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

September 12, 2003

Air Date: September 12, 2003



9/11’s Lingering Health Effects

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Although residents and workers in lower Manhattan have had two years to deal with the aftermath of September 11th, many are still not fully recovered from that day. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Stephen Levin, of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, about the patients he continues to treat for 9/11-related conditions. (11:00)

Emerging Science Note/Smart Cosmetics / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that may lead to pollution smart cosmetics. (01:20)

Almanac/Teeth Beasties

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This week, we have facts about Antony von Leeuwenhoek. Three hundred and twenty years ago this week, the Dutch naturalist reported discovering a host of "beasties" - that we now know as bacteria - in the plaque between his teeth. (01:30)

MRI Lead Study / Cynthia Graber

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A team of Cincinnati researchers is trying to tease out how lead poisoning affects the brain, and how these physical effects might correlate to behavioral changes. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (07:00)

Running with Horses / Laurel Druley

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In the West, lack of rain for several years has dried up plants that herds of wild horses depend on for food. Groups of committed volunteers round up horses and feed them, but many starve. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Druley reports some favor a different alternative. (05:15)

Mold Dogs

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We all know about dogs that can sniff out bombs and drugs. Now there’s another reason to praise the canine nose. Host Steve Curwood speaks with the owner of The Florida Canine Academy, where dogs are trained to detect indoor mold. (03:00)

Environmental Health Note/Tea Sunscreen / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on the anti-cancer effects of an ingredient in tea. (01:20)

Wastewater Threats / Craig Pittman

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A defunct fertilizer plant in Florida has become one of the state's greatest ecological threats, as the acidic water left behind threatens to spill over and kill Tampa Bay's marine life. St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman discusses how the situation got so bad. (04:30)

A Scourge of Starlings / John Ryan

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Starlings are the birds that bird-lovers love to hate. The non-native birds have ousted native species in just about every state, and they’ve caused damage to farmers’ crops and airplanes in flight. John Ryan takes a look at how one county in Washington state is trying to manage its starling population. (08:00)

Home Stretch / Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg ponders the end of a short summer and the prospect of another long winter. (03:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Stephen Levin, Bill WHITSTINE, Craig PittmanREPORTERS: Laurel Druley, Cynthia Graber, John RyanCOMMENTARY: Verlyn KlinkenborgNOTES: Diane Toomey, Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Two years have gone by since terrorists hijacked planes to bring down the World Trade Towers, and healing for survivors is far from over. The emotional toll is still being exacted, and the respiratory problems caused by the dust and fires makes it hard for some people to have normal lives.

LEVIN: I can tell you that I have virtually no patients who suffered these psychological consequences of what they witnessed down there who are fully back to the way they were before September 11th. But the physical problems that we’re are seeing are much more persistent than we would have expected. And that’s something of a surprise and I think it has to do with that terrible witch’s brew of exposures that caused such significant respiratory burns.

CURWOOD: Public health and the continuing fallout out from 9/11. Also this week on Living on Earth, America’s war on the starlings. Coming up right after this.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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9/11’s Lingering Health Effects


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

Much of the huge dust cloud that settled on lower Manhattan on the days following September 11th has been hosed and filtered away. The remaining particles have settled into the cracks and crevices of the city. Yet, at the two-year anniversary of 9/11, the effects of the World Trade Center dust remain. The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently charged that the agency misled the public about air quality in the days following the attacks. And, it did so at the request of the White House.

That revelation is now political fodder. New York Senator Hillary Clinton says she’ll hold up Senate confirmation for a new head of the EPA until the Bush Administration answers questions about the matter. Meanwhile, in New York, doctors still go about treating residents and workers for September 11th related conditions.

Dr. Stephen Levin directs Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He joins me now from New York City. Welcome.

LEVIN: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Dr. Levin, what do we now know about what was released into the air on September 11th?

LEVIN: Well, we know that initially, when the planes hit the towers and the fires were initiated, there was a tremendous amount of combustion products released, just from the burning of the jet fuel and the burning of the buildings. But the major releases occurred after the collapse of those towers and that resulted in the release of a tremendous amount of dust and soot and smoke. And the dust contained a number of highly irritating materials, including pulverized concrete dust, pulverized glass, fibrous glass, asbestos. And among the gases that were present in that mix was hydrochloric acid as a mist, because when plastic, the kind of PVC plastic that insulates virtually every inch of wire in a building like that, when that burns it releases hydrochloric acid. So that was part of what was released as well.

We also know from measurements that there were these compounds that are the cancer causing agents in cigarette smoke - polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - they were released, as well. Because when any wood product or carbon based material burns, and there’s a lot of that in a tower, it releases these particular chemical compounds. And they are cancer-causing agents. There was also a lot of gypsum board, which is a part of the construction materials, and some heavy metals like lead and chrome and cadmium and mercury, although much of that was volatilized or evaporated and probably drifted as a cloud over Brooklyn and out to sea.

CURWOOD: Boy, none of those sound particularly appetizing. Together as a stew, as a mixture, it’s quite daunting.

LEVIN: It was a terrible witch’s brew, and much of the health effects we’re seeing among patients that have been examined, either in our screening program or our clinical center, have suffered the consequences of inhaling that terrible mix.

CURWOOD: Now, some of those were gases which presumably by now aren’t present. But the suspended particles, the dust, if you will, might still be around. I understand some of it migrated into things like floorboards and couches and air ducts. But how much is still around today?

LEVIN: Well, unfortunately, there’s been very poor characterization of how much contamination remains, and how far out from the ground zero site the contamination spread. But I know for certain that there are still many apartments and many office spaces that have never been cleaned except for the minimal amount of dusting to remove what was visible dust. So, a truly adequate assessment and a truly adequate cleanup simply hasn’t been done.

And you’re right, these materials can get into porous surfaces like floorboards, into curtains, into sofas, and into carpets. And it’s not easy to remove these materials even under the best of circumstances, and if you’re asking office workers and home re-occupants to try to deal with this kind of problem on their own, they’re unlikely to be able to remove it all.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the health of these people today, the residents and the workers.

LEVIN: Well, we now have seen over 6,000 workers and volunteers who were part of the rescue and recovery efforts and the people who cleaned up the surrounding buildings. And still, in the last couple of months we still continue to screen new people in our program, and we’re still seeing nearly half are coming in with persistent respiratory problems. And these are often people who have had no successful evaluation or treatment for their problems, and are coming to us with persistent respiratory symptoms now almost two years after the event. The patients of ours who are under treatment, who have been given the appropriate testing, and where we’ve made a diagnosis and provide them with the right kind of respiratory treatment – which usually involves inhalers of the sort that asthmatics use – most of them are improving. Although I can tell you this--out of the hundreds of patients that I’ve seen myself and that I take care of, I think I have only one patient who says he’s as good as he was before September 11th.

We also have patients who went back to their apartments, and they had no other place to live and they had been given reassurance by the EPA that the air quality was safe, so they returned. Some of those individuals also developed sinusitis and laryngitis and asthma and bronchitis as a result of their exposures, at lower rates and generally with less severity than people who were on that pile with their faces really right in the smoke. Many people who were down there on the pile found it very difficult to wear those respirators, largely because it was hard to talk to each other. And communication in a dangerous site is really key. I can tell you that most of my patients who were workers or volunteers on that terrible pile would have done the same thing again if they were called upon to do so, even if they suffered some of the physical and psychological consequences that so many have suffered

CURWOOD: Describe for us, Doctor, the spectrum of the psychological effects of 9/11 there in lower Manhattan today.

LEVIN: Well, it was a combination of people witnessing human horror – I mean, to watch people leap from buildings and land near you, to see so much death, to see people dismembered by falling glass – the scope of human trauma was beyond what anybody had ever been prepared to deal with. So, the classic picture of post-traumatic stress disorder with anxiety, and flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts, and difficulty sleeping, feeling distanced and numb, was so common among people who were down there. Nearly half of the people who have come through our screening program show evidence of persistent psychological distress.

The other thing that we’ve seen among so many patients of ours is depression. People have a persistent sadness and an inability to enjoy life that really resulted as a consequence of their experience down there, and these are people who had never experienced significant depression before. Again, for many of our patients, they’re improving. But I can tell you that I have virtually no patients who suffered these psychological consequences of what they witnessed down there who are fully back to the way they were before September 11th. These are very persistent problems and, in a way, for the post-traumatic stress disorder problems it’s perhaps not so surprising because we saw the same kind of problem after Vietnam among the veterans, and the Oklahoma City bombing also taught us a great deal about how long lasting these problems can be. But the physical problems that we’re seeing are much more persistent than we would have expected. And that’s something of a surprise and I think it has to do with that terrible witch’s brew we were talking about of exposures that caused such significant respiratory burns.

CURWOOD: Now, the New York City Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control recently set up a survey of people in lower Manhattan who feel they have health effects due to 9/11. And supposedly, people who respond will be followed for twenty years. What’s your take, Dr. Levin, on how it’s going to be carried out?

LEVIN: I have some concern about how thoroughly the registry will be able to capture the populations they want to reach. It’s going to be very difficult to find all the volunteers who were down there. It will be hard enough to find the people who were employed on the rescue and recovery efforts. Then you have all those people who returned to office space in the lower Manhattan area, and all the people who went back to school and went back to their homes.

One of the problems in setting up such a registry is that it’s not clear to people why is it in their interest to be registered. Because while they may be followed by postcard over time, should they become ill, it’s not clear at all that the registry will have a mechanism to guide them into care.

Right now, so far as I know, that registry has not been granted funding for more than the initial establishment of lists. They haven’t been given funding for follow-up tracing of people, and that’s very time and resource intensive. It takes a lot of money and a lot of staff to contact people year after year to find out what their health status is, and whether they’re still alive, and if they’re not alive what did they die from?

CURWOOD: It sounds to me like you think the New York City health department and the CDC are a day late and a dollar short here.

LEVIN: Probably many dollars short. And the registry isn’t really up and running until now two years after the actual terrible event. There will be many people who are lost to follow up, and that’s unfortunate, because one of the things we’ve learned as a public health lesson is that within weeks of that event there should have been a vigorous attempt to capture the information and contact information on everyone who was down there. That was a lost opportunity, and for the first few days, since it was like the Wild West down there, you could understand and forgive the fact that not much systematic registering was done. But you know, within a week’s time we had plenty of opportunity to do that and we failed to do it.

CURWOOD: Dr. Steven Levin is the medical director of the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

LEVIN: Thanks very much for having me.

[MUSIC: Sparta “Glasshouse Tarot” WIRETAP SCARS (Dreamworks -2002)]

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Emerging Science Note/Smart Cosmetics

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the hi-tech hunt for signs of brain damage from tiny amounts of lead. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: If smog alerts are getting in the way of your beauty regimen, a French cosmetics company has an answer. L’Oreal has teamed up with the European Space Agency to design pollution-smart skin-care products. The idea is to cut down on pollution’s effects on hair and skin. The company plans to create a line of moisturizers, face creams, and shampoos that are tailor-made for the world’s most polluted cities.

To do that, L’Oreal’s scientists and beauty experts are studying daily maps of the ESA’s orbiting satellite. Its measurements of the earth’s air, land and sea are normally used to track rainforest destruction and melting ice caps. Now cosmetic scientists will use that satellite’s data on ozone, carbon monoxide, and ultraviolet radiation to study pollution in cities like London and Los Angeles.

So far, L’Oreal scientists have observed that volunteers living in highly polluted areas of Mexico City have exhibited increased oxidation of the sebum – or oily skin. The company hopes to someday design a line of cosmetics that will adapt to the changing levels of pollution from day to day.

And that’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

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

[MUSIC: Massive Attack Vs. Mad Professor “Bumper Ball Dub (Karmacoma) ” NO PROTECTION (Circa - 1995)]

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Almanac/Teeth Beasties

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

[MUSIC: Cliff Martinez “Main Title Theme” SOLARIS (2002)]

CURWOOD: This week in 1683 Antony van Leeuwenhoek first reported seeing microscopic “beasties” in the plaque on his teeth. Today we call them bacteria. These tiny beings astounded the Dutch naturalist and centuries later inspired the same fascination in Harvard undergrad Jonathan H. Esensten.

Mr. Esensten says van Leeuwenhoek also studied plaque samples from men who never brushed their teeth and found a “great company” of wee beings “a-swimming more nimbly” than any he had ever seen.

Esensten: So he thought when they were taken out of the dirty mouths of old men and put into water, then they got excited and started jumping around.

CURWOOD: By profession, van Leeuwenhoek was not a scientist, but his hobby was making microscopes by hand, and his instruments helped scientists see the natural world in a whole new way.

Esensten: Eventually, it would lead people like Pasteur to formulate theories about diseases and the relationship between certain diseases and microscopic organisms.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Esensten, a biochemistry major, was the author of a column last semester in The Harvard Crimson entitled “Cavorting with Beasties.” And yes, he brushes his teeth – twice a day.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Cliff Martinez “Main Title Theme” SOLARIS (2002)

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MRI Lead Study

CURWOOD: In the past few decades, researchers discovered that even tiny amounts of lead can be harmful to children, affecting such things as learn ability and impulse control. Lead is even linked to crime and juvenile delinquency. Researchers continue to unravel how early exposure to lead can have lifelong harmful effects. Leading this effort is a team of scientists in Cincinnati that's followed a group of lead-exposed children for two decades. Now, they're attempting to see just how lead affects brain structure. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber has this latest installment in our series, “The Secret Life of Lead.”


TURNER: Is your pizza pretty good?

GRABER: Nikki Turner is this new study’s project coordinator. She’s with 21-year-old Lamont in the cafeteria at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, giving him a free lunch before his MRI exam.

LAMONT: I’m not really hungry because I want to get the MRI out of the way first. I’m a little nervous about this.

GRABER: Twenty years ago, the University of Cincinnati, along with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, began a long-term study to learn about lead exposure. Lamont is one of almost 200 young adults who have been with the study since birth. Back then, lead poisoning was considered a serious problem only when it produced physical effects such as seizures. Lamont, along with most others in the group, most likely had childhood blood lead levels that at the time were considered safe, but that today might be cause for concern. Research on this group demonstrated that these lower levels can cause a variety of developmental problems, including difficulties with learning, attention, and planning ahead.


GRABER: Inside the MRI room, a pump chirps as it circulates helium that keeps the MRI cool. Technician Scott Dunn settles Lamont in.

DUNN: The table goes up and you pull the bucket over your head.

GRABER: Lamont lies down on a long table. His head is strapped firmly in place, and what looks like a plastic bucket is placed over it. Once he’s secure and comfortable, he slides head-first into the beige scanner.


GRABER: Dunn returns to the control room and sits down at the computer.

DUNN: Okay, here we go.


GRABER: Photos of Lamont’s brain soon appear on the computer screen. Kim Cecil, a chemist with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, sits in the control room and looks on. Cecil specializes in MRI research and is the lead scientist on this study. She says this new research is crucial because there is very little information connecting lead’s impact on development to what physically happens to a lead-exposed brain.

CECIL: So there’s really a void between the basic cellular work and the behavioral work. No one’s really gone in and looked at the brain in vivo to see what’s going on.

GRABER: Cecil hopes this MRI study will change that.

CECIL: Magnetic resonance imaging can provide structural information, anatomical information. Are the ventricles too big or too small? Is the grey matter where it’s supposed to be? Is it formed correctly?

GRABER: Another part of the study involves magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a process that measures the amounts of chemicals in specific regions of the brain. Based on that information, scientists can tell how well those parts of the brain are functioning. A final test involves what’s called functional imaging, looking at how the brain works while it’s working. Researchers are focusing on activities lead is known to affect, such as concentration.

CECIL: What we do in this study is that we designed tasks that involved language, working memory and attention. So, we do these neuropsychological tests within the MRI scanner. And while the subject is doing these tests, we monitor where that blood flow is going.

GRABER: This research is based on an earlier study Cecil worked on comparing the brains of 16 lead-exposed children to those of their unaffected relatives.

CECIL: We found that in the frontal grey matter, the children with lead exposure had lower n-acetyl-aspartate levels, which is the neuronal marker.

GRABER: That means their brain formation may have been altered by lead which may or may not correlate to behavioral effects. Those links haven’t been studied yet. In this study, Cecil has already examined the brains of about 50 young adults. She says to her naked eye, the brain structure and chemicals look okay compared.

CECIL: It’s not striking. There’s not out of the ballpark abnormal. And so it’s going to require rigorous analysis to figure it out.

GRABER: That’s because her eye can’t detect, say, a ten percent difference in one chemical or another, a difference that could be significant.

Neuropsychologist Douglas Ris is one of Cecil’s colleagues. He heads up another part of the Cincinnati lead research, examining the link between childhood lead exposure and adult anti-social behavior. And he’s using the same group of young adults. Ris hopes that Cecil’s evidence will link physical changes in the brain to the results of his behavioral research. That’ll be a challenge, though, he says, because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where in the brain researchers should look.

RIS: There is no center for criminality or delinquency or conduct problems. Rather, when we talk about these complex behaviors and what causes them and what parts of the brain mediate them, we usually talk about multiple areas of the brain that work in concert to influence behaviors and development.

GRABER: So the MRI team has chosen to focus on regions of the brain that may control things like inhibitions and the regulation of emotion – factors that are thought to play a role in criminal behavior. But even if these regions are found to have been modified in some way from lead exposure, it still will not be simple to show a direct cause and effect.

RIS: It’s unlikely to me that it’s going to be a very straightforward kind of relationship. Nothing in this area is. We also have to take into account the series of factors that go into producing anti-social behavior and things in adolescents and adults.

GRABER: These include family income, nutrition, and the level of maternal education.


DUNN: And that’s the end of this dance. Lamont have you had enough? Are you still in there?

LAMONT: Uh huh.

DUNN: Okay. Coming to get you out, okay?

GRABER: Technician Scott Dunn walks into the MRI room and helps Lamont out of the scanner. They return to the control room so Lamont can check out his brain.

DUNN: So that’s that. This is your brain.

LAMONT: So everything is normal?

DUNN: Yeah.

LAMONT: Oh, okay. I didn’t know it would look like this. [LAUGHTER]

GRABER: Researchers hope that Lamont’s brain and the almost 200 others in the study will not only provide a greater understand of how lead does its damage, but also help provide clues for treating lead poisoned children. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC: Sparta “Cataract” WIRETAP SCARS (Dreamworks – 2002)]

CURWOOD: For more on lead and lead research, go to our website, livingonearth.org. You’ll find an in-depth look at cutting-edge science on the connection between childhood lead exposure and criminal behavior later in life. Explore “The Secret Life of Lead” on our website, livingonearth.org.

[MUSIC: Sparta “Cataract” WIRETAP SCARS (Dreamworks – 2002)]

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Running with Horses

CURWOOD: Wild horses still run together in some parts of the West. It falls to the Bureau of Land Management and some committed volunteers to make sure the herds don’t outgrow the forage and water available for all wildlife and cattle on the range. Sometimes, though, things don’t work and a number of horses have died as a result of the drought that’s plagued the region for four years. But no one likes the idea of letting nature cull the herds by starvation. Arizona Public Radio’s Laurel Druley reports on an alternative.

DRULEY: Surprisingly close to the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip is an authentic slice of the old west. Under the baking desert sun, beneath gigantic rock formations is the Red Rock Canyon. Once upon a time, thousands of wild horses roamed the canyon. Now, only about 30 remain. And they’re temporarily corralled in one corner of the canyon called Oliver Ranch.


DRULEY: Last summer when the Bureau of Land Management and wild horse supporters realized many horses were dying as a result of the drought, they rounded them up and brought them here. Since last year, Mary Thompson and other volunteers have come to feed the horses once a week at the ranch.

THOMPSON: If they hadn’t rounded them up they would’ve all been dead. They would’ve never made it. There was no water. They had nothing to drink. There was no grass. [HORSE SNORTING] They were barely standing.

DRULEY: The herd’s health had reached a critical stage. On a scale of one to ten – ten being obese and one being dead – the horses were characterized as a 1.5.


DRULEY: At a bar and grill near her home in Las Vegas Lori Howard remembers getting the call for help from the Bureau of Land Management. She’s vice president of the National Wild Horse Association.

HOWARD: The 30 horses that we were talking about I was aware of, was probably the last of the herd. This was all that there was left out there after hundreds of years. So I had to make a call and I said, “Bring them in.” And I called the board members and said, “This is the situation. We have 30 horses left in Red Rock. We have them at Oliver Ranch. And this is it gang. If they go, they’re gone forever. What do you want to do?”

(Photo courtesy of BLM)

DRULEY: The now healthy herd can be released back into the wider canyon as soon as, well, it rains. Howard says it’s important to her to preserve this herd.

HOWARD: They’re a part of our heritage. They’re the ones that brought us to the west. Without those horses they would’ve never made it here. And even though they’ve been the beast of burden, they also offer us so much.

DRULEY: The horses used to be slaughtered by ranchers who resented the amount of water and vegetation consumed by wild horses. Scarce water and resources have long been problems on the rangeland. Now, when herds are too big officials put wild horses up for adoption. Maxine Shane is spokeswoman for the federal Wild Horse and Burro program in Nevada. Shane says gathering the horses and finding adoptive homes can be very costly.

SHANE: It costs as much as $300 to set up the trap sites, send out the helicopter, bring the horses into the corrals for preparation. Preparation is fairly expensive. You have inoculations. You have drawing of blood. You have hay, holding costs, and whatever.

DRULEY: Depending on how long the animal is held and where it has to be transported for adoption the government spends up to 15 hundred dollars for one horse. And some adoptive owners have mistreated their horses. So wild horse supporters are lobbying for another way to keep the horse population down: contraception.

The Humane Society and the Food and Drug Administration are working with the Bureau of Land Management to license a time-release contraceptive called Porcine Zona Palucita or PZP.

(Photo courtesy of BLM)

SHANE: PZP is actually the ovaries of pigs. And it fools the sperm into thinking that the mare is pregnant. And then the mare can’t be impregnated. So, if she’s carrying a foal, it doesn’t hurt the foal that she’s carrying. But she simply doesn’t get pregnant the next year.

DRULEY: Shane says researchers at the University of California Davis have developed a contraceptive that would last almost two years. And they’re working on one that would last five years.

SHANE: It’s not long term. So we don’t want to stop these mares from ever being able to have foals. We just would like to slow it down a bit so we don’t have to gather so often. And that’s a lot less stress for them and a lot less money. And of course it means that we can be gathering less horses and can be more particular about who adopts.

DRULEY: While more PZP tests are done, government officials are planning to gather 6, 000 horses this summer across the west.


DRULEY: The National Wild Horse Association’s Lori Howard will continue to monitor the herd at Oliver Ranch. She says these animals are unique. They’re the only horses with the physical make-up to survive the rugged terrain of Red Rock Canyon. In other words, if the herd became extinct, wild horses might never again roam through this slice of the west.

For Living on Earth, I’m Laurel Druley in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada.


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council, and Paul and Marcia Ginsburg in support of excellence in public radio.

Related links:
- BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Program
- National Wild Horse Association

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Mold Dogs

CURWOOD: You’re listening to Living on Earth.

Here’s what to do if you’re worried about mold in your house: Call a mold dog! That’s right. You can now add mold to the list of things canines are trained to sniff out. Joining me is Bill Whitstine, owner of the Florida Canine Academy, near Clearwater, where he trains mold dogs.

Bill, how did you get into the mold dog business anyway?

WHITSTINE: Well, that was kind of interesting. I had been training dogs to find accelerants after fires - arson dogs – doing a lot of work for insurance companies. And about five years ago, State Farm and All State came to me and said, hey, we’re getting killed with this mold stuff, can you train some dogs for mold? So we started doing some research, and figured out how to do it, and it’s been working really great since.

(Photo courtesy of Florida Canine Academy)   

CURWOOD: Now, how do you train a dog to detect mold? And actually, I suppose the dog already can smell it, but we just want the dog to tell us that it smells it, huh?

WHITSTINE: Exactly. That’s exactly it. It takes between 800 to 1,000 hours to train the dog for mold. Repetition is the mother of skill, and there’s just a lot of little baby steps over and over and over again. When they smell the odor it’s positive reinforcement, a lot of praise, and we also use treats.

CURWOOD: I understand you get your trainees from the local dog pound. What makes a good mold dog?

WHITSTINE: Well, it really doesn’t matter what type of breed or mutt. We look for dogs that – often, they’re trouble-makers, are getting in trouble at home and people turn them in because they’re a handful, or they’re tearing things up, or running away, things like that. Those are often the more intelligent dogs. They just need a job. They’re bored. And they’re not getting the attention they need. And we’re able to direct that orneriness into a job. And they’re a much better pet then because they’re having fun and they have something to do.

CURWOOD: Now, tell, me, what advantage does the use of a mold dog offer to home- owners who think they’ve got a mold problem?

WHITSTINE: That’s the really neat thing about this that I really enjoy. It makes such a difference in the detection of the mold. Currently, with the other devices we can tell you that your home has mold, but where is it? That’s the expensive part of the investigation, because if we don’t know where it’s at we have to tear up a lot more of the house, maybe the entire house. But the dogs can come in and smell it behind the walls and tell you exactly where it’s at.

CURWOOD: What’s life like for mold dogs after they graduate from your program?


WHITSTINE: I want to die and come back as one. They get to ride around in their vehicles everyday and go to different places. But, after hours, they can be a total pet. I have people who take their dogs camping, boating, hiking, playing in the snow.

CURWOOD: Bill Whitstine is owner of the Florida Canine Academy which trains mold detection dogs. Hey, Bill, thanks for taking the time with me today.

WHITSTINE: Thank you very much.

[MUSIC: Massive Attack Vs. Mad Professor “Trinity Dub (Three)” NO PROTECTION (Circa - 1995)]

Related link:
Mold Dogs

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Environmental Health Note/Tea Sunscreen

CURWOOD: Coming up: while almost no one was looking, Florida got stuck with what could become a massive pollution disaster. First, this Note on Environmental Health from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Researchers from Rutgers University, working with scientists from the University of Minnesota, have found that substances in tea may help prevent skin cancer. Polyphenols, natural chemicals found in black and green tea, don’t block UV light, but it’s been found they can inhibit the process that turns a healthy cell into a cancerous one.

Researchers swabbed a group of mice with a solution containing polyphenols. Another group was left untreated. Then they shined UVB light, the ultraviolet light that causes skin cancer, on the shaven backs of all the mice.

UV light activates certain proteins that signal cells to divide and multiply. If cells multiply too fast or too long, cancer could result. The researchers found that the polyphenols inhibited the activity of these proteins, compared to proteins in the mice not treated with them. They also found the same effect when they applied the solution to cultured human skin cells.

The researchers presented their work at the meeting of the American Chemical Society and say they're in the early stage of developing a polyphenol-based cream that could supplement sunscreens currently in use.

That's this week's Health Note. I’m Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: Terence Blanchard “Title Theme” 25th HOUR (Hollywood Records-2003)]

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Wastewater Threats

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up: The starling wars. But first: Florida is facing what one state official calls a major environmental threat. The problem is a fertilizer plant that went out of business and left behind dangerously acidic water sitting in huge ponds on its property near Tampa Bay. With the rainy season approaching officials fear these ponds may spill over into the Bay, killing marine life. Craig Pittman is a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He says problems at this fertilizer plant have been brewing for some time.

PITTMAN: This plant was opened in the 1960s by a subsidiary of Borden and it immediately began causing environmental problems with illegal dumping in an estuary connected to Tampa Bay, toxic leaks that sickened the workers and sent the neighbors running and killed cattle. And by the time the 1990s rolled around, the company had gone through a series of owners and the plant itself was pretty much shutdown for most of the 1990s. The owners who had it last kept promising the state “we’re going to get new investors; we’re going to reopen,” but they never did. And state officials kind of turned a blind eye to the problem. They knew that the company was in financial trouble. They knew that there was this kind of ticking time bomb out there with the waste that was stacked up on top of the gypsum stacks, but they did not take any action – even though their own employees were warning them, “hey you know this is a problem; we need to do something.” They didn’t do anything until the company finally went bankrupt and the owners walked away in January of 2001.

CURWOOD: Now, you say that a phosphate fertilizer plant, if it’s operating, these waste ponds and stacks, aren’t that much of a problem. They tend to recycle the stuff but if they shut down, that’s when the problem begins. Given the length of the shutdown, how severe, how difficult is the problem that the state of Florida faces in trying to deal with this?

PITTMAN: It has become a tremendous problem because we were going through a three year drought when this plant first shut down. And so, if the state had stepped in prior to the owners declaring bankruptcy, they would have had some breathing room to deal with all that water that had collected on top of the stack because there was no rain.

However, the drought ended rather decisively later in 2001 when we had massive amounts of rain from a tropical storm. And then on New Year’s Eve 2002, we had a 16 inch downpour. And each inch of rain adds something like 12 million gallons more water into the stack for them to try to get rid of. And so, the amount of rain that has fallen on the stack since they’ve taken it over has far exceeded the amount they’ve been able to get rid of, through treating it and dumping it into Bishops Harbor, which is an estuary connected to Tampa Bay, and other methods that they’ve been using. They just simply have not been able to keep up.

CURWOOD: What’s the plan now? What are they trying to do with it?

PITTMAN: Well, this spring, the state Department of Environmental Protection got permission from the U.S. EPA to load this stuff on a barge – to treat it first, I should say, with lime to lower the acid content – but then load it on board a barge and ship it out into the Gulf of Mexico and dump it out there. So the barge, which holds about seven and a half million gallons, has already made something like 11 or 12 trips out into the Gulf to disperse it out there. The theory being that it will be so diluted by the Gulf of Mexico that any environmental harm will be minimal. The area fishing industry is very concerned about this and very upset. And they are worried that what they’re dumping out there will kill fish and ruin their livelihood out there.

CURWOOD: Now, Florida produces phosphate for folks all over the country. Is the problem that you’re facing there at Piney Point, is the problem limited to that plant or is this a fairly common problem?

PITTMAN: It’s the only one that we’ve had with this specific problem. However, we have had problems cropping up elsewhere. A sister plant to this one, that was next to the Alafia river, the ponds overflowed into the Alafia river in 1997 and killed millions of fish, all up and down the river for miles. There are about 24 more gyp stacks around the state, and state legislators, and even phosphate industry executives, are worried. Because the industry is struggling right now and they’re concerned that if another company goes under, we could face yet another cleanup like this. And the money that’s being spent on cleaning up Piney Point, it’s draining the fund that’s there. The taxpayers may be on the hook for another multi-million dollar cleanup, and we may not have the money to deal with it.

CURWOOD: Craig Pittman is a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

PITTMAN: Happy to do it.

Related links:
- Tampa Bay Estuary Program
- St. Petersburg Times on the Piney Point fertilizer plant
- Recent update in St. Petersburg Times about rains and wastewater

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A Scourge of Starlings

CURWOOD: In all of William Shakespeare’s works, the starling is mentioned just once, in the play “Henry IV, Part One.” But that’s all it took to inspire a Shakespeare fan in the 1890’s to release a hundred of these European birds into New York’s Central Park. In a matter of decades, the birds’ shiny black descendants had spread coast to coast, eating crops and killing native birds along the way. Today, farmers, and even some bird lovers, are fighting back against this avian invader. John Ryan reports from Washington state.


RYAN: A few miles south of the Canadian border, Jason Vander Veen raises 700 cows on his farm in Washington’s Whatcom County. It’s one of the top dairy-producing counties in the nation and Vander Veen says starlings are the number one pest for the area’s dairy farmers.

VANDER VEEN: There’s times when there’ll be 3,000 of them flying around. It’ll just be a black cloud in the sky going around. Quite often in the wintertime, it’s usually the worst in the barns, and I wear a hooded sweatshirt just so I don’t get anything down the back of my neck.

RYAN: Vander Veen stands inside a concrete feed bunker big enough for a truck to drive into. Unlike many dairy farmers, Vander Veen covers his bunkers with tarps and tires to keep starlings out. But the aggressive birds still peck away at the mounds of dairy feed wherever they can.

VANDER VEEN: They like our corn. See, they’ll pick all these little kernels out of here, they’ll just go along and just go like that [SOUND OF GRAINS FALLING] and we’re just left with all the fiber to feed our cows.

RYAN: A flock of a thousand starlings can consume up to a ton of feed in a month and contaminate several more tons with their droppings. So farmers like Vander Veen have turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help. With partial funding from the county, the local farmers’ association has hired USDA’s Wildlife Services to trap the birds on the dairy and blueberry farms where they do the most damage.

Starling trap behind Jason Vander Veen’s dairy barn. (Photo: John Ryan)   


RYAN: Between Vander Veen’s feed bins and his dairy barn, Wildlife Services has placed a six-foot-tall chicken wire shed with a narrow slot in the roof.

VANDER VEEN: So here’s our starling trap. They drop straight down and they can’t fly straight up so they can’t get their wings out to fly back out of it. And then USDA comes and they put them in a five-gallon bucket. And then they gas up the CO2 in to gas them.

RYAN: According to Wildlife Services, it’s a quick, humane death. In Whatcom County, the agency kills about 50,000 starlings a year. Nationwide, it kills a million of the birds annually. That’s a lot of birds, but it’s a tiny fraction of the estimated population of more than 200 million European starlings in North America. Henry Bierlink of the Whatcom County Agriculture Preservation Committee administers the local starling-control program.

BIERLINK: I don’t think anybody likes killing birds. I think we’re getting over it when it comes to starlings.


RYAN: One place you’re not likely to hear starlings is the hundred acres of woods owned by Whatcom County physician and amateur naturalist Patricia Otto.


OTTO: That’s the female wood duck. She’s just right down on the water here.

RYAN: Near the edges of her woods, Otto has erected 30 wooden boxes on stilts. They’re nest boxes for wood ducks. Along with 20 other species in Washington state, wood ducks normally nest in tree cavities left behind by woodpeckers. But thanks to a century of logging, big old trees are hard to find, and starlings have invaded many of the tree cavities that remain.

OTTO: If a wood duck has laid a couple eggs in there, the starling will just start bringing nest material in - cover up those eggs, keep the wood duck out, and take over. They’re very aggressive.

RYAN: Starlings have evicted native birds from their nests in every state except Hawaii. On her property, Otto has trapped starlings in fake nest boxes for the past decade, and she’s seen the number of starlings in her woods steadily decline. She admits she does have mixed feelings about killing birds.

OTTO: I love birds, but it’s what I really have to do. In our county, historically, we had bluebirds and purple martins, and neither of those are here anymore since the invasion of starlings and English sparrows. And we could lose other cavity nesters if we don’t try and control our starlings.

RYAN: Even bird-loving organizations like the Washington Audubon Society tacitly approve of starling trapping since the starlings are such a threat to native birds. And sometimes, starlings threaten even the biggest birds.


RYAN: Starling Road runs along the west side of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It was named for the huge flocks of starlings that used to plague the airport. Port of Seattle biologist Steve Osmek spends most of his time trying to ensure that birds and airplanes don’t mix.

OSMEK: In the late 70s, we were looking at starling numbers of about 100,000. Today, in contrast, we have probably 5,000 birds. It’s the largest flock size that we’ll ever see.

RYAN: Last year, a 737 taking off from SeaTac crossed paths with a flock of a thousand starlings. The pilot had to make an emergency landing after 27 of the birds hit the plane and were sucked into the engines. Airport personnel call starlings, with their stubby wings and dense bodies, “feathered bullets.”

OSMEK: If they’re ingested into engines they can cause engine failures but, by and large, even if it startles the pilot, that’s not something that anybody wants.

RYAN: The airport hires Wildlife Services to trap about 4,000 starlings a year. But Osmek’s main focus is making the airport less inviting as bird habitat in the first place.

OSMEK: With the landscaping plan that we have today, we’re selecting trees that are less attractive. They don’t provide the fruits, nuts, and berries that some other trees may and may attract starlings, red-winged blackbirds, and other birds that could be hazardous to airport operations.

RYAN: When starlings do congregate near the runways, Osmek is forced to get out the heavy artillery.


RYAN: The airport uses a half-dozen different noisemakers, even recordings of starling distress calls. Osmek says the birds learn quickly to ignore particular noises, so variety is necessary to keep them guessing.


RYAN: But these widely despised European birds do have fans in high places.


Starling fan: peregrine falcon on a Seattle-area bridge. (Photo: John Ryan)

RYAN: Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group spirals his way up a narrow steel staircase high above a freeway bridge north of Seattle. He’s on his way to the concrete hideaway of a pair of peregrine falcons. When I first met Anderson at the bridge, he handed me a freshly decapitated starling head he had found in a falcon nest that morning. The biologist says he actually likes starlings.


ANDERSON: For years I thought starling were just vermin, but over the years I’ve really grown to appreciate them. They have a unique beauty. They’re just cool birds really.


RYAN: Once inside the nest, Anderson tags and takes blood samples from two newborn falcon chicks. He studies their diet from bones and feathers he finds lying around. The shrieking parents fly angry loops around the nest.

ANDERSON: She’s got a full crop. That means the mom has already fed her. You can see right here - this is probably starling right there. These are very well fed young peregrines.

RYAN: Anderson says starlings aren’t bad for all native birds. They provide a lot of the protein that’s helping peregrine falcons recover from near-extinction.

ANDERSON: Peregrines are noted for taking all kinds of bird species, but around here in the 30 pair or so we’re looking at in northwestern Washington, the prey items are mostly composed of starling, pigeon, robin, and cedar waxwing. But starlings is the number one. We find them in, literally, in every nest we go into is starlings, starlings, starlings.


RYAN: Like most biologists, Anderson believes there’s little hope of reducing starling populations on a large scale. But farmers, bird lovers, and even peregrine falcons continue to do what they can to take a bite out of America’s giant flocks of European starlings. For Living on Earth, I’m John Ryan in Seattle.

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Home Stretch

CURWOOD: With summer almost over and the prospect of another long, cold winter looming, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says all the creatures on his farm are contemplating hearth and home.

KLINKENBORG: I never think of wasps as particularly domestic creatures. They cause in me, and in most people, a swift revulsion—not only a fear of getting stung but of getting stung by an insect that looks so alien. But while I was fixing up the pig-house the other afternoon, I looked up and saw a pair of paper wasps delicately dabbing at the edges of a small nest hanging from a single stem under the pig-house eave. Something about their movements, embroidering their way around the circumference of cells, struck me as downright broody, a word we use up here to mean maternal. The wasps and I were at work on the same task, fixing up the place. And I've come to the conclusion that they're not as alien as humans think. According to one researcher, paper wasps recognize each other not only through chemical scent but through visual identification of facial patterns.

Nature seems to offer the same two lessons to humans over and over again. The first one is simply that no matter what form life takes, no matter how alien a creature appears at first, it turns out, in the end, to be very close genetic kin with fundamentally similar concerns as ours. The other lesson is best summed up by the scientist who studied the recognition behavior of paper wasps. “They are more sophisticated than we thought,” she concluded. That's always the conclusion. Someday, as a measure of our own sophistication, we'll conclude that all creatures are more sophisticated than we thought.

The stripes on the paper wasps happen to be the color of late summer. It’s a shade that in some lights is golden, in others almost orange, like mullein and asters and black-eyed susans. By early August the palette of blossoms has shifted to hotter colors, as if in their vividness they were reflecting the sun. Our own wishfulness makes these last few weeks of summer seem a perpetual season, when time almost pretends to stop.

A few weeks ago, the Queen-Anne's lace came into bloom out by the mailbox. It seemed as if those blossoms had always been there, but that's really just the memories of other summers filling in for the shortness of this one.

What’s made this summer different around here is the presence of a broody hen. The natural eagerness to sit on eggs has been bred out of most chickens, but we have one hen from an old breed—a Dorking—who will sit on anything even vaguely egg-shaped. Not quite three weeks ago, we set her on a clutch of eggs—an odd number for good luck. She has barely moved since then. Her comb has gone pale, and she's looking a little bloodshot around her beautiful amber eyes. When we stop by to check on her—waiting for that 21st day—she looks out at us with a certainty that we try to parse. To me, it looks as though she knows she's in the home stretch.

[MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields “I Shatter” 69 LOVE SONGS VOL. 2 (Merge - 2000)]

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.

[MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields “I Shatter” 69 LOVE SONGS VOL. 2 (Merge - 2000)]

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – Africa’s disturbing secret. The slaughter of apes for food is taking one of our closest living relatives to the brink of extinction.

PETERSON: You know this is the biggest conservation crisis in central Africa. Everybody knows about it and nobody’s been talking about it. And there was this amazing conservation news blackout on the subject.

CURWOOD: It’s “Eating Apes,” next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[Chris Watson “Mozambique Nightjar Singing In Sandy Scrub On Banks Of Zambezi, Zimbabwe” OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE OF FIRE (Touch – 1998)]


CURWOOD: We leave you this week on the banks of the river Zambezi in Zimbabwe. That’s where Chris Watson zeroed in on a single nightjar singing in the sandy scrub.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes: Carly Ferguson, Elizabeth Kline, Liz Lempert, Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, James Curwood and Tom Simon. Al Avery runs our website. Our interns are Rebecca Griffin, Wynne Parry, and Kathy Lutz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.

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