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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

September 15, 2000

Air Date: September 15, 2000

SEGMENTS

Chronic Lyme Disease / Diane Toomey

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne illness in the U.S., and most people who come down with it are successfully treated with a round of antibiotics. But a small percentage of patients say ongoing infection has left them with pain, fatigue and anger at the doctors and insurance companies who say there’s no such thing as chronic lyme disease. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports. (11:15)

Sports Update / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on the “greening” of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. (00:59)

Pthalates in Blood

Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News, speaks with host Steve Curwood about the latest research on phthalates. These chemicals found in plastics and solvents are being blamed for a number of hormonal disorders in women and children. (05:16)

Thirsty Bees / Jeff Rice

When Jeff Rice went camping in Arizona's Sonoran Desert this summer, he discovered that he and the Africanized bees that surrounded him had something in common: a quenchless thirst. (03:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about ostriches. September is National Ostrich Month, a time to celebrate the biggest bird on earth, whose egg is as large as 24 chicken eggs. (01:30)

Cleaner Cars in California

Host Steve Curwood talks with Andrew Card, General Motors’ Vice President for Government Relations, about how automakers will meet California's mandate that by 2003, ten percent of cars for sale in the state must emit zero or very little air pollution. (05:50)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Diane Toomey reports on a new study that links chemical exposure on the job to a severe form of Parkinson’s disease. (00:59)

Gorbachev on the Environment / Mark Hertsgaard

Living On Earth Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard interviews former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev on issues such as Russia’s current environmental situation, globalism and the importance of environmental education. (10:00)

Bird Sanctuary / Karen Kelly

Karen Kelly of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium visits with Peter Dubacher of the Berkshire Bird Paradise. This upstate New York sanctuary is home to thousands of injured and abandoned birds. (06:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Mark Hertsgaard, Karen Kelly
UPDATES: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Diane Toomey
GUEST: Janet Raloff
COMMENTATOR: Jeff Rice

FIRST HALF HOUR

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Most doctors insist it doesn't exist, but chronic Lyme Disease is very real, say people who claim they suffer from it, and only a few doctors are willing to treat them.

BURRASCANO: To date, I have patients from 11 countries and 41 different states. You know, I have a very strange office. We keep ferry schedules and train schedules and taxis and hotel listings (laughs) -- not the average medical practice.

CURWOOD: Also, new research bolsters the link between phthalates, the chemicals in plastics and cosmetics, and hormonal disorders in women and children.

RALOFF: Suddenly they do this test looking for pesticides in the blood, and they find no difference between kids developing normally and those with this premature breast development. The only thing that stands out, and it stands out big time, was a high level of phthalates in many of the children with the premature breast development.

CURWOOD: And hot thoughts in a way cool desert. That and more this week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Chronic Lyme Disease

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

(A crowd in the street)

CROWD: (Shouting) We want a cure! We want it now! We want a cure! We want it now!

CURWOOD: We want a cure and we want it now. That's the chant for patient activists who call themselves Lymies . They wear lime green ribbons, carry signs that read, "I'm ticked off," and they're part of a vocal and angry movement of folks who say they're afflicted by chronic Lyme Disease. Ticks transmit the increasingly common Lyme disease, which is hosted by deer and mice here in the U.S. A round of antibiotics is the standard medical protocol to treat the disorder, and it's supposed to knock out the infection for good. But as Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports, a small percentage of patients say that even after treatment, a chronic condition sets in with debilitating symptoms.

(A chicken clucks)

TOOMEY: Rita Weeks swears by her chickens. Standing in her flower-laden back yard, the Westchester County, New York, resident says these birds, in the process of hunting and pecking, end up eating the ticks that spread Lyme Disease.

WEEKS: I work in my garden all the time and I never get any ticks on me.

TOOMEY: The prospect of creating a tick-free zone appeals to Rita's neighbor Lisa.

LISA: Personally, I think that every house in this county ought to have chickens. They work. They're cheap. They're cute. (Laughs)

TOOMEY: Lisa and Rita are in the process of rearranging fences so that the chickens can free-range on Lisa's property. Both women have had Lyme disease, but it's Lisa's family that's been hardest hit. All five members have come down with the infection, including her teenage daughter.

LISA: My daughter has fairly severe emotional difficulties that I think are, at least partially, linked to Lyme.

TOOMEY: Lisa's suspicion is controversial. That's because her daughter received what most doctors would consider an adequate dose of antibiotics. If Lyme Disease is left untreated, it can lead to neurological damage months or even years down the road. But Lisa says six months after her daughter completed her course of medication, she began to have emotional problems.

LISA: She started throwing very violent temper tantrums. She attacked me. She attacked a kid in school. It was not a pretty picture, and it was typical 13-year-old angst.

TOOMEY: When Lisa mentions the possibility that her daughter may have ongoing Lyme infection, she says doctors look at her like she's crazy. At this point, a blood test for the illness wouldn't prove anything because once a person's been infected with Lyme they'll always test positive. Lisa would like to see how her daughter would respond to stronger antibiotics, but this is how her HMO responds to that.

WOMAN: She's been treated already. She had her pills. She's done. I don't really have any idea how to break through that.

TOOMEY: But most physicians think there's good reason to discount the possibility of chronic Lyme Disease.

SHAPIRO: What some people would have you believe is that there are two different diseases.

TOOMEY: Yale physician Eugene Shapiro says first, take the obvious case of Lyme Disease that usually starts with a distinctive rash and can lead to arthritis and facial paralysis.

SHAPIRO: Somehow, for that form of the disease, antibiotics are effective. They do fine. But then there's some other form of the disease which is, you can't put your hand around it. They don't have objective findings of inflammation, which is the way bacteria cause disease.

TOOMEY: What these patients do have are symptoms that doctors call nonspecific. They span a broad spectrum. Emotional problems, as in the case of Lisa's daughter; or fatigue, muscle pains, depression. Doctor Shapiro helped write the Lyme treatment guidelines put out by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Guidelines that state even the most advanced cases of infection can be eradicated with two months of oral or intravenous antibiotics. But for the patients with these ongoing, nonspecific symptoms, the maximum treatment didn't seem to work.

SHAPIRO: They would have you believe that form of the disease, somehow this is, the bacteria knows to act differently and it doesn't respond to antibiotics in this sense. It really doesn't make any sense.

TOOMEY: But don't tell that to Brian.

BRIAN: Both of my forearms and my hands are tingling and they're numb. I have firing pains in my fingers that feel like little firecrackers going off in my fingers. My eyeballs are still hurting, they're throbbing. I have been feeling some word loss. I've been trying to speak and just stuttering and not being able to continue in a conversation.

TOOMEY: And this is a good day. That's because Brian -- not his real name -- feels well enough to walk around New York's Central Park, where the 27-year-old demonstrates his knack for finding edible plants.

BRIAN: Here we have pokeweed, which is a very popular plant that's eaten along the south in its shoot stage. It's poisonous now….

TOOMEY: Brian says his bout with Lyme disease began four years ago, shortly after he'd gotten numerous tick bites on a camping trip in New Jersey.

BRIAN: After about two weeks, pains were happening in my fingers and my joints and my hands, and especially in my wrists.

TOOMEY: Brian didn't have the classic bull's-eye rash or flu-like symptoms that can indicate Lyme infection, and his blood test came back negative. Doctors ruled out other conditions, but after two years without a diagnosis, Brian says he was completely disabled.

BRIAN: I could barely make it up and down the stairs to my apartment. And, at that point, I had a terribly stiff neck. And terrible headaches, and nerve pains running, now, through my arms and up and down my spine.

TOOMEY: Again he was tested for Lyme Disease, and again the result was negative. But Lyme Disease activists and some doctors say the test isn't reliable. They contend there are a lot of false negatives, something that most Lyme researchers dispute. However, by this time Brian had finally found a doctor who was Lyme literate, as activists put it. So, based on the fact that Brian got his tick bites in an area known to have lots of infected ticks, his doctor put him on antibiotics. Brian says he got better.

BRIAN: After about four weeks on the antibiotics, I was to a point where I could begin to go out and about and actually consider possibly working again.

TOOMEY: Brian's doctor told him he'd need to be on antibiotics a long time because he went so long without treatment. But when he tried to go off the drugs after six months --

BRIAN: I was miserably ill with nerve pains all over my body, cognitive difficulties. I was slurring my speech. And I went back to the doctor, and he said you know, I think you need to go back on antibiotics.

TOOMEY: Experiences like Brian's are what Dr. Joseph Burrascano points to as proof of ongoing Lyme infection. The Long Island internist has a reputation as the doctor of last resort for people who, as the saying goes, have gone chronic.

BURRASCANO: To date, I have patients from 11 countries and 41 different states. You know, I have a very strange office. We keep ferry schedules and train schedules and taxis and hotel listings (laughs) -- not the average medical practice.

TOOMEY: Dr. Burrascano says many of his patients are chronically ill because they weren't diagnosed properly or their infection wasn't treated aggressively, giving the bacteria time to replicate and disperse. So it's important, Dr. Burrascano says, to treat even early stage Lyme disease with a long and strong dose of antibiotics.

BURRASCANO: The doctor might say "oh, it's a simple case of Lyme. You're not too sick; I'll give you a small dose of medication." What happens? Well, the more superficial germs may be eradicated, but the deeper ones remain deep. So you leave the patient with a deeper, more difficult to control infection.

TOOMEY: Hence, the months or even years of antibiotic treatment some patients require. But for other physicians, there's a big problem with this theory. Dr. Leonard Sigal is a rheumatologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He explains if Lyme bacteria are being treated with ineffective dosages of antibiotics, then we should be seeing the emergence of antibiotic-resistant Lyme microbes. But in the case of Borrelia burgdorferi , as the Lyme bacterium is known...

SIGAL: Nobody has ever found a Borrelia Burgdorfer that is resistant to the standard antibiotics that are used in the treatment of Lyme Disease. Which I think really pokes a major league hole in the theory that what you've got is you need more antibiotics because you've made a super-bug.

TOOMEY: There is preliminary evidence that Lyme bacteria can trigger an auto-immune response that might lead to rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. But doctors say this isn't considered Lyme disease, because by that point the bacteria are long gone. So antibiotics would be useless. If patients do feel better on long-term antibiotics, Dr. Sigal says, that could be chalked up to the placebo effect. Except these antibiotics are not placebos.

SIGAL: Are these drugs benign? No. Are these drugs very toxic? Sometimes. This is not distilled water that we're talking about. This is potentially very toxic poisonous material.

(Crinkling)

GRANT: So I take my alcohol swab, remove the bandage that stays over the site. Clean off the tube, so that it's bacteria free...

TOOMEY: Every morning for the last three weeks, Cathy Grant has sat at her kitchen table and set up an intravenous line into her arm. She hooks a tube into a container that looks like a lemon juice ball.

GRANT: Open up the tube, and it starts going.

TOOMEY: A potent intravenous antibiotic is the treatment of choice for people like Cathy, who believe they have chronic Lyme Disease.

(Chimes)

TOOMEY: Speaking on her back porch, Cathy says she went undiagnosed for two years until a blood test confirmed she had Lyme disease. After months of antibiotics, she says she's still not cured.

GRANT: I've had memory problems. Just can't get words out of my head. I know they're there, but I can't get them out.

TOOMEY: So Cathy Grant is participating in a federally-funded study. The research is designed to gauge the effectiveness of long-term antibiotic treatment for people with cognitive problems that might be due to chronic Lyme. But because it's a controlled study, the medication that's dripping into her arm right now may actually be the IV equivalent of a sugar pill. But Cathy says she's willing to take that chance.

GRANT: I've known people that have all of a sudden, they got on intravenous or they, you know, all of a sudden something works for them. And that's why I'm in this research project, so that we can all try to find out why and why I'm chronic versus in somebody else that isn't chronic.

TOOMEY: The results of this study are four years away. In the meantime, the rhetoric surrounding Lyme disease has turned less than collegial. Activists accuse nay-saying doctors of being in the pocket of insurance companies who don't want to pay the one thousand dollars a week it can cost for IV antibiotics. Those doctors, in turn, accuse physicians in the opposing camp of feeding off the desperation of sick people. And the controversy has been notched up a level. A number of doctors who treat chronic Lyme patients, including Long Island internist Joseph Burrascano , are being investigated by their state's medical boards. In turn, a patient has brought charges against a doctor who discounts chronic Lyme Disease. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics soft, but there's increasing evidence that they're also making people sick. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

(Didgeridoo music up and under)

Sports Update

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The torch that is the symbol of the 2000 Olympic Games is burning cleaner than ever. From hydrocarbons to carbohydrates, officials in Sydney, Australia, are billing this as the greenest games in history. Let's say you can't quite finish that vegamite sandwich. You can toss it in the compost bin along with the plate it came on and the knife you used to cut it, because the dinnerware is made of cornstarch and cotton seed. Or maybe some of the 400,000 composting worms who have been brought in will get to munch on your leftovers. A post in a restroom stop will have you flushing treated rainwater and sewage down the drain, guilt-free. When the water recycling system posed a threat to the rare green and golden bell frog, officials built bridges, fences, and tunnels to protect the amphibians, who are said to actually be increasing their numbers since construction of the Olympic complex began. That's this week's environmental update. I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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

(Music up and under)

Pthalates in Blood

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We've heard that phthalates, the chemicals used to soften plastic and things like plastic bags, shower curtains, even toys, are bad for us. They've been linked to cancer, and most recently, a study found phthalates in medical tubes and bags that could be linked to problems in reproductive development for baby boys. But until recently, there have been no tests to accurately determine the levels of phthalates that actually make it into our bloodstream. Now, a researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has formulated a test that checks levels of the chemical in urine that show whether or not the phthalates have been absorbed, and the results of his study will be published this October. Janet Raloff, Senior Editor at Science News and Living on Earth's Science Commentator, speaks with us from Washington. Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now tell us: What are phthalates, exactly?

RALOFF: Well, they're a whole, big, huge family, actually, of commercial chemicals. They're oily substances, and for the most part they're used to make rigid materials plastic. However, there are some that are also used as solvents, or just to dilute things. To make things mix up that didn't ordinarily want to mix and stay that way.

CURWOOD: What does this new study tell us about how much of these phthalates, these chemicals, are getting into our blood?

RALOFF: Well, first of all, it confirms conclusively that they are getting into the body. Second thing is that they're getting in, sometimes in very high levels, and one of the most interesting things is that the highest levels are showing up in the urine of women of reproductive age.

CURWOOD: Why higher for women, do you think?

RALOFF: Well, the supposition is that because of the type of phthalates that they're finding, they may be coming from cosmetics. Fragrances, deodorants, fingernail polish, that sort of thing.

CURWOOD: How concerned should we be about these phthalates that are showing up in women's bodies?

RALOFF: Again, nobody knows. The one that's showing up in the highest concentration is one that, for the most part, scientists had written off. First of all, it's not used in commerce very widely, so they hadn't expected it to show up in detectable levels in the body at all. It, however, may not be terribly toxic. One of the second-tier levels of compounds that are showing up is, however, a reproductive toxicant. At least in animal studies, it greatly perturbs, in fact, probably poisons the reproductive development of male animals. And this was showing up at levels ten to 100 times higher than estimates had predicted would occur in people.

CURWOOD: Are all phthalates the same? Do the ones in solvents have the same biological action as the ones in plastics?

RALOFF: Well, some will act like hormones. Others seem to cause cancer. And not necessarily through the same mechanism. You really have to look at each one on a case-by-case basis, and that hasn't been done to date.

CURWOOD: Recently there was a study linking phthalates with early onset of puberty, and I guess that's sort of misspeaking. If you're talking about breasts developing in a six-month-old baby, that's much more than puberty. What is this study all about?

RALOFF: Well, Puerto Rico currently has, for the last 20 years, been undergoing an epidemic of early breast development. This is very small children, six months to 24 months old. And nobody has been able to figure out why. They have been probing everything they can think of, from growth hormones in food, soy, infant formula to pesticides that might be getting in through water or other things. None of them panned out. Suddenly they do this test looking for pesticides in the blood, and they find no difference between kids developing normally and those with this premature breast development. The only thing that stands out, and it stands out big time, was a high level of phthalates in many of the children with the premature breast development.

CURWOOD: What alternatives are there to phthalates in the manufacturing and solvent business?

RALOFF: Well, there are a number. I don't think industry would like to switch over because they work so well, and they've been used for more than 50 years. And apparently, with little or no harm. Now, one of the concerns is that maybe as our society becomes more and more plastic, we're getting higher and higher exposures. Or, if they're not disposed properly, maybe we're getting exposures in ways we hadn't before. But, in many cases, you can make plastics without phthalates. They just may not function as well. They may not be as pliable. They may be more expensive. They clearly work very well, and industry doesn't want to let go of them.

CURWOOD: For people listening to us right now who would like to take steps to protect or limit their exposure to phthalates, what are some of the things they could do?

RALOFF: If you are a woman of childbearing age and you wanted to think about getting pregnant, you may lay off cosmetics that have fragrances. These are perfumes or, you know, talcum powders with lots of scents in them. Anything that is highly scented. In addition, some things like nail polish. Things that have solvents, that have a real chemical smell, you might want to avoid those. You might also want to avoid heating things up in the microwave in plastic containers. Use glass or ceramic instead. And not use plastic wrap in the microwave. Because, again, studies have shown that phthalates can leach from some of these materials into foods.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is Senior Editor at Science News and Living on Earth's Science Commentator. Thanks, Janet.

RALOFF: Thank you, Steve.

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(Music up and under)

Thirsty Bees

CURWOOD: If you apply heat to an object, it tends to move around more quickly, but sometimes it does just the opposite. Just ask Jeff Rice, who tested the intense heat while camping along El Camino del Diablo, the Street of the Devil, in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. He says when the thermometer heads into the triple digits, you don't do much more than sweat and think. And, as he tells us in this reporter's notebook, thoughts can range from fish to killer bees.

(Buzzing)

RICE: Even though our fishy ancestors flopped out onto the land about 400 million years ago, we never really left the water. We just took it with us. That's what I'm thinking as the thermometer reads 118 degrees in the shade. Sixty percent of the human body is water, and the water that I've taken with me in the form of muscle and fat and brain and blood is gradually draining out as sweat. In this heat, I'm forced to pour quart after quart of liquid down my throat to keep the balance. Water is best, but a couple cans of warm beer probably won't hurt, either.

(Bird calls)

RICE: The sweat cools my body, and this is a good thing. It's what keeps me alive. But there's a complication. This year at this spot the rain has been little more than a rumor. And as I sit here amidst the sagebrush and cactus, I suddenly realize that I am one of the few sources of water to be found. My body, me. The insects know this. The bees, in particular, search me out and sip from my leaking pores as if they were limpid pools of Evian. These aren't just any bees, mind you. These are probably Africanized bees, so-called killer bees. The kind that inspire low-budget horror movies with names like "The Swarm." A while back they were imported to Brazil as part of a failed breeding experiment, and they've been working their way north, passing on their dominant traits to bees in South America, Central America, Mexico. Now they make up about 90 percent of the bees in this part of Arizona.

I spend much of the afternoon nervously swiping at them as they try to drink my sweat. I'm told that if one of these bees stings me, it might release a chemical that will tell the other bees to come over and sting me, too. And that would be a very bad thing. I can see the headlines now: Sweaty Camper Hospitalized After Attack in the Desert. I continue to brush the bees away.

(Buzzing)

RICE: I look forward to the evening and the fading of the light, when the bees will go back to their hive and wait for tomorrow. At night, and only at night, will I allow myself the luxury of a makeshift shower from a plastic gallon jug. I can't help but think that pouring water over myself during the day would be like covering myself in marmalade and lying on an anthill. That's probably an exaggeration. The bees are not likely to sting me if I give them what they want.

But the imagination is a powerful thing, and the last thing I want to imagine is a beard of bees. So I sit here as the thermometer approaches 120 and wait for the day to transform. I take another swig from my water bottle. The water is about room temperature, as the saying goes, which means it's probably 20 degrees hotter than my body. But by the time the bees get it in the form of my sweat, I will have cooled it to a pleasant 98.6 degrees: a nice sip of morning dew in comparison.

I have to admit, it's strange to be the equivalent of a drinking fountain. But then, I guess it's also pretty strange to be camping in the middle of the desert in the hot August sun and trying not to sweat.

(Buzzing up and under)

CURWOOD: Reporter Jeff Rice lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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(Music up and under: "I say hey there, little insect. Don't scare me so. Don't land on me, baby, it might be low. I say hey there, little insect, please calm down. Then we'll have fun and fool around...")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: General Motors says California's call for thousands of new cars that do not pollute at all from the tailpipe is a pipe dream, if it's supposed to happen by 2003. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

The Living on Earth Almanac

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What has legs, not a beast nor feathers for flight, but a head when alarmed to be buried from sight? That riddle, of course, is about nature's own riddle, the improbable ostrich. September is National Ostrich Month, and this bird, which is native to South Africa, has inspired tales as tall as its own gangly frame. Carl Linnaeus, who devised the most popular system for naming plants and animals, dubbed the ostrich Struthio camelus . That's Latin for "sparrow camel," which pretty aptly describes this, um, bird. It has a small beak and curious, large eyes. The wings poking from its humped body are useless for flight. Ostriches are the largest birds in the world, but they have a brain smaller than those eyeballs. They can grow up to eight feet tall, and they have a surprisingly persistent manner. By the way, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand, but they do duck way down when confronted with danger, and stretch their necks out along the ground to avoid being seen. Ostriches, though, don't have much to fear. Those seemingly spindly legs? They can let loose a kick that can kill all but the toughest predator. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Cleaner Cars in California

CURWOOD: California Air Resources Board is sticking by its guns, and has told automakers for the final time that by 2003, ten percent of all new vehicles they sell in the state must meet the toughest emissions standards in the world. The decision will drastically increase the number of electric cars on California's roads, as four percent of the cars sold must be ZEVs--zero-emission vehicles. Automakers can earn credits toward the rest of the goal by offering so-called low-emission vehicles, including hybrids. I asked Andrew Card, Vice President of Government Relations for General Motors, and former Secretary of Transportation in the Bush Administration, what the auto industry makes of the California mandate.

CARD: We don't think that it is the best solution for the environment, because it won't provide the clean air benefits at the most affordable cost. And we also would point out that it would burden consumers, where they would have to pay an awful lot more for vehicles that are not living up to their expectations. So, we don't think that the direction that they're headed in is the best direction.

CURWOOD: It does appear that it's going to be the law, though. How will you meet the challenges that it proposes?

CARD: Well, obviously we comply with the rules and regulations. But I would point out that it's going to be very, very difficult to have an expectation that General Motors, for example, would be able to sell 22,000 electric vehicles in California, knowing that they have a cost penalty of over $20,000 per vehicle. And that's not including the research and development costs.

CURWOOD: You're saying that what the Air Resources Board is saying that it's going to do is simply impossible financially from General Motors' perspective?

CARD: It's not just financially. It's that the technological advancements have not come in the battery as even the most optimistic environmentalists had hoped for 20 years ago. Even General Motors had bet an awful lot of money on the success of the electric vehicle. It was the first manufacturer to build an electric vehicle from the ground up. So far, despite Herculean efforts to market the best electric vehicle in the world, GM has only been able to sell less than 1,000. And that's over five years. So I think it's going to be very difficult for us to find market demand that would pull people toward an electric vehicle. Even the California Air Resource Board recognizes that the infrastructure is not there in California to support a large market of electric vehicles. And we also know that you don't have the range that a lot of people demand in their product today.

CURWOOD: Let's look at the hybrid part of the equation. Perhaps a majority of these vehicles actually would meet the requirement if they were hybrid vehicles. That is, gasoline and electric.

CARD: But they don't qualify as a ZEV under the rules that are proposed. That still leaves 40 percent (laughs) that have to be electric vehicles.

CURWOOD: What kind of competitive situation is your company in? The hybrids on the market right now are made in Japan. Honda has one for sale. It's called the Insight. Toyota's got one for sale. It's called the Prius. Are there concerns that General Motors and Ford may well lose market share to these companies that already have a foothold in this alternative vehicle marketplace?

CARD: Well, I wouldn't call it much of a foothold. GM, they've been leading the technology into the marketplace for so many years, they'll be able to compete very well when there is a significant market for hybrids.

CURWOOD: Some of the environmental advocates here say that the auto industry has a history of saying that costs are the problem. When it came to air bags, they will cost too much. When it came to seat belts, it will cost too much. When it came to --

CARD: Well, you know that's wrong. That argues that they aren't credible in making their statements about the costs of these new technologies, because today the air bag is relatively expensive, but it's in every vehicle. And the cost has been passed on to the consumers. But it is a costly item.

CURWOOD: When the California Air Resources Board rule becomes official in California, other states are going to have the option to follow suit rather than sticking with the less stringent federal clean air guidelines. How does this expanded market affect carmakers' efforts to meet this challenge?

CARD: Well, it kind of doubles the challenge, because if you're going to meet the mandate in California and you have to meet it in the collective states of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont, you're talking about a significant market in the neighborhood of 175,000 vehicles. That's an awful lot of zero-emission vehicles to be able to sell when the consumers don't want them.

CURWOOD: Explain to me why it is that General Motors feels that consumers don't want cars that get better mileage, that are as comfortable and as quick and convenient as the cars we're used to driving.

CARD: They're available, those cars are available in the market right now. They sell less than one tenth of one percent of the cars in the market are those kinds of vehicles. So, it's not as if the demand is driving the market there. And the demand in the market today is for more utility in the vehicles. For more safety and for more comfort. GM sells the most fuel-efficient mass-produced car in the marketplace, the Chevy Metro. We market it, we try to sell it hard, but it still has a very, very small percentage of market share. And it's the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the U.S. market.

CURWOOD: How do we create incentives for consumers? In other words, how do we create demand for vehicles which will improve public health?

CARD: Well, it's very difficult for government to artificially create demand. I can remember when government artificially created the demand for seat belt ignition turn-off switches. And the consumers immediately rejected them, and Congress very quickly changed that law. So, sometimes governments don't have the best answers to these problems, and they should put the challenge out and allow industry to meet it with the consumer, and have the consumer kind of drive it. But I think clearly the government has a role through tax incentives or through outright grants.

CURWOOD: Andrew Card is Vice President for Government Relations for General Motors and former United States Secretary of Transportation. Thank you for taking this time with me today.

CARD: My pleasure. Thank you.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has a new mission, crusading for environmental protection. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental health with Diane Toomey.

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Health Update

TOOMEY: If you work with certain chemicals on the job, you may be at risk for developing a more severe form of Parkinson's Disease. Italian neurologists asked a group of Parkinson's patients about their occupational exposure to chemicals such as glue, paint, lacquer, and rubber. These substances all contain hydrocarbon solvents, chemicals that in other studies have been linked to Parkinson's Disease. The researchers found that patients who worked with these chemicals needed more medication to control their symptoms. They also noted a correlation between the amount of chemical exposure and the severity of the disease, and noted that this group of Parkinson's patients developed their illness almost three-and-a-half years sooner than others who have the disease. In the study, only a few jobs accounted for almost all the exposures to hydrocarbon chemicals. Those occupations included petroleum, plastic, and rubber workers. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us as letters@loe.org. Once again, that's letters@loe.org. Our postal address: 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And our listener line is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15 each.

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Gorbachev on the Environment

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In a much-anticipated ruling, Russia's Supreme Court has told government prosecutors they cannot reopen their espionage case against Alexander Nikitin. Nikitin is the former naval officer who drew world attention to the environmental threat posed by Russia's decaying nuclear submarine fleet in the Cola peninsula. Nikitin's acquittal was predicted last week by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was one of a number of environmental topics the former Soviet president discussed in a rare interview with Living on Earth. Gorbachev was in New York to address the United Nations Millennium Summit, and took the time to talk with our Political Observer, Mark Hertsgaard.

HERTSGAARD: Nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev is still a world leader with charisma to match.

(Milling people)

HERTSGAARD: Striding down a hotel corridor surrounded by a small, bustling entourage, it's Gorbachev and his aura of calm authority that commands one's attention. Dressed in a gray business suit, he looks healthy and fit as he enters the cramped room set up for our interview. A cushioned armchair awaits him, but he asks for a hard straight-backed chair instead, and sits down near his long-time interpreter, Pavel Polischenko .

POLISCHENKO: I think you could handle that...

HERTSGAARD: Gorbachev's new mission is saving the environment, a problem he calls the number one item on the agenda of the twenty-first century. So, he's formed the Green Cross International group to promote sustainable economics and political reforms, including adoption of his Earth Charter. Most important of all, he tells me, is environmental education, especially of the young.

GORBACHEV: My experience with the environment began many years ago when I was a small child. I grew up in a family of peasants, and it was there that I saw the way that our wheat fields suffered as a result of dust storms, erosion, water erosion, wind erosion. I saw the effect of that on life, on human life. And then when I began to work in the Central Committee, I saw a really terrible picture of the consequences of what we did for the environment. And a sudden view of nature to shape for me, which was very important. And then I had to go through many other experiences, including Chernobyl. Today, in Russia, which is going through a very difficult transformation, suddenly the possibility of environmental action is rather limited. Nevertheless, there is an environmental movement in Russia. There is a change in the people's minds as regards the environment. During Perestroika, for the first time when people had a chance to speak out in a democratic situation, in a democratic setting, the first thing they did was to speak for the environment. The massive rallies, the most massive rallies, were for the environment.

HERTSGAARD: You mention the situation in Russia. Let's talk about that. What is your own view about the environmental situation in Russia today, and what can Western countries do to help improve the situation?

GORBACHEV: In Russia, with its vast open spaces, with its tremendous natural wealth, rivers and forests, for many years we had the philosophy of unlimited resources. Everything is so plentiful, people said. Now we understand that everything is in short supply. Right now, air pollution in Russia has decreased because almost half of our industry is at a standstill, has been virtually destroyed. That's the only possibly positive result of what happened in recent years to our economy. Russia needs help to really do away with those dangerous hot spots of environmental danger. Russia needs to clean up the Cola Peninsula and that area where there are old nuclear submarines. I had a meeting with another minister, the Minister of Atomic Industry, Adamov, who is looking forward to working with other countries, including Nordic countries, on this.

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Putin recently abolished Russia's state Committee for Environmental Protection. His government has been harassing environmental activists. The government also wants to change the laws of Russia to allow the importation of nuclear waste. All of this suggests that Mr. Putin believes that there is no serious environmental crisis in Russia today.

GORBACHEV: I think that it was indeed a mistake that he made. They wanted to reduce the bureaucratic organizations. They wanted to merge certain government agencies. And one mistake that they made was that they incorporated the Committee on the Environment in another department. They merged it with the department, the Ministry of Natural Resources. One might think that there is something, some logic to that decision. I don't think so. I believe that that decision will be reconsidered. I believe it will be changed. I believe that people, not just environmentalists, but people are concerned about this. But this mistake was not made because Putin ignores the environment, because he doesn't understand that Russia is facing an environmental problem. This is not that Putin wants to fight against environmentalists, no. That would not be a serious thing to say.

HERTSGAARD: You say that this decision will be changed. Will it be changed because of the referendum that those activists are organizing to overturn the decree?

GORBACHEV: No, I don't think it'll take a referendum.

HERTSGAARD: Putin will do it himself.

GORBACHEV: I think it is basically a specific question, a specific issue to be addressed. To be reconsidered. The problem can be solved. And I think that the environmentalists, they have a right to demand a referendum, to demand a referendum. But again, I think it's just a form of pressure on the government that needs to be applied. It's all quite legal. I, on this issue, I am on the side of the environmentalists.

HERTSGAARD: In the 1980’s, with nuclear weapons, you acted very imaginatively, and made unilateral concessions. Is there something as imaginative as your unilateral moves on disarmament, that could be transferred to the environmental field?

GORBACHEV: Well, I think that this is a set of global steps that needs to be taken. And I believe that global institutions must play a role here, particularly the United Nations. Number one, we need to do a lot of work to implement the Earth Charter, on the basis of the Earth Charter, without shaping world public opinion. We will not be able to make sure that in every household in every city in every locality, people really remember and act on the environmental imperative. The environment just cannot be set aside. And I think that the environmental problem will be the number one item on the agenda of the twenty-first century. If we just hope that we'll make it somehow, that nature will cope with these problems, somehow, through its own resources, etc., etc., and we can just do what we've been doing, we could face an even graver situation.

HERTSGAARD: Gorbachev had been in meetings all day and his voice was tired. While an aide fetched tea and throat lozenges, he joked about being stuck in a windowless room with a dozen people for the past hour.

GORBACHEV: Yeah, the environment here is getting worse, I must say. (Laughter)

HERTSGAARD: In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled Soviet totalitarianism, helped end the Cold War, and reversed the nuclear arms race. Today, changing humanity's environmental trajectory is an equally imposing challenge, but Gorbachev seems unruffled. He ended our interview by explaining why.

GORBACHEV: As always, I am optimistic.

HERTSGAARD: For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.

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(Conversation, fading to music up and under)

Bird Sanctuary

CURWOOD: As humans encroach on wildlife habitat, there are inevitable clashes. We hit animals with our cars and snare them with our power lines. Sometimes these creatures recover. But with birds, the disabilities usually prevent them from returning to the wild. In upstate New York, many of these injured birds wind up at the Berkshire Bird Paradise. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Karen Kelly paid a visit to the sanctuary and has this report.

(Bird calls)

KELLY: Peter Dubacher is leading me down a gravel path in his back yard. It winds through a mishmash of wire and wood buildings that house hundreds of disabled and abandoned birds. We stop in front of a greenhouse covered with a gray plastic tarp. Dubacher unlatches the door and calls out to his newest resident, a sandhill crane.

DUBACHER: Where's that crazy crane? Come here, crane. Come here. (The crane answers) How are you doing?

KELLY: The crane dutifully trots over and makes a purring sound as Dubacher strokes its long, black beak. It was bred in captivity and then released, but Dubacher says it became so dependent on humans it couldn't survive in the wild.

DUBACHER: The reason why they had to catch these birds is because notice how docile this one is. Here's a situation where he's so overly affectionate and friendly, what are you going to do with him? Unless there's a place that's going to take care of him, you know, they have to get rid of him. So that's where we come into the picture.

KELLY: In other words, Dubacher takes birds that nobody else wants. Like the snowy owl that was stepped on by a cow, or the eagles and hawks that are shot by careless hunters. He welcomes all kinds of feathered creatures to his 20-acre farm in Grafton, New York. Here, Dubacher uses building materials and vegetation to try to recreate each bird's natural environment.

DUBACHER: You have to build your facilities according to their disabilities. You know, each one has a different need, just like a person. And we have to sort of work around their disabilities in order to make them happy and comfortable.

KELLY: This wasn't supposed to be a full-time job for Dubacher . He used to be a chef who occasionally took in injured animals. Then word got around and people started to seek him out. So Dubacher began reading books about ornithology and veterinary medicine. And he spent the past 30 years learning through trial and error.

DUBACHER: I had one situation where I had an eagle that had just come from a veterinarian and his stitches had popped. All of his stitches had popped. So I had to restitch the bird. If I wouldn't have, the bird would have died within minutes. You know, when you're dealing with life and death, sometimes you have to do things, and you learn quickly.

(High-pitched short calls)

DUBACHER: That's an eagle.

KELLY: About twice a week, Dubacher gets a call from somebody who's found an injured bird. It may be a local veterinarian or a wildlife rehabilitator in another state. Others simply show up at his door with a cardboard box containing a frightened animal.

DUBACHER: Behind each bird that's here, there's a human being. That's the way I look at it. So in other words, there was somebody that said no, I might be in a rush to work but I'm going to take the time out to help this little creature. I think what's important is all life is sacred.

(Many bird calls)

KELLY: For biologist Ward Stone, Dubacher is the Mother Theresa of the bird world. Stone is a wildlife pathologist in New York and a frequent visitor to the sanctuary.

STONE: When I first met him, I though that he probably wouldn't be able to make it because I've seen a lot of people talk like he did about saving birds and other wildlife, and then burn out and not actually do it. But here's a guy that put his life into it, worked at it seven days a week, and made it work. And so he's very unusual.

(Footfalls)

KELLY: Dubacher heads down a path that separates the peacocks from the emus and the Canadian geese. To them, this is celebrity. As he approaches, birds rush to the fence to greet him.

(Many bird calls)

KELLY: They seem to be eating well. There's a dead chicken lying in the corner and a pile of frozen lab mice near the door. There's even a kitten chomping away on a leg of venison.

DUBACHER: See the roadkill? That's what smells. That's a deer that came in yesterday, and what I do is I just chop off the legs and so forth, and in that way the birds can come right over and help themselves.

KELLY: It's not a pretty sight, but it does say something about Dubacher's matter-of-fact approach.

DUBACHER: Sometimes chickens die, pigeons die, whatever it is. I don't throw them away, I feed them. We feed them right out so nothing's wasted. It's nature. That's the real world.

KELLY: The sanctuary costs about $40,000 a year to run and depends solely on private donations. At times, Dubacher says, it's a struggle.

DUBACHER: You figure after 30 years of struggling and living basically as a hermit, taking care of eagles and chickens and ducks and pigeons or whatever it is, and you suddenly begin to question yourself, you say, "What am I doing?" you know? But if I had a choice, if you were to take a million dollars and say you've got a choice, you can take that million dollars and leave this place, I wouldn't take it.

(Chickens cluck)

DUBACHER: Hi, fellas.

KELLY: How many are in here, do you think?

DUBACHER: I would say many hundred.

KELLY: Our last stop is the chicken house. Pigeons and chickens are perched above us, below us, and flying in every direction. Peter Dubacher pulls out a hose and starts filling their water buckets, something he'll do five or six more times today. He says he's not trying to save the world. He's just trying to care for his small corner of it. For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Grafton, New York.

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(Bird calls, footfalls, fading to music up and under: "Birds of a feather are flocking outside. Birds of a feather are flocking outside. Birds of a feather are flocking outside. Birds of a feather are flocking outside...")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, we're off to Disney World, where alterations to the environment worry some of the playground's neighbors but please many visitors.

MAN: Hey, it's the perfect escape from reality. I mean, it's so clean, it's so fun, it's so beautiful. I mean, just listen to Mickey sing.

CURWOOD: Florida's Disney dilemma next time on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, and Bree Horwitz. Alison Dean composed our theme. Our Technical Director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our Western Editor. Diane Toomey is our Science Editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our Senior Editor. And Chris Ballman is the Senior Producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, Executive Producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for reporting on marine issues; the Surdna Foundation; the Town Creek Foundation; the James and Kathleen Stone Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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