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

March 7, 2003

Air Date: March 7, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Chemical Weapon Destruction

(stream / mp3)

Controversy surrounds where and how the Army should get rid of its chemical weapons. Host Pippin Ross talks with reporter Aileen LeBlanc about the Army Depot in Newport, Indiana. The Army plan to truck neutralizing nerve agent through Dayton, Ohio has angered some residents there. (08:00)

Freeze Frame / Brent Runyon

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Writer Brent Runyon emptied the contents of his car trunk onto his driveway the morning of the snowstorm of 2003. When he got around to trying to retrieve it all, it was under a thick layer of ice. His sudden passion to have back his junk surprised him. (03:00)

Health Note/Drug Absorption / Jessica Penney

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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports on how scientists may be able to improve drug absorption by stealing a trick from tapeworms. (01:15)

Almanac/Deep Sea Travel

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This week, we have facts about the Seikan Tunnel. The world's longest underwater tunnel connects two of Japan's major islands and opened fifteen years ago this week. (01:30)

Velvet Antler / Charlotte Renner

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An ancient Chinese remedy is being marketed in the United States as relief for arthritis sufferers. Velvet antler is a dietary supplement that comes from the ground antlers of deer and elk, although there’s been no independent research on the effectiveness of the substance. Charlotte Renner of Maine Public Radio visited a farmer in Mapleton, Maine who harvests deer antlers. (05:40)

Angling for Trout

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The 41st parallel runs through, among other countries, Spain, France, Croatia and Kyrgyzstan. It was the path taken by author and fly-fisherman James Prosek, on his journey to explore the fishing cultures around the world. Host Pippin Ross talks with Prosek about his new book, Fly-Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel. (06:00)

Wired Camping

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You’ve heard of Internet cafes, but what about Internet campgrounds? Officials at Colorado State Parks recently announced that, along with scenic vistas and hiking trails, state campsites will offer Internet access. Host Pippin Ross talks with Lyle Laverty, director of Colorado State Parks. (03:00)

Emerging Science Note/Space Fun / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on bubble experiments in space. (01:20)

Chromium Pollution Exposure / Ingrid Lobet

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Residents of a neighborhood in San Diego ask for air monitoring to help explain high rates of asthma there. They set in motion a re-examination of laws regulating carcinogenic chrome from chrome plating. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports. (14:05)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Pippin RossGUESTS: Aileen LeBlanc, James Prosek, Lyle LavertyREPORTERS: Charlotte Renner, Ingrid LobetCOMMENTARIES: Brent RunyonNOTES: Jessica Penney, Cynthia Graber


ROSS: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I'm Pippin Ross. It's a story about chemical weapons and their destruction, not in Iraq, but in the American Midwest. Residents of one neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio are angry that neutralized chemical agents would be trucked through their streets.

COOPER: I read the list up there, the odors, the corrosions, it’s explosive. I don't care. They talk about byproduct; if it's so good, put it somewhere else.

ROSS: Also, officials in South California thought the public was protected from emissions produced by metal plating shops -- that is, until they tested a neighborhood where people actually live next to one.

MAN: We changed the position of the monitors, and suddenly began picking up some very high readings of chromium. They were some of the highest we have ever seen in this state.

ROSS: Those stories and more, right after this.

[MUSIC: 01:01-05:55 Felt “Evergreen Dazed” CRUMBLING THE ANTISEPTIC BEAUTY (Cherry Red/Anagram – 1999)]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and HeritageAfrica.com.

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Chemical Weapon Destruction

ROSS: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Pippin Ross, sitting in for Steve Curwood. There are eight military sites around the country that have stockpiles of chemical weapons, including such items as blister and VX nerve agents. Six years ago, Congress ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The treaty set a deadline for the Army's longstanding plans to eliminate these weapons. The countries that signed the international agreement must destroy them by 2007.

But now, concerns about stateside terrorism have added new urgency to the destruction schedule. Almost everyone agrees it's a good idea to eliminate these weapons, but where and how these chemicals will be destroyed is contentious.

Reporter Aileen LeBlanc has been following the story of the chemical depot in Newport, Indiana where VX nerve agent was stored. Aileen, what is VX nerve agent?

LEBLANC: Well, VX nerve agent is a liquid, it's not a gas. And it was designed to contaminate battlefields and to kill people, but it was never used. The VX that was made here was manufactured in Newport, Indiana in the 1960s and much of it is still stored there today. VX is lethal, it's deadly. One drop of it on your skin, about 10 milligrams, can cause death within about 10 minutes.

ROSS: So what was the original plan on how to get rid of all this stuff?

LEBLANC: At the Newport Chemical Depot, incineration of VX was the plan. But because local citizens were upset about potential emissions, they launched a major protest and the Army was forced to consider neutralization. And in neutralization, the VX is mixed with water and sodium hydroxide, and this process destroys the VX and it produces a byproduct called hydrolysate, which is still nasty but by no means VX.

Then, in step two, the hydrolysate was to be further treated, all on site at Newport, by a process called SCWO, or super-critical water oxidation, which would break down the organics.

ROSS: And then September 11th happened.

LEBLANC: September the 11th happened and a national emergency was declared by President Bush. The Army, they were seeing the chemical weapons depots as possible terrorist targets, and so they decided to speed up the process by abandoning the SCWO, and instead shipping the hydrolysate for step two offsite for bio-treatment.

I talked with Dr. Scott Heraburda. He's the assistant project manager for the Newport Chemical Depot. And I asked him about the change of plans.

HERABURDA: Basically, the decision that was overriding it was really schedule. If we want to do everything on site here, basically slow down our timetable by two years, meaning we would still have those weapons available for terrorist activities or terrorist targets for an additional two years, which we thought was more of a threat to the public.

LEBLANC: So they planned to ship the byproduct 200 miles away to a company here called Perma Fix of Dayton, because they already had a bio-reactor up and running that could treat it.

ROSS: Aileen, can you explain this bio-treatment process?

LEBLANC: Well the hydrolysate that will come into Dayton, it's very caustic. It's kind of like Drano. So the pH must be lowered first. And then it's mixed with other waste waters, and then it goes into one of two huge tanks at Perma Fix, where bacteria is present that eats away on it in order to break own the organics and render it benign. Then the sludge from the process is landfilled and the water sent to the Dayton Sewer System.

They're doing lab tests on it right now with a small amount of the hydrolysate. And if all goes well with that, up to 10,000 gallons a day will begin to be shipped here in October.

ROSS: And how are the people of Dayton reacting to the prospect of having this stuff trucked into the neighborhood?

LEBLANC: Well, they're angry, to put it mildly. The trucks carrying the stuff are to go right through residential streets in their neighborhoods where their children play, and they're concerned about a possible spill or a possible leak. They're concerned that the hydrolysate won't be tested properly going into the bio-reactor or coming out of it. Perma Fix has not had a stellar reputation in the neighborhood. And they've been cited for odor violations, and they've been put on notice by both the regional air pollution control and the Ohio EPA.

The citizens feel that this was brought in under cover of darkness, and they haven't had any input or any say-so whatsoever. I asked resident Nina Cooper, she was at an open house about the process, and I asked her what she thought.

COOPER: Show me something positive about it. I read the list up there, the odors, the corrosions, the explosion. It's explosive, it's deadly -- it can be. I don't care. They talk about byproduct. If it's so good, put it somewhere else. Let's distribute it evenly here. We get dumped on all the time and we're tired of it. Why? I'll let you figure it out.

ROSS: Aileen, what does she mean by that, getting dumped on all the time?

LEBLANC: Well I think she's referring to the fact that this is a very modest, mostly black neighborhood on Dayton's west side. It's a neighborhood where they keep trying to put landfills in, and other businesses that some people would consider dirty businesses.

ROSS: Well, obviously a significant problem in itself, but why are the people in Dayton so worried about what the Army assures them is safe? They aren't incinerating it, and when it reaches Dayton there's no VX in it.

LEBLANC: Well, I think one of the problems is there just seems to be a bit too much of "trust me" going on here. If this were just Drano coming down the streets, there wouldn't be any stink raised about it at all. But since this stuff came from VX, and the precursors to VX exist in the hydrolysate, even if there's a nano-tad of a chance that something will go wrong, it's enough to scare people pretty badly.

You know, the Army says it's safe, and Perma Fix says it's safe, but I asked Tom Trebonik of Perma Fix if he could understand the reasons that local people are upset about this.

TREBONIK: Certainly I do. This particular chemical agent is a very, very nasty chemical compound. I feel confident that the Army can, in fact, destroy it appropriately and have all of the controls in place to ensure that none of the VX agent leaves that facility. I think the concern is more based on what it was than what the hydrolysate really is.

LEBLANC: I guess you can never prove that any process is 100 percent safe, but the people here believe that the safest way to treat the hydrolysate is to go back to Plan A and do it all at Newport. Newport is a very safe, secure facility. It has its own medical team, it has its own HAZMAT team, and it has emergency response plans in place.

ROSS: So this method that Newport is using of neutralizing the chemicals and then shipping the byproduct offsite for the second treatment phase, is this how the Army is going to deal with the chemical weapons at the other depots?

LEBLANC: No. As far as I've been able to find out, there are still four sites which plan to directly incinerate the chemical weapons, and that scares people. Citizens are working to get that changed to neutralization and final treatment on-site. And from what I understand, the weapons at one particular depot, the Bluegrass Army Depot in Lexington, Kentucky, will be neutralized and then treated on-site using that same process that we talked about that was abandoned at Newport.

The question here seems to be, is it better to move faster and push through this plan to ship to Dayton and maybe lower the risk of a terrorist attack, or are we putting more people at risk by doing so?

ROSS: Aileen LeBlanc is a radio producer based outside Dayton, Ohio. Thanks for filling us in, Aileen.

LEBLANC: You're very welcome.

[MUSIC: Carlos Guedes “Harposaurus” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]

Related links:
- Program Manager Chemical Demilitarization
- Globalsecurity.org's webpage on the Newport Depot
- Perma-Fix's website

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Freeze Frame

ROSS: The snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast a few weeks ago brought predictable chaos, thanks to several feet of snow, but it had an unintended consequence for writer Brent Runyon.

RUNYON: I’m a packrat, or more accurately, a car rat. Ever since I moved into an apartment that wasn't big enough to hold all my worldly belongings, my car has become a kind of second home. In it I carry the things I might need at a moment's notice, things that amuse me, and things I can't be bothered to throw out. And because I'm not often called upon to transport large amounts of people or goods across state lines, I hardly ever get around to cleaning the damn thing.

The other week, though, my job required me to empty my trunk on short notice. And because the notice was so short, and the task so huge, the contents of my trunk wound up on the driveway. I thought, well that's all right, I'll be home in a few hours and I'll pick it up then. A few hours and two feet of snow later, that plan had to be delayed.

Now, it's a week later, and the snow has finally melted enough for me to attempt an excavation project. But when I went and started hacking into the ice with a shovel, I realized that the ice gets pretty thick when you leave it alone for too long. And the things underneath it, they take on some added significance.

I felt like an archeologist digging in some ancient ruins, except instead of a sarcophagus I found an old Johnny Cash CD. I didn't even know I like Johnny Cash. There was a video copy of Rocky that the ice had had its way with. The poor thing had warped Sylvester Stallone's face, and now he looked like Eric Stoltz in "Mask". Maybe I should take up boxing. Is there a gym around here?

There was a whiffle ball frozen into an ice chunk, from when I was going to become a professional whiffle ball player. Do they even have those? There's a picture of me and a girl I grew up with. I've been meaning to write her a letter. There's some paperwork from my old job and a beach towel and a book of guitar chords from when I was going to learn how to become a classical guitarist. There was a copy of “The Little Prince” in French. I was going to use it to teach myself how to speak another language. That didn't happen.

Worst of all is a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White that my brother gave me when I started to write my book. I was going to give that a look at some point, and now it's frozen solid. Maybe I can thaw it out and learn a new approach to style.

All of it, all that stuff, now that it's frozen solid, seems somehow more important than it did before. Maybe because it's all stuff that I never got around to doing, and now it's displayed for me under a sheet of ice, like some discouraging collage of my failures. And it makes me suddenly want to listen to Johnny Cash, and learn French, and become a world-class whiffle ball player, and learn how to use a comma the right way. And maybe I will if I can just get it all thawed out and back into my trunk.

ROSS: Brent Runyon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He's the author of “The Burn Journals”, to be published next year.

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Health Note/Drug Absorption

ROSS: Just ahead, fly fishing the route of Marco Polo and Genghis Kahn. But first, this environmental health note from Jessica Penney.

[MUSIC: Healthnote Theme]

PENNEY: For decades, drugmakers have faced the problem of how to improve the way we digest medicines. Most drugs taken by mouth are absorbed in the small intestine, but usually more than half of any pill will pass right through and end up in the sewer system. This becomes a problem for sewage treatment plants at the same time that it wastes medicine. But now scientists have discovered that the lowly tapeworm might provide a solution to this problem.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin wondered how the worms manage to stay in the small intestine. That's because muscle contractions in the small intestine move food and medications through the digestive tract, but this doesn't happen to the tapeworm. After analyzing the dozens of chemicals the tapeworm secretes, the researchers found that one of these substances interacts with the nervous system and makes the contractions of the intestinal muscles ineffective. This allows the tapeworm to stay put inside our guts and eat at a more leisurely pace.

Researchers hope that drugmakers might one day be able to add this same chemical to drugs so they pass more slowly through the digestive system, allowing a greater amount to be absorbed into the body. This would not only help keep excess drugs out of wastewater, but allow for smaller, cheaper dosages.

That's this week's health note. I'm Jessica Penney.

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

[MUSIC: Strunz & Farah “Bola” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]

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Almanac/Deep Sea Travel

ROSS: Welcome back to Living On Earth, I'm Pippin Ross.


ROSS: Fifteen years ago this week, a Japanese express train took a deep dip under the sea, marking the opening of the world's longest underwater tunnel. Before the tunnel was built, ferry boats were the only option for people traveling between two of Japan's northern islands, Hokkaido and Honshu. But that meant passengers had to brave the notoriously treacherous waters of the Tsugaru Straight. In 1954, a massive typhoon sank five ferries trying to cross the Straight, claiming more than 1100 lives. That tragedy prompted engineers to develop a safer underwater route. They drilled their way through volcanic rock and nine major fault lines with a long cone-shaped machine that laid down cement as it went along. Flooding was an occasional problem, and halfway through the project an extensive flood took months to get under control.

More than two decades later, the 33-mile tunnel was complete. In March, 1988, the Seikan Rail Tunnel opened to the public. Nowadays, the airlines are the tunnel's major competitors, but at the height of its popularity, the underwater express shuttled three million people a year. So, in a campaign to keep its deep sea travelers, the tunnel's railway owners have introduced a new enticement, karaoke.

And for this week, that's the Living On Earth Almanac.


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Velvet Antler

ROSS: Many arthritis sufferers will try just about anything to relieve their chronic pain. In the past five years, a growing number have been popping capsules made from the ground up antlers of deer and elk. Powdered antlers have been a key ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years. There's been little western research into the effectiveness of the so-called velvet antler, but that hasn't dampened its North American sales, which one estimate puts at about five million dollars a year. Charlotte Renner paid a visit to a deer farm in the town of Mapleton, Maine. She has this report.

CHARLOTTE RENNER: A couple times a day, Darrell “Butch” Tobin takes a walk from his farmhouse office in Northern Maine to go outside and feed grain and apples to his 43 red deer. It's a pastoral scene, with rolling green grass, azure sky, and a split rail fence. And when the red deer sense mealtime, they get excited.


TOBIN: The first one is Hannah.

RENNER: Carrying a bucket in one hand, Tobin uses the other to unlock a chain link fence surrounding his shed. Ten years ago he couldn't have performed this chore because his arthritis was so bad that one arm was useless.

TOBIN: These are the chains that I mentioned that I couldn't hook with two hands.

RENNER: Back then, Tobin was raising red deer, a cousin of the elk, for meat. But then a breeder from New Zealand gave him a couple of deer antler capsules for his arthritis. Tobin said the pain disappeared after a couple of months, so he quizzed his friend from down under about the prospects of starting a new business. Producing a product called Velvet Antler.

TOBIN: I said, "Because there isn't anyone doing this in the United States, meaning the processing and the marketing, would it make sense if we do." And he said, with his New Zealand accent, "Your bloody right, mate." And that's how it started.

RENNER: Red deer drop their antlers in the summer, but by then, Tobin says, the horns have calcified and lost their medicinal value. So each spring, he tranquilizes the animals and saws off their antlers while they still contain the naturally occurring chemicals, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. He believes the natural elements are a step above the synthetic form found in some prescription drugs for arthritis.

Darrell "Butch" Tobin feeds his red deer. (Photo: © Herb Swanson) Sawed off red deer antlers will be dried, frozen, ground up, and placed in capsules. (Photo: © Herb Swanson)

TOBIN: The reason they are much more effective than the man-made ones is because they are still in their natural form or their natural state. They haven't been disturbed.

RENNER: And Tobin insists the deer don't seem all that disturbed about losing their crowing glory, which grows back every year. The harvested antlers get dried and frozen, and then ground up to be scooped into tiny capsules.

Butch Tobin and his grinder.
(Photo: © Herb Swanson)


RENNER: According to the North American Elk Breeders Association, about 40 other farmers produce powdered antler products in the U.S. and Canada. Tobin says the active ingredients in the powdered antlers can support healthy joint structure and function. But he's careful not to make any claims about his product on the label or his website. The federal Food and Drug Administration has threatened to shut down his operation if he does any advertising about the alleged benefits of Velvet Antler. The FDA declined a comment for this story, except to confirm that Tobin's case is still open.

So far, most research into the health benefits of the capsules has been paid for by the Antler Industry. But now, at Canada's University of Alberta, Professor Marian Allen is conducting a clinical study on the therapeutic value of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate found in elk antlers, which are similar in chemistry to deer antlers.

ALLEN: And both of those ingredients are important for maintaining the health of joints, and also there is some thought that they had the glucosamine, in particular might have an anti-inflammatory effect. The other couple of ingredients that have been isolated in the antler are the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The Omega-3 has been tested in people with arthritis, and has been found to have some anti-inflammatory effect also.

RENNER: In Allen's study, 110 arthritis sufferers will get Velvet Antler, another 110 will receive a placebo. In a previous preliminary study, Allen did find that 30 rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who received deer antler capsules, experienced reduced joint inflammation with no harmful side effects. However, that research did not compare those results to a placebo. Allen's current study has the approval of Health Canada, which is similar to the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

Meanwhile, sales of antler products are rising on shopping channels and in health food stores.


In Lois' Natural Supermarket in Southern Maine, a half dozen bottles of Tobin's Velvet Antler sit on a shelf beside a similar product from a competitor. The store owner's son, Lou Porta, says Tobin's bottles won't collect dust, despite a high price tag.

PORTA: Most arthritis formulas are very expensive anyway, but this is even-- it's like double. It's extremely expensive. I mean, a bottle that contains 90 capsules, costs $50.99. And not everyone tries it or can try it, but the people who suffer from arthritis enough and can't find any relief, some of them will try this and then they consistently buy it. I mean, that's the reason we stock it, you know.

RENNER: Porta says his customers don't care whether the remedy has the government's blessing or not. Meanwhile, the results of the Canadian study on the effectiveness of Velvet Antler are expected to be released sometime next year.

For Living On Earth, I'm Charlotte Renner, in Maine.

[MUSIC: Kevin Volans “White Man Sleeps” Pieces of Africa Elektra (1992)]

Related link:
North American Elk Breeders Association

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Angling for Trout

ROSS: The 41st Parallel slices through, among other places, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, China and Japan. It's the route traveled by Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great in their campaigns of conquest. It's also the path taken by author, James Prosek, who left is Connecticut home on a quest to find the native trout of mighty rivers such as the Seine, Tigris and Merced. The result is a memoir of that journey called Fly-Fishing, the 41st. James Prosek joins me in the studio. Hi, James, welcome to Living On Earth.

PROSEK: Hi. It's good to be here.

ROSS: Now, this is remarkable to me that your address where you live in Easton, Connecticut is 41 Kachele Street. But I'm really wondering which came first, your address or the pretty much undeniable fact that the 41st Parallel winds through incredible countries.

PROSEK: Well, the idea to travel a latitude line around the world was my editor’s at Harper Collins. But we settled on that I would travel the latitude line of my home because it kind of justified the journey a little bit, the 41 degrees north. Because if I traveled the latitude line of my home, I would be leaving in a straight line from home. So I would be escaping home and heading toward home at the same time, which I think is something we're all kind of doing, in a way.

ROSS: Do you think that entering these countries as a fly fisherman on your quest gave you an advantage over other foreigners?

PROSEK: Oh, definitely. Fishing is one of the few universal things that we do. I think it's because it's part of our evolutionary fabric and the fact that we're predators. Our procedure for trying to find native trout in a place like Turkey was to walk into a village, find some usually elderly person walking down the street because they'd been there for a while, and say alibalek, are there trout here, and they would say, evet, or yok, yes, or no, and then oftentimes would invite us for tea. We would have to endure the tea ceremony, and then they would take us upstream in their tractor or on their horse and show us where the trout were. But it's definitely something that people do everywhere, and I found it was really a good connection to disparate cultures.

ROSS: So you must have learned the word for trout in about a dozen languages?

PROSEK: Yeah. In Iranian it's ...(inaudible). In Armenian it's ...(inaudible) or ...(inaudible). In Italian it's ...(inaudible).

ROSS: You and an Austrian named Johannes Shoffman, who is sort of an amateur trout biologist. You traveled thousands of miles together, and really in pursuit of real native species, which, of course, often reflects a degree of environmental healthiness. What did you find?

PROSEK: Well, it's really difficult now to find pure genetic native trout in Europe. They began propagating trout artificially in hatcheries about 150 years ago. East of the Balkans, Serbia or Greece, if you can find fish at all, you know that they're pure genetically and that they're native fish, because they've never introduced non-native trout there. The problem is that recent wars have sort of taxed the fish populations. I returned last summer with Johannes to former Yugoslavia, and in Croatia, in Serbia, the people-- we were looking for native trout, and the people said, well, you know, we were really hungry during the war, and we threw explosives in the stream to kill them to eat.

But other streams, ironically, the fish benefited from the war. There's a river called the Zrmanja in Croatia, which was on the front line during a lot of the fighting in the Balkans. And they mined the banks of the stream so heavily that the locals are afraid to go there now. And for the last 10, 12 years, the fishing population has been totally untouched.

ROSS: You are, aside from a writer, a very accomplished painter. And one of the things that was really great about this book-- because I haven't seen a book like this since I was about 10-- and it has pictures in it. It has your own paintings. They're watercolors, mostly. As an artist, what are your most lasting images of this journey?

PROSEK: Oh, I love architecture. And other than the people, I love seeing the different buildings and drawing them, everything from Mosques in the Black Sea Drainage in Turkey, to the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The architect, Frank Gehry, is obsessed with fish, and the titanium plates on the outside are supposed to resemble fish scales. So you see tributes to water and fish in everything. And these different images of the people, the things they build, are things that kind of stick in my mind.

ROSS: You know, you're really starting to make me see--

PROSEK: See fish.

ROSS: See in fish.

PROSEK: Well, you see yourself in the fish, because the scales are reflective. When I take photographs of fish that if I was wearing an orange sweater or something, the fish would look kind of orange, and I didn't think of it before that what I was wearing made a difference in how I painted the fish. Because I work from photographs sometimes, and the fish are reflecting myself in them, which is kind of nice and something I only noticed recently. But I do love fish.

ROSS: James Prosek is author of “Fly Fishing, the 41st: Around the world on the 41st Parallel.” James, thanks for speaking with me today.

PROSEK: Thanks, Pippin, for having me.

ROSS: And you're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Town Creek Foundation and the Wellborn Ecology Fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through Grade 12. And Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, Honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR's President's Council.

Related link:
“Fly-Fishing the 41st” by James Prosek

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Wired Camping

ROSS: You heard of campers who just can't leave the comforts of home, home. They bring along their espresso machines, hand-cranked blenders, and heated mattress pads to the great outdoors. Now, there's one more thing they won't have to do without, at least in Colorado. State Park officials there recently announced that scenic campgrounds in that state will be outfitted with internet access. Lyle Laverty is director of Colorado State Parks, and he joins me to talk about wired camping. Hello.

LAVERTY: Hello, Pippin.

ROSS: Now, listen, no pun intended, but this is a wild idea. How is this going to work? What do you do, plug your modem into a tree or something?

LAVERTY: [laughter] Actually, it would be kind of like if you checked into the hotel room you've got an internet cable that comes right up to your rooms, and we would have a cable internet site that would come right up to your trailer, your RV, or whatever it happened to be.

ROSS: So lots of long cords running across the pine needles?

LAVERTY: Well, hopefully not too many. We're going to have those fairly close, so it's convenient for you.

ROSS: You know, Lyle, doesn't this really go against the whole idea of roughing it?

LAVERTY: Well, we serve a variety of different people that come to Colorado State Parks. And we have a lot of people that travel up and down I-25 traveling north to south, and those folks drive in a lot of RVs, grandparents, and they want to send pictures that they take on their digital camera to their grandkids and kids and say, here's where we've been. So it's not like it's one size fits every park, because we do have a lot of parks that are truly in that more rustic experience, and I don't think we're going to have those up there at this point in time.

ROSS: Give me another example of how the internet could enhance the nature experience?

LAVERTY: I believe that when people come into a park, because so many people are accustomed to doing business online, people can begin to make reservations for restaurants, you know, if there's even shows in town, you can get up and do that. And one of the things we want to try to encourage folks to do is to build that quality experience. And if we can get people to stay that one more day in the campground, then it’s good for Colorado business, it's great for Colorado economy, and it just enhances that. And even skiing, you know, you can get enough runs down the slopes in the morning, and you want to go do something else in the afternoon. So I think the web and the access can help people figure out, hey, these are some additional things that we can do to just have a great experience when we come to Colorado.

ROSS: Well, Lyle, I guess this certainly gives a whole new meaning to booting up.

LAVERTY: [laughter] And we hope that people can put on both boots when they come out to Colorado State Park and just have a great time.

ROSS: Lyle Laverty is director of Colorado State Parks. Thanks for speaking with me today.

LAVERTY: You're welcome, Pippin.

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Emerging Science Note/Space Fun

ROSS: Coming up, how pollution levels in one San Diego neighborhood shocked regulators into action. First, this note on Emerging Science, from Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC: Science note Theme]

GRABER: American astronaut, Don Pettit, has been living on the International Space Station for the past three months, and he says he enjoys Saturday mornings when he has some free time. During these hours, Pettit likes to conduct imaginative scientific experiments. Recently, he decided to see how bubbles behaved in zero gravity. So he prepared a solution of soapy water and made himself a bubble wand out of wire. But first, he decided to try the experiment with plain old water.

To his surprise, the water formed a film on his wire loop that lasted for hours. He could blow on it and even paint on it with drops of food coloring. And the water film could hold securely onto a much larger loop than it could here on earth. In general, water forms a film because of what's known as surface tension. Fat arises because water molecules are electrically charged. The positive side of one molecule is drawn to the negative side of another. So water molecules actually cling to one another. But on earth, gravity overcomes this surface tension and pull film apart. In the gravity-free environment of the space station, Pettit found some of these water films lasted up to 12 hours.

There are serious scientific applications to this work. This type of research helps scientists understand more about the physics of fluids here on earth. That's this week's note on Emerging Science, I'm Cynthia Graber.

ROSS: And you're listening to Living On Earth.

[MUSIC: Jose Gonzales & Banda Criolla “Puerto Rican Gypsy” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]

ROSS: Welcome back to Living On Earth. I'm Pippin Ross.

[MUSIC: Foday Musa Suso “Tilliboyo” Pieces of Africa Elektra (1992)]

ROSS: Out on the safaris, writes Isak Dinesen in “Out of Africa,” I had seen a herd of buffalo, 129 of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive iron-like animals were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had, time after time, watched the progression across the plain of the giraffe, in their queer vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals, but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled, gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two rhinos on their morning promenade when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn, and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together.

Thanks to Heritage Africa, you too can experience the wild as Dinesen did. Living On Earth is giving away a 15-day trip for two on the Ultimate African Safari, with visits to several of Africa's most spectacular game preserves, such as Kruger in the Serengeti. Please go to our website, loe.org for more details on how to win this 15-day trip to see some of Africa's most spectacular sites. That's loe.org.


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Chromium Pollution Exposure

ROSS: When authorities in southern California conducted a sweeping study of air pollution a few years ago, they found that out of all industrial plants, chrome plating shops posed the highest risk of cancer. That came as a surprise because the metal plating industry is much cleaner than it once was. So air officials began to reexamine their rules for chrome platers, but recent testing of a neighborhood in San Diego has put regulators into high gear. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: It flashes in the sunlight. It won't rust. It's part of what makes a Harley so beautiful. It's chrome. But forks and fenders don't roll off the production line shimmering, they need to be chrome plated, usually dipped in electrified baths of liquid metal and acid. A surprising number of plating shops are mom and pop operations that dip police badges and key rings, others like All Metals Processing in Orange County can work to the fine tolerances required on weapons and aircraft.

BLAKE: Those are the shields for a guidance system in a missile. And that acts as an EMF shield for that guidance system so that it can't be jammed by outside signals.

LOBET: Geoffrey Blake is Environment and Safety Manager at All Metals. As its name implies, the firm does aluminum and cadmium, as well as chrome plating, on parts for F-15 fighter jets and commercial airplanes. But whether you're plating missile parts or little league trophies, he explains, the idea is the same.

BLAKE: Well, basically what happens is you dissolve metal into liquid form, in what they call ionic form, and you run a current through the tank. And the metal transfers from the solution onto the part itself. Then it actually forms a film over the original metal.

LOBET: High performance plating and anodizing shops like this one often have hoods installed over their plating baths to suck acidic mist out of the room and into HEPA filters. It's a far cry from some past practices when, for example, vapor mist rising off the baths would penetrate workers' noses. Dr. Shane Que Hee teaches environmental chemistry at UCLA.

QUE HEE: One of the major health effects from chrome plating is, in fact, nasal septum perforation, when you have a high exposure. And that is caused by combined action of the chromium, which itself is acidic, plus the sulfuric acid.

LOBET: In the past, it also wasn't unusual for struggling shop owners to dump their plating baths or cleaning solvents into drains or illegal pipes connected to the sewer. Most of those bad practices have been reformed, and many bad actors put out of business. But Rich Sullivan who prosecutes environment and worker safety crimes at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office says, violations in the plating industry still occur.

SULLIVAN: Of the cases that are environmental, I would say that probably a good third of the cases are probably plating shops. So we always have some plating shop cases in the system.

LOBET: Accidents and emergencies at plating plants, such as fires, also used to be more common. Now, they are rare. But recently, there was a major pre-dawn fire at an LA plating plant.

FEMALE: An intense orange inferno lit up the early morning sky. The black smoke so thick it would completely cover the wall of flames. By the time Glendale firefighters got there, there was no stopping this fire.

LOBET: Despite the ongoing prosecutions and occasional dramatic events like this one, environmental officials believed most of the past problems with the plating industry were just that, history. That includes one of the principal health concerns with plating, exposure to a form of chromium known as hexavalent chromium, or chrome-6. The science on the dangers of chrome-6 in drinking water, contrary to its depiction in the movie, Erin Brokovich, is not clear-cut. But no one doubts that breathing chrome-6 is a problem.

BLAISDELL: It turns out that hexavalent chromium is one of the most potent carcinogens that have been discovered.

LOBET: Dr. Bob Blaisdell is a toxicologist with California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, an agency regulators turn to here for much of their scientific data.

BLAISDELL: When somebody inhales hexavalent chromium, it deposits in the lung. It penetrates the cells. It causes damage to the genetic material, and ultimately causes lung cancer. It generates what we call free radicals, which damage the DNA.

LOBET: The California Air Resources Board went after chromium almost as soon as it gained the authority to regulate air pollution hazards back in the 1980s. Spokesman Jerry Martin says the rules laid down back then removed 97 percent of the chromium from the air.

MARTIN: Chromium is highly toxic. It has been known to be toxic for many years. So, therefore, it was one of the first compounds chosen to be controlled because of the prevalence in the environment. So, clearly, the public was well protected, in our mind.

LOBET: Any problems that still existed in the plating business were thought to be a matter of enforcement. Then came Barrio Logan.


LOBET: The Mexican music known as banda spills from a home in Barrio Logan, an old Chicano neighborhood in San Diego where diesel trucks rumble and downshift on their way to the nearby port. Michael and Elvia Martinez and their children live in Barrio Logan, their frame house wedged between two chrome plating businesses. A sophisticated air tester sits whining in the front yard, placed there by air quality officials.

MICHAEL MARTINEZ: My son was diagnosed with asthma six months after we moved here. The medication he's on contains steroids.

ROBERT MARTINEZ: I start coughing and I have to stay home, and never go to school. When you are coughing it feels like the heart is beeping. I have to stay home. I have to stay in bed, and I can't go outside and run around.

LOBET: Robert is six. He can't stray far from a plug-in ventilator.

M. MARTINEZ: It's hard for us. It's been difficult. And we can't-- we love nature, we're outdoors people. We don't do that no more. For us to go anywhere far away, we have to make sure that there's somewhere to plug this thing in. We used to spend our vacations in the woods and the mountains. We don't do none of that no more.

LOBET: One of the two plating shops, Master Plating, practically hangs over the Martinez backyard. Michael Martinez says that at first he didn't associate Robert's asthma with the plater, but he did notice the business was dirty.

The Martinez family home sits to the left
of the now-closed Master Plating plant.

M. MARTINEZ: Just that they're dumping stuff out in the alley, green liquids, I don't know what it was. You'd always see puddles back there right in front of their driveway there.

LOBET: Several years ago, the Martinezes and several other Barrio Logan families contacted the Environmental Health Coalition, a San Diego group, to find out why asthma seemed so common in their community. In a survey of 188 families, the advocacy group found asthma symptoms in the area were twice as prevalent as in a control group in a similar neighborhood. The group's attorney, Paula Forbis, speaking in the Martinez's yard, says she suspected the plating shop might be a problem, but without testing the air, there was no way to know. And she couldn’t get anyone in San Diego county to listen.

FORBIS: We had approached the county to do some air toxics monitoring in this community, and they refused. They said that there was no problem in Barrio Logan, and they flatly refused.

LOBET: After several efforts to work with local authorities in San Diego, Forbis called state officials at the California Air Resources Board, and they agreed to come to the neighborhood and monitor. It was a decision that would lead to changes in the agency's outlook. Spokesman Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: We agreed to come in and do some monitoring in the area. And quite frankly, that was the first time we had ever attempted to monitor a single location, a very small community. Generally, as most state agencies do, we look at an area more like flying over at 30,000 feet. In the case of Barrio Logan, for the first time in our history, we actually walked the streets of the neighborhood, talked to people, talked to businesses, and tried to assess what the personal exposure to residents in that area was.

LOBET: The air officials went door-to-door. They tested for a number of pollutants, lead, volatile organics, soot. They observed truck traffic. Asked who in the neighborhood smoked. Even whether people fry-cooked their food, creating smoke in the kitchen.

MARTIN: At first we didn't find much at all. We didn't find a lot that was unusual, or that was different from other parts of San Diego.

LOBET: Paula Forbis says one thing, though, did seem to immediately make an impression on air officials.

FORBIS: We found that the officials that came were surprised to see the extreme proximity, and this patchwork quilt of land uses. Because typically you think of industries in an industrial area or a park that's segregated from people's homes. So to think of an industry that's essentially on what used to be a residential lot, where somebody's house was torn down to build this plating shop, is something that I think was foreign to a lot of the people involved in the regulatory process.

MARTIN: We changed position of the monitors and suddenly began picking up some very high readings of chromium near the two plating facilities in the area. They were some of the highest we have ever seen in the state.

LOBET: In fact, the highest day's reading for chrome-6 in the Martinez's backyard was 20 times the peak anywhere else in California in 2001, the last year for which figures were available. Cancer risk was the immediate worry. There are also non-cancer risks associated with plating, including lung damage, but the levels detected in the neighborhood were not thought high enough for that. So the link between the high chromium levels and asthma in the neighborhood remains unclear.

The findings in Barrio Logan presented a complex picture. The highest levels were found in the Martinez's backyard. Remember, it was sandwiched between the two plating shops. The higher volume shop was required to have expensive filtering equipment, and it had no measurable chrome emissions. But the smaller shop, Master Plating, was what's known as a decorative plater. These smaller shops are not required to have any sort of air filtering system. So Master Plating was operating legally, at least according to its own reports.

More than half the nearly 200 plating shops in California could be in the same situation. Months after the investigation, officials are still talking about Barrio Logan. They're drafting new laws governing chromium-6. More shops will have to use vapor suppressants, especially if they're near homes, hospitals, or schools. But an even larger lesson regulators are drawing is that plating shops should simply not be located near where people live. Again, Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: Well, I think that's the real thing we learn from Barrio Logan, that mixing certain industrial practices and industries with residences can be a problem, and city planners need to be very careful about that.

LOBET: People in the metal finishing business say keeping industry separate from neighborhoods is a laudable ideal, but reality is less simple. Dan Cunningham is with the Southern California Metal Finishers Association.

CUNNINGHAM: We don't like the fact that there's a residence or a chrome shop in a neighborhood, or a residence in an industrial area. We see that as a terrible zoning problem. In some cases, the homes were there first. In some cases, the businesses were there first. But in either case, it shouldn't have been allowed to happen.

LOBET: And Cunningham points out that even close to people's homes and schools, a metal finisher can operate safely.

CUNNINGHAM: But like even Barrio Logan, there was a house within a few feet of two different plating shops. But one shop was emitting virtually zero, and it was a bigger shop, and they did more plating, and they weren't a problem.

LOBET: From the industry's viewpoint, the Air Pollution Authority that governs Southern California is on the verge of passing stricter rules, rules that can have national influence, all because of one incident. Health activists on the other hand view it this way. The state examined just one place, and look what it found.

FORBIS: What we're asking for is to really deal with this in a precautionary approach, because we can't spend 15 years analyzing every chrome plater, or every kind of different industry that's in these kinds of neighborhoods that's putting people at this level of risk.

LOBET: In California, the phrase Barrio Logan has become synonymous among air officials with a hazard that's both potent and unexpected. Today, the larger, cleaner plating facility remains open. Master Plating has closed. The fallout from its operations is likely to be not only tighter controls on plating, but a greater willingness to test the air where homes are side by side with industry.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in San Diego.

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ROSS: And for this week, that's Living On Earth. Next week, many people are heating their homes this winter thanks to natural gas drilled from coal beds in the Rocky Mountains. But some residents there are having chilly reactions to the cold bed methane extraction.

MALE: I didn't want trucks going out on the field. I didn't want gates being torn down. I did not want their employees using my property as a bathroom.

ROSS: The battle over natural gas in the Rocky Mountains, next time on Living On Earth, from NPR. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime, and get the stories behind the news, by going to loe.org. And while you're there you can also get a chance to win a safari for two to Africa. That's loe.org.

We live you this week with a soundscape from Costa Rica. Francisco Lopez recorded this insect cacophony at night in a rainforest.

[INSECT NOISES: Earth Ear “La Selva” Dreams of Gaia Earth Ear Records (1999)]

ROSS: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at loe.org. Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Jennifer Chu, and Maggie Villiger, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Liz Lempert.

Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Katherine Lempke, Jenny Cutrero and Nathan Marcy. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.

Our Technical Director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our Western Bureau. Eileen Bolinsky is our Senior Editor. And Chris Ballman is the Senior Producer. Science Editor Diane Toomey produced this week's show. Steve Curwood is Executive Producer of Living On Earth.

I'm Pippin Ross. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include: The National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service.

Support also comes from NPR member stations and The Annenberg Foundation, and Paul and Marcia Ginsberg in support of excellence in public radio.


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