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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 26, 2001

Air Date: October 26, 2001


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Having Faith

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In her first book, Sandra Steingraber catalogued cancer, the environment, and her own personal battle with the disease. Now, the biologist has a new book out, and this time, host Steve Curwood talks with her about pregnancy, ecology, and motherhood. (11:00)

Animal Note

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Birds and bees and gerbils? Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports that the rodents are the latest animals discovered that pollinate plants. (01:15)

Almanac: Punkin' Chunkin' contest

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This week, facts about Delaware's annual Punkin' Chunkin' contest. Contestants with giant slingshots, cannons and catapults vie for the chance to be World Champion Chunker. (01:30)

California Sun / Jeff Hoffman

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When San Franciscans go to the polls next month, they'll be voting on two propositions that could make the city the country's leader in renewable energy. Jeff Hoffman reports. (06:45)

Jordan's Delight / Naomi Schalit

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Jordan's Delight is an island off the coast of Maine. A few years ago, a large private home was built on the island, destroying seabird-nesting habitat. But as Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit reports, the recent sale and donation of the land is now allowing for the removal of the house and restoration of the natural habitat. (06:15)

The Fox

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Environmental activist James F. Phillips, a.k.a. The Fox, died earlier this month at the age of 70. His sister Dorothy Spring talks with host Steve Curwood about her brother's covert eco-activities. (03:00)

Health Note

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on a new study that used fluoride to treat women with osteoporosis. (01:20)

Bats / Diane Orson

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Bats blind and suck the blood of animals and humans. These are just some of the myths that follow these nocturnal creatures. WNPR's Diane Orson went out with a team of scientists one evening and discovered that bats are valuable in more ways than one. (07:15)

Maggot P. I.

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A stray hair or a partial fingerprint could be the essential clues that seal a murder case. But a movement is afoot to incorporate maggots and flies in the routine investigation of crime. Host Steve Curwood talks with author Jessica Snyder-Sachs about her new book, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death. (08:00)

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Having Faith


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Sandra Steingraber, I have in front of me a copy of your new book, Having Faith, and I'm looking at the front cover. At the top there's this intriguing photo of your daughter, Faith. Can you tell me about it?

STEINGRABER: Thereby, hangs a tale. The picture is of me and my daughter Faith. She's two years old, I think, in that picture. What the picture doesn't show, I think, is during the photo shoot my two year old was in a very bad mood and was in a need of a nap and was very, very cranky. In fact, she had just ordered the photographer out of our house. And she's got this great smile on her face. That's because what you can't see, outside the frame of the picture, is that I'm tickling her, trying to evoke a smile. I myself am looking adoringly at her, but what I'm thinking in this picture is, I hope I don't throw up, because I'm actually about nine weeks pregnant with Elijah, my son, at this point when the photo shoot was taken.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber is now a mother of two. She had her second child, Elijah, a few months ago. She's also a biologist who teaches at Cornell University. In 1997 she wrote Living Downstream, A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. The book sprang from her own experience with bladder cancer. In her new book, Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, Sandra Steingraber tracks the whole new environment developing inside her own pregnant body.

STEINGRABER: Well, that was the thing that impressed me so much when I became pregnant at age 38. Here I was, this ecologist who had spent 20 years studying the interactions between animals and their habitat, and all of a sudden I saw myself as a habitat. I imagined the interior of my uterus as a kind of inland ocean with a population of one, and so, for me, the experience of pregnancy was of turning my scientist's eye inward and researching myself, and it was a very exciting time.

CURWOOD: Early on, you talk about the different things that make up the uterus and, of course, the amniotic fluid makes this interior ocean you refer to in your volume. I wonder if you could read a little from this section for us.

STEINGRABER: Sure, I'd be glad to. This section actually describes my own amniocentesis, and this scene opens when an obstetrician asks me to drink plenty of water: "Drink plenty of water; before it is baby pee, amniotic fluid is water. I drink water and it becomes blood plasma which suffuses the amniotic sac and surrounds the baby, who also drinks it. And what is it before that? Before it is drinking water amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs. It is the underground water that fills wells. And before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic fluid is rain. When I hold in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid I am holding a tube full of raindrops. Amniotic fluid is the juice of oranges that I had for breakfast and the milk that I poured over my cereal and the honey that I stirred into my tea. It is inside the green cells of spinach leaves and the damp flesh of apples. It is the yoke of an egg. The blood of cows and chickens is in this tube. The nectar gathered by bees and hummingbirds is in this tube. Whatever is inside hummingbird eggs is also inside my womb. Whatever is in the world water is here in my hands."

CURWOOD: What do you mean by this?

STEINGRABER: I mean that women's bodies are the first environment for all of us. One of the things I learned about amniotic fluid, when I actually researched it more closely, is that amniotic fluid itself is contaminated with the chemicals that we use in the industrial and agricultural world. We've detected PCBs in amniotic fluid now, and dioxins and DDT. So there is an exquisite communion between the internal environment of a pregnant woman's body and the external world. The placenta is an open doorway, not a sealed door on a space capsule. And it really was that moment, where I was able to hold a tube of my own amniotic fluid and realize that I myself was the water cycle now, that I decided I needed to write this book.

CURWOOD: Can you give me a short list of environmental toxins which, through your research, you are the most concerned about?

STEINGRABER: I'm very worried about mercury. I think mercury is turning into a very similar story that lead was in the last century, and mercury rates are still rising now, because coal burning power plants are the single most important source of putting mercury into the environment, because mercury does contaminate coal reserves. And when this is burned, it does go into the atmosphere. And mercury, like lead, sabotages fetal brain development. It actually paralyzes the neurons as they're migrating and getting all connected up in the fetal brain.

I'm worried about PCBs. PCBs are an industrial chemical once used in capacitors and other kinds of electrical equipment because it was so resistant to bursting into flames. Unfortunately, its inert qualities that it enjoys in the industrial sector it does not enjoy in the body of a pregnant woman. It interferes with thyroid hormone and thyroid hormone is an essential for helping guide the developing brain. And so, when PCBs are present, thyroid hormone is flushed from the system, and this too can lower I.Q. and cause problems in behavior, later on, for the child.

So, I think what has captured my interest now are the chemicals that have these invisible effects in the way that they sabotage certain kinds of cellular apparatus from getting set up correctly.

CURWOOD: When we think of chemicals and the impact on pregnancy, thalidomide, the whole thalidomide scandal and scare comes to mind, and it brings to mind the pictures of babies with flippers and other anomalies. What were your thoughts on this as you went through your own pregnancy, what chemicals might do?

STEINGRABER: Well, I realize it's not the typical activity, I suppose, for a pregnant woman to spend her first and second trimesters poring through birth defect registry datas and things like that, but that's indeed what I did. And with thalidomide, this sedative that was given to pregnant women to help control morning sickness, if she took it on a particular day of her pregnancy the baby might be born without legs. If she took it on another day, a few days earlier or later, it might be born without ears or without hands. And it really depended on which day she took the pills. And that lesson from thalidomide is that when a child might be exposed to a particular kind of pesticide or a particular kind of industrial chemical on a certain day of exposure, you'll get a certain kind of effect, maybe a birth defect that's obvious at birth, but maybe it might affect the way the brain gets wired up. So when the baby's born it looks fine but, perhaps, in years to come there may be some deficits in behavior or cognition or motor skills.

CURWOOD: At one point you ask the question, why isn't there any public conversation on environmental threats to pregnancy? Why did you ask that question?

STEINGRABER: It was amazing to me the disconnect between what I was reading in the scientific literature about environmental threats to pregnancy, of which there's a whole body of knowledge and a whole big conversation in the scientific world. There's a disconnect between that and what I found myself reading as a pregnant woman who opened a lot of these popular guides to pregnancy--you know, What to Expect When You're Expecting and all of the other books that are kind of cottage industry for women to enjoy their pregnancy. It almost seemed as though there was an unwritten rule that in the popular literature you should speak no evil about the environment, you should be reassuring, to the point of really being in denial that there are these problems. And my sense, and this is why I wrote Having Faith, is that pregnant women do want this information. The idea that we infantilize women who are pregnant and pat them on the head and say, "just be happy, don't worry." I think those days are over and women want this information and they find it empowering. At least I did.

CURWOOD: You are a scientist, you teach at Cornell University, and you're now a mother, twice over. How has motherhood affected your thinking as a scientist? How has it changed the way you ask questions?

STEINGRABER: Being a mother doesn't change the way I pose questions, but I think the way my motherhood plays a role is what happens when I'm ready: I've gotten the data and now I want to draw some conclusions from it. And here's where I always want to err on the side of caution, more now even than before. So there's where motherhood and science, I think, comes together, in the same way that I'm teaching my three year old daughter, Faith, now how to cross a street by looking both ways and by stopping every time. And you do this through incredible repetition. I don't need absolute proof that she's going to get hit by a car if I don't teach her these things. All I need is a remote possibility that she might be harmed. And I'm going to spend a lot of hours of my life working on this one task about stopping and looking both ways. And in a similar way, when I turn my scientist's eye to looking at environmental toxicants, if we have an indication that these things are harming children, my scientist brain at some point turns off and I no longer beat the drum, as scientists do, asking for more research, saying, "Oh, this is very provocative but we need more research." Suddenly, my mother brain comes in here and says, "You know what, I don't need any more proof or evidence that this is harmful for children. I have enough evidence now to ask, as a scientist, as a person, as a citizen who wants to influence policy, to ask that this chemical be divorced from our economy, and keep our children out of harm's way."

CURWOOD: Dr. Sandra Steingraber teaches biology at Cornell University, and is author of the book, Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood. Thanks for talking with us.

STEINGRABER: My pleasure, thank you.

Related link:
MP3 format Real Audio format)
LOE 1998 interview with Sandra Steingraber on her book "Living Downstream" (MP3 format Real Audio format )
Click here to order "Having Faith" from amazon.com!">

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Animal Note

CURWOOD: Coming up: voters in San Francisco are being asked to approve the nation's biggest public solar power project. First, this page from the Animal Notebook, with Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: When you think of an animal bustling from flower to flower, sipping nectar and pollinating plants, it's probably birds or bees that come to mind. But some marsupials, primates and rodents do the job just as well. For example, scientists have now discovered that gerbils make excellent pollinators. Researchers set up a surveillance system to watch who came to feed on a species of lily that lives in South Africa's succulent Karoo region. Like kids caught with cookie crumbs on their chins, the gerbils snared in nearby traps had pollen all over their snouts. As these nocturnal rodents travel from flower to flower slurping up the jelly like nectar, they inadvertently pick up pollen, and carry it to the next lily. Plants that the gerbils couldn't access produce drastically fewer seeds, proving, the scientists say, that pollination relies on the furry visitors. The researchers figure that rodent pollinated plants have evolved to have dull colored sturdy flowers that grow close to the ground. To gerbils, it's like hanging out a sign at the all night diner, "All you can eat buffet." That's this week's Animal Note, I'm Maggie Villiger.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Almanac: Punkin' Chunkin' contest

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the days that follow Halloween this year, folks in Millsboro, Delaware, will be busy smashing pumpkins. But they won't be doing it by hand. It's the annual Punkin Chunkin Competition, in which contestants use everything from giant sling shots to cannons to catapults to try to shoot a pumpkin the farthest. The event started in 1986 and now draws nearly 30,000 spectators. Last year's winning gourd sailed more than 4,000 feet. The secret weapon: an air cannon that builds up gas pressure. Trey Nelson is a past champion and one of the founders of the competition. He says last year's winner, Joe "Wolfman" Thomas, just got lucky.

NELSON: Well, he had a good pumpkin last year. That's what it's down to now, really, with all the air cannons, it's who's got the best pumpkin.

CURWOOD: And what makes the best pumpkin?

NELSON: One that's about ten pounds and it's a nice round shape, doesn't have any flat spots. And you've got to have one that's pretty firm. You can't have one that's got any soft spots.

CURWOOD: Otherwise, the pumpkin might explode in the cannon. But Mr. Nelson says he can tell a winner when it takes off.

NELSON: It sounds like a --whoosh, gone. And then you can see the pumpkin appear about 200 yards out in front of the machine, and then it gets real small real fast, until you lose sight of it.

CURWOOD: The pumpkins leave craters where they land, and fences are needed to keep the crowd out of the danger zone. Organizers think that this may be the year to set a mile long record, but don't expect any specifics on the machine designs until after the big event. Pumpkin espionage abounds as contestants aim to pass that coveted one mile mark. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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California Sun

CURWOOD: Sparked by the rolling blackouts in California earlier this year, a number of communities are making long-term investments in non-polluting energy generated by the sun, the wind, and the Earth's natural heat. On election day, San Franciscans will decide whether to make their city home to the largest city-run renewable energy project in the United States. From San Francisco, Jeff Hoffman reports.

HOCHSCHILD: This is it. You can see, this is the twelve panel array, 1.4 kilowatts, and it's angled at 30 degrees, south facing.

HOFFMAN: San Francisco is famous for its fog, but it's a clear day and the city is bathed in sunlight, as David Hochschild scampers up a ladder to show off the array of twelve solar panels he installed on the roof of his Victorian house last year. The window-like panels contain photovoltaic cells, or PVs, which capture sunlight and turn it into electricity.

HOCHSCHILD: During the daytime, when it's producing more energy than the house is consuming, it feeds back into the grid and your meter runs backwards, and there's no greater pleasure in the world than seeing your electric meter run backwards.

HOFFMAN: The set-up costs him about $11,000. That's a substantial investment. But Hochschild, who works as an aide to San Francisco's mayor, says it makes both economic and environmental sense.

HOCKSCHILD: You look at the consequences of the way we make our electricity now, all the emissions caused by coal and oil fired power plants, and it's just not sustainable. We have to change and we have to change now.

HOFFMAN: Political leaders also want to make a dramatic change in the way San Francisco gets its electricity. For several years, progressives here have pushed the city to take an active stand on renewable energy. The power crisis that hit California a year ago, shutting down traffic lights and darkening city offices, has helped to generate broad public support for renewables, says San Francisco Supervisor, Mark Leno. He backed a ballot measure, Proposition B, that would authorize the city to sell $100 million in revenue bonds to finance wind and solar energy.

LENO: Our costs have escalated in an unimaginable fashion, so now, wind generated power or solar generated power is actually competitive. This is the way of the future. We cannot build our way out of this with more fossil fuel generators.

HOFFMAN: If voters approve Prop B, the largest renewable energy bond in the country, over several years the city of San Francisco would install solar panels on its sunniest municipal buildings, parking lots, and covered reservoirs, and put wind turbines on other city property. San Francisco now gets its electricity from a city-owned hydroelectric dam and from investor owned Pacific Gas & Electric. Under Prop B, renewables would generate about a third of the city government's power consumption. If the city pays off the bonds in 15 years, it would get 25 years of virtually free electricity. Supervisor Mark Leno.

LENO: Forget the high cost of natural gas. We would be our own masters at that point.

HOFFMAN: Another proposition on the November ballot, Prop H, would allow the city to issue bonds for solar and other renewable energy investments, without having to seek voter approval each time. The first project under that initiative would put 50 megawatts of solar panels, enough to power 50,000 houses, on private homes and businesses. If voters say "yes" to both Props. B and H, San Francisco would boast the world's largest solar project. Dan Reicher, a Fellow at the World Resources Institute, who served as Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, says San Francisco's ambitious plans would set a new benchmark.

REICHER: That's a very substantial percentage of annual U.S. production. Particularly, solar photovoltaics are still a relatively small percentage of renewables' output. So, something on the order of 25 megawatts would be quite substantial. It would be a great step for them to take; they would be far out front of other cities in terms of the actual investment.

HOFFMAN: While San Francisco is sometimes called "Fog City", studies indicate it gets nearly as much direct sunlight as Sacramento, the state capital. There, the Sacramento municipal utility district, a voter controlled public power company, leads the country in solar generated electricity. In fact, cities and public utilities have invested far more in renewable energy than investor owned utilities--a trend that continues to grow. Chicago and Los Angeles have their own solar plants, while Austin, Texas, will buy 86 megawatts worth of wind power this year.


HOFFMAN: If San Franciscans approve the city's renewable energy plans next month, it will be a big shot in the arm for companies that are trying to build businesses out of the small, but rapidly growing, market for solar energy hardware. Across the San Francisco Bay, in Berkeley, Powerlight buys solar photovoltaic cells, or PVs, and builds them into tiles and panels that go on the roofs of office buildings. Janice Lin is the company's director of business development.

LIN: This initiative in San Francisco would be huge, from the standpoint of the solar industry. In 1999, the total volume of PVs shipped worldwide, for all applications, was only about 200 megawatts. So, if San Francisco ultimately installs 30 to 35, that's a huge chunk of worldwide PV made. So, it would sure be a big boost for the current manufacturers to invest and build up their capacity.

HOFFMAN: And more capacity would mean lower prices. In the three decades since solar cells were developed for use in the NASA space program, the cost of the devices, which are made out of silicon, have fallen significantly. Still, solar energy remains unaffordable for most home owners and cash strapped local governments. But if cities like San Francisco follow through on plans to make renewable energy a big part of their power consumption, it would help to change the economics of clean energy. And that would help make abundant but under-used resources like wind and solar important parts of America's carbon-heavy energy diet. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman, in San Francisco.

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Jordan's Delight

CURWOOD: Pristine places can be gone forever when real estate development begins, but not always. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit has our story about the restoration of a coastal island in the Atlantic, called Jordan's Delight.


SCHALIT: There are some islands that really are for the birds, and Jordan's Delight is one of them, says Mary Rea, a long-time summer resident of Maine's rugged coast.

REA: And it has a covering of grass and a few trees sticking up, and it is not a habitable appearing island at all. And the only beach we can land on is only possible to do in very very calm water. That's where we're going to land. We're going to stagger up to the rocks. And then, the AV trails that he had are very deep going up. It's not easy to walk around on at all.


SCHALIT: Eighty-four year old Mary Rea has gray hair jammed under a baseball cap, twinkling hazel eyes, and a cell phone tucked inside a lobsterman's bait bag. She grew up summering around these islands. She was proposed to by two different suitors, on Pond Island, just north of here. She's owned neighboring Trafton Island since the 1940s. But this island, Jordan's Delight, was different from the islands that were her playground.

REA: Because it was the only bare island. All the other islands, of course, have spruce trees and meadows and all sorts of things, but this island was just one big tall cliff that sat here, with--hear the birds? They're disagreeing with me, but I know I'm right.


SCHALIT: And bare islands are traditionally used by nesting seabirds. Seabirds are safe, on these remote islands, from mainland predators from humans to dogs to foxes. Jordan's Delight was once home to the largest colony of black guillemots on the East Coast. Their numbers have diminished, most likely because of human presence. The island's remaining guillemots, small birds with white wing patches and beautiful red legs, nest in sheer cliffs. Huge black-backed gulls lay their eggs in the island's green interior. There's a colony of secretive and nocturnal Leach's storm petrels that lay a single egg annually, deep in underground burrows. Everyone around here thought of this island as inhospitable to humans. So Mary Rea says it came as a shock when in 1994 a huge house began rising out of Jordan Delight's interior.

REA: There was no reason to inhabit this island, except to have a view, and it just seemed like such a sacrilege to build a house on this beautiful place, and the view around us, and the wildlife, and that--it just seemed absolutely out of character, for the whole island, to have anything manmade on it.

SCHALIT: The house on Jordan's Delight was built by an out-of-state businessman who barged construction materials to the island and moved them across it with all terrain vehicles during bird nesting season. But he abruptly ceased construction, put the island up for sale, and sold it in the year 2000. The new owner then deeded 90% of the island to the non-profit environmental organization, Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Jane Arbuckle is director of stewardship for the group. Standing next to a gull colony, Arbuckle says there was a string attached.

ARBUCKLE: An unwritten condition of his giving us this part of the island was that we will remove the big house, which is exactly what we would have wanted to do anyways.


SCHALIT: In late September, when birds had finished nesting, workers began taking the house down, shingle by shingle. Some of the house materials will be salvaged; much will be burned; and some will be barged back to the mainland and discarded. But destroying the house won't necessarily mean the end of human presence on the island. First of all, the island's donor retained a small house for his personal use, but only during non-nesting season. And second, if seabirds are to be restored to their proper and historical balance on the island, that will, in fact, take human intervention. Steve Kress is vice president for bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. He's credited with bringing puffins back to the islands of mid-coast Maine. Kress says that humans have so disrupted the ecological balance on Maine's coastal islands that it takes human intervention to restore and maintain bird colonies.

KRESS: If we want to have a full complement of seabirds that an island has the potential for supporting, then we sometimes need to actively manage the population of birds on it in order to restore the species that once nested there.


SCHALIT: Mary Rea looks forward to the day when the big house is finally gone and the rugged island returns to a more natural state.

REA: You can say it's lonely, it's remote, it's hard to get to, you can't do anything once you're here. But on the other hand, if you feel that this is a privilege to see this island as something that is unique and remote and you feel absolutely close to something that's much bigger than you are, much bigger. So, it's really a spiritual thing, I think. And nature can be just as spiritual as anything else.

SCHALIT: The house site is slated to be completely cleared by the end of October. Birds return to nest on Jordan's Delight next spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit, on Jordan's Delight.

Related link:
Maine Coast Heritage Trust">

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The Fox

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. Most folks in Aurora, Illinois, knew James Phillips as a quiet, eighth-grade science teacher. But he had a secret life, and signed his covert work with the code-name, "The Fox." The Fox was never caught in his acts of environmental protest, which included putting metal caps on belching smokestacks and leaving skunks at the doors of the executives of polluting corporations. Mr. Phillips died in early October at age 70. We spoke to his sister, Dorothy Spring, who says that pollution from a local soap factory started The Fox off on his secret life as a non-violent eco-saboteur.

SPRING: He was taking a hike one day and he saw this little stream called Mill Creek, and in the stream there were some soap curds, but there were also a little family of ducks, and the ducks were having a hard time. And he picked them up and kind of cleaned them off and then he set them back in. The next day, he came back, the ducks were all dead. And there was something about that that just made him so angry. And he just couldn't get over it. And he decided to plug up the effluent.

CURWOOD: What would happen when he plugged up the sewer?

SPRING: Well, it backed up into the plants, so that they got a taste of their own medicine, and that was his idea of justice.

CURWOOD: It sounds like his work might not have been that much of a secret. In fact, there were some articles in newspapers and magazines about him, back in the 1970s.

SPRING: There was, but they didn't know who it was. They only suspected. He was working by himself at that time; for the first few times, he was working by himself.

CURWOOD: What did you think about it?

SPRING: Well, at first, I thought the companies deserved what they got, but I was afraid he was going to get in trouble, but he just never did. And especially when he plugged up the plant's sewer, the pipe was several feet underground and he had to go down in there and crawl through. And that was dangerous, because if they had had a big effluent, he would have drowned down there, in the pipe.

CURWOOD: Why did he think the police never caught up with him?

SPRING: It's enough to say that the police realized, after several months, that not only was he right about the soap factory, but he was not hurting anybody. Never did. Nobody ever was hurt by it, and certainly, nobody was ever killed by it. And for a long time, it was only suspicion, but eventually it became an open secret.


SPRING: That was The Fox, yeah.

CURWOOD: Dorothy Spring's brother, James Phillips, was an environmental activist who died recently, at the age of 70. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

SPRING: You're welcome.

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead, creepy crawly crime solvers. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: Drugs that treat osteoporosis are limited in their effectiveness since they're primarily aimed at slowing down bone loss rather than building new bone. On the other hand, fluoride has been shown to stimulate new bone formation, but at a price. Fluoride can cause gastrointestinal problems including pain, nausea and bleeding. And some research indicates that the bone formed through fluoride stimulation is brittle. In fact, some studies have shown that fluoride treatment can actually increase the rate of bone fractures. But in a recent study, researchers used a special form of fluoride that was both low dose and time released. The results seem promising. The study looked at two groups of older women diagnosed with osteoporosis. One group received a combination of calcium and vitamin D. A second group also received fluoride. Over a three and a half year period, the rate of vertebra fractions in women who took fluoride was almost 70% lower, compared to the group who didn't use it. As expected, bone density in the spines of the women who received fluoride increased. But researchers also found that this low-dose fluoride did not produce any significant side effects, and the bone that was formed was of normal quality. The authors of this paper caution this treatment is experimental and the fluoride used in this study is a specially formulated drug not yet available on the market. That's this week's Health Update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Bats are some of the most misunderstood animals. Throughout history they've been linked to witchcraft and magic, and these days we mostly find bats in Halloween decorations and horror movies. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that the truth about bats is more astonishing than the myth. WNPR's Diane Orson has our report.

MOVIE CLIP: Oh God, there's too many...What do you mean? Come on, let's go!

ORSON: Almost every reviewer agreed that the 1999 horror movie "Bats" was pretty absurd. It featured swarms of genetically altered bats terrorizing a sleepy Texas town. Bats, however, have been big-screen villains for a long time.

MOVIE CLIP: I see castles. There are empires. Dracula and his wives, they take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.

ORSON: The 1931 film "Dracula" forever cemented in people's minds a connection between bats and that grand-daddy of all fiendish blood sucking vampires.

MOVIE CLIP: Over there!

ORSON: But what about this Pokemon movie, the kind kids love to watch on tv?

MOVIE CLIP: It's a bunch of zoo bats...They're attacking that guy...Dexter, analyze...Zoo bats. Blind Pokemon with supersonic powers. Zoo bats live in caves and hate to fly outside in daylight.

ORSON: Uh, could we hear that again, please?

MOVIE CLIP: Zoo bats, blind Pokemon with super sonic powers.

ORSON: Movies are filled with misconceptions about bats. Myth number one: Bats are blind. Wrong. All bats can see. They also have a kind of second sight, echolocation. Similar to dolphins, bats have sophisticated sonar systems so they can hunt for prey in total darkness. Myth number two --

MOVIE CLIP: They feed on the blood of the living.

ORSON: Unlike many movie images of bats as predatory carnivores, most bats feed on insects. They can eat more than 50% of their body weight each night: that's about 3,000 bugs. Other bats eat fruit. Vampire bats live in Central and South America. They're the only bats to lap animal blood from tiny incisions. They don't suck blood. And vampire bats almost never feed on humans. Here are a few more bat facts. Bats make up one-fourth of all mammals on the planet, with almost 1,000 different species. They're the only mammal that can truly fly.


ORSON: On an October evening, biologists are taking advantage of bats in flight. Jenny Dixon is a wildlife biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection and Connecticut's resident bat expert. She and her colleagues are setting up very fine mist nets, in front of an old barn in Litchfield, Connecticut.

DIXON: One of the things that we're doing on some of the bats that we've been collecting as part of this study is we're putting wing bands on them. That will help give us an idea of the age where the bat has moved.

ORSON: Dixon tracks bat populations, surveying roosting sites and hibernating locations. She's involved in projects to protect endangered bat species. She says one reason bats frighten us is that they're so good at doing something we're not good at: maneuvering through darkness. She says she tries to think like a bat when she chooses where to place a net.

DIXON: What you try and do is set them up in places where the bats are not expecting them, so that they accidentally fly into the nets. If they're actively echolocating, they can go right past them every time, over and under them, through holes in the nets.

ORSON: Tonight she's working with scientists studying West Nile virus. They want to find out how many bats have been exposed or infected with the virus. Dr. Richard French is a veterinary pathologist at the University of Connecticut.

FRENCH: What we want to do is understand the dynamics of West Nile virus in North America since it's newly arrived here. And though it does kill birds and it affects other species, one of the things we want to know are the reservoirs for the virus. In other words, what animals carry that virus through the winter months?

ORSON: In preliminary studies, several bats tested positive for West Nile, and research shows that bats act as reservoirs for related viruses, like Japanese encephalitis and St. Louis encephalitis. Bats cannot pass West Nile directly to humans but, like birds, they can act like a canary in a coal mine to tell us where the virus has spread. On this evening, four bats are trapped in the net. Another ten or so have cleverly managed to maneuver around it, zig-zagging through tiny openings. Research assistant J.T. Stokowski is trying to untangle one caught in a string.

STOKOWSKI: They're making their echolocation sounds, which usually are inaudible to us, but since we are disturbing them they'll make them a little more audible. They're usually at a frequency that we can't hear.


ORSON: Stokowski begins collecting data on the bats.

STOKOWSKI: The first one's a little brown, forearm length of 39.35. And this is a female.

ORSON: Next the pathologists collect blood samples which will be taken back to the university's bio safety area for testing.

DIXON: Come on. We've got a little drop coming off the back here. Yeah, all set.

ORSON: After a couple of hours in the field, the researchers are ready to pack up and leave. The University of Connecticut's pathologists will finish the testing during the fall, and expect results from the study later this year. Jenny Dixon says that, whatever the outcome, she hopes people won't jump to quick conclusions about bats and West Nile. She points to the 1960's, when it was believed that most bats carried rabies, a misconception since, according to Bat Conservation International, only one-half of one percent of wild bats are rabid. Jenny Dixon.

DIXON: I'm trying to prevent that whole let's-have-another-reason-to-be-afraid-of-bats-thing from happening. Because there certainly has been some talk, early on about the possibility of bats being an over wintering host for the virus, and before that proliferates, I really think it's important that we get the research information to back it up.

ORSON: In addition to her lab work, Dixon educates people year round about the benefits of bats. She says she hopes her work will help dispel some of popular culture's age-old superstitions about the winged creatures.

MOVIE CLIP We live in a most enlightened era. Superstitions such as you mentioned have been refuted by science...Faith, Dr. Von Helzing. Faith is the amazing faculty of man which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.

ORSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Orson, in Litchfield, Connecticut.

Related link:
Bat Conservation International">

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Maggot P. I.

CURWOOD: In those old black-and-white detective movies you might see Humphrey Bogart pull a notebook out of his trench coat pocket or place a suspicious hair inside an envelope. But you probably wouldn't catch him using a butterfly net at a murder scene. Well, that's all changing, at least in the real world. One of the most difficult things to determine is the exact time of death, because technology has no accurate tests. Jessica Snyder-Sachs joins me now. She's author of Corpse: Nature, Forensics and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, and she says that investigators are finding that Mother Nature may well be the ultimate witness. Jessica Snyder-Sachs, welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Perhaps you could introduce the subject of your book by talking about the case of the Devil's Beef Tub, this case from England, and actually, at one point, you even called this case worthy of Scotland Yard lore. Please tell us the story.

SNYDER-SACHS: Right. This is a case, one of the first cases where police looked beyond their own forensic circles for help. And it starts late September morning in 1935, where a young woman is crossing a bridge near Moffat, Scotland. And she happens to look down. There had been a big rain a few days before so the river had been up and came down and had scattered a lot of parcels along the bank. And she looks closer and sees part of a human arm in one of them.


SNYDER-SACHS: Right. So clearly, she runs and gets the police. They start searching this ravine, which came to be known ever after as the Devil's Beef Tub, and they found 70 parcels, different pieces of human beings, which they pieced together. It looked like they had two people here, but all the identifying features had been gouged out. So it turns out, a doctor's wife, Isabella Ruxton, had gone missing, with her family's nursemaid. But Ruxton claims his wife and the nursemaid had actually gone to Scotland on holiday, on the 16th or 17th, and that he had an alibi after that. So this all very much hinges on when the women were killed.

So--and this is the part that's worthy of Scotland lore--one of the pathologists at the University of Glasgow plucked some maggots off of one of the packages. Medical examiners, maggots are something they know, and they usually wash it off the autopsy table. But he took them down the hall, to an etymologist, a bug scientist, Alexander Mearns. And, sure enough, Mearns identified the larva, first, as the larva of blue bottle fly. And he says, "I can count back to when these eggs were laid." And then Mearns counts. It takes so many hours for the eggs to hatch, so many days for the larva to mature to the point where what he got was a nice, plump, third instar larva, kind of like a teenage maggot right before it's ready to turn into a fly.

So he counts back, and he says, These were laid on the morning of September 16th, which blows Ruxton's alibi and fits with the police's scenario of him killing them and dumping their bodies that night. So, the next morning, when the sun comes up, makes it nice and warm enough for flies to be about, the flies arrived, found the packages, and, in fact, Ruxton was convicted and executed, and, after his death, it was published, his jail cell confession: he had killed his wife in a fit of rage, and killed the nursemaid when she walked in and discovered them.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me, how sensitive are flies to death?

SNYDER-SACHS: The molecules that are given off at death waft into the air and, up to a mile away, blow flies and flesh flies can pick up those molecules and then they just follow the gradient, every more concentrated molecules, to the scene of death. And they first start arriving--if the body is outdoors, it's a sunny day--they'll start arriving within minutes.

CURWOOD: What, now, do scientists do to pinpoint the time of death?

SNYDER-SACHS: Well, this has been bedeviling pathologists for centuries. They tried all sorts of high-tech tests to test muscle excitability and eye dilation and different chemicals, and they just don't work outside the laboratory with actual murders, actual deaths. So, where they're finding success is really outside trying to medically diagnose death. But bringing in scientists, like etymologists, who are looking at the body kind of as a eco-system, and looking at that wonderful way that nature reclaims the body, and quantifying how it does that, so they can count back, to death.

CURWOOD: Now, we focused mainly on flies here, but what other parts of nature are now used in forensics?

SNYDER-SACHS: Good question. Often, it's by combining different parts of nature, as you say, that they get their best time estimates, and so botanists will sometimes look for clues: a body might drop on a plant and shade it from the sun and sometimes they can estimate that way. Also, anthropologists are looking at the soil, or bedding, or whatever is beneath the corpse, and looking for products of bacterial decay. Chemists are trying to look at that and see if they can make sense out of the chaos, as in what rate do the bacteria break our muscles down into protein, amino acids, and simpler chemicals.

CURWOOD: At what point in your research for this book did you first witness nature's forensics in action?

SNYDER-SACHS: Well, initially, I was invited to some workshops that the etymologists give for state troopers, FBI agents, etc., where they used 50 pound pigs as human corpse stand-ins. And from there I was invited to assist Neil Haskell, a forensic etymologist, with his work at the so-called Body Farm, at the University of Tennessee. And it's in the back parking lot of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. You go all the way to the back of employee parking and you see a gray stockade fence, topped with barbed wire and a bio hazard sign. And after somebody opens a few padlocks you walk in, and the first thing you see, of course, are bodies--some of them just laying in the open, some of them stuffed in garbage bags, kind of protruding. There are abandoned cars, which they use sometimes, and anthropologist, etymologists, botanists are studying how the body decomposes and how they can calculate the time since death, based on their research there.

CURWOOD: This is a pretty grisly topic. What made you want to write about it in the first place, and, then, to keep on writing?

SNYDER-SACHS: What I find beautiful is the whole ecology of how the body is taken back to nature, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And I also like that here's one case where nature is trumping technology. You walk into a forensic laboratory and they're filled to the ceiling with all these high tech machines, to gas chromatographs, spectrometers, you know, machines for DNA analysis. But when it comes to determining time of death, they're useless. So you bring these ecologists in, who look at the plants and the bugs and the microbes on the body, and they're the ones who are giving us the answers that have been sought for hundreds of years.

CURWOOD: Jessica Snyder-Sachs is author of the book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint the Time of Death. Thanks for joining us.

SNYDER-SACHS: Thank you, Steve

Related link:
Click here to order "Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint the Time of Death" from amazon.com!">

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Cattle once roamed over much of South Dakota, but government programs entice farmers to switch from cattle to corn, so ranchers are leaving, and the grasslands are being lost.

MAN: Every time I get up on a high point on my ranch, even though I'm 15 miles away from this farm, and the wind's blowing, I can see this dust cloud in the air, 500 to 1000 feet, and it's blowing away. It's not the first piece of ground that blew away, and it won't be the last.

CURWOOD: What's at stake in the next farm bill, next time on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: An appropriately eerie sound closes our show this week. While camping along a small stream in Great Smokies National Park, Jonathon Storm recorded the calls of a distant wolf pack. The red wolves you hear in this recording were first reintroduced into the park in 1991. Later they had to be captured and relocated because there were not enough deer left in Great Smokies to keep them alive, and the wolves were leaving the park in search of food.


CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Mu¡Viz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penney and Jonathan Waldman. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and Happy Halloween.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the Educational Foundation of America for reporting on energy and climate change; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues and the environment; The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; The Town Creek Foundation; The W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity--www.wajones.org; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the James and Kathleen Stone Foundation; and the Oak Foundation.

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