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

September 20, 2002

Air Date: September 20, 2002


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Afghan Seed Bank

(stream / mp3)

Efforts to rebuild Afghanistan’s farming sector received a major blow when a hidden bank of Afghani seeds was looted. Science News senior editor Janet Raloff explains what happened to host Steve Curwood. (05:00)

Waiving Laws for Military Readiness / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

(stream / mp3)

As the U.S. moves closer to a new war with Iraq, Congress is deciding whether preparing troops for battle is compatible with environmental protection. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports from Washington. (02:30)

National Security and the Loggerhead Shrike / Eric Anderson

(stream / mp3)

More often than it would like, the United States military must accommodate plants and animals that live on military lands. Sometimes the efforts are so successful they lead to even more species needing protection. Eric Anderson reports. (05:00)

Almanac/Going Up!

(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about Elisha Graves Otis' safety elevator. The inventor resorted to public demonstrations involving sliced hoisting cables to drum up business for his safety innovation back in 1854. (01:30)

Herbicide Toxicity

(stream / mp3)

A new study finds that very low doses of a common herbicide mixture can cause miscarriages in mice. Host Steve Curwood talks with University of Wisconsin toxicologist Warren Porter about his study. (05:00)

Comfy Camping / Robin White

(stream / mp3)

Americans are so pinched for time and so stressed, camping is suddenly too much work. Maybe we're just getting lazier. Robin White reports on the blurring line between camping and the spa vacation. (05:00)

On the Beach / Bethany Ericson

(stream / mp3)

Life’s changes can sometimes leave a person searching for direction. Commentator Bethany Ericson has taken to the beach to look for answers. (02:30)

News Follow-up

(stream / mp3)

Developments in stories we’ve been following. (03:00)

Health Update/Malaria Vaccine / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new type of malaria vaccine. (01:20)

Environmental Justice

(stream / mp3)

The Air Quality Management District in the Los Angeles Basin enhanced its Environmental Justice program this month, with new regulations and programs aimed at easing the pollution burden in some of southern California's poorest and smoggiest areas. Host Steve Curwood talks with Joe Lyou of the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and environmental lawyer Mike Carroll of Latham and Watkins about the program's expansion. (07:10)

Safer Schools / Kim Motylewski

(stream / mp3)

There are regulations that govern how schools manage the chemicals in their science labs and storage closets. But that hasn’t stopped old and even dangerous products from piling up. Reporter Kim Motylewski looks at what some school districts are doing to clean up their toxic waste. (08:15)


(stream / mp3)

Take a listen to the sounds of the Venezuelan rainforest. (Jean C. Roché, "Amazonian Forests in the Extreme South", American Forests and Lakes - 1989.)
Buy the CD! ()

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Eric Anderson, Robin White, Kim MotylewskiGUESTS: Janet Raloff, Warren Porter, Joe Lyou, Mike CarrollCOMMENTATOR: Bethany EricsonUPDATE: Diane Toomey


CURWOOD: From NPR News, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
First it was three decades of war. Then came the years of drought. Now, as farmers in Afghanistan try to get back in business, they have suffered another setback. Looters have wrecked the nation’s seed bank.

RALOFF: So, now, all you’re left with is a jumble of seeds on the floor of these buildings, and nobody is quite sure how long they’ve been there; at least weeks, maybe months.

CURWOOD: The lost genetic secrets of Afghanistan. Also, if you love camping, but your loved ones don’t, maybe you can get them to try Comfy Camping.

IRWIN: There’s a tea-for-two table, the blow-up supreme mattress, and espresso machine. Propane tent heater, put it right in there. Hey, it’s just like being in the house, only you’re outdoors.

CURWOOD: Taking the wild out of the wilderness.

Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


Back to top


Afghan Seed Bank


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

A team of United Nations scientists has just arrived in Afghanistan to evaluate the environmental damage to that nation from 30 years of war. They’ll assess urban pollution, natural resources, and Afghanistan’s biodiversity. Decades of war and years of drought have also devastated the country’s agricultural sector. And Afghani farmers recently lost a major resource when a seed bank was destroyed, reportedly by looters.

Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News. She tells the story of the seed bank in the current online edition of the magazine. What was lost, she says, was Afghanistan’s agricultural insurance policy.

RALOFF: We’re talking about lots of varieties of seeds such as wheat, chickpeas, lentils, various kinds of fruits and nuts. They were all labeled and placed in air-tight containers. Each of these seeds, or varieties of seeds, had been selected to represent the genetic biodiversity of native crops, ones that were well-suited to grow in Afghanistan’s very dry environment.

CURWOOD: What happened to it?

RALOFF: They had been stored in air-tight bottles hidden in the bottom of houses in Jalalabad and Ghazni. And at some point in recent months, vandals got in, saw the containers, decided they looked attractive, and they emptied the seeds onto the floor and ran off with the containers. So now, all you’re left with is a jumble of seeds on the floor of these buildings, and nobody is quite sure how long they’ve been there; at least weeks, maybe months.

CURWOOD: What’s the importance of the seed bank?

RALOFF: Well, each of these seeds is like a book. And from the outside you can’t tell what’s in that book, or, in other words, the genes that are in that seed. What you need are the information that’s been logged, the data that have been stored on where the seeds have been collected, and the environment of the seeds’ native range.

So, if you knew that those seeds came from a dry area, you would expect that the seeds are probably drought tolerant. If they came from a mountainous region, they’d probably survive a short growing season and cold temperatures.

CURWOOD: Well, where does Afghani agriculture go from here? If the country no longer has an insurance policy of indigenous seeds, what can be done to try to rebuild the seed bank of crops that do work well there?

RALOFF: Well, luckily, there had been an earlier seed bank which was destroyed in Afghanistan in 1992. But when the seeds were collected for that earlier bank, duplicates were sent to other seed banks around the world, and those seed banks are now being asked to go through their collection, find those Afghani seeds, and send a share of them back to help create a new seed bank in Afghanistan.

CURWOOD: What was lost in this recent ransacking of the seed bank that’s just plain irreplaceable?

RALOFF: The simple answer is, nobody knows. They never were able to do the research to map the traits that were carried in the seeds that were lost. That’s ordinarily done. But the resources weren’t there, and the Taliban wasn’t really welcoming of foreign researchers coming in to do this kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons the seed bank had been hidden.

But you could suspect that you are losing a certain amount of the agricultural heritage of that country that, because so little is growing right now, that much of what had been suited for that environment was among the things that were lost. And it will make it a lot harder to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan today. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be a really tough road to hoe.

CURWOOD: What’s the overall state of the infrastructure of Afghanistan’s agricultural community?

RALOFF: It’s a disaster. At one point, 70 to 80 percent of the adults in Afghanistan were employed in farming. Right now, half of all people in Afghanistan are unemployed. Many of the farmers have been moved. They’ve been resettled in regions far from where they had initially worked. It may be conditions for which they’re really unaccustomed to farming. It turns out, because of the drought, which has been especially bad, that it’s very hard to grow anything at this point. So fields are just barely turning out crops at all.

Trees have died. People who had orchards, the orchards are gone. People who had livestock, which were important for feeding them and for fertilizing soils, they have had to sell them or eat the livestock. Basically, they’re in very primitive agricultural conditions based on the confluence of events, both the drought and the war.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is senior editor of Science News. Her recent article on the Afghani seed bank destruction is available on the Science News website.

Thanks Janet.

RALOFF: Pleasure, Steve.

Related links:
- Janet Raloff’s article in Science News
- Future Harvest

Back to top


Waiving Laws for Military Readiness

CURWOOD: With military action continuing in Afghanistan and looming on the horizon with Iraq, lawmakers in Washington are growing increasingly anxious about military preparedness. As Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, the environment has become a focal point in their debate.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Bush Administration says its troops are losing training time and space to environmental laws, laws which limit everything, it says, from air space and live fire drops, to amphibious exercises, and the disposal of military wastes. The Department of Defense wants exemptions from a number of major laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and laws governing hazardous wastes. Paul Mayberry is DOD’s Deputy Undersecretary for Readiness.

MAYBERRY: Our military readiness activities are being increasingly constrained by the cumulative effects of rigid compliance with and overly broad interpretation of a wide array of environmental statutes and regulations.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some in Congress agree. They say, they’ve seen environmental laws force military bases to sharply curtail training and stop some activities altogether. But other lawmakers are hesitant to grant DOD a blanket exemption from such a sweeping array of environmental protections. Critics point out the Secretary of Defense already has the authority to seek exemptions from these laws on a case-by-case basis, an authority they say that’s never been used. They say, birds, whales and groundwater have all been damaged by military activity, and that if the laws are waived, the damage will be worse.

The military, they argue, has been looking for a way out of complying with environmental laws for years, and, they say, it’s simply using the war on terrorism as justification. Lawmakers in the House have granted the DOD exemption from two of the laws it requested, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Senate, however, has refused to grant any exemptions. The two chambers are now in closed-door negotiations to reach a compromise on the final bill. The results will be a test of Washington’s priorities and could help set the stage for future debates over whether national security is compatible with environmental protection.

For Living on Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

Back to top


National Security and the Loggerhead Shrike

CURWOOD: The issue of environmental protection and military readiness is especially pointed off the coast of southern California. Eric Anderson of member station KPBS reports from San Clemente Island, where the Navy conducts live fire exercises while, at the same time, it tries to protect a small bird.

ANDERSON: San Clemente Island rises out of the Pacific Ocean, grassy and windswept, some 70 miles off the San Diego coast. This 21-mile long spit of land is home to the U.S. Navy’s most prized West Coast training area. Destroyers, submarines and fighter jets have free rein around the island. Parts of San Clemente also serve as a target for bombs, missiles and heavy shells.

Near a military bunker perched on the side of a hill, Navy contractor, Tom Sowden, points toward a barren swatch of land.

SOWDEN: If you look out here you can see a couple of white shapes on the ground. We have armed personnel carriers, old Korean War vintage tanks, World War II vintage artillery, a couple of tanker-truck bodies, and some dipsy dumpsters that we use for targets out there.

ANDERSON: Three days a week, pilots from nearby aircraft carriers can fly in over the range and drop their bombs. The rest of the week the training range is shut down. That allows biologists to survey two nearby canyons for signs of an endangered bird.

ANDERSON: Although it has cousins thriving on the mainland, this subspecies of loggerhead shrike is found only on San Clemente Island. Life here has been less than hospitable for the small insect-feeding bird. More than 30,000 goats munched and trampled the island’s trees and bushes that let wild grasses cover the ground where the shrike finds its food.

Navy contractor, Kelly Brock, a biologist, says the bird retreated into two canyons near the bombing range, only to be pursued by animal predators.

BROCK: The biggest threat to the shrike is when the young leave the nest and come outside of the protected radius that we have around the nest, and that’s when they become vulnerable.

ANDERSON: It didn’t help that incendiary bombs occasionally touched off wildfires that roared through the island’s wild grasses. A combination of circumstances pushed the shrike population down to just 13 birds by 1998.

With some legal prodding from environmental groups, the Navy tried harder to protect the shrike. They limited bombing sorties, controlled fire sparked by weapons, and hired a team from the San Diego Zoo to start a captive breeding program. Now, keeper Jennifer Pulduka, watches out for the birds from the time the eggs are laid. She moves them from one incubator to another until a fledgling pecks through its shell.

PULDUKA: We also keep the little birds in here. They are really, really small when they are born. They are four to five grams, very, very small, naked, no feathers. And this is where everything begins. This is when they start growing up.

ANDERSON: The results have been dramatic. Sixty-four shrikes now live in breeding pens, and there are 123 in the wild. The commander of the Coronado Naval Base, Captain David Landon, says the Navy has spent more than two million dollars a year during the last decade protecting the bird.

LANDON: We’ve been extremely successful in managing the species, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the percentages of the species that we have managed and seen those species thrive and to increase in numbers. But because of that, then what happens is they expand their range and that starts to have more impact on our training and the training areas that we have available.

ANDERSON: Further complicating the ecological balance on San Clemente is another creature, the Channel Island Fox. Biologist Kelly Brock says the small cat-size mammal preys on shrikes. During the past decade, contractors have tried a number of strategies to protect the birds, including shooting the foxes. But now, there is another problem. The foxes’ numbers appear to be declining too fast.

BROCK: We’re not really focusing so much on the shrike as a single species. We have to take an ecosystem approach, because we don’t want to preserve one native species at the expense of another. So, with the fox we’re taking a lot of proactive measures this year to halt whatever decline may be occurring.

ANDERSON: Fox communities on four nearby islands are already considered endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the San Clemente Island fox is added to the endangered list, Captain Landon says that could bring all military training on the island to a halt.

LANDON: Developing that management plan could impact us so that we would have to shut down the training that we now actively train in, in order to go in to reestablish the population.

ANDERSON: Meanwhile, the Navy is working the federal officials in hopes of taking the loggerhead shrike off the endangered species list. What the Navy really wants though is a little more flexibility. Officers would like to be able to move or disturb some endangered animals. That could happen if Congress agrees that some of the nation’s environmental laws have become too big a burden for the armed forces.

For Living on Earth, I’m Eric Anderson at San Clemente Island.

[MUSIC: Nitin Sawheny, "Migration," REBIRTH OF THE COOL 4 (Island Records, 1996)]

CURWOOD: Coming up, how to stay comfy and cozy in the wild. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Nitin Sawheny, "Migration," REBIRTH OF THE COOL 4 (Island Records, 1996)]

Related link:
San Clemente Island

Back to top


Almanac/Going Up!

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And, a little elevator music, if you please.

[MUSIC: Ferrante &Teicher, "On A Clear Day," Concert in the Clouds (United Artists)]

CURWOOD: One hundred forty-nine years ago this week, Elisha Graves Otis hung out his shingle for the world’s first safety hoist. Now, primitive elevators had been around for centuries. The earliest were lifted by muscle or waterwheel power. And then, steam hit the scene in the mid-1800s. But until Mr. Otis came along, these contraptions were risky. If the cable snapped, the elevator would plummet to the ground.

So, Mr. Otis invented a clamping mechanism of iron teeth to grab the elevator’s guide rails if the hoisting rope snapped. But despite the safety modification, the elevator business remained slow. So Mr. Otis employed a bit of showmanship. At the 1854 World’s Fair, he installed an open safety hoist inside the Crystal Palace in New York City, and climbed in.

As a crowd watched from four stories below, he reached up and sliced through the hoist rope with a saber. The audience gasped. But the safety ratchet bars automatically clamped and held. "All safe, gentlemen, all safe," he reportedly called down to the amazed crowd. After this demonstration, sales took off.

In 1857, a five-floor department store in New York City asked Mr. Otis to install the first passenger elevator. Before long, the Otis Elevator Company was doing a brisk business, heralding the age of the skyscraper and changing the urban landscape forever. And, for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.


Back to top


Herbicide Toxicity

CURWOOD: A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has found that in laboratory animals, extremely low doses of a common herbicide mixture tend to promote miscarriages. The chemicals are found in many commercial farming and consumer lawn care products.

Joining me now is Warren Porter. He’s a zoologist and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and was a principal researcher on this study. Professor Porter, welcome to Living on Earth.

PORTER: Thank you very much. Hello.

CURWOOD: Professor, why did you choose to exam this particular batch of chemicals?

PORTER: I chose to use that particular batch of chemicals because it was an extremely common herbicide being used by a very well-known lawn care company. And it was available on shelves for personal use. Our particular weed and feed mixture contains dicamba, and it contains 2,4-D, and it contains mecoprop.

CURWOOD: Walk us through the method you used in this study, if you could, please.

PORTER: Basically, we simply took it off the shelf, diluted it to the appropriate concentrations that match some of the EPA recommended levels, and went above and below that, and gave it to our mice in their drinking water so that we could get known concentrations, and let them get pregnant and have their babies. And then, we tested the babies and the moms.

CURWOOD: So, what were your results?

PORTER: We found that there were pregnancy losses up to 20%, basically losses of fetuses by miscarriage. And as we went down in dose, the lower we went, the greater the effect. We got down to 20% loss of the fetuses that were originally implanted. Twenty percent of those were lost. We don’t actually know yet how low we can go and still get effects.

CURWOOD: Now Professor, this seems really counterintuitive that the lower the dose of the herbicide, the stronger the effect, that is, more spontaneous abortions you saw in the mice that you studied. How could that be?

PORTER: We think that what’s happening here is that these lower doses are closer to the natural body hormone levels. And it’s interfering with the establishment of pregnancy or the maintenance of pregnancy.

CURWOOD: So, how does the amount that you found to have an effect compare with what we’d commonly find in our drinking water?

PORTER: Well, these levels are below what you could find in water here in this country.

CURWOOD: I think it’s fair to say that there’s rarely a straight line from an animal study to potential implications for human health. But, what about the results of this study do you find troubling in that regard?

PORTER: Well, there’s an awful lot of loss of human fetuses. Over 50% of fetuses currently conceived are lost. What really bothers me is the tremendous increase we’re seeing in childhood developmental problems, especially learning disabilities, behavior disabilities, and birth defects. All of these may be associated with environmental contaminants of various kinds, and some of them might be associated with herbicides.

CURWOOD: In this mix of chemicals that you’ve tested, one of them, 2,4-D, is a fairly common herbicide, perhaps the most common herbicide these days. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is now performing a safety review of 2,4-D and drinking water. The EPA is supposed to make a final decision on 2,4-D in the year 2004. Tell us, Professor, what’s your message to regulators if, indeed, a smaller dose seems to have a more potent effect than a larger one?

PORTER: We need to be looking in the world of the physiological realm rather than the pharmacological realm. We have been finding that at ultra low doses you really get into a completely different world instead of a toxicological, poison kind of world. You’re down into the low dose physiological ranges where we’re talking parts per trillion to parts per billion, which is where the body tends to operate.

But, you know, the question almost is-- how shall I say this? I think it needs to be rephrased. Because, you see, the focus is on 2,4-D. And, in our study, the focus was on the product that the consumer buys. Now, the reason that I make this distinction is because, when you look at 2,4-D, that chemical has been purified. And, only recently, very recently, have I found out that 2,4-D and dicamba, two of the three ingredients in this weed and feed mix are still being contaminated with dioxin. This is a very potent endocrine disrupter. And it, in fact, may have a partial role in some of the results that we have found.

CURWOOD: Warren Porter is a toxicologist and zoologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thanks for joining me today.

PORTER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CURWOOD: If you’d like to read an EPA Consumer Fact Sheet on the herbicide, 2,4-D, including the brand names of products that contain the chemical, you can go to our website at loe.org.

[MUSIC: Vernon Reid, "Uptown Drifter," Mistaken Identity (Sony, 1996)]

Related links:
- Dr. Warren Porter’s website
- An EPA consumer fact sheet on 2,4-D
- See the study, published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives

Back to top


Comfy Camping

CURWOOD: It used to be that camping divided the hearty and daring from the shrinking violets. Cold water, latrines, and nights on hard ground were all part of the fun. But, campground managers say few of us care to rough it anymore. Camping is changing. And there are now luxury campsites that provide all the comforts of home, if your home comes with room service, that is. Robin White has our report on today’s pampered campers.


WHITE: As a backpacker, I had to admit I was skeptical when I heard about Costa Noa. It’s a high-end campsite on the spectacular central coast of California. Here, for about 18 times the cost of a Forest Service campsite, you can sleep out under canvas in a luxury escape, with heated mattress pads and a hot tub to sooth your aching muscles. Manager Daniel Medellin says many of his customers are in, what you might call, mixed marriages.

MEDELLIN: We have a lot of couples that have come to visit us where one of the party--and we really can’t distinguish whether it was the guy or the gal that wasn’t so comfortable with camping. But, there’s a happy medium. You get the outdoor experience, and then you’re able to enjoy some creature comforts at the same time.

WHITE: Creature comforts like restrooms with heated floors, queen-size beds with down comforters, terrycloth robes, and fancy smelling soaps and shampoos. Outside one tent cabin, some campers who don’t usually get close to nature are right now experiencing it firsthand.

Where are you from? [TO CAMPER]

MILLER: Marin County.

WHITE: And what’s your name?

MILLER: Christine Miller.

WHITE: Okay, Christine…

MILLER: [LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND] Oh, we’ve been attacked by birds. Deluxe camping has gone to, like, not so deluxe. We had a dead bird on our doorstep this morning. It’s fine.

WHITE: Replete with dead swallows, Costa Noa is the brainchild of Chip Conley. He spotted the exploding market for SUVs in the 1990s. He saw people looking for escape. And, he designed Costa Noa to give them somewhere to escape to.

CONLEY: What we’re trying to do is attract the person who can go and experience nature in a new way without having to walk into the office on Monday morning and having red, bloodshot eyes from not having slept all weekend.


WHITE: At the huge recreational equipment coop, REI, in Berkley, they’re picking up the theme. Annie Irwin shows me around some of the latest products.

IRWIN: There’s a tea-for-two table, the blow-up supreme mattress, camp espresso machine. A propane tent heater, put it right in there. Hey, it’s just like being in the house, only you’re outdoors.

WHITE: There’s a hand-crank blender, solar panels for GameBoy on the trail, titanium cook sets, pressure-heated showers, and portable sit-down toilets.

[TO FEMALE CUSTOMER] Can I just show you a couple of things and see if you would ever buy these, and what you think of them?

FEMALE CUSTOMER: Probably not, but you could show me.

WHITE: Right there. That, there, is a hand-cranked blender. Would you ever--

FEMALE CUSTOMER: No way, no way.

WHITE: See this?


WHITE: It’s a hand-crank blender.

MALE CUSTOMER: Unnecessary.

WHITE: Could you ever see using one of those, a propane tent heater?

2ND MALE CUSTOMER: No, I wouldn’t see that. No.

WHITE: Well that’s what they say now. But they might get caught by the trend. REI says the hand-crank blender is one of their hottest items. An estimated 850 campsites from California to Georgia, offer some sort of luxury service. And they’re packed in a year when hotel occupancy is down. Even some KOA campgrounds have organic vegetable stands, web access and wine tasting on Saturday nights.

I had to go try this luxury camping for myself. I grabbed my friend Rob Tufel and we set off to Safari West in Santa Rosa. The promo material calls it "Serengeti in the Wine Country."


TUFEL: Tent camp adventure at Safari West is a deluxe camping experience at a premier safari park located right over the interstate. Safari West is home to over 350 exotic endangered and extinct-in-the-wild, African mammals and birds. Extinct-in-the-wild? Extinct-in-the-wild, all hyphens. Is that correct?


WHITE: In the morning, we woke up to the sight of nine giraffes wandering across the field, only 20 feet from our tent cabin. Kelly Verhoeg said it wasn’t camping, but she liked it anyway. [TO KELLY VERHOEG] If it’s not camping, what is it?

VERHOAG: [LAUGHING] Pretending you’re going to Africa. Last night, sitting in the tent cabin, I guess they call it, you know, I was looking at my husband sitting there. And I was like, it’s like I’m looking at Ernest Hemingway or something, and we had been taken back in time. And, you know, this is kind of how you would picture it.

WHITE: Well, he didn’t look like the big game-hunting author, Ernest Hemingway, to me. But who am I to spoil the fun? For Living on Earth, I’m Robin White at Safari West.


Back to top


On the Beach

CURWOOD: Sudden unemployment can be a jolting experience. But on the beaches of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Bethany Ericson found that the extra time can help keep one grounded.

ERICSON: I’m on the dole, keeping my schedule to low-tide in the oldest commercial fishing port in the country. Once a commuting executive, I now find myself collecting shells, glass and pottery shards that wash in from the depths. I feel certain that I can find direction in the discarded junk on the beach, if I can only learn to decipher its messages, examine all that is cast aside, and piece it into something new.

So this is my mission: rain or shine, I simply walk, head bent in the early morning, smelling cigarette smoke and frying food from the fish factory as the ocean breathes at the edge of the shore. I’ve looked up to find a swan three feet away from me, watched herring gulls perforate sea skates, and been lectured by a six year old on glass eels.

All the while, I perused the pebbles. I sort through all the garbage in my head until I see the individual items making up the beach. As I walk, I find sea stars, bits of turn-of-the-century ceramics, waving arms of lost porcelain dolls, sea-worn marbles. I try and see patterns in the chaos of debris washing in. I imagine tragic storms, shipwrecks with lost treasure.

The job listings shrivel and fade. And it’s clear I need to reinvent myself. On the docks, I watch kids fish for stripers with line wound tightly around Goya cans. I tell myself that reconstruction requires persistence and patience.

I remember a story I wrote as a kid about a man who mysteriously showed up on the sands of the beach in a starving town. As he arrived, so did an influx of scuttling crabs and lobsters, spurting clams and waves thick with fish. The townspeople feared this outsider would take their food, and threw him off a cliff. In the distance, a giant silver fishtail flipped once and disappeared.

But no one questions my presence on the beach. I’m welcomed in to eat eggs and cod cakes with the fishermen, as the coffee shop softball team argues over a game of bridge. I figure, we’re all fishing for something, one way or another.

CURWOOD: Bethany Ericson is a writer who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

Back to top


News Follow-up


CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we’ve been tracking lately.

The U.S. State Department is softening its previous declaration that global warming is largely a result of human activities. The original Climate Action Report was sent electronically to the United Nations in May. President Bush later criticized the report as a product of "the bureaucracy."

In the printed version issued September 11th, the State Department highlights uncertainty regarding the effects of global warming, and downplays the report’s scientific findings. Jeremy Symons is the manager of the Climate Change and Wildlife Program at the National Wildlife Federation.

SYMONS: What they essentially did is they put a big warning label at the front of the section on science, sending the signals that the administration looks more to the uncertainty in the projections than what the actual effects will be on Americans and our quality of life.

CURWOOD: A State Department official told Living on Earth that no new language was added to the nearly 300-page report, and that such changes are routine and minor.


CURWOOD: In a continuing effort to reduce energy use in California, Governor Gray Davis has signed a mandate that all residential washing machines be energy efficient by 2007. The law pushes manufacturers to make use of energy-saving technology already in use at many commercial laundromats. Mary Nichols is Secretary for Resources in California.

NICHOLS: By coming up with a more efficient washing machine, we are going to be helping the state with its electricity problems and its water problems, and doing it in a way that the customer is going to get a better machine.

CURWOOD: An energy-efficient washer costs about $500 more than a conventional laundry machine, but can save 7,000 gallons of water per year.


CURWOOD: Delegates who attended the recent Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg shouldn’t expect to attend another World Summit anytime soon. The United Nations is putting a hold on future summits until participating governments follow through on promises made at past meetings. Jan Vandemoortele is a senior advisor for the United Nations Development Program.

VANDEMOORTELE: The heads of governments come to global meetings, sign off on very noble declarations, and then very little happens on the grounds at home.

CURWOOD: Forty countries plan to file environmental progress reports. And the UN hopes it will hear from every nation by 2004.


CURWOOD: And finally, a trailer park in Los Angeles could soon be declared an historic monument. That’s right. The Monterey Trailer Park in Pasadena measures a scant 1.7 acres. But it’s history dates back to the time of the Model T and the start of long road trips. It’s now home to 30 people and 20 motor homes. The LA City Council will put the monument designation to a vote in the next few weeks. And that’s this week’s follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

Back to top


Health Update/Malaria Vaccine

Just ahead, Southern California moves to clear the air in the region’s poorest neighborhoods. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Researchers may have found a more effective way to protect people against malaria. This disease kills more than two million people a year and is caused by a parasite spread by mosquitoes. The current malaria vaccine is only effective for a few weeks. That’s because it acts against the parasite’s outer coating. And since the malaria parasite can alter that coating, it eventually outsmarts and renders the vaccine ineffective.

So scientists in Melbourne, Australia have taken a different tack. They’ve designed a vaccine that targets a recently discovered toxin produced by the malaria parasite. Scientists think this toxin is what triggers the inflammation, fevers and convulsions that can kill malaria victims.

The researchers found that up to 75% of mice given the new vaccine were able to survive a malarial infection. That compares to a zero survival rate in a group of unvaccinated mice. The mice that survived still had high numbers of live malaria parasites in their blood. But the vaccine had effectively disarmed them. The researchers expect to begin human tests of the vaccine within two years. That’s this week’s Health Note. I’m Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: Bossacucnova, "Bye Bye Brasil," BRASILIDADE (Six Degrees, 2001)]

Back to top


Environmental Justice

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Environmental justice is the notion that people in poor neighborhoods and people of color tend to bear the lion’s share of industrial pollution. They live in neighborhoods surrounded by landfills, trucking corridors and refineries. So far, environmental justice hasn’t advanced much beyond the concept stage. But now in California, the agency charged with air quality enforcement in the Los Angeles Basin has adopted 23 unprecedented measures after listening to complaints from people in its poorest and smoggiest neighborhoods.

MALE: And I would say that you have come to the exact right place to hold a town meeting on the issue of environmental justice, because if there is a Ground Zero in the environmental justice arena in southern California, I think we’re there.


VOICEOVER: So, that is a problem that we’re having, these odors, these bad odors, they everyday are there. I had a son that unfortunately he passed away already. He was 20 years old. And he died due to the asthma.

MALE 2: Students were playing right on top of the toxic dumpsite with huge bubbles, you could say, coming out of the ground. And kids were just popping them as if they were balloons. This is why I am strongly in favor of all the proposed action items.

CURWOOD: I’m joined now by two men who attended these town meetings held by the Air Quality Management District. Joe Lyou is from the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. And Mike Carroll is an environmental lawyer in southern California.

Dr. Lyou, let’s start with you. Tell me, what are some of the actions that people in these communities are most excited about?

LYOU: Well, there were two areas that were particularly based on community initiatives. One was to address the need to eliminate the use of a very hazardous chemical called "hydrogen fluoride" at a refinery in Wilmington, California. And the other was the idea of addressing the problem of regulating private off-road vehicles, sometimes referred to as yard hostlers or haulers, that move equipment around in the areas like the ports and the rail yards.

CURWOOD: There were also discussions about portable or outdoor residential monitoring devices. What was the response there?

LYOU: Well, there were some concerns among industry about problems with false reports from communities with regard monitoring devices set up in neighborhoods. But I see it as a great opportunity to get to the problem of trying to cover 12,000 square miles and 16 million residents in the AQMD District with screening devices that can verify community complaints.

CURWOOD: Mr. Carroll, now you represent companies that are, what, in the petroleum business, aerospace, automaking. How is the industry feeling in response to these new regulations?

CARROLL: For the most part, industry was supportive of the new initiatives. There were 23 initiatives in total that were approved by the Board. There were a handful of them, however, in the case of the companies that I represent, there were three that we were particularly concerned about.

CURWOOD: What are these issues that you think need more attention before they become rules?

CURWOOD: The measures that we were particularly concerned about used the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which is the law under which agencies review new or modified facilities to carve out specific areas within the southern California region, impose more rigorous standards to make it more difficult to either modernize an existing facility or cite a new facility in those geographic areas.

And our primary concern about that is that those are likely to be the very geographic areas that are most in need of investment in new facilities and jobs. And the primary problem that we saw with those measures is that they essentially redline these areas and discourage further investment that’s very much needed.

CURWOOD: Many environmental justice advocates argue that when a polluting business is looking for a new location, the pollution burden already carried by a particular neighborhood should be considered before permits are decided. Dr. Lyou, how do these new regulations in southern California address this idea of cumulative impact?

LYOU: When you’re dealing with 12,000 square miles of Air Quality Management District, you can have a general master plan for how to approach air pollution problems, but you’re going to have specific regional problems in area like the Port of Los Angeles, what’s known as the Almeida Corridor in southeast Los Angeles, that needs special rules and special attention in terms of the unique problems with air toxics. You will have an opportunity to use particular rules and regulations to address the unique problems in those areas.

CURWOOD: Now the Southern California Air Quality Management District has adopted these rules designed to improve air quality enforcement in some of the poorest and smoggiest neighborhoods. What’s this going to mean on a day-to-day basis in the future? How will things change for business and for people in the neighborhoods? Let me start with you, Mr. Carroll.

CARROLL: The effects of measures such as those that we objected to are difficult to identify on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult to isolate the specific reasons that a business decides not to site in southern California or decides not to expand. Those decisions are usually based on a number of factors. But, we think that environmental regulation and environmental policy play a role in that. We think that over the long run what we will see is a continued decline in the manufacturing and industry base in southern California.

CURWOOD: Dr. Lyou, let me turn to you. What will change in the future on a day-to-day basis?

LYOU: Well, I see the actions of last Friday as being a first step in a change in the dynamic of the relationship of the communities with the regulatory authorities and with industry. One of the things that was most telling was one of the early community outreach meetings, 122 community members showed up. They did a little protest outside. They went into a small, crowded room and met face-to-face and discussed with the AQMD staff what the problems were in their neighborhood. And, fortunately for AQMD, they had a native speaking Spanish language senior staffer able to speak directly with residents in their native language which made a big difference. You could see it on the community members’ faces that they were so appreciative that there was someone who spoke their language and was being responsive.

I think communities are finally getting a more equal basis or more equal voice in the decision-making processes. And I’m hopeful that we can work together with industry to come up with cost-effective ways of investing in these communities.

CURWOOD: Joe Lyou is the interim executive director at the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and Mike Carroll is an environmental attorney with Latham and Watkins, based in Orange County. Thank you both for your time.

LYOU: Thank you, Steve.

CARROLL: Thank you.

Back to top


Safer Schools

CURWOOD: In most school districts, the law mandates that inventories be kept of all chemicals, whether they’re found in the science lab or in the janitor’s closet. It also stipulates that these chemicals must be disposed of safely, and that staff be trained to handle hazards. But until recently, many districts have ignored the law. Kim Motylewski reports on the problem of chemical mismanagement in schools and what’s being done about it.


MOTYLEWSKI: Mike Colombo unclips a heavy key ring from his belt and opens the door to a biology storage closet at the Dennis Yarmouth Regional High School on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

COLUMBO: Starfish, brains--I don’t know what I think about that one--sharks, clams, pigs-- oh, my God.

MOTYLEWSKI: Columbo is the facilities manager at the school. Just a few years ago, he says the shelves in this specimen closet looked very different.

COLUMBO: These were basically filled floor-to-ceiling with dozens and dozens of containers that went back to the 50s. In the last three or four years, they have just been combed through and inventoried, and the real bad stuff removed. They’ve come a long way.

MOTYLEWSKI: Columbo is one of several key players in a cleanup effort spearheaded by Marina Brock of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment.

BROCK: Some of the chemicals we pulled were 80, 100 years old. Things don’t last forever, you know.

MOTYLEWSKI: Brock rallied many to her cleanup cause, school administrators, fire departments and teachers in 15 communities.

BROCK: We found enough to bring the bomb squad down to 16 different schools on the Cape and detonated material that wasn’t purchased as a reactive material, but, by virtue of being poorly managed over time, became reactive.

MOTYLEWSKI: In all, 65 tons of hazardous wastes were removed from science, art and maintenance departments, autobody, boat building and carpentry shops all over Cape Cod. Brock says, the chemicals fell into all classes of hazard: flammable, reactive, infectious, toxic, corrosive, even radioactive.

Cape Cod schools are by no means unique. Nationwide, scores of individual school districts have launched cleanup efforts. Maine, Ohio and Colorado have taken a statewide approach. And more often than not, organizers find incredible things. In Colorado, seven schools turned up radioactive uranium, including one with a slice of so-called "yellow cake," a concentrated form of the stuff used to make nuclear fuel.

The reasons why such huge and hazardous stockpiles accumulate in schools are complicated, says Marina Brock. For one, school budgets often discourage efficient spending.

BROCK: You know, a certain budget can only be expended on a certain thing. So if you have a chemical purchasing budget, you can’t--if you have an excess of money, you can’t buy extra textbooks.

MOTYLEWSKI: And if you don’t spend all the money you were allocated this year, you’ll get less next year. So teachers, custodians, and office managers spend down and stock up on chemicals year after year. Poor building design and poor communication compound the overbuying.

BROCK: Some schools, there is no centralized storage of chemistry lab chemicals, so each room or group of rooms might have their own chemical storage room. And without inventory, you would have duplicate purchasing all over.

MOTYLEWSKI: In fact, 80 to 90 percent of materials removed from Cape Cod schools had never been opened. The solution, experts say, is strong leadership that can put the breaks on uncontrolled buying and insist on safer, smarter curricula.


MOTYLEWSKI: In this high school chemistry lab in Limestone, Maine, the students measure and stir to the sounds of Frank Sinatra. The Maine School for Science and Mathematics is a publicly funded magnet school that’s designed its curriculum with health and safety issues in mind. Today, the air smells spicy, thanks to one of the experiments in progress.

DOUGAN: They’re isolating two organic compounds, caffeine and eugenol. Eugenol is the active ingredients in cloves.

MOTYLEWSKI: David Dougan teaches this biochemistry class. He’s also an industrial hygienist. In his off-hours, he consults to schools on chemical health and safety.

DOUGAN: I’ve audited 600 school districts in New England and New York, and currently manage 22 different school districts in the state of Maine.

MOTYLEWSKI: That management involves auditing chemical inventory, coordinating waste disposal, providing safety equipment, and, most importantly, keeping track of every chemical purchase made by the school.

Dougan has seen everything from simple ignorance to gross neglect, like the potential dirty bomb he found recently at one school. A busted container of nitric acid, which tends to self-ignite, was shelved right next to thorium nitrate, which is radioactive. Dougan knows what needs to change in the storage room and the classroom, but he says, more safety doesn’t mean less learning.

DOUGAN: Essentially, there’s no curriculum change. You can do the same type of experiment just using a safer material.

MOTYLEWSKI: Here’s an example. There’s a classic chemistry experiment in which students determine the amount of water in a crystal of salt.

DOUGAN: Some people are still using barium chloride hydrated compound, which is toxic; .8 grams may be lethal. But by switching to, essentially, Epsom salt, which is relatively non-toxic, they can get the same results and not have to worry about the hazards of storing the material or the wastes.

MOTYLEWSKI: There are dozens of substitutions like this in the sciences, as well as the visual arts, visual maintenance, and grounds keeping. Where substitution is not possible, as in much of organic chemistry, Dougan follows a second principle, shrink experiments to a micro-scale.


MOTYLEWSKI: Mr. Dougan’s student Benjamin Dow is synthesizing a sulfa drug in a mini-glass vial. Working under an enclosed exhaust hood, he’s just added a tiny amount of chlorosulfonic acid to the vessel.

DOW: Look what it does to the paper. It’s starting to burn the paper.

MOTYLEWSKI: The acid is dangerous, and an indispensable part of this work. But the students are using 1/30 the amount that’s typically used. The amount of waste produced is that much smaller, as well. As a result, David Dougan expects his school will contract for waste disposal only once every 15 years. And Dougan says, retooling a typical high school lab for micro-scale is cheap.

DOUGAN: For a 20-student class, maybe $200 worth of equipment, and probably three to four hundred dollars with of non-hazardous chemicals, unless they’re already in stock.

MOYTLEWSKI: Compare that to waste disposal, which runs five to thirty thousand dollars per district every time it’s needed. So why don’t schools adapt? None of these changes sound hard. But, Dougan says, most people want to do the same things year after year.

DOUGAN: There’s a hassle in changing over. You’ve got to rewrite your labs or get new lab books. So there’s an inertia to a system.

MOTYLEWSKI: Unfortunately, it often takes an accident to break that inertia, but school advocates needn’t wait for that. Parents in one Massachusetts town formed a safety committee and presented the superintendent with a photo album of obvious problems. Others have gotten help from fire, health or environment departments when appeals to school leaders failed. The goal in every case is a safer school and a healthy respect for chemical hazards among staff and students, such as Alex Dizmore.

DIZMORE: It’s like working with a wild animal that has its cage and its leash. And as long as you keep a good hold on the leash and you know where you’re putting your feet, you’ll be all set.

MOTYLEWSKI: For Living on Earth, I’m Kim Motylewski in Limestone, Maine.

Back to top



Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth.

Next week, trash contaminated with low level radioactivity has been going to local landfills. California is part of this national trend, but some Californians want to stop the dumping.

ZILIAK: We’re talking about a situation where they take a tractor and they move over and over the dirt. Now, they used the dirt that contained any radiation that’s airborne. What happens when it’s airborne? We don’t know that. What happens if it goes in your lungs? It’s never coming out again.

CURWOOD: Radioactive trash, next time on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Before we go, a little trip to the southern most point of Venezuela where the tip of that nation juts into the Amazon Rainforest. That’s where Jean Roche recorded this chorus, whose members include cicada, screaming phias, musician wrens, and a howler monkey or two.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber and Jessica Penny, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

We had help this week from Andrew Strickler and Nicole Giese. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our Technical Director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. 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. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues, the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded internet service, the Educational Foundation of America for coverage of energy and climate change, the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity, www.wajones.org, the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER 2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Music


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth