Rivers are known for being wet. So how did a river in Ohio suddenly catch fire, not once, but several times last century? In part three of our water series, we'll explore the shocking tale of the Cuyahoga River. We'll look at how pollution led to this environmental tragedy and what's been done to address the problem. Plus, our Moment of Um explains why we say "ow!" when we're hurt.

If you want to become a Brains On Water Detective, head to monitorwater.org/brainson to find out how.

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SPEAKER: listening to Brains On, where we're serious about being curious.

SPEAKER: Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

MOLLY BLOOM: The Brains On Water Detective Project is supported by funding from the H.B. Fuller Company Foundation, a proud supporter of STEM education initiatives, and by 3M, improving lives through support of education, community, and the environment.


SPEAKER: All right, my metal head amigos. Gather 'round for a Charred Falcon band meeting.

SPEAKER: Hold on. Just one more.


There. Had to get that riff out of my system.

SPEAKER: OK. We need a topic for a new song, and it has to be super metal. What have you got?


SPEAKER: Totally metal, but that's not a topic. That's just a series of nouns.

SPEAKER: Oh, yeah.

SPEAKER: What else?

SPEAKER: How about the severed heads of cobra snakes? Yeah!

SPEAKER: Totally metal!


But I don't know if it has the narrative strength and imaginative lyrical potential to support a standard three-verse song structure.

SPEAKER: What about dark black nights?

SPEAKER: Done it already.

SPEAKER: Oh, yeah. Dark black caves.

SPEAKER: That was our second hit, remember?

SPEAKER: Oh, yeah. OK, OK. Dark black coffee.

SPEAKER: Anyone else?

SPEAKER: What about burning rivers of fire? Yeah!

SPEAKER: Oh, good one, good one.


SPEAKER: Very metal indeed, but kind of far fetched. I mean, rivers can't catch fire.

SPEAKER: No, they totally can.

SPEAKER: Look, if there's one thing that Charred Falcon is known for, it's that we thrash hard. And we are always scientifically accurate.

SPEAKER: Dude, this is science. You need to get educated about the Cuyahoga River!


SPEAKER: The what?

SPEAKER: The Cuyahoga River in the middle capital of the world, Cleveland, Ohio, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here, listen to this.

SPEAKER: Wait, what are you queuing up?

SPEAKER: My favorite podcast. I use it for inspiration. Get ready to have your mind blown. Hey, yeah!


MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I'm Molly Bloom. And my co-host today is Gitanjali Rao from Lone Tree, Colorado. Welcome back, Gitanjali.


MOLLY BLOOM: Gitanjali has been our co-host for two other episodes we've done recently about water.

GITANJALI RAO: How wonderful and weird water is.

MOLLY BLOOM: And how its fascinating features also mean it can get polluted pretty easily. Gitanjali won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge-- go, Gitanjali-- for her invention that helps monitor water for one pollutant in particular, lead. To hear more about that very cool invention, check out our episode called "What's in your water?"

GITANJALI RAO: Today, we're talking about burning rivers of fire!


MOLLY BLOOM: And yeah, it does sound totally metal. It also really happened a lot. In fact, from the late 1800s through a large part of the 1900s, river fires were fairly common.

GITANJALI RAO: Before 1970, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire about a dozen times.

MOLLY BLOOM: There were also river fires in Buffalo, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

GITANJALI RAO: As you might imagine, a flaming river is bad news for both people and wildlife. It's a sign that something's deeply wrong in nature.

MOLLY BLOOM: What was going on? How did this happen over and over? And who finally stopped it?

ANNIE BAXTER: It actually took a lot of people and some new laws to stop it.

GITANJALI RAO: Oh, hey. It's reporter Annie Baxter.

MOLLY BLOOM: Annie works on a project called The Water Main. She's been looking into this phenomena of burning rivers. Annie, what did you learn?

ANNIE BAXTER: First and foremost, I learned that people used to really take rivers for granted.

MOLLY BLOOM: Which is bonkers because water is crucial for everything.

ANNIE BAXTER: Yeah, rivers especially are. I mean, rivers do so much for humanity.

TV RECAP VOICE: Rivers, beautiful, majestic, wet, they've helped us for millennia. Early humans lived near rivers to drink from them and catch fish.

HUMAN: Free food and water, thanks rivers.

RIVER: No problem, human, high five.

TV RECAP VOICE: Later humans built boats to travel up and down rivers. They even used rivers to ship heavy goods.

HUMAN: It's a lot easier to float stuff than to carry stuff. Plus, look I got a horn now. Ha, that's so cool. Thanks, river.

RIVER: Sure thing, human.

TV RECAP VOICE: Eventually humans invented water wheels. When rivers flowed over these marvels of engineering, the water would spin the wheel and power machines like mills that grind grains into flour.

HUMAN: Grinding by hand, what a grind, am I right? Thanks for doing the work for me, river.

RIVER: I don't even notice that I'm doing it. So you're welcome.

TV RECAP VOICE: Humans used the river to help make all kinds of things, like the steel used to make bridges. At one point in the production the process, it's molten basically in liquid form. Humans use water to cool it down. So it forms a hard substance.

HUMAN: Seriously, I would be up a creek without this river.

RIVER: I know. Why do they call me a lazy river? I do a ton of work.

HUMAN: Good one. Yeah, you're awesome.

TV RECAP VOICE: And humans used rivers for more than production. They also used them as a dump.

RIVER: Wait, what?

HUMAN: Bye, bye, toxic crud. Now it's gone forever and will definitely not be a problem for me, my kids, or any future civilizations. Cool.

RIVER: What did you just put in me? It tastes like a burnt tire just farted in my mouth.

HUMAN: Yeah, that's why I dumped it. I don't want to smell that. Thanks for making it disappear totally and completely forever. You're the best, river.

RIVER: It smells so bad. That's not how I work. This stuff is just going to float downstream or build up on the shores of riverbed. Not cool, human, not cool.

HUMAN: Well, it is pretty cool because with all the money my factory made, how about a jet ski? Now I can jet ski on you, river.

RIVER: Jet ski, that sounds fun. What is--

HUMAN: Woohoo.

RIVER: Oh, no, this is--

HUMAN: This is cool.

RIVER: --the worst. Ow, stop.

HUMAN: I'm going so fast.

RIVER: Ow. No, get off me. This is terrible. This is so horrible.

ANNIE BAXTER: So in a nutshell rivers are awesome. But we aren't always so awesome back.

GITANJALI RAO: I'm guessing this is how we ended up with rivers of fire.

ANNIE BAXTER: It's a large part of it. Let me take you back.


In the middle of the last century America is full of factories. Many of them are in the Midwest and a lot of them are near rivers. So they have a ready supply of fresh water for all the reasons we've been hearing about. The factories are making all kinds of things. Business is booming but sadly so is pollution, especially in the Cuyahoga. It ends up going down in history as one of the most notoriously dirty rivers.

FRANK SAMSEL: I got to tell you. It was really, really bad.

ANNIE BAXTER: That's Frank Samsel. He's 88. And he grew up in Cleveland. I met up with him above the banks of the Cuyahoga where it gets pretty noisy. There's still a lot of factories and trains hauling away the stuff made there. In the distance you can see skyscrapers. Frank says a few decades ago, the only thing you'd see was smoke.

FRANK SAMSEL: You couldn't see the buildings from here.


FRANK SAMSEL: Yeah. You see that skyline there?


FRANK SAMSEL: Now, I never saw that until into the '80s. And that's like 7 to 10 miles away. See the building with the sign on it, the green sign?

ANNIE BAXTER: He points just down the river.

FRANK SAMSEL: You'd never see that, never.

ANNIE BAXTER: Wow. What did it smell like down here?

FRANK SAMSEL: It smelled like a steel mill and open sewers and dead fish and bad.

ANNIE BAXTER: Speaking of fish, there was a study done back around that time. The researchers wanted to find out how many fish could survive in that awful environment. In one of the most polluted stretches of the river, they couldn't find any fish.

MOLLY BLOOM: Wow, that is really the most unpleasant sounding river. It's hard for me to imagine.

GITANJALI RAO: So who was putting all this garbage in there anyway?

ANNIE BAXTER: It came from a lot of places. There was trash from normal people, like you and me. There was raw sewage like what you flush down the toilet, sometimes making its way from cities along the river. There was hazardous waste coming from chemical and steel companies, waste from paint companies like Sherwin-Williams. When they cleaned out their paint tanks, the pigments would flow into the river. And there was also the company Standard Oil.

SPEAKER: Most service stations are just service stations. But a Standard Oil station is something else.

ANNIE BAXTER: The company had a refinery on the Cuyahoga. That's where crude oil pumped up from underground gets turned into the kind we use in cars, you know, gasoline. So you have this refinery working with oil. And sometimes that oil would accidentally get spilled into the water, which already had a lot of other stuff in it, things like branches and trash just sort of hanging around because the Cuyahoga-- it's a really slow moving river. And all that debris would soak the spilt oil right up. That's according to this fellow [? Bob ?] [? Wisniewski ?] who used to work for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

[? BOB WISNIEWSKI: ?] Anywhere where logs would accumulate, it would collect all the floating stuff on the river. That would include waste products, plastic, balls and just whatnot. But anything floating on the surface would just get incorporated into it like a mat.

ANNIE BAXTER: And he says that mat of dry wood, plastic and oil would get really hot in the summer baking in the sun.

[? BOB WISNIEWSKI: ?] If there's a spark or some molten steel would fall on that, you can very easily understand how that would catch on fire.

ANNIE BAXTER: That's what people think happened on June 22nd, 1969 when the Cuyahoga caught fire. The story spread. People around the country heard about it and were rightfully shocked. The news magazine Time did a big story about it. America had had enough. It was time to change. It was time to stop being such jerks to rivers. But how?

MOLLY BLOOM: Coming up, what happened after the fire.

GITANJALI RAO: Stick around.


MOLLY BLOOM: Did something in today's episode spark a question or maybe an idea from one of our other water wise episodes got you wondering?

GITANJALI RAO: If so, get in touch. Go to brainson.org/contact. Who knows? You could inspire our next episode.

MOLLY BLOOM: You can also send us drawings, random thoughts, and of course mystery sounds. Plus, if you do, you'll be added to the Brain's Honor Roll.

GITANJALI RAO: Like Troy, who sent us this.

TROY: Hi, my question is why is it that our immediate reaction to pain is to say ouch, sometimes before we even feel anything.

MOLLY BLOOM: We'll answer that in our moment of um at the end of the show.

GITANJALI RAO: Oh, and you know what would really make our day?

MOLLY BLOOM: If you sent us drawings of fish giving each other high fives or rather high fins.

GITANJALI RAO: Well, yes, but also if you helped us explain fun and gross.

MOLLY BLOOM: All right, we're doing a pair of episodes on the science of fun and gross. But these are difficult ideas to explain when you think about them. So help us out. How would you explain the concept of fun to, say, a robot? Gitanjali, how would you explain what fun is?

GITANJALI RAO: I would say the robot dance.

MOLLY BLOOM: Oh, that is really fun. And what about gross, how would you explain the idea of what gross is?


MOLLY BLOOM: Nice. Well, record your explanations and send them to us at brainson.org/contact.



MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to Brains On. I'm Molly Bloom.

GITANJALI RAO: And I'm Gitanjali Rao.

MOLLY BLOOM: And before we go any further, it's time for--

GITANJALI RAO: Mystery sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: You ready to take a guess, Gitanjali?


MOLLY BLOOM: All right, here it is.


OK, what is your guess?

GITANJALI RAO: I would say pelicans in oil water.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh, very good guess. We'll have the answer in a bit. But first, I am still dying to know the fate of the Cuyahoga River.

TV RECAP VOICE: When we last left the Cuyahoga, it had been betrayed by the very humans who claim to love it. This once pristine river was full of trash, oil, and sadness. Soon the trash and oil caught fire. And the sadness burned too but in a different way, like emotionally.

You know what I mean. This happened many times until finally people realized the error of their ways. But could they ever fix this mess they made? And more importantly, could the river ever fix its broken heart? We'll find out on "As The River Flows."

GITANJALI RAO: Thanks, TV recap voice.

TV RECAP VOICE: No problem, Gitanjali.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK, with all that in mind, let's have reporter Annie Baxter pick up the tale from here. Annie?

ANNIE BAXTER: So even before that last notorious fire on the Cuyahoga in 1969, people in Cleveland were trying to figure out how to address water pollution. After all, people didn't really want to ruin the river. It's just that many of them believe the old saying the solution to pollution is dilution. They thought all the toxic stuff they were dumping into the water would just dilute or spread out so much in the water that it would no longer be a problem.

But that's only true up to a point. In rivers like the Cuyahoga, with a low flow, basically can't rinse all that bad stuff through them very easily. So when it came time to clean it, there was a lot to do. And Frank Samsel, the Clevelander we met earlier, he played a key role in the early efforts. He drove me to a big, abandoned looking parking lot in Cleveland. And there sat a boat called the Putzfrau. It's a German word.

FRANK SAMSEL: And a putzfrau was a cleaning lady. So we called it Putzfrau.

ANNIE BAXTER: Samsel and his crews would take the Putzfrau out on the river collecting debris and vacuuming up oil off the water after a spill.

FRANK SAMSEL: So we could do a 15,000 gallon spill in one day with debris. And we were busy with this boat on this river several days a week up and down the lake 100 miles either way.

ANNIE BAXTER: And what Frank Samsel did helped. The river started shaping up. To be clear, Frank got paid to do the work. It was a business opportunity. But it also meant something to him personally to clean up the river where he lived.

FRANK SAMSEL: We were doing something that looked like it was worthwhile. It was constructive.

ANNIE BAXTER: But all of this was just the start. Remember, it wasn't just the Cuyahoga that was catching fire. Big changes started to happen all over the country.


In 1970, President Nixon helped launch the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA. Its job was to study and monitor the environment. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. This gave the EPA power to set standards for what could be dumped into waterways. And this is when things really started changing.

TV RECAP VOICE: Humans were older, wiser, beholden to federally mandated environmental safety standards. They began changing their ways.

HUMAN: Hey, hey, look, I'm not just going to pour all this waste in you river. I'm skimming out the solid stuff first. See? I'll get rid of it somewhere else.

RIVER: Am I supposed to cheer? That's bare minimum, dude.

HUMAN: No, no, but check this out. If one of my factories is releasing super acidic water, now we're going to add some stuff to neutralize the water first, no more acid flows. That's good, right?

RIVER: It's a start, I guess.

HUMAN: I even treat some of my waste with these cool little lifeforms called microorganisms. Yeah, they eat certain kinds of waste and clean things up along the way. How cool is that?

RIVER: Not as cool as not trashing me in the first place. How about that? That sounds pretty cool.

HUMAN: Look, I'm sorry, river. We're trying. We got laws in place, new technology to clean stuff, new tests to monitor everything. I mean, we're spending billions of dollars on this.

RIVER: I am the product of natural forces shaping the planet for all its existence. You think I'm impressed by money? I'm only impressed by two things, the all encompassing balance and harmony of nature and how much protein Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson eats every day. You got to try harder than billions of dollars, pal.

HUMAN: You're right. We should try harder. We're still learning. We know we need to keep you healthy. But we also like making stuff in factories, like a jet ski.

RIVER: Turns out I hate jet skis.

HUMAN: Yeah, you're right. I mean, they're actually the worst. I'm much more into kayaking now. But honestly, river, we're trying to be better. We really are.

TV RECAP VOICE: Will humans learn to live near rivers, use them for fun and industry, all while keeping them healthy? Only time will tell.

MOLLY BLOOM: So Gitanjali, I just want to ask you, have you heard this story of burning rivers before?

GITANJALI RAO: I have not heard this story. It's absolutely crazy. Putting garbage into a river is absolutely wrong. We've heard stories about the effects that it has. And that shouldn't be right.

MOLLY BLOOM: Before we wrap up our tale of the Cuyahoga, it's time to go back to that mystery sound again. I'm going to play you a slightly longer version of it that might make it a little easier to guess.


GITANJALI RAO: I'm thinking like some type of oil pipe now.

MOLLY BLOOM: Very good thought. Annie, do you have any guesses you want to share with us?

ANNIE BAXTER: It sounds like a seesaw to me.

MOLLY BLOOM: A seesaw, some playground action, or an oil pipe. All right, let's hear the answer.

WILLIE: My name is Willie. And I am from Kentucky. And that was the sound of me swinging on a swing. And that was the sound of the trains moving.

MOLLY BLOOM: So, Annie, you were pretty close. It was a swing.

ANNIE BAXTER: All right, yeah, I got--

MOLLY BLOOM: It was on the playground.

ANNIE BAXTER: --the playground vibe.

MOLLY BLOOM: A very rusty old swing that needs some oil. Maybe they can just take that oil from the Cuyahoga River?


Now for our final chapter of the Cuyahoga River tale--

GITANJALI RAO: How is the river doing now?

MOLLY BLOOM: Today the Cuyahoga River is so much cleaner that people are playing on it again.

WOMAN: Go, paddlers.

MAN: Come on down.

MOLLY BLOOM: To commemorate the anniversary of the last fire on the river, there was a big paddle board race on it recently. You know, paddle boarding? It kind of looks like someone riding a big surfboard. But they've got a paddle to propel them.

JIM RIDGE: All right, six mile, guys. 5, 4, 3, 2.

MOLLY BLOOM: The guy who organized the race, Jim Ridge, says he really wants people to interact with the Cuyahoga.

JIM RIDGE: If they know that it's cleaner, they'll be encouraged to come down here and recreate on it. And once they recreate on this body of water, whether it's kayaking, stand up paddle boarding-- Rowing has been here for many years. Once they start doing that, they become connected to this waterfront. They then become ambassadors for that waterfront and that river.

MOLLY BLOOM: So the hope is the more people get to know the river, the more they'll want to protect it. Thanks Andy for this winding river tale.

- Yeah, thanks, Annie.

ANNIE BAXTER: No problem, I'll see you guys later. Bye.

- Bye.


MOLLY BLOOM: We use rivers for lots of things, from playing in them to disposing of waste in them.

GITANJALI RAO: For a long time, we didn't do a good job keeping rivers clean, which led to some serious problems.

MOLLY BLOOM: Like rivers catching on fire.

GITANJALI RAO: Today we have rules in place to help limit the pollution in our waterways. And we monitor them to make sure they are healthy.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's it for this episode of Brains On.

GITANJALI RAO: Brains On is produced by Molly Bloom, Marc Sanchez, and Sanden Totten.

MOLLY BLOOM: We had production help today from Jay Yang and Lauren Dee and engineering help from [? Veronica ?] [? Rodriguez ?] and [? Bill ?] [? Johnson. ?] Many thanks to [? Curtis ?] [? Gilbert, ?] [? Tracy ?] [? Mumford, ?] [? Johnny ?] [? Vance ?] [? Evans, ?] [? Elissa ?] [? Dudley, ?] [? John ?] [? Raby, ?] [? Justin ?] [? Glanville, ?] [? Lauren ?] [? Humbert, ?] [? Jon ?] [? Lambert, ?] [? Katie ?] [? Patrick, ?] [? David ?] [? Stradling, ?] and Amy [INAUDIBLE].

Do you want to be a Brains On water detective? Head to monitorwater.org/brainson to find out how you can test the water where you live. That's monitorwater.org/brainson. The Brains On water Detective Project is supported by funding from the HB Fuller Company Foundation, a proud supporter of STEM education initiatives. And by 3M, improving lives through supportive education community and the environment.

GITANJALI RAO: And before we go, it's time for a moment of um.









TROY: Um, why is it that our immediate reaction to pain is to say ouch?

[? BOB MARCEL: ?] So, hello, I'm Bob [? Marcel. ?] I'm a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Medical School. A lot of things that happened to us we want to be able to communicate with other people. But if you're not facing somebody, it's like how do you do that communication?

And so for people, as well as lots of animals, having a verbal expression was very important for being able to communicate what's happening to you in the absence of face to face communication. And so we're just simply expressing to the people around us, our small group, that something happened to us that caused pain and couldn't allow them to react, come over and come, help us if needed. But sometimes what you're going to do is you're going to say, ouch, before you actually feel the pain.

And that's because there's two levels. One is going to be the sensation, do you actually feel it. And the other is you have to go through a very complex process to understand what happened to register the sensation and to be able to respond to it. As you learn, oh, I'm going to get hit and you learn the response ow-- and sometimes you don't get hit. But you've just done that so many times that it automatically comes out.




MOLLY BLOOM: Even though you can't see my face, you'll know that I'm very excited to read this list of names. It's time for the Brain's Honor Roll. These are the excellent listeners who keep us going with all their ideas, questions, mystery sounds, and drawings. Here they are--


We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

GITANJALI RAO: Thanks for listening.

SPEAKER: So what do you think? Yeah.

SPEAKER: Dudes, I can't believe that story. We let pollution get so bad that rivers caught on fire. You know what? This is going to be the topic of our next record, a concept album titled River of Flame, semicolon, The Quest for Environmental Justice, open parenthesis, The Cuyahoga River story, end parenthesis, a concept album by [? Jard ?] Falcon.

MOLLY BLOOM: Howdy. All right, Awesome. Metal.

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