Panel Says Perchlorate Safe at Levels Higher Than EPA Recommendations/ Jeff Young
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Part One: The National Academy of Sciences says perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient found in drinking water, is less hazardous than government regulators had earlier warned. But one environmental group says the defense industry pressured the Academy to water down its results. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.Part Two: Host Steve Curwood talks with the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Waldman about the science behind perchlorate contamination. (13:00)
California Smoke-Out/ Ingrid Lobet
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You already can’t smoke in bars or restaurants or even on some beaches in California. But authorities could opt for even stricter rules if they decide cigarette smoke is a toxic air contaminant. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet. (05:05)
Reactionary Pedestrian/ Abner Serd
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Abner Serd calls himself a “reactionary pedestrian.” In this audio postcard, he takes to the nation’s highways and byways, and traces the paving of America, as well as his own alienation in his solitary walking quest. (10:00)
Emerging Science Note/Cheap Dates
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Living on Earth’s Jenn Goodman reports on insects taking the easy way out when it comes to giving gifts. (01:20)
Pesticides & Prostate
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Lawn chemicals, weed killers and other pesticides may be possible causes of cancer. That’s the initial findings from a health advisory panel in Britain, which reviewed a number of scientific studies on prostate cancer. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Forman, a researcher at the Universtiy of Leeds in England and a member of the British panel, about its results. (04:45)
The Basket Maker
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Kate Niles made a living digging up secrets of the past. As an archaeologist, she spent hours unearthing shards of pottery and other remnants of civilizations in attempt to reconstruct history. It was on just such an expedition when she learned some secrets from her own past. Host Steve Curwood talks with her about her new novel The Basketmaker, and about her own experience with sexual child abuse. (10:00)
HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Peter Waldman, David Forman, Kate NilesREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Ingrid Lobet, Abner SerdNOTE: Jenn Goodman
CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living On Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. To help protect the health of children, California is taking steps that could extend the ban on cigarette smoking, even in homes and cars. There's no precedent for this regulation of individual behavior, but most experts say it would hold up in court.
LOBET: Well, I spoke to several people and most of them said...probably yes. I spoke with a former Air Board member who said it wasn't unreasonable to think they'll consider banning smoking at home. And I spoke with an attorney who's a fellow in constitutional law with the largely libertarian Cato Institute, and he said California probably would prevail if it tried to do this.
CURWOOD: Also, a controversial government review of perchlorate, a chemical used by the military that has tainted the drinking water of millions of people. Those stories - and the tricky business of insect romance - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Perchlorate - an ingredient used to make rocket fuel - keeps showing up in drinking water, lettuce, milk, even breast milk. The chemical is known to inhibit hormones essential to brain development in infants. Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said very low levels of perchlorate in water supplies could cause harm. The defense industry, the main user of perchlorate, disagreed. So, at the request of the White House, the National Academy of Sciences weighed in on the matter and has just issued its own report. But, as Living on Earth's Jeff Young explains, the controversy is still far from settled.
YOUNG: When some 11 million Americans get a glass of water they also get a little bit of rocket fuel in the form of a chemical called perchlorate. It's been found in water supplies in 35 states from Maryland streams to the California coast and the Los Angeles neighborhood Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis represents.
SOLIS: About 138 wells in L.A. County have been found to be contaminated and in my district alone the cost it would probably take to clean it up would roughly be in the area of $200 million. And we're talking about contamination that was largely done by Department of Defense contractors.
YOUNG: Solis introduced a bill this month that would give the Environmental Protection Agency two years to set a safety standard for perchlorate in drinking water - something the agency started to do years ago. A similar bill in the Senate would also require perchlorate cleanup.
But determining how much perchlorate presents a hazard, and how much needs to be cleaned up, has turned into a long fight between the defense industry and government regulators, with billions of dollars at stake. When EPA first proposed a drinking water standard of just one part perchlorate per every billion parts water, the defense industry fought back with a major public relations and lobbying campaign.
Attorney Erik Olson tracks the issue for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.
OLSON: They are extremely worried about huge costs to them through litigation and through cleanup. And this is a very small investment compared to billions in cleanup costs. Throwing around a few million dollars or tens of millions is almost nothing to them.
YOUNG: The defense companies hired their own scientists and pressed for the National Academy of Sciences to referee the dispute, something EPA agreed to. EPA had based its findings on animal studies. But the Academy's 15-member panel focused on studies with human subjects to come up with a "reference dose," that is, the amount of perchlorate a person could safely consume. The Academy's reference dose was more than 20 times what EPA had proposed.
University of Colorado Pediatrics Professor Dr. Richard Johnston chaired the Academy's panel. Johnston says the recommended level is still well below anything that would harm a pregnant women and her fetus.
JOHNSTON: It was safe, it was conservative, it was straightforward, it was based on human beings, because we are concerned about the most sensitive populations.
YOUNG: Reaction to the report was mixed. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington non-profit tracking perchlorate contamination, welcomed the Academy's findings as something that will support a strong drinking water standard. But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Olson remains skeptical of the Academy's results and its process.
OLSON: Well, we think it's pretty clear that the efforts of the White House, and of the Pentagon and the big defense contractors were quite successful at twisting the arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
YOUNG: After one Academy panelist had to resign due to a conflict of interest, Olson asked the White House and Defense Department for documents about the Academy study. Much of what he got was blacked out. But subject lines of memos and emails show senior officials discussed who they would like on the panel and just what questions panelists should consider.
OLSON: So, we think there's a lot of smoke and there's clearly fire here.
YOUNG: A lot of smoke, perhaps, but no smoking gun. Olson lacks solid evidence for his claims. He says that's because the proof is hidden in the withheld records. The Academy and the White House say Olson is simply wrong.
HOPKINS: Well, it couldn't be further from the truth. This is an attempt to distort the science by attacking the process.
YOUNG: That's Bob Hopkins, a spokesperson for the White House office of Science and Technology. Hopkins says the official discussion about Academy panels is routine. The National Academy's Executive Officer William Colglazier agrees and defends the panel's work.
COLGLAZIER: The government had no influence on the conduct of our work, either on the people that were appointed to our committee or what the committee had to say in its final report.
YOUNG: The Academy's final report is not the final word on perchlorate. It does not set any legally enforceable standard for water. The Academy doesn't even recommend one. It's up to the EPA and state regulators to do that, and there is wide disagreement on just how the academy's safe dose number will translate into numbers for drinking water standards.
Some, but not all, environmentalists worry that the federal standard could go up to 20 parts per billion where the defense industry could escape responsibility for cleanup. A chart from the American Waterworks Association, the professional group for water utilities, shows a range of possible standards based on the Academy's dose, from about one part per billion up to 40 or more. But California health officials say they don't expect their public health goal of 6 parts per billion to change very much.
Meanwhile, industry representatives insist regulators should start from an assumption that much higher levels of perchlorate are safe. James Strock is with the perchlorate industry's PR group called Council on Water Quality. Strock points to a study the Academy reviewed—a study paid for, in part, by the perchlorate makers.
STROCK: What they said that's very clear on the basis of studies is that at levels up to over 200 ppb they found no health effect at all. That initial baseline of where they found no effect level at all will probably be the key element that regulatory agencies will then take into account and apply.
YOUNG: Just what regulators will do with perchlorate in water is still a little murky. What's clear is that the defense industry's fight is not over. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.
CURWOOD: Joining me now is Peter Waldman. He's, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal who's been following the science and politics of perchlorate for the past several years. Hello!
CURWOOD: Now, we've heard where perchlorate comes from, but could you go a little deeper into this? What are the different sources of perchlorate that could get into drinking water?
WALDMAN: Well, by far the largest source in drinking water in the United States is a constituent of solid rocket fuel. Starting in the 1940s, the U.S. military deployed perchlorate as the main oxidizer in solid rocket fuel. Basically, it's extremely stable and can be carried around ships and loaded in and out of trucks and so forth, it won't blow up. Yet, it enhances the burn of the solid rocket fuel many fold.
And what happened was over the years of the Cold War - the decades, really - the military and its contractors, the aerospace industry, would have to clean out the missiles in various places. And in the process of doing so they would discharge the perchlorate onto the ground where it would seep into underground water. And this happened extremely widely, particularly in the west but also in places like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. And the result is, you know, fairly high levels of perchlorate in groundwater in pockets throughout the country.
CURWOOD: What exactly are the health effects of perchlorate? As I understand it, it was once used to treat medical conditions like hypothyroidism - it affects how the thyroid works. But what does this mean?
WALDMAN: Well, the thyroid depends on iodide to produce thyroid hormone. And perchlorate blocks the uptake of iodide into the thyroid gland and, therefore, inhibits the production of thyroid hormone. The debate is all about at what level is it safe for that blockage to occur. And the reason it's a very complicated debate after that simple model is because it turns out that pregnant moms and fetuses and little babies rely on thyroid hormone for the proper and, sort of, normal development of the brain. It's an extremely important hormonal signaler to the brain to form proper neurons and other brain structures. So, that's what's going on physically.
Going forward, the Environmental Protection Agency will have to derive a water standard if they believe this stuff is dangerous, which I'm sure they do. And a water standard will entail a number of different considerations that will certainly bring down the 20 parts per billion. The primary factor there will be what is called “relative source contribution,” and that is simply from what sources is the human population, are Americans, exposed to perchlorate. And it turns out Americans are exposed to perchlorate, not only from drinking water, but also from food, from fruits and vegetables that presumably were irrigated with water - probably from the Colorado River, but other sources as well - that contained perchlorate.
The Food and Drug Administration has found that there are moderate levels of perchlorate in many varieties of fruits and vegetables and in cow's milk. And now that Texas Tech University has found it in breast milk as well, human breast milk, in figuring out relative source contribution they'll have to factor that in. And it's almost certain that that will mean the eventual water standard will come down below 10 parts per billion.
CURWOOD: What accounts are there of people experiencing health effects from exposure to perchlorate?
WALDMAN: It's a very difficult thing to track, as you know how complicated epidemiological studies are to pick up things like, let's say, a decrement of one IQ point over the span of a population of people exposed to a given toxicant. We do know, from a very general level, that incidents of things like autism - which I am not saying is attributable to perchlorate, per se - but autism, other kinds of neural-behavioral disorders in young people, in children - hyperactivity and whatnot, attention deficit disorder - have risen for whatever reason. Possibly, it's a matter of diagnostics or other explanations, one doesn't know, but there are people very concerned that constituents like perchlorate are having an effect on the population.
CURWOOD: So, Peter, what happens next? The Environmental Protection Agency needs to make a rule here now, as I understand it. How do they go about it? And how long do you think it will take?
WALDMAN: The process of developing a federal water standard considers more than just health effects. They look at cost-benefit analysis. And the cost-benefit analysis for perchlorate cleanup will be very interesting. It's very expensive to clean up, there are no exact indicators of human disease. It will be hard for them to quantify if we clean it up to this level, we will save “x” billions of dollars in treating attention deficit disorder or some other malady.
So once it's done the cost-benefit analysis, then it goes to the White House with a standard and says, we think it should be “x” in drinking water, and the White House agrees or disagrees. At that point the political considerations clearly come into the fore, and then a water standard is ultimately issued. That can take probably from two to four years from this point.
CURWOOD: Peter Waldman is a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. Peter, thanks for taking this time with me today.
WALDMAN: Nice to talk to you.
CURWOOD: Coming up: Another first from California. The state considers making it illegal in certain cases to smoke tobacco in the privacy of your own home or car. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: "Naima" John Coltrane: The Best of John Coltrane (Atlantic) 1970]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. From time to time, we bring you news of what regulations are brewing in California because when they make a rule there, it often shows up on the books of the 49 other states at some point down the line. For example, California was the first state to enforce tight emissions controls on vehicles.
It was also the first to ban smoking in restaurants and bars—and now you can't even light up on some beaches in California. But some say those smoking bans still leave certain people vulnerable to the increasingly well-understood health hazards of secondhand tobacco smoke.
Our West Coast Bureau Chief Ingrid Lobet joins me now to talk about what California's contemplating. Hi, Ingrid.
LOBET: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: So, what's in the air? California could declare secondhand tobacco smoke a, quote, "toxic air contaminant," that is, a public danger?
LOBET: That's right. The staff at the Air Resources Board, the powerful air agency here, is preparing an argument that secondhand smoke is still a serious risk to some people.
CURWOOD: Which people? I mean, I thought there was practically no place you could smoke now in California?
LOBET: There aren't very many, and smokers will tell you it's not easy being a smoker here anymore. And per capita cigarette smoking has been dropping here.
But cigarette smoke contains breathable or what they call “respirable” particulate. And they've even counted how much of it is released into the air each year by smokers in California, just the way they would for an industrial emission. And along with that, there's also a list of carcinogenic compounds that are in the smoke, like benzene, butadiene, cadmium and toluene. And, after they counted all these up, they looked at where the exposure was occurring and it's clear that it's very unevenly distributed. Basically, you're only really exposed in places like designated smoking areas, bingo parlors, and, importantly, in people's homes and cars.
CURWOOD: I want to ask you about the homes and cars but first, what are the associated health problems with tobacco smoke? Of course, what comes to mind is lung cancer.
LOBET: Right. The Air Resources Board talks about lung cancer, also breast cancer and an increased risk of heart disease. But if you look at the report carefully, what it also talks about quite a bit is the stated risks to young children. The reports says studies show increased risks of ear infections, lower respiratory infections and low birth weight in newborns. They say that environmental tobacco smoke may impact fetal growth in 1,600 newborns in California. So, this focus on children may be changing the picture.
CURWOOD: That's right, because children don't' get to choose where they are. I mean, an adult can simply choose not to be in a confined space with a smoker but that doesn't work for a child or, of course, a fetus.
LOBET: No, a child can't choose. And what they would do afterwards if they did decide to declare this a toxic air contaminant is really the crux of the matter. They could decide that current efforts aimed at educating people about the problems of secondhand smoke are already enough. Or they could decide to step up those efforts somewhat. Or conceivably, they might try to ban smoking inside people's homes, or certain parts of their homes, or cars when children are present.
CURWOOD: Could they do that?
LOBET: Well, I spoke to several people and most of them said probably yes. I spoke with a former Air Board member who said it's not unreasonable to think that they'll consider banning smoking at home. I spoke with one of the scientists who has reviewed the work to date. He thought it was a great idea. He said he can't bear to see adults lighting up with kids in the car. And I spoke with an attorney who's a constitutional law expert with the libertarian Cato Institute, and he said California would probably prevail if it tried to do this.
CURWOOD: What kind of precedent is there for regulating individual behavior in this way?
LOBET: There's not much precedent. You could point to regulating dry-cleaners or nail polish, but both of those are controlled at the production level. You could point to some controls on barbecues, and in many states there are periodic bans on burning slash out-of- doors. But one veteran lobbyist who I spoke with who helped write the original law told me that it was really intended for industry, not for regulating individual parent's behavior in their homes or cars.
CURWOOD: Yeah, I can imagine now if California wants to ban smoking in homes and cars that the smokers rights groups are really gonna get mobilized. I mean, I would expect that some of them would just be outraged to be told that they can't smoke at home.
LOBET: And we should repeat here that the Air board is not saying it would do that yet. They're just pointing out the high level of particulates that children are exposed to in some closed spaces. But, yes, I think some people would be outraged. This attorney Robert Levy with the Cato Institute characterized a move like this as “fascistic.” He said California would be breaching the privacy of the parent/child relationship. And he asked what would be next? If we know that too much TV can lead to being ignorant of literature, what about television? If we know that children who are fed a poor diet may suffer from childhood obesity and that's a problem, where would it stop?
CURWOOD: I guess we'll find out. Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth's western correspondent. Thanks so much, Ingrid.
LOBET: You're welcome.
[MUSIC: "Boss" The Rumblers: Revenge of the Surf Instrumentals (MCA) 1995]
CURWOOD: Abner Serd had a simple, if ambitious plan. Walk the Appalachian Trail with a friend. Well, that hike never happened. But Mr. Serd did set out on an alternate route along the nation's highways and byways. The detour turned him into, what he calls, a “reactionary pedestrian.” And his string of audio postcards traces the paving of America, as well as his own alienation and conversion to fanaticism. Or maybe he was always that way. You can draw your own conclusion.
SERD: The way it begins, my friend Erin said she'd always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. She asked me if I'd do it with her and I said I would, knowing it was probably just talk, doubting she'd ever really want to do it and figuring it never hurts to dream.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SERD: Then came the accident, a 60 mile-per-hour head-on collision. Three people died. Erin spent four months in a hospital down in Phoenix. I wrote to her while she was convalescing. I told her I'd meet her on Springer Mountain in Georgia, maybe give her some motivation to get up on her shattered legs and walk again. Lest you get the wrong impression of me, I'd like to point out that I didn't stick around to help her get well. I wasn't there to lend her moral support during all those endless months of rehabilitation. I don't know how to be that kind of person, and this ain't that kind of story! This is a story about a fanatic reactionary pedestrian who despises motorized vehicles, who thinks any distance is walking distance as long as they let him across the bridge, who promises to walk 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and then walks 3,000 miles just getting to Georgia.
SERD: Good morning! Thursday morning, October 22nd. Well, it drizzled off and on for about half the night. The bivvy sack I picked up about six weeks ago and haven't had much of a chance to use seems to have kept fairly dry. The sky that was all different shades of gray yesterday is all blue today, with a patch of white here and there. The sun is out and steam is coming off the wet ground. Gonna get moving eventually. Think I'll have breakfast first.
SERD: So, the question is: what is a fanatic reactionary pedestrian? How does one get to be this way? What drives a person - excuse the pun - to pick up and walk 3,000 miles on roads that clearly weren't meant for walking?
SERD: It's a very strange sunset tonight. It's a very colorful sunset - it's brilliant reds and golds. A Hieronymus Bosch kind of theme, it looks like screaming demons from hell all racing to where the sun went down, flying through the sky with bellows of smoke and fire coming out of their mouths. Wow.
SERD: You understand, I didn't start out to be a fanatic. I sort of grew into it over several tens of thousands of miles. I'm not as bad as I used to be, though. I mean, I don't throw rocks any more.
[ROAD WITH CARS RUSHING BY]
SERD: Tuesday afternoon, Texas City. Passing by what looks like a Union Carbide Plant. Another mad scientist's dream with giant gray stacks belching smoke and fire.
SERD: I remember that time in Indiana, the guy in the Dodge Ram looking left and turning right, hurrying to beat the oncoming traffic. Never came to a complete stop! Pushed me a dozen feet backwards before he shut it down! If I hadn't managed to stay on my feet he never would have seen me go under.
SERD: Monday morning the 15th of February. Walking on little tiny seashells along the beach in Louisiana. It's kind of sad that people don't walk on the beach anymore. Last night, Valentine's evening, went down to the beach at just about sunset, watching all the Valentine's couples driving back and forth along the beach, driving in their four-wheel drive vehicles. Kind of made me feel like I'd lost, somehow.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SERD: I still have in my mind pictures of road kills that would break your heart. You want to hear about ‘em?
Noooo, that's okay.
I can describe them in great detail. You sure you don't want to hear it?
No, we don't need that, thank you very much.
The dog thrown up against the barbed wire fence?
Are you sure?
SERD: Okay. Just had an encounter with a young woman back in Franklin - 20-, 25-years-old - and a couple of guys, but she did all the talking. She wanted to know where I took baths at. She said, “You gotta gun, right?” I said, “No, I haven't got a gun.” She said, “Ah, you gotta get yourself a gun!” I said, “They told me I can't have a gun until I start taking my medication again.”
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SERD: I hear a lot these days about racial profiling. Racial profiling. I don't know how many times I've been stopped and questioned by Officer Friendly, not because I was doing anything wrong, but only because I happened to be passing through town on foot. I wanna tell these guys, look, all the really successful criminals drive cars. I should think that's obvious. In fact, the better the car, the more successful the criminal. You should be stopping people in BMWs!
SERD: The Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River. Well, we got about a third of the way across the bridge, then a state police officer hit his lights and stopped and got out of the car and started yelling. He didn't have very good people skills, so I started yelling back at him. I don't have very good people skills either. Nor very much common sense. But I found out there is no bridge anywhere in the state of Louisiana that you can walk across the Mississippi River. It is prohibited. It is becoming illegal to get across this country on foot. I can't believe anybody building a bridge across a river for four lanes of automobiles and not even considering pedestrians and bicycles. Anyway. Waiting on a bus to get across the river. I don't have the energy to get across any other way right now.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SERD: You've got to be out there, breathing exhaust fumes every day. You've got to walk down the road at night and step on a lump and not know whether it's a piece of blown-out tire or another dead owl. That's how you get to be a fanatic reactionary pedestrian. You can read all you want about the paving of America, about urban sprawl and smog and vanishing habitat and on and on, but that's just theory. It's awful out there by the side of the road! It gets worse every day! And here's the crux--instead of saying to yourself, hey, it's pretty bad out here, it's ugly and noisy and smelly and dangerous and I don't really want to be here. Next time, I'm gonna drive! Instead of saying that, you've got to say to yourself, “Hey, it's pretty bad out here, but driving ain't gonna make it any better!” That's how you get to be a reactionary pedestrian. The fanatic part? Well, let's just take it one step at a time.
CURWOOD: Abner Serd is the “fanatical reactionary pedestrian.” He produced his story as part of the series “Hearing Voices.”
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
CURWOOD: Every week, Living on Earth brings you stories about the environment. Now, it's your turn to share a few of your own. We invite you to send them to us in a brief recording. Just visit Living on Earth dot org for complete details. We'll tell you how to make a recording, which could be as simple as picking up the telephone - or sitting down with a friend and telling it with a tape recorder running. Maybe it's a story about trolling for a bit of the country in the big city.
MALE: They say you don't fall into the East River in New York City - you slide in. So when I took up fishing in it from my apartment window, friends said that if I wanted to invite them for dinner, we'd be eating out.
CURWOOD: We'd be eating out. So, what's your story? A selection of stories and excerpts of stories will be chosen for production and posted online and may be broadcast. Now, this is not a contest. There are no winners or losers. It's simply a call for self-expression. Visit Living on Earth dot org for directions, sample submissions and a chance to tell your story.
Just ahead: closing in on the possible culprits behind prostate cancer. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jenn Goodman.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GOODMAN: There's new evidence that romance is dead—at least in the insect world.
Authors of a study in the latest issue of Current Biology conclude that male dance flies bearing false gifts can easily fool females. The trickery involves the ritual of nuptial gift-giving—a common courtship ritual among many species in which males present females with tokens of various sizes and value to increase the chance of copulation. But researchers found that dance fly females are just as likely to accept worthless or inedible tokens that only resemble valuable items as they are to accept the real thing.
In a series of experiments, scientists replaced the edible prey that male flies would generally present with either a large edible gift, a small edible gift, or an inedible cotton ball. They found that the pairs of flies with the large edible gifts copulated the longest. But even females who received cotton balls allowed males to copulate for the same amount of time as if they had been presented with the smaller, though edible, gift.
Because it would be advantageous for males to invest less energy in obtaining nuptial gifts, scientists speculate that males may learn to exploit the females' apparent lack of preference, thus giving rise to a whole new culture of worthless gift-giving. Researchers also observed the next logical consequence of this behavior: re-gifting. After terminating copulation, one male was seen to fly off with his cotton ball and re-gift it three times to three different females in 20 minutes, possibly a new record for any species.
That's this week's Note on Emerging Science, I'm Jenn Goodman.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for N-P-R comes from N-P-R stations, and: The Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, supporting the creation, performance and recording of new music; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at w-k-k-f dot org; This is N-P-R -- National Public Radio.
[MUSIC: James Brown "Funky Drummer" In the Jungle Groove (Polygram) 1986]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coming up: archeology for the body and mind. But first:
Health officials in Britain are voicing concern over chemical weed-killers and pesticides as possible causes of cancer of the prostate. The disease is the second leading cause of cancer-related death among men in the U.K. and U.S., claiming about 40,000 victims a year.
Professor David Forman is a researcher in cancer epidemiology at the University of Leeds in England and a member of the British health advisory panel that found enough evidence to suggest a link between prostate cancer and exposure to pesticides, especially among farm workers.
FORMAN: The committee reviewed a large body of literature on this topic and came away with the conclusion that there was evidence that there was a significant excess of prostate cancer in farm workers who have been exposed to pesticides during the course of their employment. I should say that that evidence was not absolutely decisive but, nevertheless, the studies did seem to point all in the same direction.
CURWOOD: What can they do to protect themselves, these farm workers?
FORMAN: Well, in general it's a matter of really taking notice of the health and safety advice that is given, especially when it comes to chemicals which might have toxic properties. So, wearing appropriate protective clothing, using face masks where necessary, and really making sure that the exposure experience is kept to the absolute minimum.
CURWOOD: Now, what about men who aren't farm workers but occasionally use household weed-killers and pesticides. How vulnerable are they to getting prostate cancer from their exposure to pesticides?
FORMAN: Well, that's a good question because, on the one hand, obviously such people who might use similar compounds in and around the home would usually be associated with much lower levels of exposure because it might just be on an occasional weekend day that they make use of such chemicals. However - and it's quite a big however - people who use such chemicals domestically won't have any accompanying health and safety legislation surrounding that use, and might, therefore, pay less attention to health and safety warnings. So, there is a concern that the exposure might increase as a result of not wearing appropriate protective wear or face masks and so on.
CURWOOD: Now, you're committee has called for new ways to measure exposures to pesticides, herbicides, those kind of chemicals. What do you envision here? And how do you believe it can be put into practice?
FORMAN: Well, one of the big problems in this whole area of science and cancer epidemiology, in general, is getting really good assessments of exposure to specific agents. Really the measures that we've used thus far tend to be very crude. So, what the committee is really asking for is better levels of exposure which, in part is making better use and better employment or occupational records so that one knows within a workforce exactly what chemicals an individual has been exposed to of his lifetime. But, added to that, what is coming rapidly onto the scene is a new generation of biological markers that can be assessed either by looking at blood samples or, in some cases, DNA samples of individuals which can give very informative information on the type of chemicals that that individual has been exposed to.
CURWOOD: So, where do you go from here in terms of policy? What sort of policy decisions to you hope, do you expect, to arise from your committee's decision here?
FORMAN: It really lays down a concern that other agencies within government will have to take up, both in terms of trying to understand in more detail whether there genuinely is an association and also how one can reduce exposure to pesticides amongst exposed groups of workers. It's a cause for concern and we need to keep a close eye on it.
CURWOOD: David Forman is a professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Leeds and a member of the Committee on Carcinogenicity, an advisory panel to the British Department of Health. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
FORMAN: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun" Abby Road (EMI) 1969]
CURWOOD: Stone tools, pottery shards and other clues of ancient cultures are the stuff Kate Niles immersed herself in for years as an archaeologist. Her job was to unearth the secrets of the past, and find meaning in the surviving remnants. As she describes it, “the art and science of archaeology is about tracing memory.”
But Kate Niles had a secret that she herself didn't realize until she started digging into her own past. What she found was a string of memories leading her back to her sexual abuse by her father. Now she's penned a novel based on her experiences. It's called “The Basket Maker,” and Ms. Niles joins me now from Ignacio, Colorado. Kate, hello.
CURWOOD: I have to say that you've written an unusual book.
CURWOOD: You go from incest, to nature, to archeology, Native American history and culture, all in one grand sweep. How do they connect?
NILES: Well, for me, when I first debated writing this - I always knew I had to write a book, and there are lots of good incest memoirs out there, they're non-fiction. And I realize that what saved my life was, what felt like at that time, my imagination. I was very enamored of Native American culture. I lived in this absolutely stunning part of the world that, you know, I could find trees under which to sit, and there was something about their wisdom that really rubbed off on me.
And then, as I started to really pick apart what was happening to me, and what had happened to me, I realized that my parents in some ways have really been kind of walking Cartesian splits in that they were brilliant from the head up and absolutely clueless from the head down. And so, the mind/body split was being personified in them. And, as a result, I really came to realize if you're in a situation where you are not allowed to own the experiences that are happening to you, however terrible, it's like telling a tree that you can only show the rings where the good years happened, where it was moist and there was lots of growth. And that you really aren't allowed to show the drought rings that are really tight and skinny and show that it was a really rough year.
Now, a tree can't do that. And to ask a tree to do that is to ask it to not be itself, and to cut out part of its memory. You do that to a human being, you are doing exactly the same thing. And so you end up with a split person, or a person who's barely functioning - a tree that can't stand on its own. And so, in order to get back to that, both at the individual, internal level - you have to own what is natural, what happened to that self, the bad years as well as the good years, the bad experiences as well as the good experiences.
CURWOOD: Now, there are few central characters in your book. And you know what? I can't help but wonder if they mirror characters in your own life. So first, can you tell me a little about Sarah Graves, and who she resembles from your own life?
NILES: Sarah resembles me as a child, I think, and she certainly is the most autobiographically- based character in the book. Her experience growing up as an abused child was my experience, and so that story was the story I needed to tell.
CURWOOD: Now, many of the people who have been the targets of sexual abuse tend to block out memories of those events for a long time.
CURWOOD: Typically, they're well into adulthood, they could be in their 20s, 30s, 40s, whatever.
CURWOOD: And I'm wondering if you did the same, and if so, when it all came flooding back to you?
NILES: Well, yes, I did the same. Although now that I've really put myself back together I see so many things that I did that were in response to the abuse that I never thought of that way until I got back in touch with those memories. But, I was 29 years old when I kind of fell through the rabbit hole, I guess is what it felt like. I went to Europe that summer. I was 29, I was married, I was bored out of my mind. Basically, I was dead. A lot of people who kind of talk about having traumatic experiences, as soon as they try to get in touch with their emotions - I mean, they numb out a lot of things. So, of course, I was bored because I was numb.
Anyway, I went to Europe, and I was part of an archeological team digging Paleolithic sites. Really old stuff like Neanderthal sites and early human sites and things like that. And something happened there. I think I got far enough away from home. And I was in a place where the continuity of history was huge - in other words, it could hold memory. I could sit there on a bench that had been built in the 1300s. There was a lot to Europe that was about memory, and being able to live with those memories, good and bad - which I don't think America does as well.
Anyway, I was there. And I had an aunt that summer. She was 56 years old and she had been single all her life, and she was dying of colon cancer. And I just knew that, you know, that would be me unless I dealt with whatever was in me. And I had no idea what that was but I knew that if I didn't get out whatever was within me, what was in me was going to destroy me.
CURWOOD: Kate Niles, in your novel “The Basket Maker” there are many references to digging up the past. And, of course, you've actually done that professionally as an archeologist. So tell me, what was it like for you to dig back emotionally for these memories while you were writing your book?
NILES: Right. You know, that was one of the things that I didn't understand about my life until I started to work on the memories - what was it about archeology that was so compelling to me? At an emotional level and intellectual level I certainly understood it, because I was not allowed to have my past, and what happened to me as a child did not happen. So, anything to help facilitate memory extraction became a source of great meaning and fascination for me. So, that's where I think a lot of the deeper stuff was around archeology.
And then, in writing the novel - boy, that brought up some things that I don't think can be brought up any other way. And it was extremely healing. One of my mentors once said that part of the purpose of art is to make order out of chaos, and that certainly what I was doing.
CURWOOD: What do you have in mind? What did it allow you to do that you just couldn't do it any other way?
NILES: Well, for instance, the father character, the father/daughter relationship in the book - which in a lot of ways, at a very basic level for me, this book was giving myself permission to have the father/daughter story that I did not get to have as a child. And one of my mentors, at one point during a draft, said, “Well, you have the nasty parts down. Now you need to get at what's special about this relationship.” And he was absolutely right. And I ended up going up into the mountains and sobbing and screaming. Because, ultimately, what's so tragic is that you love your father, you know? That you loved that person and this person was doing terrible harm to you, but also had some good qualities to them. And that in many ways was the part that was far harder to own. You know, recognizing that for purposes of the book, and for purposes of the relationship between the father and the daughter, was absolutely crucial. And I don't think I would have done that work except that I had this higher interest in producing an artful book.
CURWOOD: How have your parents dealt with this?
NILES: Mixed. You know, in some ways better than I would have thought. They still are very much in denial. They do not think this happened. I mean, for my mother to admit this happened is to admit that her 40-some-year marriage is a lie. My father, of course, says he never does things like this and he never would have done anything like this. You know, they haven't given me a whole lot of grief about it because I think in some ways they're afraid, too. They don't really want to drag it up either.
CURWOOD: Well, now you're very public about this.
NILES: Right, right. And I guess they have compartmentalized this so much and put in their own - you know, Primo Levi writes about this for the Holocaust, how could the Nazi's do what they did? And it goes beyond lying to yourself; it goes to a place where you construct a whole different reality that either completely justifies what happens, or says that what happened didn't happen. And it's like building a house of cards. And so, if you were to admit to one little lie, that entire house of cards is going to come down. So, they've constructed this reality for them that does not allow for that to happen.
CURWOOD: Let's talk a bit about the ending of your book. Now, in it you have Sarah's father getting arrested for his crime. He's literally caught in the act by the neighbors…
CURWOOD: And then sent off to jail. In fact, mom gets indicted, too.
CURWOOD: How close is this to the reality of your life? And why did you choose this ending?
NILES: It is not at all close to the reality of my life. One of the reasons I set it in 1973 was because that was be - well, that was when I was growing up - but also, very practically, it was before we had doctors and police and teachers being trained to look for symptoms of abuse. And so, children in those situations are horribly isolated and they're not going to talk about anything that remotely connects to it. You know, again, that's probably the biggest fairy tale part of this is I wanted to take what I know happens more often in modern situations - you know, the 90s and the 2000s - and have it happen in 1973. And they only way that was going to happen, at that point, was for somebody to directly witness it.
CURWOOD: How strongly did you want the police to come and arrest your father?
NILES: Well, at the time, not at all. Because first of all, it was very, I was in denial, and one of the things that happens to children - and I think this was the part that I really needed to work through in the book, and I have places where it is - is that you're very caught. Because the hand that's feeding you is also the hand that's biting you, and it makes for kind of a Stockholm syndrome where you're colluding in the terror because it's the only way that you can survive. And on top of that - and this is the real double-whammy of incest - is that you love your father and you will do anything to please your father. I mean, kids want to please their parents and, you know, of course a good part of your heart, if you have any heart at all, doesn't want that to happen. And in many ways you end up feeling like you'll sacrifice yourself for that to stay intact. So, you know, not at all when I was a kid.
CURWOOD: What's the significance of the title of your book, Kate Niles, “The Basket Maker?” Talk to me about the Indian culture from which this comes.
NILES: Well, the basket makers, themselves, were prehistoric Native American population in this area, and they were hunting and gathering peoples who then began to do agriculture. Once they really go full force into agriculture and start building houses and things like that, they move into what's called Ancestral Puebloan peoples - the old term is Anasazi. So, it comes from that. Ultimately, though, I think the basket is what we have to build for ourselves. A container that will hold everything that we are, and that's big enough to hold all our pain and love and ecstasy and joy and sorrow.
CURWOOD: Kate Niles teaches writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and is author of the novel “The Basket Maker.” Kate, thanks for speaking with me today.
NILES: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Billy McLaughlin “Breaking of the Shells" Fingerdance (Narada) 1996]
[EARTHEAR: Jean Roche “White-Browed Robin Chat” EARTHEAR VOL 2 OCT 01, #2]
CURWOOD: We take you now to Tsavo, Kenya for a treat from one of nature's stellar soloists.
[BIRD SINGS MELODIC TUNE]
CURWOOD: Jean Roché recorded this white-browed Robin Chat, whose strong, fluid melodies celebrate the morning.
CURWOOD: Hey, I wonder if the folks at National Geographic are paying that bird any royalties?
[BIRD SINGING FADES]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, and Steve Gregory - with help from Carl Lindemann. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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