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

May 28, 1993

Air Date: May 28, 1993


Herbicide Spraying in the Pacific Northwest / Alan Siporen

Alan Siporen of member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon reports on a battle over the spraying of the herbicide 2,4-D on private Oregon timberlands. Local residents are concerned about possible health effects from the herbicide, which has been linked to miscarriages and birth defects. The controversy over spraying is fueling a debate in Oregon over the relationship of private forest owners and their neighbors. (05:48)

Household Toxics

Steve talks about the health effects of household chemicals with Nancy Sokol-Green, author of Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in A Toxic World. (05:00)

Holland Lets the Water Back In / Steven Beard

Steven Beard reports from the Netherlands on a plan by the Dutch government to turn off the windmills and allow several hundred thousand acres of reclaimed land to return to its natural state. The Master Plan for Nature is supposed to help preserve the country's endangered species and reduce its agricultural surplus, but many farmers see the Plan as an ill-conceived threat to their heritage and way of life. (09:27)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Glenn Mitchell, Pye Chamberlayne, Michael Marcott, Alan Siporin, Stephen Beard
GUEST: Nancy Sokol Green

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Since the Second World War, there have been thousands of new chemicals introduced into the environment. Many are helpful, but some say the sheer volume of them is hurting people with chemical sensitivities.

GREEN: I think kids are gonna look at us in ten, twenty years and say, Mom, you really thought you could go to the store and buy a can of chemicals and because it said 'air freshener' it would freshen the air?

CURWOOD: Also, a controversy over herbicides in the Pacific Northwest.
And in Holland, a radical plan by the government to give some land back to wetlands.

GABOR: In the last 30 years, we lose about 300,000 hectares of area from nature in favor of agriculture. So we have taken away a lot of land from nature and now we try to give it back.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Two Texas businessmen have been slapped with what's believed to be the biggest Federal fine ever against individuals for environmental crimes, a total of $12 million dollars. Glenn Mitchell reports from Dallas.

MITCHELL: Robert Brittingham and John LaMonaco, former executives of DalTile Corporation, have been fined $4 million and $2 million respectively for 16 counts of knowingly dumping lead-tainted waste in two Texas sites. The previous record fine for environmental crimes for an individual was $1 million. But their retribution doesn't stop there. In a highly unusual move, US District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer turned down prosecutors' requests for jail time for the pair. Instead he ordered them to put up an additional $6 million to fund a program that would test Dallas children for lead poisoning and help clean up polluted areas. Brittingham and LaMonaco will also have to administer the program for the five years of their probated sentence. This is Glenn Mitchell in Dallas.

NUNLEY: The EPA spends most of its $7 billion a year budget on high-profile but relatively low-risk problems. A new report by the Center for Resource Economics says the agency's priorities have been skewed by Congressional interference and lawsuits. Pye Chamberlayne reports from Washington.

CHAMBERLAYNE: The study showed that EPA's biggest expenditure is building sewers. Next comes cleaning up old garbage and industrial dumps. By EPA's own reckoning, these are low and medium health risk problems. Only 20% of the budget goes for the worst problems: air pollution, radon, global warming and the ozone layer. An author of the report says its main value is educational, at the level of Congressional staff who do much of the policy work. He said he found that many of these staffers had not even been aware that the space budget is twice as big as EPA's, and he said one purpose of the study is to try to influence Congress to shift money from flying in space to cleaning up the Earth. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.

NUNLEY: The EPA plans to add 200 hazardous chemicals to its "Toxic Release Inventory" by 1995, and to require more companies to report hazardous emissions. That means the public will get more complete information on toxics released into the environment. Several hundred toxic chemicals are currently not covered by the inventory, and many major emitters -- including power plants, mining companies and incinerators -- don' t have to report. Among those industries which do have to report, the EPA says toxic emissions were down by 9 percent in 1991.

The Department of Labor has blown the whistle on the operators of the Alaska oil pipeline -- for firing whistleblowers. The agency says the pipeline company illegally dismissed an inspector for complaining that reports of safety and environmental violations were being ignored. Company officials say the inspector was laid off as part of a reorganization, but Federal officials described that claim as "unconvincing." The company faces similar claims from five other former inspectors.

This is Living on Earth.

Unable to meet cleanup deadlines, the Department of Energy has begun negotiating with the state of Washington on a new cleanup schedule for one of the nation's most contaminated sites, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Michael Marcott of member station KPLU reports.

MARCOTT: When the original clean-up agreement was signed in 1989, state and Federal agencies thought billions of dollars would speed up the process. But they haven't, and officials need more time. The biggest problem is 149 underground tanks -- old, single-shell tanks containing millions of gallons of high-level radioactive liquid wastes. 68 of these tanks are leaking, the latest discovered in April. Some of these wastes produce hydrogen gas and could explode if disturbed. Scientists say slowing the pace of cleanup until new technology is available may be the safest way to proceed. Environmentalists fear too long a delay lets radioactive wastes seep closer and closer to the Columbia River aquifer. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Marcott.

NUNLEY: Norwegian Olympic officials are afraid their nation's decision to allow commercial whaling will lead to a boycott of next year's Winter Games. The Olympic Organizing Committee says it receives hundreds of letters every day, mostly from Americans, who say they'll campaign for athletes to stay away. In April, Norway announced it would resume the hunt for minke whales in defiance of an international moratorium.

When it comes to stress on kids, the best city in the country to grow up in is Overland Park, Kansas, and the worst is Newark, New Jersey. That's according to the new "Children's Stress Index", issued by the group Zero Population Growth. The index ranks 828 cities, counties and metropolitan areas based on such things as population, air quality, water resources and toxic wastes. High-population locales generally fared worst in the survey. Burlington, Vermont was rated the least stressful metropolitan area, and Houston, Texas as the most stressful.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Herbicide Spraying in the Pacific Northwest

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

How safe for people and the environment are synthetic chemicals, especially pesticides and herbicides? It's been hotly debated since the end of World War II, when these compounds were developed, and the disagreement continues. In the Pacific Northwest, the controversy has erupted in logging country. In young, second-growth forests, herbicides are often used to kill vegetation that competes with newly-planted trees. Now some people who live near plantations where herbicide spraying is planned fear that their health may be compromised. They've organized, and won a delay in the spraying. Alan Siporin of member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon has our report.

(Sound of stream running)

SIPORIN: Melinda and Danny Blackwell's place, just a short distance from the Oregon coast, is surrounded by high trees and thick growth. The water that bubbles out of the ground and meanders along their land is clear and tasty. And it's almost certainly safe to drink, too. But the Blackwells fear that could change. Earlier this spring, a neighbor informed Melinda Blackwell that timberlands nearby were going to be sprayed with the herbicide 2, 4D.

BLACKWELL: I felt terrified that within a day or so there was a chance that an airplane or a helicopter was gonna come flying overhead squirting out 2,4D.

SIPORIN: It was just about 10 years ago, Melinda Blackwell says, that helicopters flew over, spraying herbicides on nearby clearcuts.

BLACKWELL: So I would leave, I would get the phone call or I would hear the helicopter and we would get in our cars and we'd leave and come back. You know, you can only stay away from your home for so long. And I miscarried. I was 8 weeks pregnant, and I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if this is why, if I was poisoned?

SIPORIN: 2,4D is a common defoliant used in products ranging from lawn sprays to Agent Orange. It has been linked to fetal problems in several studies, including reviews at the California Department of Agriculture and at Stanford University. Ten years ago, the Blackwells say, it was difficult to find more than 10 people who were willing to fight to stop the spraying. Last month, after word spread, more than 70 people showed up for a meeting in the nearby town of Seal Rock. And the list of concerned citizens was soon topping 300. Some people, in an attempt to document the health effects of 2,4D, are taking blood tests now, for comparison later. The main emphasis, though, is to stop the spraying. And the efforts may be having an effect. Jim Wick, the vice president of Woodland Management, the company that plans on spraying, agreed to delay his plans till next spring. but Wick says he remains convinced that 2,4D is safe.

WICK: I been working in the woods since about 1968 and I've been using herbicides for the last 25 years, and during that time I've come in contact with 2,4D on my hands. At one point I actually got sprayed. I was underneath when the booms went over and have never been sick and have no ill health effects.

GREER: The characterization that it hasn't hurt me and therefore it shouldn't hurt society is preposterous.

SIPORIN: Norma Greer is with NCAP, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

GREER: Pet dogs are getting cancer. People are having all kinds of health effects, some of it gets documented and some of it doesn't. The problem with something like 2,4D, a lot of the short-term health effects are ones that are fairly non-specific. It's like getting the flu. You get dizzy, you get nauseous, you feel weak. How is someone going to say that that's because their neighbor sprayed 2,4D and they happened to be over in that area and may have gotten exposed?

SIPORIN: In 1984, residents not far from Beaver Creek were able to convince a Federal court that 2,4D was the likely culprit in a rash of miscarriages. The ruling resulted in a ban of 2,4D on all Federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the ban does not apply to private, state, or county lands. That's because Federal law applies a stricter environmental control on Federal land. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates all herbicide use, and Jill Bloom, who is with EPA's Pesticide Office in Washington, DC says her agency doesn't really know if 2,4D is safe or not.

BLOOM: But we're making every effort to both require the data that would help us understand and evaluate the data that we already have to understand what the risks would be.

SIPORIN: Bloom says the EPA hopes to have the results of an expert panel in about 6 months. But NCAP's Norma Greer says the EPA's effort isn't good enough. She says it's been twelve years since the agency ordered industry to conduct cancer tests on 2,4D. Greer says industry still hasn't complied. But Jim Wick says we don't need more tests.

WICK: 2,4D has been around for over 40 years, has had thousands of tests done. The scientific community accepts the fact that 2,4D is a safe chemical to use.

SIPORIN: Until the EPA resolves the issue, the use of 2,4D will be permitted. According to EPA figures, more than 50 million pounds a year are applied throughout the US. Jim Wick says he's willing to forego its use on Beaver Creek, if the residents will clear the land for him or pay the difference. The Beaver Creek residents don't think they should have to pay just to keep their own property safe. Meanwhile, Oregon's Attorney General ruled that timber companies can be prosecuted if they endanger people with unsafe practices. However, timber interests are fighting back. They've introduced state legislation in an attempt to exempt timber companies from such lawsuits. For Living on Earth, this is Alan Siporin reporting.

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Household Toxics

CURWOOD: Some human beings have bad reactions to chemicals in far smaller concentrations than government regulations allow. Nancy Sokol Green, a former school teacher, has documented several such cases in her new book Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in a Toxic World. Ms. Green says pesticide spraying is one of the problems, but common household chemicals and furnishings can also prompt severe toxic reactions. New rugs, for example, can give off formaldehyde if they're made from synthetics, and be loaded with pesticides if they're made from natural fibers. Ms. Green wrote her book after she became severely ill herself from environmental causes, and had to purge her family's home of many chemicals. I asked her how did she discovered that household chemicals were making her sick.

GREEN: Actually it was a long process of a year of being incredibly ill, from going from a healthy person to all of a sudden a bunch of bizarre symptoms that would come and go -- dizzy spells, nausea, headaches, nerve pains. I became weaker and weaker and finally ended up being hooked up to oxygen, unable to breathe, and it wasn't until three surgeries, which we now know were misdiagnosed, and probably cupboards and cupboards full of medication that it turned out I didn't need that I was correctly diagnosed by a doctor of environmental medicine as literally being poisoned by the everyday chemicals in my home.

CURWOOD: Was there a particular poison that had --

GREEN: Yes, for me there was two main problem areas. One was pesticides, which I had done to myself by hiring a pesticide service, and the other was formaldehyde, which was primarily from many products. The home was a new home, two and a half years earlier when we moved into it.

CURWOOD: Now are there a lot of people that have this problem?

GREEN: The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 15 to 20% of the population has some level of chemical sensitivity. The question is, and that's why I wrote the book, how many people really may have made that connection? Because there's a lot of really symptoms that people don't associate with possibly an environmental exposure like recurrent ear infections, bed-wetting, hyperactivity. In many cases these types of symptoms have actually been completely eliminated when they discovered what environmental trigger was causing the symptoms. And I should, as a footnote, add that I am very, very, very healthy today, but when we made all these changes that I talk about in the book to quote "get me better," we didn't think that they were for my husband or my two children. And the interesting thing was that his legendary sinus problem disappeared, and we only lived three miles from the house that was doing me in; my two children, who are now 5 and 6, have not been to see a doctor for any kind of health reason in four years.

CURWOOD: What are the top priorities for a parent to do to protect a child?

GREEN: The first thing we have to understand is how chemicals get in the body. I think a lot of parents all know that when they have little children they put locks on their cupboards and so the kids can't get into the cleaning products, but we don't -- I know I never thought about it -- equally, those toxic chemicals that you wouldn't want your child to swallow get into the body through inhalation, so if I'm spraying one of those products when my child's sitting right there, he or she is getting it in your body, or through skin absorption, if we're touching it. And the good news is there's so many safe, safe, easy, inexpensive alternatives to the rows and rows now that we find in the stores of things that we've come to believe we need to clean. And also, for example, disinfectants -- it turns out that 60% of all data on file with the EPA for disinfectant is inaccurate or missing. And the actual active ingredient of a well-known disinfectant is actually a pesticide. Now on the flip side then you've got Borax, which with hot water is past even hospitals on satisfying germicidal requirements. So the cleaning products to me is a very easy one to substitute and eliminate a lot of exposures.

CURWOOD: Chemicals have become a major part of the American lifestyle. How far can you really go towards detoxifying our world, do you think?

GREEN: Well that's, that's a great question because I don't think we have to get rid of every chemical, that's not my point. The question is how far have we gone? I think that people are going to look back at the last part of the century, hopefully, when all this becomes such common knowledge, and think that we just went nuts with chemicals. I think kids are gonna look at us in ten, twenty years and say, Mom, you really thought you could go to the store and buy a can of chemicals and because it said "air freshener" it would freshen the air? So I think it's just sort of turning back the clock, 50, 60 years ago, probably how our parents or grandparents were raised, not so you have to live in a bubble or live off the land but just to really consider, do we need that great degree of all these chemicals that we're using, and especially the effect they're having not only on people but the planet too.

CURWOOD: Nancy Sokol Green is the author of Poisoning Our Children: Surviving in a Toxic World. She spoke with us from member station K-P-B-S in San Diego.

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(Music up and under)

Holland Lets the Water Back In

CURWOOD: Holding back the sea with dikes and using windmills to pump marshlands dry has been a national obsession in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. That's not surprising, since half of Holland's territory is below sea level. But now, spurred on by environmental and budget concerns, the Dutch Government has made a dramatic decision: they plan to turn off some of the windmills and let the waters back in. As Stephen Beard reports, not everybody is happy at that prospect.

(Sound of windmill sails)

BEARD: With its four giant sails flailing in the wind, a traditional Dutch windmill is at work in a polder, an area reclaimed from an inland lake. This polder a few kilometers south of Amsterdam is called the Ronde Vanaan.

(Sound of windmill in operation)

BEARD: Inside the mill, Peter Beselt watches over the great clunking wooden wheels and gears. Now retired, he donates his time to keep the mill in working order, indulging a passion many country-people in Holland well understand.

BESELT: Working with wind, now it's a very easy day, no clouds, very sunny, a good wind, it's easy to work with the mill.

BEARD: Electric machines have replaced most of the old windmills of Holland, but more than a thousand are still dotted about the low, flat terrain. A few of them, like this one, still do the job they've been doing for centuries.

BESELT: It pumps the water out of the polder. This mill is pumping the polder for 300 years already.

(Sound of pumping)

BEARD: Like the story of Hans Brinker, the boy who plugged a hole in the dike with his finger, the windmill is a symbol of this country's unceasing struggle against water. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been reclaimed from the sea, and from lakes, swamps and marshes -- they've been turned into cities and fertile plains, creating not just an orderly landscape but a national character too, as environmentalist Ronald van de Geesson explains.

VAN DE GEESSON: It's the battle which has made us into the people which we are, and into the country which we are. Keeping those pumps working and keeping the land below sea level dry requires a tremendous effort of money but also of social understanding. If you're living in a community which depends on pumps, you cannot have that somebody forsakes his duty to maintain the pumps, or doesn't maintain the dikes, because they have to be maintained. The Dutch people have sort of, over the centuries, developed what is a very much consensus-oriented people.

(Sound of city traffic)

BEARD: But that consensus is under pressure. The Dutch are quarreling. The source of the conflict: ironically, the very enterprise that's held them together over the centuries -- pumping water. Under a policy grandiosely entitled "The Master Plan for Nature," the national government has proposed the unthinkable, to stop some of the pumps and let the water overflow some of the land. Seventeen feet below sea level, one of the lowest points in the Netherlands, the Ronde Vanaan is one of the polders earmarked for flooding. Here in Utrecht, the provincial government minister responsible for the plan is Thea Portiner. She says relentless draining of the land, especially in the Ronde Vanaan, has been harming the environment.

PORTINER: We pump there for about 18 hours out of 24, the water from other parts of our province is coming to this lowest part, then we are, keep on pumping of water, and the rest of our province gets drier and drier, the whole country and our province will actually get so dry that all the trees will die and there will, nothing will bloom anymore.

BEARD: A great deal of damage has already been done, according to Jan Gorter of the environmental group Natur Monumentum.

GORTER: Very, very many species are seriously threatened. For instance, most of our Dutch butterflies have disappeared. The otter has disappeared, and Holland has no otter left. Orchids, birds of prey -- well, I can continue and continue. Very many species threatened or died out. We need more water, we've pumped it all away.

BEARD: The lack of water coincides with another crisis: the urgent need to cut Holland's huge agricultural surpluses. The "Master Plan for Nature" is designed to tackle both problems. Over the next three decades, more than half a million acres of low-yielding farmland -- about ten percent of the total -- will be brought up and taken out of production. Drainage will cease. The water will be allowed to seep in. Groups like Natur Monumentum will manage the resulting wetlands. Spokesman Ronald van de Geesson is calling on his fellow countrymen to rise to the challenge.

VAN DE GEESSON: Let's turn in history back, let's do as if we are Hans Brinkers reversed, we'll pull our finger out of the dike, symbolically of course, and turn this land back to what it was, into nature again. So we say, okay, fine, we have no business here anymore, by our land, we'll put the water levels up again, and we'll have thriving marshes full of waterfowl, full of springbills, of herons, of storks, of ducks, of coots, of -- well, every imaginable species of waterfowl will return here. So it will develop into the finest reserve with no equal in the world.

(Sound of dairy cows mooing)

BEARD: But the farmers in the Ronde Vanaan do not share that vision. On his small dairy farm, which he claims makes a reasonable living, this old man is scornful about the "Master Plan for Nature."

FARMER/TRANSLATOR: Pure nonsense, he says. It makes no sense, he says, because at first people make this land dry and now they're going to pump water again, it makes no sense.

BEARD: Many other farmers feel the same. A quarter of the 800 residents of the Ronde Vanaan are crammed into the committee room here in the Vinkeveen Town Hall. In Holland, this passes for a protest meeting. But the mild-mannered, jokey atmosphere should not mislead. Everyone here says they're utterly determined not to sell up and let the water in. Generous compensation from the government is on offer, but, says Fred Minken of the Polder Action Group, there's more than money at stake for most of the inhabitants.

MINKEN: Well, it's a fact that they actually helped build this polder, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this polder, it is actually against Dutch nature and Dutch character to do this sort of thing. We are a nation of people who have for ages reclaimed land, either from the sea or from lakes and to just open up the dikes again and let the water run in would mean destroying capital, would mean destroying culture, it means destroying people, and that is what we are against.

(Traffic sound)

BEARD: Fifty miles away, in The Hague, the seat of national government, Dsinginsz Gabor, Minister for the Environment, is staunchly defending his master plan. Talk of tradition and culture is ridiculous, he says. He's not trying to turn the clock back three hundred years and flood half the country. He's simply trying to reclaim for nature some of the land lost to agriculture in recent years.

GABOR: Let me point out that in the last 30 years, we lose about 300,000 hectares of area from nature in favor of agriculture. So we have taken away a lot of land from nature and now we try to give it back.

BEARD: True to the Dutch tradition of consensus, no farmer will be forced to part with his land. The government believes that over the years, it will be able to persuade them all to sell up. But the very idea of flooding land is meeting resistance. Like the ditches and canals that criss-cross this country, the culture of keeping the water out is well-entrenched. In the old windmill in the Ronde Vanaan, Peter Beselt rejects the Master Plan for Nature.

BESELT: I'm not happy with it.
BEARD: Why not?
BESELT: I like the farmers and not the official persons who do this, or want to do this. They live in The Hague, they are writing behind their desks, and doesn't know the land here, the life and the land here.

(Sound of mill grinding to a halt)

BEARD: For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in the Ronde Vanaan, Holland.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth. . . box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. That's Living on Earth. . . box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe and Reyna Lounsbury. Our engineer i s Laurie Azaria, with help from Bob Connolly and Doug Haslam. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation, for coverage of science and the environment . . . all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy . . . the Pew Charitable Trusts . . . and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Support also comes from the Bullitt Foundation for reporting on the Pacific Northwest . . . and the German Marshall Fund of the United States for expanded coverage from Europe.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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