White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

Moving Beyond Standardized Tests

Citing the need to adjust to new Common Core standards, the California Board of Education decided earlier this month to suspend the use of standardized test scores as its main measurement of school performance. This comes as teachers, parents and students nationwide protest against the overuse of tests. We talk with NPR education blogger Anya Kamenetz about the perils of overusing test scores and other methods of measuring school and teacher quality.

Wearable Tech Enables New Era of Employee Monitoring

New wearable devices have been allowing people to track their personal data at all times. Now, it's also making it easier for employers to collect information on their workers' productivity. This field of data collection, known as telematics, is projected to be an over $27 billion industry by 2018, and companies like UPS and Coca-Cola are already using it. We look at what the expanding industry means for workplace productivity and for workers' privacy.

PBS NewsHour

3 white collar jobs that robots are already mastering

Robot couple Xiaolan (L) and Xiaotao carry trays of food at a restaurant in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China, May 18,
         2015. The restaurant, which opened on Monday has two robots delivering food for customers. The robots were designed as a couple,
         Xiaolan and Xiaotao, according to local media. Photo by Reuters

Automation has long been a part of the service industry, but how much will robots contribute the white collar world? Photo by Reuters

Martin Ford bookOver the past 20 years, we’ve seen plenty of blue collar jobs outsourced to machines — from auto assembly to customer service. Now, as computers, equipped with artificial intelligence, increasingly take over “information jobs,” tasks that were once reserved for skilled, college-educated white collar professionals are vulnerable. That’s the argument made by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford in a new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”

He spoke with us for a story that aired on Wednesday on the PBS NewsHour about the economic impact of artificial intelligence. It’s part of a series about the rapid advance of AI and how it’s affecting society.

We asked Ford to give us three examples of white collar jobs that are ripe for automation. Pharmacists, attorneys and one close to our hearts — journalists. All three of these professions have already been transformed in profound ways most of us may not even realize.


A pharmacist selects drugs for chemotherapy treatment in the pharmacy at Antoine-Lacassagne Cancer Centre in Nice October
         18, 2012. Eric Gaillard/Reuters

A pharmacist selects drugs for chemotherapy treatment. Automation likely would make this task more efficient. Photo by Eric Gaillard/Reuters

“There is already a big impact on pharmacies. You have massive machines in hospitals that automate the whole process internally — and you’ve also got smaller machines about the size of a vending machine that are being deployed in pharmacies, so it’s already having a big impact,” Ford says.

In a promotional video, Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy, explains how the technology allows her staff to focus more of their expertise on direct patient care: “Automated medication dispensing frees pharmacists from the mechanical aspects of the practice.”

But Ford says that will change. “Right now, it may be true that a lot of pharmacists still have their jobs because we have laws and regulations that require them to be there. It takes a great deal of training and education to be a pharmacist, but what they do is fundamentally routine and it’s really geared toward producing a very consistent reliable result and that’s the kind of work that’s ideally suited to automation.”

UCSF says another major goal of an automated pharmacy is patient safety — pointing to “studies that have shown that technology can help reduce errors.”

You might remember Bob Wachter from part 2 of our series on AI. He is associate chair of UCSF’s medical school and author of “The Digital Doctor.” He warns of fatal implications that can result from an over-reliance on computers, citing the example of Pablo Garcia, a teenage patient at UCSF who survived after he was given 39 times the amount of antibiotics he should have received.

“In two different cases, the computers threw up alerts on the computer screen that said, ‘this is an overdose.’ But the alert for a 39-fold overdose and the alert for a 1 percent overdose looked exactly the same. And the doctors clicked out of it. The pharmacists clicked out of it. Why? Because they get thousands of alerts a day, and they have learned to just pay no attention to the alerts.”

So, was the error the fault of the humans or the machines — or is it a combination of the two?

Wachter says that when “people are relegated to being monitors of a computer system that’s right most of the time, the problem is, periodically, the computer system will be wrong. And the question is, are the people still engaged or are they now asleep at the switch because the computers are so good?”


Attorney Charles Cooper argues for supporting California's Proposition 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington,
         March 26, 2013.  Two members of the U.S. Supreme Court, both viewed as potential swing votes on the right of gay couples to
         marry, raised doubts about California's gay marriage ban on Tuesday as they questioned the lawyer defending the ban.
         Photo by Art Lien/Reuters

It’s unlikely the Justices would respond to a robot. Here, attorney Charles Cooper argues before the Supreme Court in this 2013 drawing. Photo by Art Lien/Reuters

“We are already seeing an impact in fields like law, with entry level and paralegal jobs which involve document review. It used to be a manual process. They had to read through documents. Now that’s done algorithmically using artificial intelligence.”

Though it’s unlikely we’ll see robots litigating in courtrooms any time soon, Ford says that some highly billable work normally reserved for seasoned attorneys is in the process of being automated.

“There’s a new emerging technology called quantitative legal prediction. It turns out that experienced lawyers often add a lot of value by making predictions. They’ll do things like tell you what is the likelihood you’re going to win a case, or that the case will be overturned on appeal, for example. It generally takes a lot of judgement and experience to make those kinds of predictions, but these algorithms can actually out-perform even the most experienced lawyers by just looking at lots and lots of data.”


A foreign journalist raises her hand to ask a question during a news conference with Jiang Weixin, minister and secretary
         of the CPC Leadership Group of the Ministry of Housing And Urban-Rural Development, during the 18th National Party Congress
         (NPC) in Beijing November 12, 2012. At the last congress in 2007, top officials took one-on-one interviews, overseas reporters
         were encouraged to ask questions on whatever subject they wished and government media handlers went out of their way to be
         helpful, hoping to burnish China's global image ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games. This year, while economic officials
         and business leaders have generally been willing to talk, provincial leaders and rising political stars have largely shunned
         international media, and in some cases tried to avoid talking in public at all. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

But would a robot ask the tough questions? Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

We journalists are not immune from displacement by automation either. Using computer algorithms, companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already generating journalistic stories for clients like Forbes, covering topics that include business, sports and politics.

In his book, Ford writes, “The company’s software generates a news story approximately every 30 seconds, and many of these are published on widely known websites that prefer not to acknowledge their use of the service.”

He explained to us, “Essentially what they do is they tap into some sort of data stream and they are able to analyze that data and tease out what’s most interesting and create a compelling narrative based on that and actually write a story. They’re getting more and more sophisticated; it’s not something that’s just purely formulaic where you just plug numbers into a set template; it’s already gone beyond that and it’s getting better and better.”

It’s unlikely machines will ever be able to replace the type of analysis we get from Mark Shields and David Brooks, but it might be possible that our news summary could one day be an automatically collated compendium of geo-located video shot by viewers like you.

How to learn to stop worrying and embrace the robot

If all of this seems a little frightening, you might take heart listening to Ray Kurzweil. He’s director of engineering at Google, and inventor of technologies like the flatbed scanner. He says we shouldn’t feel threatened by AI.

“You can point to jobs that are going to go away from automation, but don’t worry, we’re going to invent new jobs. People say, ‘What new jobs?’ I don’t know. They haven’t been invented yet. Sixty-five percent of Americans today work at information jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago, two-thirds of the population in 1900 worked either on farms or on factories. Today that’s 2 percent and 2 percent. If I had said a century ago, ‘Well, don’t worry you can get jobs developing websites and apps and doing information jobs of various kind,’ people wouldn’t know what I was talking about. We’re constantly inventing new things to do with our time, but you can’t really define that because the future hasn’t been invented yet.”

Kurzweil, who was awarded a technical Grammy this year for his invention of the first computer-based instrument that could realistically re-create the musical response of a grand piano, says humans have other unique advantages over machines.

“At the very highest level, we have things like language and art and creativity, being funny, being able to create new types of knowledge, music. No other animal actually creates music or humor. That’s what we value about human beings.”

By combining human and machine intelligence, we will reach new heights. “I think we have the opportunity to actually be more emotional in the better sense of the word by enhancing our intelligence, and we already have AIs that can relieve us of doing tedious kinds of thinking and can focus more on creativity. We’ll be funnier. We’ll be better at expressing loving sentiments. I think it will enhance the better values of humanity.”

So, we might be out of work, but at least we’ll have a good sense of humor about it.

Watch all the videos in our series, “Thinking Machines,” in the playlist below:

The post 3 white collar jobs that robots are already mastering appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

New science shows Gulf spill is still killing dolphins

OIL & WATER_Monitor dophin

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the lasting impact of America’s biggest offshore oil spill.

It comes as officials are grappling with a new spill along the coast of Southern California near Santa Barbara. It began yesterday when an onshore pipeline ruptured. Slicks are now spanning a total of nine miles and the line was operating at full capacity when it broke.

Today, a new study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at why dolphins died in such large numbers after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. It was the strongest link yet to the spill and to the deaths of bottlenose dolphins. More than 1,000 dolphins have died in the Gulf since 2010.

The spill lasted nearly three months, spewing millions of gallons of oil and chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico.

We get the latest from William Brangham, who weekend viewers will recognize, and he is now here with us as our newest NewsHour correspondent.

And we welcome you to the team, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks, Judy. Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s talk about this, what researchers are saying. What do they say these new studies show?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What they’re saying is that this has been the first definitive link where they can directly connect the death, this massive die-off of dolphins — as you mentioned, over 1,300 — I think it’s 1,200, 1,300 dolphins — linking those deaths directly with the oil spill.

I mean, scientists have been studying these dolphins for several years, ever since the spill occurred. This is the first time they have said, we now know why they died and in such large numbers, and it’s because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, BP is pushing back, of course. They are saying there’s no proof that there’s a connection to the oil that came out of the Deepwater Horizon rig. What do scientists say about that?


This has been BP’s argument all along, and in fact they have also pointed out that there were die-offs of dolphins that happened all the time on the Gulf, and that actually some of these dolphins had died off before the spill even occurred.

But scientists went to great lengths today to say that they looked at all the other factors that have caused die-offs in the past, and that this particular spill, the impact the oil has had on marine mammals, they can directly connect it to the dolphins that they have seen. And, in fact, the research that they did showed in the areas where there was more oil in the water, more dolphins died, areas where there was less oil, less dolphins died.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, are the bottlenose dolphins still dying off, or was this a one-time phenomenon?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The deaths have occurred ever since the spill began all the way to the present day. The current study only looked at a couple of years after the spill.

And what they did is, they examined 46 particular dolphins that died, and they were quickly able to catch them on the beaches of the Gulf. And they analyzed their tissues and found lung and adrenal gland problems. So this is — they think this may be an ongoing problem, but this study just looked at this particular period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do they offer an explanation for why they’re seeing this with the bottlenose dolphins, but not with other animal species, crab, fish, shrimp, and so forth?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The impact on those other species may occur. They just haven’t found the data on them yet.

The reason that dolphins, the scientist says, are the — are particularly acute sort of ways to understand this is that, if you think about how a dolphin lives, they’re mammals. They breathe air. So during the spill, they come to the surface to breathe the — to breathe. They enter the area of the water where the oil is sitting, and so they take a huge, deep breath with their blowhole, suck oil and chemicals into that.

Then they take a deep dive and hold that breath for a very long period of time. So, they’re particularly able to, in essence, suck in the oil and cause great deals of problems. Also, the scientists were able, to all throughout the spill, find these dolphins. They were able to go out and find them. They’re very large mammals swimming around in the water.

So, they can observe them, they can capture them, they can do tests on them while they’re alive. And when the dolphins die, they wash up on the beaches, unlike a lot of other animals, that just might die and fall to the ocean floor. A dolphin washes up on a beach, people pay attention. They call local officials, and scientists can quickly go in and examine them before the tissue deteriorates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know people are going to listen to this, and one of the things they’re going to ask is, what about other — what about those other animals? Are they saying that nothing is going to happen down the line to them, and particularly what about the potential seafood in the Gulf?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That, of course, is always a concern of consumers all over the country.

There are current research projects going on under sea turtles to see the impacts on them and several other Gulf species. As far as the food that we eat, the shrimp and the crab that we’re used to, the FDA and all of the national government scientists that look at this have declared that those animals, at least the impacts that we would experience by eating them, those seem to be fine and we have been given the green light to eat Gulf seafood again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But their research is ongoing, meantime.


JUDY WOODRUFF: William Brangham, thank you.

And, again, welcome to the NewsHour team.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have a note to add.

Late today, a $211 million settlement was announced between Transocean, which is the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and businesses and individuals claiming damages from that 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The post New science shows Gulf spill is still killing dolphins appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Will your job get outsourced to a robot?


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

GWEN IFILL: Have you ever worried you might lose your job to a robot? I have.

Hari Sreenivasan finds it could well happen with advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I., transforming the work force.

That’s the latest report in our series on invention and innovation, Breakthroughs.

MAN: Oh, all in?

HARI SREENIVASAN: In a closely watched brains vs. artificial intelligence poker match held in Pittsburgh earlier this month, humans pulled off a slim win over a computer program called Claudico.

MAN: All right. Good job.

MAN: Good game, guys. Good game.

MAN: Good game.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tuomas Sandholm, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, created the algorithms that run Claudico’s A.I.

TUOMAS SANDHOLM, Carnegie Mellon University: Those algorithms figure out how you should act strategically, how do you avoid or deal with humans trying to deceive you, and how do you deceive humans?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sandholm predicts Claudico will be able to beat its human opponents within one to five years, much to the chagrin of Bjorn Li, the leading poker player in this tournament.

BJORN LI: When that happens, poker will pretty much be dead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But putting pro poker players out of work is not what Sandholm focuses all his time on. There are other things that Claudico can already do better than humans.

TUOMAS SANDHOLM: In my lab, we have developed an algorithm for solving the matching problem for the nationwide kidney exchange for 60 percent of the transplant centers in the U.S. And there, twice a week, our algorithms make the transplantation plan for the whole country without any manual intervention. When there is scarcity of organs, the A.I. is making those decisions in an optimal way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matching the right kidney to the right patient is one example of an algorithmic artificial intelligence. But there are much larger demonstrations hitting the road, quite literally.

Daimler has developed a prototype dubbed the Freightliner Inspiration Truck that’s being test-driven across Nevada. The hope is that computer-driven trucks can reduce the number of accidents. There are currently 5,000 fatalities a year involving trucks. Drivers would function more like pilots, overseeing computerized systems.

But it begs the question: What jobs will survive in a new economy driven by automation?

Remember Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy” game show champion who lost to IBM’s Watson in 2011? He says the writing is on the wall. Here he is in a TEDx talk.

KEN JENNINGS: And I remember standing there behind the podium, as I could hear that little insectoid thumb. And you could hear that little tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.


KEN JENNINGS: And I remember thinking, you know, this is it. I felt obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker of the ’80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. And it was frigging demoralizing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s not just quiz show contestants that are at risk. As more and more jobs are automated, Jennings’ experience could be a harbinger of things to come for American workers.

That’s the argument made in a new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” by Martin Ford.

MARTIN FORD, Author, “Rise of the Robots”: Going forward, we may see automation kind of unfold in a top-heavy pattern, where a lot of the best jobs are the ones to get impacted. Lawyers, pharmacists, certain areas of medicine like pathology and radiology, any kind of white-collar job where you are sitting at a computer at a desk, well, the people who you might call office drones, those are going to be very susceptible to this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there could be major disruptions to the U.S. economy, says Daphne Koller. She’s an A.I. scientist, and also president of the massive online learning company Coursera.

DAPHNE KOLLER, Coursera: We are already starting to see jobs that were thought of as intelligent being outsourced to computers.

So, for example, a large part of a paralegal’s job, which is hunting down the relevant references for a particular problem, is something that you would have thought requires intelligence. And now there are pretty good software systems that do not 100 percent of a paralegal’s job, but 80 to 90 percent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Will artificial intelligence software do to the paralegal what the tractor did to the farmer?

DAPHNE KOLLER: It is quite likely that that will happen. And I think that there will be entire job categories that will go away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We humans have always been resilient. With each industrial revolution, we have adapted, creating new jobs with new technologies.

DAPHNE KOLLER: The optimistic perspective is that this will happen here, and that the jobs that will be created will by nature be higher and more cognitively interesting jobs that are beyond the spectrum of what an artificial intelligence program can do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Leaving the less interesting jobs to robotic helpers like Botlr, an automated bellhop who cruises the halls of this Aloft Hotel. Is that such a bad thing?

Stuart Russell, who directs the A.I. lab at the University of California at Berkeley, doesn’t think so.

STUART RUSSELL, University of California, Berkeley: Some people think that, inevitably, every robot that does any task is a bad thing for the human race, because it could be taking a job away.

But that isn’t necessarily true. You can also think of the robot as making a person more productive and enabling people to do things that are currently economically infeasible. But a person plus a robot or a fleet of robots could do things that would be really useful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A perhaps simple example, cleaning up graffiti.

STUART RUSSELL: In many, many cities, the graffiti is just left because it’s too expensive. But if I had a team of robots that I could take around the city with me and point them to what needed to be cleaned up, I could get 10 times as much done. And there will be positions for graffiti-cleaning supervisors, which didn’t exist before.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Graffiti-cleaning supervising robots might exist in the future, but our economy is already evolving. There are plenty of jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago that are now in high demand in fields like digital marketing and data analysis.

In fact, according to McKinsey & Company, the United States faces a shortage of data analysts. Almost 190,000 people are needed to analyze and understand big data. But will those jobs ultimately be filled by people or by deep learning machines?

Deep learning is a new type of A.I. that relies on neural networks. They’re computer programs modeled after the human brain and nervous system.

MAN: Hey, guys. How’s the training page looking?

HARI SREENIVASAN: At the Palo Alto office of MetaMind, engineers are using the technology to help computers see by quickly identifying images and placing them in categories.

The software can also understand nuance in the written word.

Richard Socher is co-founder and CTO. He says the technology will aid humans, not replace them.

RICHARD SOCHER, MetaMind: If you can bring the intelligence of the smartest people in a field, instill it in an algorithm with deep learning, you could really help a lot of people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One example, he says, is in the field of medicine.

RICHARD SOCHER: If the best doctors in the world train an algorithm to find various different problems in C.T. scans or in X-rays, mammograms, for instance, you could build an algorithm that is almost as good as the best doctors in the world.

A human can only look at so many mammograms in their lifetime. An algorithm could look at millions and millions, and eventually find subtle things that may have not even been that obvious to the human eye.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how will society adapt to a computer intelligence that can do work which, until now, only humans could?

DAPHNE KOLLER: What people have going for them that computers as of yet don’t is the incredible adaptability of the human mind, the ability to learn new skills, the ability to really adapt to unexpected situations.

And so what we really need to do is to help people become even better at that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just like in a poker game, we don’t know what the outcome will be. We humans are raising the stakes as we continue to drive advances in A.I. technology. So, it will be up to us to stay at the table.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch more stories from our Thinking Machines series on our Web site,

The post Will your job get outsourced to a robot? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

NOAA Report: Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused biggest dolphin die-off in Gulf’s history

A new NOAA study provides a final link between the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and a flourish of dolphins deaths
         along the Gulf coast. This is one of the stranded dead dolphins that came ashore in 2012 along the Louisiana coast being photographed
         for study. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

A new NOAA study shows a link between the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and a flourish of dolphins deaths along the Gulf coast. This is one of the stranded dead dolphins that came ashore in 2012 along the Louisiana coast. Photo by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster caused a fatal disease never seen before in dolphins living the in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new report from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The study finally gives verdict to whether or not petroleum exposure caused the biggest dolphin die-off ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.


“No feasible alternatives remain that can reasonably explain the timing, location and nature of this increase in death,” co-author Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego said in a press conference announcing the study. This forensic investigation is part of NOAA’s long-term ecological analysis of the Deepwater incident that was started in 2013, known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

BP* has always challenged the link between the current slate of dolphin deaths — more than 1,300 in five years — and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April and September 2010.

Unusual mortality events (UMEs) — where large numbers of dolphins and other members of cetacean family perish in a short timeframe — are common in nature. Between 1991 and 2010, at least 10 of these mortality events had happened in the Gulf, primarily due to marine outbreaks of dolphin-related viruses and bacteria. Plus in the three months immediately prior to the Deepwater accident, 25 dead dolphins washed up near the Louisiana and Mississippi border.

“It’s important to note that unfortunately these large die-offs of dolphins aren’t unusual,” BP wrote in a February statement in response to a NOAA study on the demographics of the die-off. “Over the past years there have been dolphin UMEs relating to dolphins all over the world, with no connection to oil spills.”

However, today’s study announces a firm connection between the petroleum exposure caused by the Deepwater accident and the ongoing UME — the biggest in the recorded history of the Gulf. Prior to the Deepwater incident, the longest recorded UME had lasted 17 months from 2005 to 2006, while the most fatal occurred in 1990 — claiming 344 bottlenose dolphins.

The ongoing die-off has claimed three times as many animals and lasted 60 months.

In the study published in PLOS ONE, NOAA examined the major organs of 46 dolphins that died along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during June 2010 to December 2012. The researchers then compared these specimens to a control group of 106 dolphins that washed up either off the coastal Carolinas between 1996 to 2012 or off the Gulf Coast of Florida and Texas prior to the Deepwater oil spill.

Oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico around a work boat at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in
         the Gulf of Mexico June 2, 2010. As the desperate effort to contain the gusher proceeded, the slick stretched farther. Tar
         balls and other oil debris from the giant, fragmented slick reached Alabama's Dauphin Island, parts of Mississippi and
         were less than 16 km (10 miles) from Florida's northwest Panhandle coast. Photo by Sean Gardner/Reuters

Oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico around a work boat at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico June 2, 2010. The Deepwater leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April and September 2010. Photo by Sean Gardner/Reuters

The researchers argue that when the dolphins swam to the surface for air, oil fumes and liquid petroleum leaked through their blowhole into the lungs and caused disease. The mortal blow for most of these marine mammals came in the form of shrunken, thinner adrenal glands, which had never been previously observed in Gulf dolphins.

“Animals with untreated adrenal dysfunction can essentially be balancing precariously on a ledge, waiting for the right stressor to push them into an adrenal crisis,” Venn-Watson said.

Much like in humans, adrenal glands produce hormones that help the body cope with physical stress. For dolphins, this stress usually comes in the form of dealing with the cold ocean water, pregnancy and naturally occurring bacteria that float around them.

Without normal adrenal glands, the findings argue that the dolphins became susceptible to bacterial pneumonia — a condition that can damage the lungs to the point of suffocation or can completely impair the mammal’s immune system through septic shock.

“These dolphins had some of the most severe lung lesions that I had ever seen in wild dolphins from throughout the U.S.,” said University of Illinois’s Kathleen Colegrove, who is the lead veterinary pathologist on the study. “More than 1 in 5 had pneumonia that was severe and caused or contributed to death in those dolphins.”

In contrast, only one in 50 of the control animals from other parts of the Gulf had evidence of bacterial pneumonia.

“Aside from chemical exposure, conditions that can cause adrenal dysfunction are cancer, autoimmune disease and tuberculosis. We didn’t find any of these additional causes,” Colegrove said. Red tide toxins and infectious causes of past dolphin die-offs — morbillivirus and Brucella bacteria — were ruled out for the majority of these cases too.

The worst injuries were spotted in Barataria Bay, Louisiana — 40 miles due south of New Orleans. This location was hit hardest by the spill — with oil coating close to 25 miles of shoreline. NOAA previously found that sea turtles have died or have been displaced due to the oil spill.

In January, a federal judge lowered the maximum cap on BP’s fine to $13.7 billion from $18 billion. A Congressional report from April says that BP has volunteered another $14 billion for cleanup operations and proposed another $1 billion on early restoration projects.

“The results from our study paired with what’s been previously published indicate that dolphins were negatively impacted by exposure to petroleum compounds following the Deepwater oil spill. Exposure to these compounds has contributed to the increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico,” Venn-Watson concluded.

*Editor’s Note: Following publication, Geoff Morrell — a senior vice president at BP America — contacted PBS NewsHour with the following statement: “This new paper fails to show that the illnesses observed in some dolphins were caused by exposure to Macondo oil…Even though the UME may have overlapped in some areas with the oil spill, correlation is not evidence of causation.”

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