Photo by Andrew James
The Mussel Man
You may know UNLV’s Shawn Gerstenberger from such public-health hits as high levels of mercury in canned tuna, lead in hot sauce and unsafe toys in day-care centers. He has built a department and a career making our part of the world healthier. There was no School of Community Health Sciences before he started it in 2004. “We put this beast together,” says the 43-year-old Wisconsin native. “We went from nobody to 17 faculty and 250 grad students. It has really blown up.”
So what public-health menace is on the professor’s mind in 2012? A few hints: There are trillions of them, their reproduction rates make rabbits look abstinent, they are smaller than your fingernail, and they’re relatively new to the area but so far really like it around here.
They are quagga mussels. They have invaded Lake Mead, and Gerstenberger’s department is trying very hard to make their stay an unpleasant one. Wish his team luck, because for the sake of a steady supply of clean water, we’re going to need it. “They just keep doing things they aren’t supposed to do,” Gerstenberger says
Quaggas hitched a ride to Lake Mead on a boat trailered from the Great Lakes, which they colonized after hitching a ride from their native Ukraine in the ballast tanks of oceangoing ships. The water’s cold in the Great Lakes, so they only breed two times a year there. Here, thanks to the warmer water, they breed year-round, fouling water intake pipes, coating docks and marinas, and excreting toxins. Costs to control them in the Great Lakes have reached more than $500 million annually, and a 2009 study estimated the species, if established, could cost the Lake Tahoe region $22 million.
Gerstenberger’s got a freezer full of the “little bastards,” as he calls them, and he’s growing live ones to figure out exactly why they like it here so much. His goal is to make them as uncomfortable as possible so they stay out of water intakes, cooling towers and other vital machinery at the lake and Hoover Dam. He’d also like to keep them from stowing away again on boats. While quaggas have already made their way downstream in the Colorado River, places like Lake Tahoe and rivers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are still uninfested.
“I think we can do it,” he says. “We work with a lot of partners, a lot of states. The problem is that it can take just one boat to sneak through. We can’t police the whole world.” There’s more on Gerstenberger’s plate this year than mussels. He also oversees the Nevada Healthy Homes Partnership, a federally funded program that screens homes for health issues such as poisoning hazards, asthma triggers and other potentially injurious situations. It’ll be another busy year for the guy whose job it is to make your life better. Good thing he’s energetic.
“I love the interface between human health and the environment,” he says. “We always go right to food and water when there’s a problem, but there is so much more to it than that.”