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

November 21, 2003

Air Date: November 21, 2003


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Reigning in Mercury / Jeff Young

(stream / mp3)

A deadline is approaching for a federal rule forcing power plants to cut mercury pollution. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on concerns that the new regulation will be too little, too late. (05:50)

Florida Mercury Levels Down

(stream / mp3)

Mercury levels in Florida Everglades wildlife have dropped more than 75% the last decade. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Tom Atkeson, mercury coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about the state’s successful effort to reduce mercury emissions from incinerators. (05:00)

Emerging Science Note/Solid Acid Fuel Cells / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on a new, more efficient fuel cell. (01:20)


(stream / mp3)

This week, we have facts about a Listerine ad campaign on halitosis. Eighty years ago, a magazine spread about bad breath gave rise to the saying: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. (02:30)

The Cost of Free Trade / Ingrid Lobet

(stream / mp3)

The global economy is now closely woven into the American economy and along the most heavily-traveled trade routes, the ones that link the partners of the free trade system, there’s a health consequence that is just beginning to get noticed. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on one such community. (07:30)

Aging Ships

(stream / mp3)

A fleet of aging U.S. warships is headed for the small port town of Hartlepool, England to be dismantled. Residents there are concerned these ships may leak oil, PCBs, asbestos and other wastes into their harbor if their planned dismantling goes ahead. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Geoff Lilly, a Hartlepool native, about how the ghost ships could change his community. (04:00)

Farewell to a Drake / Verlyn Klinkenborg

(stream / mp3)

A death on the farm that belongs to commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg gets him thinking about the transience of the seasons and life. (03:00)

Environmental Health Note/Benefits of Vitamin C / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new study that shows a smoker's risk of stroke can be drastically reduced by eating foods high in vitamin c (01:20)

Recycling Trees / Cynthia Graber

(stream / mp3)

When most urban and suburban trees around the country fall or are cut down, they end up in the dump. One man in New Jersey came up with a plan to rescue these trees and turn them into “value-added” products. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports. (07:50)

Roaming the Ruins / Bruce Gellerman

(stream / mp3)

Our guest host Bruce Gellerman was in Athens, Greece recently where he learned that efforts to rid the city of its huge stray dog population before the coming Olympic games may have taken a sinister turn. (04:30)

A Gap in Nature / Tim Flannery

(stream / mp3)

In the latest installment in our occasional series “A Gap in Nature,” author Tim Flannery tells us the story of the Great Auk, a stately bird of the North Atlantic that was exterminated by humans by the 1800’s. (03:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce GellermanGUESTS: Tom Atkeson, Geoff LillyREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ingrid Lobet, Cynthia Graber, Bruce GellermanCOMMENTARY: Verlyn KlinkenborgNOTES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey


GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Coming up: pollution from trucks hauling products of the global economy add to the real cost of free trade.

ESTRADA: The nation depends on the people of the city of Commerce to sacrifice their lungs so Wal-Mart can sell Pocohantas pajamas in Nevada for $11.96.

GELLERMAN: And gearing up for the Summer Olympics. Athens, Greece tries to curb the city’s huge stray dog population but someone is going way too far.

STELAS: A great number of stray dogs were found poisoned. We don’t know who was responsible. We never found anyone. Some say this is the neighborhood, the bad neighborhood, the bad restaurant. Some other people believe it was the municipalities. But we can’t prove anything. And we’re not certain exactly what happened.

GELLERMAN: Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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

Back to top


Reigning in Mercury

GELLERMAN: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon release a proposal to cut emissions of mercury from power plants. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can harm the human nervous system. It’s especially dangerous to the developing brain of a fetus. Forty-five states now have mercury advisories warning against eating some types of fish contaminated with mercury. But, as Jeff Young reports from Washington, environmental groups, and some members of Congress, worry that the new federal mercury limits will be too little, too late.

YOUNG: The federal government cracked down on mercury pollution from medical waste and city trash incinerators in the 1990s but ignored one notable source: coal-fired power plants. Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington thought that was an odd omission. NRDC’s John Walke says those power plants are the country’s biggest source of mercury, pumping out 48 tons a year.

WALKE: Coal-fired power plants got a special deal in the 1990 Clean Air Act and then, subsequently, EPA dragged its feet until finally a lawsuit by my organization, NRDC, forced EPA to study mercury from power plants and to admit that the problem was enormous and demanded cleanup under this program by 2004.

YOUNG: Walke’s group won a court settlement forcing the EPA to issue standards for mercury emissions control. Walke says these so called MACT – maximum available control technology – standards usually result in dramatic cuts by giving polluters a deadline to find and use pollution reduction technology. He thinks a mercury MACT should call for cuts of 90 percent or more. But that’s not what he expects the EPA to call for next month.

WALKE: I expect EPA to issue a rule proposal that will contain a range of options. And there are some already disturbing signs that the Bush administration is contemplating a rule that would reduce less than 50 percent of mercury from the coal-fired power sector.

YOUNG: Walke says the lower target would violate the Clean Air Act. But that law is viewed quite differently just a few blocks away on Washington’s K Street. That’s where Scott Segal directs the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council from his office in the lobbying firm Bracewell and Patterson. Segal says the Clean Air Act gives EPA flexibility on mercury cuts. He thinks the agency should only set limits power plants can meet with technology that’s already in place.

SEGAL: They ought to be set, in their first phase at least, at the levels we are likely to achieve through reductions already underway for sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. That way we won’t have a compounded regulatory impact that would not only be economically inefficient but also could cause so much switching to other fuels like natural gas that it would have a terrible impact on the poor.

YOUNG: Segal says switching from coal to natural gas could force that limited heating fuel to even higher prices. And he says EPA should give companies more time to make mercury cuts.

SEGAL: We have to be cognizant that we have limited engineering resources, limited access to capital, and overlapping regulatory burdens. All those need to be taken into account when we make sure that a deadline doesn’t come too soon.

YOUNG: A memo to EPA from another lobbyist warns that a strict deadline for mercury cuts could cause power outages. But others familiar with technology for controlling mercury say blackouts and fuel switching are unlikely and that cutting mercury is easier than the energy lobbyists say. Ken Colburn directs NESCAUM, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a group with three decades of experience on air quality issues. Colburn’s recent study of pollution controls found mercury cuts of 90 percent or more are possible at relatively low cost.

COLBURN: Something on order of 20 dollars a year would be the cost. I think most of us would agree that removing mercury and its risks to between 60 thousand and 300 thousand births a year would be reasonably cheap at that price.

YOUNG: That’s the number of children born each year that health experts estimate are at risk from mercury exposure. Colburn found more than a dozen promising technologies for reducing mercury waiting in the wings. He says strong action from EPA could be the incentive that would bring those new technologies to market.

COLBURN: I guess the point is that this is a really technology-fertile area at this point. And the showstopper for those technologies will be if EPA does not go ahead with an aggressive mercury MACT rule and instead just lets things be pretty much business as usual or only marginal reductions technologies don’t develop and come to market for the fun of it. They come to meet a market need without EPA adopting a firm mercury MACT rule those technologies will not come out.

YOUNG: The EPA declined to comment for this story. But earlier statements from the agency indicate it is leaning toward a mercury rule that delays implementation for years. That could mean no meaningful control on mercury emissions from power plants before the year 2009. That met with outrage on the Senate floor from Vermont’s Independent Jim Jeffords.

JEFFORDS: What is surprising is that anyone who has children would consider such a delay.

YOUNG: Jeffords drafted a letter to EPA signed by 12 Republican and Democratic Senators urging a strong mercury rule. EPA’s proposal is due by December 15th. The agency expects tens of thousands of cards and calls during the public comment period that will follow. A final rule will come before the end of next year. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- Mercury Falling Reports
- Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management
- U.S. Senate Letter on MACT standards [PDF file]">

Back to top


Florida Mercury Levels Down

GELLERMAN: There is some positive news about mercury pollution, and residents of south Florida and the Everglades can breathe a bit easier. But only a little bit easier. According to a new state report, the amount of mercury in fish and wildlife in the region is down dramatically. Tom Atkeson is the mercury coordinator with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. Dr. Atkeson, thank you for joining us.

ATKESON: It’s my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Atkeson, how dramatically are the mercury levels down in South Florida?

ATKESON: Mercury in wading birds and fish from the Everglades are down between 75 and 80 percent over the last 10 or 15 years since we began monitoring. And we’re very pleased to have seen that.

GELLERMAN: Why are they going down?

ATKESON: Well, earlier in the 90s, DEP took some progressive steps to try to control the emissions of mercury from some of the local industries in southern Florida, which we understand now tended to have more of a local effect then was thought at the time.

GELLERMAN: And DEP is the Department of Environmental Protection?

ATKESON: Correct. And so there have been dramatic reductions in the uses of mercury in commercial and industrial processes. And there have been substantial declines in mercury emissions from incinerators and other sources in south Florida, which have significantly reduced the deposition of mercury from the atmosphere into the Everglades itself.

GELLERMAN: So, the mercury kind of comes through these smokestacks, goes in the air, and then kind of falls down. The birds eat it, and then it winds up in them.

ATKESON: It falls into the Everglades, and it quickly partitions to the organic matter in the water, to the emergent vegetation, and into the sediments. But then it takes a while to make its way through the process of transformation to methyl mercury, and then accumulation up the food web. And it’s really that that poses risks to humans and wildlife in the Everglades.

(Courtesy of USGS)

GELLERMAN: So, how do you test these fish and these fowl? Do you actually have to kill them to get a sample?

ATKESON: The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission has the fisheries, biologists and the equipment, and they do all the sampling to determine the levels of mercury each year from a number of places throughout the Everglades. And the birds are a lot easier because there are biologists that go into the nesting colonies in the spring when the birds are fledging their young. And they’re there to check for things like nesting success and the health of the colony. And while they’re there handling and measuring some of the chicks, they can just pull a couple of the new feathers. And that’s all we need to assay the body burden of mercury in those young egrets.

GELLERMAN: And so the level in the egrets has gone down how much?

ATKESON: About 80 percent.

GELLERMAN: That’s pretty dramatic.

ATKESON: It is pretty dramatic, and it’s happened much more quickly than we ever dared hope.

GELLERMAN: What had you expected?

ATKESON: Well, there was some research done in Sweden a couple of decades ago that was the best in the world prior to the late 80s, early 90s, when more work began in North America. But at one time it was thought that it might take even centuries, perhaps, if you effected a control policy before you would see the benefits of that in lowered levels in fish and wildlife. So it turns out that the Everglades responds much more rapidly than we dared hope. But also some of the good news is that we’re generally seeing declining mercury levels in many lakes in eastern North America.

GELLERMAN: You know, Dr. Atkeson, the industry group Edison Electric Institute estimates that 40 to 70 percent of the mercury comes from beyond our borders, that it’s blown here by the winds. So, by cleaning it up locally, are we actually getting rid of a problem?

ATKESON: I mean, there is a global cycle of mercury. I think that’s well documented, although a lot of the details about that global pool of mercury that washes around the Earth is poorly understood. But clearly, it influences, particularly in the northern hemisphere, everywhere to some degree all the time. But it doesn’t necessarily dominate the flux in most parts of the country. And so, even though it’s there and ever-present, in areas where there are significant local emissions those can outweigh the influence of this long-distance transport into our state or some other region for that matter.

GELLERMAN: So, what is the lesson that we can learn from the south Florida experience?

ATKESON: The south Florida experience shows that if you can effectively control the mercury emissions in your airshed you will see deposition reductions in your same local area, say within a hundred kilometers of the source region. And you’ll see it fairly fast, that you’ll see the effects of that show up in declining levels of fish and wildlife within a period of a few years to maybe, at the extreme, 20 to 25 years. And so it’s a problem that can be addressed, at least to some degree, and the results will be evident in a reasonable period of time.

GELLERMAN: Tom Atkeson is mercury coordinator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Dr. Atkeson, thank you very much.

ATKESON: And, thank you.


Related link:
Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection

Back to top


Emerging Science Note/Solid Acid Fuel Cells

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: the health costs when free trade comes trucking through your neighborhood. And, details on how to win an African safari for two. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Hydrogen fuel cells offer the promise of nearly pollution free driving. But in today’s demonstration vehicles, fuel cells require water to move a charge, or ions, across a membrane to create energy. And there are some problems with that system. It can only operate in a temperature range from about 75 to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. These relatively low temperatures mean that the engineers need to design large radiators which lead to heavier cars and a less efficient system. On top of that, designers have to worry about how to deal with the water that builds up on one side of the membrane and is depleted on the other.

Now, some scientists at CalTech believe they have an answer. They are developing a membrane made of solid acids that allow ions to flow across it without using water. This means a more efficient fuel cell,and allows engineers to build smaller, lighter systems. One added benefit is that in these solid fuel cells, methanol could be used for a fuel instead of hydrogen.

Methanol is an alcohol fuel easily made from renewable resources. It would also be easier to pump and store than hydrogen. The researchers recently built these solid acid fuel cell prototypes and successfully ran them on both hydrogen and on methanol for dozens of hours.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Cynthia Graber.

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


Back to top



GELLERMAN: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: And now, the sad story of the gal who was always the bridesmaid, never a bride.

DE LA PENA: She's beautiful and she's talented but she can't figure out why the thing that most every girl wants isn't happening for her, and that's marriage.

GELLERMAN: “Woe is the woman who doesn’t gargle with Listerine,” says Carolyn de la Pena, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of California-Davis. At least that was the message in a 1932 magazine ad for the mouthwash that revolutionized the industry.

DE LA PENA: There’s a woman. She looks about 20 and she’s peering questioningly into her mirror. There's simply something people won't tell you, and that's the insidious thing of halitosis. And if you don't have the right product – in this case Listerine – then you're going to find yourself at that moment that makes or breaks a young woman's life and it's not going to go well for you.

GELLERMAN: De la Pena says 80 years ago, the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company hit upon its winning concept. Tell stories of people with social problems – people who can't hold jobs or find mates – because they suffer the horrors of halitosis. She says before the 1920’s, ads were positive and upbeat, focusing on how well a product worked or the good name of the manufacturer. But the Listerine bad breath campaign broke new ground because it was the first to play on social fears.

DE LA PENA: By the 1920s, you have people living in these urban environments, the growth of large corporations and the rise of early suburbs, and people finding themselves in spaces where they're tremendously insecure and unaware of the proper social codes.

They talk about halitosis. They create this term, which was a term that was from old medical dictionaries that was not in use. They're actually constructing what good breath is by telling you that your breath should smell like medicine. And two people next to you at the office now smell like medicine and you don't, so get modern.

When I look at things like Listerine pocket packs now I see something that's very similar. It's a way of feeling in control by having a way you're allowed to present your best self to everyone even on a minute's notice. Right? We can sit down with the boss after a big pasta dish and we can still feel like everything's going to go my way because I'm not giving off anything that says “hey, I'm not in control.”

GELLERMAN: The 1920s Listerine campaign worked so well that profits of the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company increased 40 fold in just seven years. Talk about the sweet smell of success. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.


Back to top


The Cost of Free Trade

GELLERMAN: Politicians have been trying to sell free trade for more than a decade now. Back in 1993, that U.S. President Bill Clinton pitched the idea as a rising tide that would lift all boats.

CLINTON: The truth of our age is this and must be this: open and competitive commerce will enrich us as a nation. It spurs us to innovate. It forces us to compete. It connects us with new customers. It promotes global growth without which no rich country can hope to grow wealthier. And so I say to you, in the face of all the pressures to do the reverse, we must compete, not retreat.

GELLERMAN: Ten years later, the global economy is still part and parcel of the U.S. economy, even though the details of free trade are still being debated by trade officials and politicians. But nothing in life is really free. Those who live along the transportation routes that link the global economy are paying a high price in terms of their health. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: Commerce, California is an old factory town in East L.A. wedged between two major freeways. Gilbert Estrada and Angelo Logan grew up here and learned early how to gauge the age of 18-wheelers and locomotives. Truck cabs and smokestacks defined their landscape. And when he was young, Estrada says he benefited from the taxes industry paid to City Hall.

ESTRADA: The city of Commerce was able to fund a swim team that I was on, water polo teams, traveling throughout America, all paid for. I remember my time as a happy time. It’s only when I got older that I realized I really paid for that through my lungs and my friends who have passed away. I really felt betrayed.

LOBET: Three years ago, officials in southern California shook up Commerce and long time residents like Estrada when they published a report on air quality and cancer in the region. On a map, purple blots covered the area around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and several nearby cities, including Commerce. If you were one of the 80-thousand people living under the blots you had an increased risk of developing cancer from the particulate and soot created by diesel engines.

LOGAN: In this neighborhood we have seen the increase in trucks triple in the last few years.

LOBET: Angelo Logan says thirty-five thousand trucks pass through Commerce each day. And that number is expected to triple over the next 20 years, according to transportation officials. Logan says to get a sense of it, just pull into traffic.


LOGAN: This is the landscape I grew up around.


LOGAN: There’s a hamburger stand that used to have a patio area and now it’s enclosed because of all the black soot they find on the tables.

LOBET: In Commerce, Logan and Estrada can smell how the nation’s economy has shifted. The emissions from abandoned battery plants and metal shops that once dotted the neighborhood have been replaced by a heavy concentration of diesel exhaust. Commerce has gone from an industrial center to a transportation hub for goods – mostly from China – that arrive via the ports at Long Beach and L.A. destined for anywhere USA.

LOGAN: What happens is you see the trucks really ripping down the street, making these turns, everything about how they are trying to get from point A to point B as fast as they can is because – you know, like Domino’s Pizza – you have to make that delivery in a certain time and if you don’t, you’re not making a as much money as you need to be.

LOBET: Logan and Estrada say they understand the pressure to make a living and they know that many independent truckers these days are immigrants who can’t afford the new, cleaner-burning trucks. But recent studies linking diesel exhaust to asthma tell them the cost of free trade is not being evenly distributed.

ESTRADA: I think it would be fair to say that the nation depends on the people of Commerce to sacrifice their lungs so that carton can come from China to the port and we switched off in Commerce’s backyard. So Wal-Mart can sell Pocohontas pajamas in Nevada for $11.96. For a pair of pajamas.

LOBET: Estrada, Logan and their group East Yard Communities lack funding and, until recently, even an office from which to launch their protest. But together with other grassroots groups along LA’s transit corridor they’ve been able to hold off a proposed doubling of a major freeway. It was an effort that surprised L.A.’s mainstream environmental groups, according to Todd Campbell of the Coalition for Clean Air.

CAMPBELL: Many of these individuals are working out of their cars. So for these ragtag – pardon the expression – these ragtag groups that don’t have a lot of financials behind them, to stop the double decking of the 710 freeway, even temporarily, is a tremendous victory and I think a lot of people are taking it as that as well.

LOBET: The work of these environmental justice groups comes as evidence mounts that growing trade has an environmental side effect that’s more heavily felt in some places than others. Last week, the NAFTA-created Commission on Environmental Cooperation issued a report showing thousands of children in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border are being hospitalized for air pollution-related illness. It cited increased international truck traffic as a likely source. I reached the commission’s air quality program coordinator Paul Miller at his office in Montreal.

MILLER: I think it’s fair to conclude that anyone living near a major corridor where there are a lot of idling trucks waiting to cross the border are at increased risk because of their proximity and the known health effects of things like diesel exhaust. So that kind of finding does give one pause for concern about similar trade corridors throughout North America.

LOBET: Miller says residents are agitating about diesel pollution in several heavily traversed cities in Texas, as well as in Windsor, the Canadian city that sits across the border from Detroit. In response, some localities are requiring cleaner burning diesel fuel. New technologies may help reduce the need for truck and train idling, and a new locomotive with batteries could replace the dirtiest engine used in rail yards.


LOBET: Angelo Logan stands at a railyard fence in Commerce. He says he hopes more people will come to see cargo containers the way his community does – not just as the economy on wheels, but a civil rights issue, too.

LOGAN: Large groups of people are starting to show concern around this. It’s a slow movement but I think the people are coming around. Before you know it, people will be saying “wow, what were we thinking?”

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Commerce, California.



Back to top


Aging Ships

GELLERMAN: Unlike old soldiers, old warships don’t just fade away. They have to be dismantled. Recently, four decommissioned U.S. Navy ships set sail from Virginia to England on what Pentagon officials had hoped would be their final voyage. The ships were supposed to be scrapped at the English port of Hartlepool. But environmental groups there say the old ships pose a threat to the town and the courts have put the plan on hold.

Geoff Lilly joins me from Hartlepool. He’s a life-long resident, retired local councilor and bus driver. Hello Mr. Lilly.

LILLY: Hello.

GELLERMAN: I understand that you were in Hartlepool Harbor for the first of two of thirteen U.S. ships that was supposed to be dismantled there.

LILLY: Well, hopefully the first of four that will have come to Hartlepool and be returned, but yes, I was on the end of the pier. And I gave them, along with a number of other people, a very loud reception. We want them to go back.

GELLERMAN: Well, why do you want them going back?

LILLY: Well, first of all, you’ve got to understand where Hartlepool’s coming from. Thirty years ago we were a heavily industrialized town, and we’ve had the legacy of heavy industry over the years. Over the last five, ten, 15 years we’ve seen over 300 million pounds spent on the renaissance of our town, and we feel as if that’s something we should be leaving behind, the heavy industrial side of things. But also, the toxic waste on these ships will be buried in a toxic waste pit called St. Meadows which is less than a kilometer away from some very nice housing. That’s not on from where we’re coming from. And also, you know, America under Bill Clinton signed certain protocols to ensure that toxic waste such as this wasn’t exported, and we’re very concerned that precedents are being set in the making of these exemptions to the rule.

GELLERMAN: But I understand that government officials and officials from the company that’s going to do the dismantling say that the ships pose no environmental problem.

LILLY: Well, it’s interesting that you should say that, Bruce, because I’ve just been reading some reports to your Senate in relation to the state of the ships. And in America you seem to be saying that these ships are a threat to the estuarial habitat of the James River, which is a similar habitat to the one they’re being put in now. So, if they’re a risk to the environment in America, they’re just as great a risk to the environment in Hartlepool.

GELLERMAN: Now, the James River is the place in Virginia where the ships came from.

LILLY: That’s correct. You know, if these ships were coming the other way across the pond, Senators like John Davies, who’s been very vocal in being glad to see the back of them, would be, well, I’d imagine that they’d be declaring war.

GELLERMAN: You mean if they were coming to James River instead of the other way around?

LILLY: Oh, yeah. You know, if the boot was on the other foot, as they say. ..

GELLERMAN: Well, President Bush crossed the pond this week. He was in Britain. If you had the opportunity, what would you say to him?

LILLY: Oh, I would ask him to take his ships home with him.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Lilly, earlier in the interview I heard a dog. Is that an English Yorkshire terrier?

LILLY: No, I’ve got three dogs. I’ve got two black Scottish terriers, the same as George W., and I’ve got a miniature dachshund called Henry. His proper name’s Heinrich, but we prefer Henry [LAUGHTER].

GELLERMAN: Well, you have something in common with George Bush, then.

LILLY: Only one thing, really.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Lilly, it was a real pleasure.

LILLY: And a pleasure talking to you. God bless you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Take care.

LILLY: Cheery-bye.

GELLERMAN: Geoff Lilly is a life-long resident of the port city of Hartlepool, England. 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 Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. 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.

Back to top


Farewell to a Drake

GELLERMAN: “We are such stuff that dreams are made on…” wrote Shakespeare about the transient nature of life. For commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg, the death of an animal on his farm recalls the rest of the quote, that “our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

KLINKENBORG: One of the Saxony drakes in our flock died last Sunday, on a bright fall afternoon. Why he died, I don’t know. Not a feather had been ruffled. No blood or broken bones or signs of distress. The only thing unusual was death itself which always lies invisible, on the other side of each of the creatures on our small farm, and of us, too, of course.

The ducks have never liked being picked up, not even when they were a day old and living under warm lights in the basement this spring. They have a sense of personal autonomy and flock coherence that is much stronger than it is in chickens, who are wily individuals in comparison. So I took the opportunity to hold the Saxony under one arm and look him over closely. It made me think of the days, long ago, when being a serious ornithologist also meant being a good shot.

I opened the webs on the Saxony’s feet which had relaxed in death – as if on the fore-stroke while paddling – and ran my fingers over his covert feathers and through his deep down. I could see the horn-like reinforcement on the prow of his bill, called the bean, and the fringing inside the back of the bill that allowed him to filter water through. I could feel the sudden, mournful density of his weight. His massive bluff gray head and neck had lost its arch in death, but some strange new dignity had come to him, too. The inherent comedy of his everyday manner – the way he waddled around his keel, his depth of body – had been replaced by the staggering intricacy and beauty of his feathering seen up close.

We often think of stone as the great revealer of time, the preserver of geological patterns and fossils that teach us how ancient this world really is. But even something as ephemeral as the finger-thick down on this drake’s belly, and the feel of thick fat beneath it, seemed utterly suffused with time, the evolutionary time needed to create them. In our lives, we make steady, categorical distinctions between the present moment and the past, as if the two could never meet. And yet, the beautiful brown cape on this Saxony’s shoulders, each feather tipped with a band of white, carried the deep past of evolution directly into the present, where I stood with the drake under my arm, watching the leaves whirl away from summer into fall, while the rest of the flock grazed nearby as if this were just another good day to be a duck.

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


Back to top


Environmental Health Note/Benefits of Vitamin C

GELLERMAN: Coming up: when a tree falls in the city, will it turn it into a chair? Have a seat. We meet the tree saver of New Jersey, but first this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Studies show that eating a diet high in fruits may reduce the risk of stroke, the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The antioxidants contained in fruit, such as vitamin C, may be responsible for that protective effect. Now, a study out of the Netherlands lends weight to the potential benefits of vitamin C.

Researchers there followed more than five thousand people over age 55 for about six and half years. The study subjects kept logs of both their diets and any vitamins or other supplements they took. The researchers found people who ate the highest amount of vitamin C – more than 133 mg each day, were 30 percent less likely to have a stroke compared to people who consumed the lowest amount of vitamin C - less than 95 mg.

This protective effect was even greater for smokers. Smokers with diets high in vitamin C were more than 70 percent less likely to have a stroke than smokers who consumed small amounts. The study also found that taking antioxidant supplements didn’t seem to protect against stroke at all. But, they add, this doesn't mean supplements aren't effective. That's because the people who took supplements may have been at greater risk for a stroke to begin with. And taking supplements is also generally a short-term habit as opposed to a daily, healthy diet.

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

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


Back to top


Recycling Trees

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, and coming up: a dog problem of Olympic proportions. But first, New Jersey poet Joyce Kilmer penned what some consider the worst poem ever written. It begins: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Well, despite the overwrought hyperbole, trees are lifesavers, providing clean air, helping retain the soil, and shade. And for another New Jersey resident, when a tree dies it’s just the beginning of its usefulness. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.


WARMBOLD: I’m looking at some great ash out of this log.

GRABER: Donald “Stubby” Warmbold stares up about thirty feet, where a young wood-cutter dangles from a tree, chainsaw in hand. A pale yellow arc of wood dust floats behind the worker as he slices into the three-foot wide trunk. In many places around the country, the wood from a tree such as this would get dumped into a landfill. But six-foot tall Stubby Warmbold has different plans for this ash tree.

WARMBOLD: There's no center rot, I mean, the only reason it's coming down – it's a perfectly healthy tree – they're widening the driveway. But it's a good log. It's a money log [LAUGHTER].

GRABER: A money log, as Warmbold calls it, is a tree he takes off the hands of tree removal services and gives a new life. Warmbold runs Citilog, a company dedicated to saving urban trees from the dump. He says there’s no shortage of uses for recycled wood.


WARMBOLD: We'll make furniture out of this, railway ties, pallets, depending on what the grade is, if there's rot, flooring...

GRABER: Working with trees is nothing new to Stubby Warmbold. He worked in timber years ago in Canada, and then in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. When the move to save the endangered spotted owl and reduce logging put him out of business, Warmbold starting looking for work closer to home in New Jersey. A friend who ran a tree removal company wanted to avoid the disposal fee at the landfill, so he asked if Warmbold could use trees he had cut down. This gave Warmbold the idea for his next venture.

WARMBOLD: I just looked at all these logs - there’s a lot of logs here. It just – it just came upon me. I wasn’t a rocket scientist. I just looked at a log and I realized the potential of the log.

Trees coming down to make room for a driveway in Summit, New Jersey. (Photo: Cynthia Graber)

GRABER: Warmbold knew that that the variety of sizes of these trees and the distance from traditional large lumber or paper mills make them unattractive to big lumber companies. But he also knew that he could do something with the logs. So he offered to take the wood off his friend’s hands. Warmbold grabbed a phone book to look up the number of a local mill. The number he called was actually a phone booth in Amish country in nearby Pennsylvania.

WARMBOLD: I called them up. I didn't even know it was an Amishman, I’d never spoken to an Amishman before. And it was a sawmill. I called him up, he says “yeah, well, I'm a little too big for that,” and he mentions Samuel Peachy.

GRABER: Samuel Peachy is an 80-year-old Amish mill-owner who’s been milling wood for decades. Not only did he take Warmbold’s wood, but he also introduced him to local craftsmen who now make wood products that Citilogs sells. Warmbold didn’t realize it at the time but the Amish turned out to be a perfect fit for his business.

WARMBOLD: So when I come to them I give them work, and it's good work and it's work that they like. And for me, it gives me manufacturing capabilities without having to have a plant. I have huge manufacturing capabilities. We can expand our production, we can reduce our production, because they're all independent contractors.

GRABER: In the normal life of a city tree, metal and ceramic may become embedded in the trunk. Larger mills worry that these impurities might destroy their equipment. But the Amish back-to-basics, small-scale approach allows them to avoid this common problem. And while some municipalities have programs to mulch trees or chop them for firewood to keep them out of landfills, Warmbold thinks his model of making high-value products out of these old logs is a much better use of beautiful hardwood.


GRABER: It’s early morning, and Warmbold gets into his white Ford pick-up to begin the day’s drive.

WARMBOLD: I live in this thing [LAUGHTER]. I live in it – sleep in the back, drive all day.

GRABER: Today, he’s heading two hours west into the rural Pennsylvania Juniata county. A heavy mist has settled around the dark green mountains. The pick-up, which runs partly off biodiesel, seems to know how to navigate these narrow lanes almost on its own.

Warmbold’s collaboration with the Amish has been so successful that they recently opened a new production facility to process the recovered wood.


WARMBOLD: And it's a brand new shop and it's about a week old. And we're just breaking it in. We have all the tools necessary for a modern cabinet making shop, from plane carriers to edge sanders to belt sanders to panel saws to hand tools, all the hand tools.

Stubby Warmbold at his log yard. (Photo: Cynthia Graber)
GRABER: Six or seven men, all wearing blue shirts, most with a black hat and a beard, work today in the cavernous building. The Amish prefer that their voices not be recorded but one of the carpenters says off-mic that he appreciates that Warmbold plays the middleman between them and the customers. He says he’d rather be in the shop working with the wood. And he’s excited that they have enough work to open the new building.

At least for now, there’s no shortage of unwanted wood. Ed Limpicky is chief forester of the state of New Jersey. He’s helped Warmbold get his business up and running. Limpicky says according to the last estimate, taken in the early 90s, there are tens of millions of board feet of lumber, of trees, dying today in urban and suburban areas of New Jersey. This amounts to about 250 tractor-trailer loads of logs.

LIMPICKY: By way of perspective, all the saw mills that exist in the state of New Jersey back then consumed about 12 million board feet of material. More than three times all the consumption of the saw mills were, in fact, standing dead and dying in our city streets and towns. And New Jersey is not special that way either.

GRABER: All around the country, cities and towns are dealing with the same issue. Ned Daly is vice president of operations at the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization that certifies sustainably harvested wood. Daly says that big mills haven’t needed to take advantage of urban trees, because they’ve been getting cheap wood in large quantities from private forests or public lands, often subsidized by the government. But, he says, this might be changing.

DALY: If you do have a lot of wood coming off lands coming off close to the mill, then you can build a large mill and run wood through it very efficiently. But there is a problem right now where there’s fewer and fewer trees, both because of overcutting, and regulation, and the bigger mills are starting to close down or run less efficiently.

GRABER: So in the future, smaller operations such as Warmbold’s may become a more financially feasible model.


GRABER: In Pennsylvania, an Amish buggy passes by Warmbold’s truck as he continues his drive – past the small mill that processes his wood, and over to visit a few more woodworkers before heading home. Warmbold says he’s always loved working with timber, and now he sees his work as contributing something important.

WARMBOLD: It's part of our belief, just we look at the wood that we work with, and what we recover, it's just, we've all got to be better stewards of the world. And, it's just a sin to waste.

GRABER: Warmbold’s approach – using small local mills and woodworkers, keeping jobs in the community and adding value to the logs – may soon be spreading. He’s been contacted by officials in a number of cities, as well as by the federal government, to help them adopt a similar model to the one he’s developed. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.


Related link:

Back to top


Roaming the Ruins


GELLERMAN: The traffic in Athens, Greece is awful. Forty percent of Greeks live in the capital city and there are just too many cars, scooters, trucks and motorcycles. The smog was the worst in Europe. But things are improving as Athens gears up to host next summer’s Olympics when a million tourists are expected to visit the country where the games started 27 hundred years ago.

There is a new subway system, an ultra-modern tramway and a six-lane beltway diverting traffic from the center of the city. But one problem remains on the streets of Athens as old as the Parthenon itself: dogs. All through history, Athens has literally gone to the dogs. They’re everywhere. Lianna Alexandri, director of the Hellenic Animal Welfare Society says packs of dogs roam the city’s ruins, restaurants, and roadways.

ALEXANDRI: I have heard tourists that come in Greece and many of them find stray dogs in Athens happy, or in Greece. But, of course, there are too many, they are not happy. They’re sick. They are badly treated. I think we cannot say we are very happy with the situation.

GELLERMAN: It’s estimated there are a half a million strays in Greece, 15 thousand strays in Athens alone. So while Athens mayor Dora Bakoyianni spends most of her time these days working on preparing the city for the Summer Olympics, her job includes the Herculean task of curbing the city’s population of abandoned dogs before the games begin. Recently, the mayor held an adopt-a-dog day at City Hall.

(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

BAKOYIANNI: People believe dogs are dolls so they buy them for the child and then they realize that it’s too much work and leave them stray. So there is new legislation now, if you buy a dog now it has an identity so we know after a while who was this wonderful parent who left it in the street.

GELLERMAN: Greek dog owners will now have to have microchip id tags imbedded under their pet’s skin. Those abandoning their dogs would face fines of a thousand euros. The new law also requires municipalities must round up strays and bring them to a shelter.


A stray sheltered by the Hellenic Animal Welfare Society.(Photo: Bruce Gellerman)   

ALEXANDRI: These are the kennels for stray dogs.

GELLERMAN: At the Hellenic Animal Welfare Society’s shelter near Athens’ new international airport, there are a few cats and hundreds of dogs. Many are mutts, some have pedigrees says Society Director Lianna Alexandri.

ALEXANDRI: There are all stray dogs and three are cats. We collect these dogs from the streets, from the roads. Almost before they come here, they’re dead. Some of them are really skeletons. They walk like skeletons, you see, because if they’re outside. You see, it’s a tremendous problem.

GELLERMAN: Now, by law, stray dogs are captured, nursed back to health, neutered and returned to the streets they came from. Euthanizing healthy animals is forbidden in Greece, but over the past year, mysteriously, three thousand dogs have been found murdered on the streets of Athens.

STELAS: A great number of stray dogs were found poisoned. We don’t know who was responsible, we never found anyone. Some people say this is the neighborhood, the bad neighborhood, the bad restaurant. Some other people believe it was the municipalities. But we can’t prove anything, and we’re not certain exactly what happened.


GELLERMAN: Vasilios Stelas, Greece’s general administrator for animal welfare, denies the government had anything to do with the poisonings and doesn’t know who did. But looking forward, he says, what really is needed is a change in attitude among Greeks to make them more responsible dog owners. The Greek Olympic Committee had its own attitude toward strays change. Originally, when the Hellenic Animal Welfare Society asked the committee to cooperate with their abandoned dog program, they refused. But then, last summer, strays overran the venues for the Olympic test events preventing Athens from competing. The Olympic Committee called in the welfare society which captured 62 stray dogs, neutered them, and placed them in a shelter until the test events were over.

GELLERMAN: Oh, look at him.

ALEXANDRI: He has a broken leg also. It’s very nice. We have very nice strays.

GELERMAN: Oh, look at him.


ALEXANDRI: It’s a very nice dog. How can it survive?

GELLERMAN: Well, Athens may have its fill of dogs but some animals are gone forever. Consider the Great Auk. The Great Auk was the original penguin. Long before actual penguins were discovered the Welsh gave that name which means white head to these stately birds of the north Atlantic. And indeed Great Auks did closely resemble penguins in their body, shape, and lifestyle. In the latest installment in our series, “A Gap in Nature,” Tim Flannery tells the story of the bird’s demise.


Back to top


A Gap in Nature

FLANNERY: The Great Auk stood around two feet tall. While clumsy on land, it was at home in the ocean where it presumably chased fish, much as penguins do. The inside of its mouth was bright yellow, and the only noise it was ever heard to utter was a few low croaks. It nested directly on the rocks of its island breeding ground and its eggs were pear-shaped preventing them from rolling away.

While at sea, the Great Auk was safe from human predators, but at its nest it was exquisitely vulnerable, so it had been hunted since prehistoric times. By the 16th century, fishermen were using the auks as bait, filling whole boats with their bodies. As human populations grew throughout the north Atlantic, the Great Auk retreated to remote islands to breed.

By the early 19th century, its few encounters with humans can be described as one naturalist put it, “a squalid list of human ignorance and cruelty.” Perhaps the very last auks to visit Scottish isle of St. Kilda was captured live. It was caged, and a few nights, later strong winds blew up. The islanders knew nothing of this stately creature. So believing it might be a witch, they blamed the winds on the auk. The next morning they beat it to death.

The 1844, the few surviving birds had just one refuge left, the Icelandic island of Eldey. In June of that year, a collector sent a party of sailors there to search for the remaining Great Auks. They soon spotted a pair, standing head and shoulder above the masses of smaller seabirds. Legend has it that the female was brooding an egg, the last hope for the future of this magnificent species.

Pursued by the sailors, the Great Auks made a desperate attempt to reach the safety of the water, but one was trapped between rocks, while the other was seized just a few feet from the edge of the sea. Both were clubbed to death, and their egg, it was said, crushed beneath a fisherman’s boot. Today, some 80 skins and 75 eggs held in museum collections are all that remain of the Great Auk.


GELLERMAN: Tim Flannery is author of, “A Gap in Nature,” discovering the world’s extinct animals. To see a picture of the Great Auk and other ex-animals, go to our web site livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. And while you’re there, please see our invitation to join host Steve Curwood on the next African Eco-Tour.


CURWOOD: I’d like to invite you to join me in May on an Eco-Tour of some of Africa’s great natural areas. We’ll go on a special walking safari in South Africa’s amazing Kruger National Park. The park has 16 ecosystems. It’s home to nearly 700 species of birds and mammals. It’s a land of diversity, but Kruger is most famous for an abundance of “the big five”: lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. You’ll have the rare opportunity to see all these animals up close, as guides take you on day hikes and night drives. We’ll get close, but not too personal with the critters.

There are two ways that you can join the caravan. Go to living on earth dot org to find out how you can win a trip for two. You can also reserve a space by buying a ticket right now. For details, visit our web site – livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org for a chance at the trip of a lifetime.


Back to top


GELLERMAN: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. We leave you with a relative of the Great Auk which, thankfully, is still with us.


GELLERMAN: These puffins were recorded by Lang Elliot on Great Island in the north Atlantic. He got so close he could hear them growl.


GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet, Diane Toomey and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Andy Farnsworth mixes the program. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Steve Curwood returns next week. I’m Bruce Gellerman, 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.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

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

Newsletter [Click here]

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

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

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

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

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

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

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

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

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