than it sounds, though. Sometimes the dirt you have to remove is at the bottom of a river, for instance. That's the case at the Kalamazoo River Superfund site in Michigan. The project has a cool website where you can look at pictures of the work in progress.

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If you think those yellow haz-mat suits are very fashion forward, then working at a Superfund site might be a perfect job for you. The EPA compiled a photograph archive of some of the chicest rubber suits ever, modeled at some world-class dumps. There's also a picture of a fish with a tumor (above).

To find sites near you by zip code, use the Pollution Locator.

Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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