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

September 30, 2011

Air Date: September 30, 2011



President's Science Advisor Discusses Energy R&D

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The Department of Energy has released a new far-reaching to transform the way the U.S. is powered. The Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, tells host Bruce Gellerman about some of the conventional and unconventional solutions to meet our nation’s energy challenges. (06:55)

The Most Sustainable Street in LA / Ingrid Lobet

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Neighborhoods at the foot of the mountains north of Los Angeles sometimes flood with heavy rains. But one street in Sun Valley has been re-engineered to capture the rain and turn it to drinking water. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports. (05:25)

Remembering Wangari Maathai

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Kenyan scientist Wangari Maathai, revered for her environmental and human rights work in Africa, has passed away at 71. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the first woman in eastern Africa to hold a doctorate, and the visionary behind the Green Belt movement that pays women to plant trees across Kenya. Host Bruce Gellerman and Steve Curwood look back at Living on Earth’s conversations with the visionary woman who helped plant millions of trees. (10:35)

Chemicals in Dry Cleaned Clothes

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EPA currently regulates the chemicals dry cleaning businesses use, but no one had ever investigated which compounds remain on clothes after cleaning. Then sixteen year old Alexa Dantzler got help from Georgetown University chemistry Professor Paul Roepe to answer that question for her science fair project. They tell host Bruce Gellerman about the surprising results of their published research. (06:35)

BirdNote ® – Snail Kite – Bird of the Everglades / Michael Stein

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Michael Stein describes a unique Florida bird whose survival depends on the ebbs and flows of the region’s wetlands. (Photo: © Tom Grey) (02:15)

The Tangled Web of Montana Spiders / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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As invasive plants take root and spread in the grasslands of Missoula, Montana, a tiny native spider is flourishing on the plants and helping wreak havoc on the ecosystem. Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro met with a scientist who is monitoring the transformation and trying to keep the cascade of events in check. (05:30)

Science Note: Supermolecular Suitcases / Daniel Gross

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Researchers at New York University and the University of Milan created a hollow ‘suitcase’ structure that can capture unstable molecules or transport chemical catalysts. Its deometric shape comes all the way from the ancient Greek physicist Archimedes. Living on Earth’s Daniel Gross reports. (01:45)

Truck Driver Adds Two Wheels

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There’s a new sight on America’s highways. On 18-wheelers, on the backs of tractor trailer rigs, you’re beginning to see bicycles. (05:30)

Earth Ear/Windchimes in the Rain

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A heavy storm in California shakes the chimes at midnight. (01:15)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: John Holdren, Wangari Maathai, Scott Grenerth
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Steve Curwood, Michael Stein, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Daniel Gross, Eric Van der Wyk.


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The President’s science advisor paints a vision of our energy future:

HOLDREN: One, sort of, out of the box activity would be to figure out how to make photovoltaic cells as cheap as paint, and in fact, you could use them like paint - put them on roofs, walls, vehicles and so on.

GELLERMAN: Also, we remember Wangari Maathai. Helping African women plant tens of millions of trees to enrich their lives and the environment won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004:

MAATHAI: I was extremely overwhelmed, and I immediately dug a hole and planted a Nandi Flame. It’s a tree that is, ah, it grows quite tall. And at the top when it has flowers they are red hot. So from a distance, the tree looks like it is aflame.

GELLERMAN: One flame has gone out, but the fire she lit still burns bright. Wangari Maathai and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


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

President's Science Advisor Discusses Energy R&D

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. More than 80 percent of the energy we use comes from burning coal and oil. The fossil fuels are cheap and abundant, but they're also dirty and supplies of petroleum pose national security risks.

Now comes a new federal report that concludes our nation is at a crossroads, and it issues an urgent call for energy transformation. The Department of Energy’s first Quadrennial Technology Report deals with our energy future, federal research dollars and hard budget choices.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is President Obama’s top science advisor. It was Dr. Holdren who asked the DOE for the energy report.

HOLDREN: We face an enormous set of energy challenges in respect to the relation of energy in our economy, energy in our environment, energy in our national security. And, we’re not currently innovating rapidly enough to be able to develop and deploy the new and better energy technologies we’re going to need to meet those challenges.

That’s going to take more effort from the private sector, but it’s also going to take more effort from the public sector - from the government.

GELLERMAN: Well, I want to ask you about the funding for the Department of Energy’s technology office - and that is, it went down from over four billion just a year ago to three billion now. We’re spending a billion dollars a day just on oil, so the DOE’s investment in energy technologies is a drop in the bucket, and it’s almost equal to the entire budget that all of private industry spends.

HODLREN: Well, it’s always been true that the amount of money spent in research and development in a field is only a modest fraction of the amount we spend on the commodities in question in the same time period.

So, for example, the average across US industry is four percent of total revenues get spent on R&D. Energy, unfortunately, is well below that average mark. Public and private spending together on energy research and development is under one percent of what we spend for energy itself.

GELLERMAN: I noticed the pharmacy industry spends nearly 20 percent.

HOLDREN: Yes, the pharmacy industry is extraordinary in how much they spend. Software also spends a lot. The fact that we spend less than one percent on energy R&D - of what we spend on energy altogether - is clearly an anomaly. It’s too little. We need to boost what the government is doing. We need to boost what the private sector is doing.

GELLERMAN: The government is by far the largest user of energy - the single user of energy - in the nation and 90 percent of that goes to the Department of Defense.

Electricity generated at power plants is transmitted through high-voltage power lines. The DOE wants to revamp the network of nearly 160,000 miles of lines run across America, known as “the grid.” (Courtesy of Duke Energy, QTR Review)

HOLDREN: Yes, that’s true, and the Department of Defense is very much aware of the extent of its energy dependence. And it has become, in recent years, very interested in improving the energy efficiency of the vehicles and the other systems that use energy that the Department of Defense relies on, because that dependence on foreign oil creates foreign policy and military vulnerabilities.

GELLERMAN: Well, with the emphasis on oil and transportation fuels, does that mean that there’s less emphasis on stationary sources like power generating sources and the environment is taking a back seat, because those are the sources that are contributing to climate change.

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, all of the fossil fuels we burn contribute to climate change, whether they’re burned in vehicles or in electric power plants or in residential gas furnaces.

But the question as to whether there is too much emphasis on stationary sources in the current R&D portfolio of the DOE, I would put it a different way - I would say there’s too little emphasis on the mobile sources, too little emphasis on transportation. But I would not recommend reducing what we spend on the stationary sources, because that is essential. It’s essential from the standpoint of the economy. It’s essential from the standpoint of the environment. And it’s also essential from the standpoint of national security.

GELLERMAN: The United States produces about four percent of its energy from renewable sources…

HOLDREN: That’s the right ballpark, yes.

GELLERMAN: And I noticed a report that just came out that said from 1990-2010, carbon dioxide emissions have gone up 45 percent - that’s worldwide, and the United States has gone up commensurately in that 20 year period - despite energy efficiency, despite alternatives. In your mind, what do we need to do to address climate change?

This thermal image of houses in front of a coal-fired power plant shows the loss of energy through heat. The average coal plant loses about two-thirds of its energy as heat, and heat escapes from houses through the roof. (Credit: Tyrone Turner, QTR Review)

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, we have been improving energy efficiency steadily; we just have not improved it rapidly enough to offset the growth in the total amount of energy used. And the result is that on the whole, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, over the period you mentioned, have been going up - although they have gone down for the last few years, unfortunately for a bad reason, namely the great slow down in economic growth.

Which finally put us into a position where energy efficiency was improving faster than overall energy use was growing, but that’s not the right way to do it. The right way to do it is a mix of continuing efforts to improve energy efficiency and continuing efforts to bring more carbon-free energy sources into the balance sheet. And that can be biofuels, it can be electricity from windmills and photovoltaic cells, it can be advanced fossil fuel technologies that capture the carbon dioxide and keep it out of the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: Twenty percent of the Department of Energy’s budget for technology is supposed to go for 'out of the box activities.' You got a favorite ‘out of the box activity?'

HOLDREN: Oh, I have a lot of them, actually. One sort of out of the box activity would be to figure out how to make photovoltaic cells as cheap as paint. And, in fact, you could use them like paint - put them on roofs, walls, vehicles and so on. In fact, I know some folks who are working on a nanotechnology enabled photovoltaic paint for automobiles that would enable hybrid cars to recharge their batteries in part off sunlight hitting the car.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Holdren, you've still got the passion for science.


GELLERMAN: But are you frustrated? You’ve been in the office for three years. It’s a tough job.

HOLDREN: Well, it’s an exciting job. You know, we have a president who understands the importance and the potential of science and technology in helping us meet our national aspirations. There are frustrations, of course, in Washington DC, but I’m still finding that the exhilaration outweighs the frustration.

GELLERMAN: You going to stick around for a second term, if that comes to pass?

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, I very much hope a second term comes to pass, and whether I stick around will be up to the President.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Holdren, thank you so very much.

HOLDREN: My pleasure, great talking with you. And it’s a great show. Keep up the good work!

GELLERMAN: We’ll try! Dr. John Holdren is President Obama’s top science advisor. For more - and to hear an interview with the author of the Energy Department’s report - Under Secretary for Science Steven Koonin - go to our web site: L-O-E dot ORG.

Related links:
- The DOE’s Under Secretary of Science, Steve Koonin lead the technology review. Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s interview with him here.
- Visit the Office of Science and Technology Policy site.
- Read the Quadrennial Technology Review here.
- Other solutions from the Department of Energy.

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[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” from Clear Spot (Warner Brothers 1972)]

The Most Sustainable Street in LA

GELLERMAN: When it rains in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles, water pours down into the valley basin below. The city’s concrete and paved streets speed and channel the flow of run off – the water often inundates low-lying neighborhoods. But as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, one street seems to have solved the problem.


LOBET: The LA neighborhood known as Sun Valley is sun-baked and far from the coastal breezes that cool parts of the city. Some residents have dealt with the cost of keeping up their yards by paving them over. But on one street - Elmer Avenue - the yards are especially vibrant.

HERNANDEZ: This neighborhood has gone through a transformation. My name is Edward Hernandez and I have been an Elmer Avenue resident for 35 years. I grew up on this Avenue.

LOBET: When it rains, forty acres of foothill drain down onto Elmer Avenue. For decades, residents struggled with water.

HERNANDEZ: We just had what I think is neglect from the city with our street paving condition. Anytime we did get a pothole repaired, it did not last a storm. It wouldn’t last a storm.

LOBET: Word of the conditions on Elmer Avenue reached Edward Belden and his boss Nancy Steele of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. They remember what they saw:

BELDEN: This street in particular has a huge amount of water from upstream that comes down to it. This is actually the area where all the newscasters come out to. You know, some of the water comes up to cars - up to the wheel wells of cars.

STEELE: So, imagine a street with no curbs, no gutters, no sidewalks, no streetlights. The grass just ended at the asphalt. And people parked usually on the asphalt, but sometimes they parked on the grass.

LOBET: Elmer Avenue was just what the Watershed Council was looking for: a neighborhood with very porous soils, serious flooding problems, residents who were game for a big experiment and a street that needed resurfacing.


LOBET: These were the first heavy rains to fall on the re-engineered street. What the Watershed Council, together with half a dozen agencies, did, was dig up the pavement and put in a system to mimic the original water dynamics of the area. Now rainwater flows along new curbs, then into holes in the curb that lead to a series of swales, or carved out depressions, lined with gravel and native plants. Again Nancy Steele.

STEELE: Rain that falls on the street flows into the swale, fills up, and when it get above a certain level, the water actually flows back out of the swale, into the gutter, and down to the next swale on the street.

LOBET: The water then fills a gravel cavern beneath the street, and recharges wells that LA actually uses for drinking water. The agencies monitor the quality and amount of the percolating water. So far, it is both clean and plentiful.

STEELE: So, this street is actually generating more water than the people on this street can use in a year.

LOBET: The City of Los Angeles is looking for funding to replicate some of the features here. Neighbors now choose Elmer Avenue to stroll. They’re drawn to the new oaks and sycamores, and the new meandering sidewalks. Maria Oliva lives on a different street nearby.


OLIVA TRANSLATION: The neighbors say this street is really beautiful. And you know, it makes people jealous. Why don’t they do our street? The next street is bad. The other one over there is worse. And this one looks so good. I hope they’ll be able to do the other streets here.


Sidewalks on Elmer Avenue are not straight, they meander adding visual interest. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: On a Saturday morning, some neighbors are out for a work party to help the new landscaping get established.

HERNANDEZ: Hey Lane! What are you doing here on a Saturday?


LOBET: Edward Hernandez’ front yard is immaculate, and now includes permeable pavers. He says the benefits of the retrofit go beyond fixing the water problems.

HERNANDEZ: I’m not a scientist, but I can just tell from living here all these years, is the ecosystem changed here. We saw more variety of birds, and you know, little creatures and stuff like that that we didn't seen before. And I’m sure it’s a result of having much more variety in the vegetation that we have now compared to before, where we, for the most part, stuck to the same types of plants.

LOBET: And he says the remake has brought back something besides wildlife.

HERNANDEZ: The project has really reinvigorated a sense of community here. Besides all the environmental benefits and infrastructure improvements, it has really brought us back together. Because it’s something I remember as a kid - we all knew each other, and kids were out here on bikes playing together, and we kind of lost that these last few decades.

LOBET: Hernandez shakes his head. Who, he says, would have thought Elmer Avenue would make Sunset Magazine? He was skeptical at first that something so cutting edge would come to his neighborhood. Now, some call it the most sustainable street in Los Angeles. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.


Related links:
- Council for Watershed Health
- Create a Smart Street Where You Live
- Other Smart Street Projects in the United States

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[MUSIC: Joe Sample “Cannery Row” from Carmel (UMG Recordings 1979).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead – the life and times of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi - in her own words. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[MUSIC: Chick Corea: “Sometime Ago” from Return To Forever (ECM Records 1972).]

Remembering Wangari Maathai

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. The environmental activist, politician, feminist, scientist and human rights advocate was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize - that was back in 2004 for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Born in the central highlands of Kenya, Wangari Maathai died on September 25th. She was 71. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called her “a true African heroine.” Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood met and spoke with Wangari Maathai many times over the years, and Steve joins me in the studio. So, Steve, what was she really like?

CURWOOD: In a word, Bruce: amazing. I mean here was a woman that had tremendous demands on her, huge ambitions, and yet she was so humble. She would take the time to get something right. We interviewed her a number of times, as you noted, and she’d always stick around to answer that last question - whatever you needed to get the story right.

I remember there was a documentary that we did, and in it we noted a UN study that found only some nine trees were being re-planted in Africa for every 100 that were being cut down. So we had this scene where Wangari Maathai goes to the UN headquarters in New York with a shovel to plant a tree.


MAATHAI: When God created the earth, he covered it the way it is here. The soil is supposed to be covered in its green color. When you see the soil, it is crying to be clothed with green vegetation. That’s the nature of the land. So, when the soil is exposed, in many ways, it is crying out for help - it is naked - and it needs to be clothed. It needs color. It needs cloth of green. That is where the concept of the Green Belt Movement came from. It is to clothe the earth with her dress.

CURWOOD: Bruce, another word to describe Wangari Maathai: ambitious. Like, how about her goal to plant a billion trees? Oh yeah.

When I spoke to her in 2007, she'd published her autobiography: "Unbowed: A Memoir." And when we spoke, she talked about starting the Green Belt Movement some 30 years earlier. Now this movement encouraged women to plant trees as a means of improving their lives, and preserving the environment, and empowering themselves. And at the time we talked, that group had already, by itself, planted some 30 million trees.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; E Pants)

MAATHAI: (Laughs). Yeah, we are still planting. It is very important for people to understand that we are dealing with a region and a continent that is greatly deforested. Ah, and it needs literally millions and millions of trees, and mobilization of as many hands as can possibly be found.
Especially, now that the scientists are telling us with more certainty that the climate change is indeed happening. It’s very, very important for us to plant trees as well as protect the trees that are standing, because these are our friends - they help us fix the carbon that is now in the atmosphere.

CURWOOD: When you received the Nobel Peace Prize you got one of those very famous phone calls, ah, from Norway. What was just about the first thing you did after you got that phone call?

MAATHAI: I was so overwhelmed. I was literally out of myself, tears rolling down my cheeks, unbelieving. And I happened to be at this site where I was facing Mount Kenya, and for generations of past for my people this mountain was a holy mountain.

And it was one of the mountains that we had been trying to save from deforestation. So I was extremely overwhelmed, and I immediately dug a hole and planted a Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: The Nandi Flame tree, this is the bright orange flowering tree?

MAATHAI: Yeah, it’s a tree that is, ah, it grows quite tall. And at the top, when it has flowers, they are red hot. So, from a distance, the tree looks like it is aflame. That’s why I guess the English, when they first saw the tree, they called it Nandi Flame.

CURWOOD: Now, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along the way you wound up in jail, not once, not twice, but several times, all because, what? You were planting trees? Why were you jailed for planting trees?

MAATHAI: Well, the jailing was not because of planting trees per se. It was because in the course of planting trees, in the course of mobilizing women, in the course of creating networks of women to plant trees, it had become necessary to also give them information on how the environment is destroyed sometimes by the state.
And it became necessary for us to raise our voices and tell the government that it was not managing those resources responsibly. Ah, and it was while we were doing this that we got arrested. The actual planting of trees would have been alright.
But it would have been completely nonsensical for us to be planting trees on one side and other people are cutting them on the other. So we decided to protect the standing trees and especially forests, which also serve as the water catchment areas for millions of people who live around the mountains.

CURWOOD: Now it’s not easy for women anywhere on the planet, but I don’t know if people understand how difficult it is to be an outspoken woman in East Africa, or was. You, uh, were the first woman of color to have a PhD in Central and East Africa as I understand it.

Wangari Maathai with then-Senator Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya. August 2006. (Wikipedia Creative Commons; Fredrick Onyango)

MAATHAI: Yes indeed. It’s always very difficult to be a pioneer. And women, I guess, have been pioneering for a long time trying to break the barriers of discrimination and denial of capacity to exploit our potential. And going to school for me was breaking one of those barriers.

Getting to high school, coming to America and attending college, going home and registering for a PhD; all these were breaking barriers. And sometimes when you are breaking barriers, some people will applaud you, but some people want to discourage you because they think you are breaking those barriers that should not be broken, because people want to fix you in a box.

CURWOOD: Now, despite your fame and success, the Green Belt Movement has subsisted on, well, you don’t have a whole lot of money. There are times when, what? You don’t have enough money to buy the plastic tubes that your volunteers use for stuffing in soil and seedlings. You don’t have that basic item to accommodate everyone who wants to plant trees.

MAATHAI: Yes. That has always been our challenge, from the very beginning. And we hope that, at least now, that our work has been validated that we would receive the support we need. Right now, as I speak, our biggest challenge is office space so that we can expand, because there is so much demand for us, both locally and globally.

CURWOOD: I know one area where you’ve been raising awareness, uh, is the importance of the vast tropical rainforest in Africa’s Congo Basin, which is so much less known than the Amazon rainforest. How’s that going?

MAATHAI: That’s going very well. And I’m very very happy that the climate change discussion is gaining momentum. And people are recognizing that one of the ways in which we can help the planet is by planting trees, but also by protecting the trees that are standing.

So, I hope that governments that have money will help the African governments so that they can protect that forest from logging. Because it’s also important to say that the logging is not being done by local people. The logging of these forests is usually done by big timber companies from developed countries.

So, considering that it is the developed countries that have contributed so much to the greenhouse gasses that are causing the warming up of the earth, it is only appropriate that they too should participate in assisting governments, not only to stop the logging, but to help with the rehabilitation of the logged areas.

CURWOOD: I want to mention something personal to you. I live in New Hampshire and it’s an old, old house - 250 years old - and there’s a sugar maple - there’s a bunch of sugar maples that were planted probably not long after the house was built - and one of them has run out of time. It’s probably 175 years old. The wires that have been holding it together, and the other efforts that have been made to keep it going - just nothing more can be done. And it has to come down. In fact, I think it’s going to come down tomorrow.

MAATHAI: I’m so sorry to hear that. But it also means that we understand that all living things come to an end. And the only thing we can say is that after so many years of service that tree is ready to be recycled. How wonderful it would be if all of us would be recycled when our time comes, and we would be able to say, like that tree, “I have done my part.”

Related links:
- Share your condolences and read them from people around the world
- Part I: How to Get 100 Thousand Poor People to Plant Trees
- Part II: More Than Trees
- Part III: Soldier Planters, River Keeper Children and Green Belt's Future
- Wangari Maathai: A Watering Can, Some Seedlings, and the Greening of a Nation

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[MUSIC: Omar Sosa “Innocence” from Calma (OTA Records 2011).]
GELLERMAN: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai. She spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood in 2007. At last count, the Green Belt Movement has planted some 45 million trees and helped 900 thousand women across the African continent. Wangari Maathai requested that she not be buried in a coffin made of wood.

Chemicals in Dry Cleaned Clothes

GELLERMAN: There’s nothing dry about dry cleaning - the process uses liquid solvents to remove soils and stains. There are federal standards for work place exposures to the chemicals that are used, but none for the residues that might linger on our clothes, because no one measured what might remain when they come back from the dry cleaner until Alexa Dantzler.

Alexa is a high school student from Arlington Virginia, who reached out to Georgetown University and got help from chemist Paul Roepe. Alexa, welcome to Living on Earth!

DANTZLER: Thank you!

GELLERMAN: And Dr. Roepe, welcome to you too!

ROEPE: Thank you for having us.

GELLERMAN: So, let’s start with you Alexa. Where did you get the idea for investigating dry cleaned clothes?

DANTZLER: Well, freshman year, I had to take a biology honors course, and we were required to do a science fair project. So I was flipping through a book one day, and it mentioned perchloroethylene - classified as a probable carcinogen - has actually been found in ground water and soil that has come from the dry cleaning establishments.
So I thought, well, if it could be detected in these various environments, could the residue from the dry cleaning be, you know, contained in these clothes. So I wanted to quantify the PERC in the clothes.

GELLERMAN: So at what point, Alexa, did you decide you needed help with your research?

DANTZLER: Well that first year, I had used a method that used silver nitrate, and I tried to titrate the PERC, but it was an imprecise way of measuring the PERC. So I just emailed a couple universities nearby in the DC area including Georgetown. And Dr. Roepe was the only one who responded to me and said, "come on over" and that it'd be very interesting.

GELLERMAN: Hm. Well, Dr. Roepe, you’re pretty inviting.

ROEPE: (Laughs). I try to be, yeah.

GELLERMAN: Well, what did you think when you got the call?

ROEPE: Well, to be honest, I was a little surprised that a high school student would be asking these questions, and I assumed that they had already been answered. And I did some lit searches, and some web searches, and I couldn't find anything that addressed this simple question that this bold young student was asking.

GELLERMAN: So, PERC. Tell me a little bit about this chemical called PERC.

ROEPE: So, PERC is short for perchloroethylene. It’s still not anywhere near as well studied as it probably should be or needs to be. Perchloroethylene is a neurotoxicant, it can cause dizziness, blurred vision, that sort of thing. It can cause liver damage and kidney damage.

Alexa Dantzler and Paul Roepe (Photo: Anita Dantzler)

GELLERMAN: So Alexa, tell me about the experimental design - how you found out what was in the clothes coming back from the cleaners.

DANTZLER: So what we did was - with the help of my mom - we sewed these four types of fabric: silk, cotton, wool, and polyester in little cloths, and we sewed them under jackets, so they couldn’t be detected. And we sent them to seven different dry cleaners, and after they were dry cleaned, I placed them in the freezer, and then they were taken to Georgetown and they were frozen until we were ready to extract them.

GELLERMAN: So to the layperson, what did you find?

ROEPE: We found several things. We asked simple questions such as: how does the fabric type influence the amount of perchloroethylene that's retained? Wool, for example, is very porous, and has really fat looking fibers under a microscope, whereas silk is very, very different in structure.

So we thought that that might influence the amount that’s retained, and we did indeed find that - we found that wool soaks it up like a sponge. We also asked the simple question: if you repeat dry clean the same piece of cloth multiple times, does it build up? And we answered that indeed it does, for wool - it keeps building up quite a bit, as a matter of fact. Whereas for cotton and polyester, it sort of plateaus after two or three dry cleaning cycles.

And then, we asked another real simple question - how long does it take for the stuff to volatilize back off the cloth once you took those articles of clothing back home and stuck them in the closet. And the short answer to that is, it takes about six or seven days to release about 50 percent of the stuff from a garment, and that plastic wrap that they put over your clothes in the dry cleaner, we found that that really didn’t influence the rate of release at all.

GELLERMAN: So the sweater I get back from my dry cleaner - is it safe to put on?

DANTZLER: (Laughs.)

ROEPE: I don’t do it.


ROEPE: (Laughs.) Everything is a risk factor. A lot of it depends on your genetics. Individual to individual, is very tough to answer. Across a population is really all a scientist can tell you - the relative risk factor, you know, if you take a million people and do these levels of exposure, is that safe?

Well, for some of those people, it’s not. But for most of the people - are they going to get cancer within ten years from repeated exposure to dry cleaned clothing? Probably not.

DANTZLER: If you want to look at it as it’s a probable carcinogen, then I would be a little more scared to be wearing even a little bit of a chemical that’s even considered a probable carcinogen.

GELLERMAN: Now California has moved to ban PERC, so has Illinois, so has New Jersey as I understand it. Right?

ROEPE: Right. They have banned it. They’re just taking their time in terms of phasing it out completely. And the city of Philadelphia is actually in the middle of lowering their legal exposures to the parts per billion range, instead of to the parts per million range.

GELLERMAN: What about these green dry cleaners - are they any safer?

DANTZLER: In our study, we tested two dry cleaners that were considered green, and what we found were: one had super-critical hydrocarbons in them, and then in another, just carbon dioxide might have been compressed and used to dry clean the clothes. So the term can vary depending on the method of dry cleaning.

ROEPE: Green dry cleaners basically just ... from what we can gather, just mean that they’re not using PERC, but they could be using a whole bunch of other different things.

GELLERMAN: So this goes onto your permanent record, there, Alexa. What do you hope to do after high school?

DANTZLER: After high school, I would like to do pre-med and then go onto medical school.
ROEPE: You’re going to apply to Georgetown, aren’t you?

DANTZLER: Yeah. (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Roepe and Alexa, thank you very, very much - good speaking with both of you!

DANTZLER: Thank you.

ROEPE: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Georgetown University chemist Paul Roepe and high school scientist Alexa Dantzler. Under current federal regulation, dry cleaners located in residential buildings have until 2020 to phase out the use of PERC.

Related link:
Read the Report Here

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[MUSIC: Mingus Dynasty “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” from Chair In The Sky (Elektra Records 2005).]

BirdNote ® – Snail Kite – Bird of the Everglades

GELLERMAN: Nature likes to go with the flow, but sometimes people get in the way with their bird-brained ideas.


GELLERMAN: In this week’s Birdnote, Michael Stein takes us to one place where the natural flow has been disrupted.


Male Snail Kite with an Apple Snail. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: When Florida became a state in 1845, the legislature declared the Everglades - America’s largest wetland - totally worthless. But today, we know how important wetlands are. They soak up storm water. They remove toxic chemicals that contaminate drinking water. And they’re home to a bird called the Snail Kite, which in the United States is found only in south Florida.


STEIN: Over the years, the slowly flowing “River of Grass” has been replaced by a series of reservoirs with little water movement. The remaining Everglades are only half their original size. Before we altered them, they filled during the summer rainy season, and gradually dried out during winter and spring.

Female Snail Kite in flight (Photo: © Tom Grey)

The aptly named Snail Kite feeds only on the Apple Snail. But the snails don’t flourish in places that are permanently under water. They do best with seasonal wet and dry periods, and flowing water.

So, the Snail Kite is endangered in the Everglades, because most remaining habitat is too wet and stagnant. The kite, like the snail, depends on variable flows and wet and dry seasons. It’s a classic boom and bust species - one that thrives when wetlands are allowed to function in a natural way.


GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein of BirdNote®. There are some photos of Snail Kites on our website - LOE - dot - org.

Related links:
- Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Snail Kite recorded by G.Vyn and M.J. Fischer. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Audubon) adjacent to Everglades, recorded by G. F. Budney.
- BirdNote® Snail Kite – Bird of the Everglades was written by Gordon Orians.

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[MUSIC: Hot Tuna “Keep On Truckin” from the Best Of Hot Tuna (BMG Music 1998).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – a trucker keeps on bikin.’ Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping students, workers, entrepreneurs and families create a healthy and prosperous clean energy future. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[MUSIC: The Bad Plus: “Never Stop” from Never Stop (eOne Music 2010).]

The Tangled Web of Montana Spiders

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. In E.B. White's classic children’s book - Charlotte the barnyard spider saves Wilbur the pig from becoming roast pork for Christmas dinner. Charlotte does it by weaving a web with words designed to discourage the farmer intent on his feast. Well, it turns out there are spiders in Montana spelling out a very different kind of message. To see it - you just have to look closely. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro tells our story.


PEARSON: We can just go and look at some of these webs.

SHAPIRO: It’s early morning in the hills of Missoula, Montana, and Dean Pearson – an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service – is on a mission. He’s looking for Dictyna spiders in the plants out here.

(Photo: Kenneth Furrow.)

PEARSON: Dictyna spiders are really quite small. If you’re afraid of spiders, these are probably not ones that are gonna be too frightening to you – they’re maybe half of your fingernail. And that’s the females, which are larger.

SHAPIRO: The Dictyna major and Dictyna coloradensis spiders are light gray with a dark stripe down their backs.

PEARSON: Um, I see a few spiders that are adding a little bit to their webs. And uh, this one’s just hunkered down at the base of the web waiting for the action to come, I guess – waiting for a capture. I have a male and female in this web that are making new spiders. We’ll leave them alone.

SHAPIRO: At this early hour, the webs are lit by the sun from behind.

PEARSON: They’re quite beautiful webs, sort of shaped like an upside down pyramid, often.

SHAPIRO: It all seems so picturesque – these backlit webs, spiders making love in the morning light. But when Pearson looks out across the hills, something’s wrong.

PEARSON: If you squat down on your knee, it puts you about at vegetation height. And you just see webs everywhere.

SHAPIRO: In the last 10, 15 years, these rolling hills have been transformed, and that transformation’s ideal for building all these webs.

PEARSON: We’re standing here in the middle of what was once a beautiful, beautiful grassland. We’ve got things like blue lupins in flower. But mostly what we’re seeing here is a stand of yellow-green leafy spurge that’s gotten pretty heavy – scientific name is Euphorbia esula. There’s Potentilla – sulfur cinquefoil, it’s called, which is also a nasty weed. Spotted knapweed, and that one is Centaurea stoebe. So what we’re looking at is a lot of exotic, broad-leaf plants that have come in and really started taking over this system, and they’re, they’re changing the architecture of the grassland.

SHAPIRO: And the little spiders?

PEARSON: They really love this transformation that’s gone on - this invasion of these exotic plants.

SHAPIRO: The invasive plants don’t die back at the end of the growing season like the native plant species. So the spiders have many more places to build their webs. And not just that – because the plants are taller and wider too, the spiders can make even bigger webs – four times larger than before.

In other words, these exotic plants that’ve taken root and flourished here – like the sulfur cinquefoil and the spotted knapweed – they’ve catapulted the indigenous Dictyna spiders to the top of the heap.

PEARSON: The webs are passive prey capture devices – the bigger your web, the more prey you catch. We can look at this one right here in front of me – so this one’s on Potentilla, and there are probably about 5 or 6 prey items caught in this web. And another one over here, and we can see a couple of flies in this web and a pretty good size wasp. Despite their small size, they’re pretty vicious spiders in terms of prey capture ability. Some of the wasps that they catch are probably almost 20 times larger than the spiders.

SHAPIRO: Oh my goodness, how the heck do they incapacitate something like that?

PEARSON: Well, the web helps a lot. But being a spider and being venomous, they can go up and subdue ’em by making a quick bite and then wrapping them up.

SHAPIRO: The more the spiders eat, the quicker they mature. Twice as many spiders are reproducing here compared to the native grassland. And more of them are then surviving on the invasive plants. So the Dictyna spiders are reigning supreme at the moment.

PEARSON: And that’s pretty much the perspective for a fly or a wasp that’s buzzing through here trying to visit these plants. You’re running through this gauntlet of web after web after web out there.

(Photo: Kenneth Furrow.)

SHAPIRO: It’s not just the webs decorating all the plants here – there’s a more metaphorical web at work. The native spiders are thriving because of the new exotic plants. They can eat more insects, and these insects can then no longer keep the growth of certain plants in check, and on and on. You alter one piece of the ecosystem, and the whole web changes.

PEARSON: I don’t think we’ve fully understood to what extent these changes are cascading up and down through the system in all sorts of crazy ways.

SHAPIRO: The changes have made their mark on Pearson as well. He grew up here, in the hills of Montana, and he misses the way things were when he was a boy.

PEARSON: As somebody who’s fallen in love with native grasslands, it’s, it’s pretty sad to watch these things unfold, and yeah, I’ve just tried to hold back the tide.

SHAPIRO: Hold back the tide, that is, of the invasive plants that are altering this ecosystem. He’s exploring whether certain herbicides or insects can be used to manage the weeds and fix what’s happened. Try as he might, though, Pearson thinks this ecosystem will ultimately fall into a new balance. But it might take a thousand years. And in the meantime, at least for now, the Dictyna spiders have it made.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Our spider story comes to us from the series "One Species at a Time." It's produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. There's more at our website: LOE dot org.

Related link:
One Species at a Time

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[MUSIC: Vitamin String Quartet “Spiders” from The String tribute To System Of The Down (Vitamin Music 2003).]

Science Note: Supermolecular Suitcases

GELLERMAN: Coming up, a long haul driver turns to truckin' with a 2 wheeler. But first, here's this week's Note on Emerging Science from Daniel Gross.


GROSS: The shape of a soccer ball might be good for something off the field – capturing and carrying elusive molecules.


GROSS: A team of chemists based at New York University recently scored a victory in the laboratory by creating a hollow three-dimensional ‘supermolecule.’ A supermolecule can work like a ‘chemical suitcase’ and hold smaller molecules inside.

The scientists first create hexagonal tiles from everyday elements like carbon and nitrogen. Molecular bonds help the tiles interlock like puzzle pieces. Then, the researchers add a chemical solution and the tiles spontaneously fold into a 3-D shape – like a piece of origami.

Groups of ‘supermolecules’ stick together like honeycomb. That means scientists can trap and move large quantities of particles - even unstable molecules that otherwise can’t be nabbed. Researchers can also dissolve these ‘chemical suitcases’ in a different solution. That means ‘supermolecules’ can deliver helpful catalysts to spur chemical reactions.

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek physicist Archimedes envisioned just this structure and 12 others with geometric faces like triangles, hexagons, and octagons. But this is the only form scientists have managed to build on the scale of atoms.

So chemistry’s newest trick comes from some of the oldest physics in history. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Daniel Gross.


Related links:
- Read the abstract or purchase the paper from Science Magazine
- See 3-D animations of the “molecular suitcase”

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Truck Driver Adds Two Wheels

GELLERMAN: Scott Grenerth - yup, that’s his real name - Grenerth - owns and operates an 18-wheeler, which he drives cross-country hauling thousands of pounds of cargo, and something lightweight, which most truckers don’t carry. We caught up with Scott Grenerth as he was driving somewhere along the interstate near Columbus, Ohio.

GRENERTH: Well, at the moment I'm empty. I just got my truck fixed over what was my weekend - Monday and Tuesday - and I’m heading up to pick up 32,000 lb. coil of steel, going from AK Steel in Mansfield, Ohio, down to AK Steel in Rockport, Indiana.

GELLERMAN: Now, on the back of your 18-wheeler, you’re carrying a 2-wheeler - a bike!

GRENERTH: Yeah, you could say I’ve got 20 wheels. (Laughs.) Yes, I do. I carry ... inside my trailer, I’ve got a spot where I put the bike, and I put a strap through the frame of it, and it goes with me.

GELLERMAN: How long have you been doing that?

GRENERTH: Just about coming up to three years ago now.

GELLERMAN: What kind of bike you got?

GRENERTH: It’s actually a custom made bike. It’s a frame from sometime back in the 80s, and it’s enormous. I, I’ll let you know, I’m six feet nine inches tall, so it’s a one of a kind bike.

GELLERMAN: Tell me how it works. Where do you ride?

GRENERTH: Almost all drivers take a 34-hour break so that we can kind of reset the number of hours we’re allowed to drive throughout the week. That’s when I ride most often, but there are times I’ll do it during the week, too.

As far as where, I like to find the unique local places - historical sites, great blues music, or some good, local microbrew if I’ve got enough time off and definitely, definitely food. It’s definitely different than just sitting around at the truck stop and complaining. Which, unfortunately, you do find a lot of drivers that do that, and they just don’t think about getting out of the cab of the truck and leaving the truck stop behind. To me, while there are plenty of good truck stops, like the one I go to in Nashville - the TA there - great, really first class facility, real nice spot.

I still ... I'd rather go see the local flavor, because a lot of drivers, I think it’s very fair to say, a lot of drivers became a truck driver because they wanted to go see the world, if you will, or see the country. And while you can do a lot of that - see a lot of beautiful sights from the cab of your truck - I’d also say you can see the country a whole lot better if you get away from the truck stop and go where the locals hang out at.

Like, in Louisville, Kentucky, there’s a neighborhood called “Old Louisville” and there are these beautiful, gorgeous alleys through that little area - almost looks like a picture of Europe, if you will.

GELLERMAN: Must be a real change of pace going from 65 miles an hour down to, you know, a pokey 10 or 15.

Scott Grenerth, co-founder of Ride and Roll, Nashville skyline

GRENERTH: It’s a good change of pace. Because I'm an owner-operator, I've got the repair bills for a radiator and a fifth-wheel I just had to get repaired; I wouldn’t mind going for a ride right about now, after signing the receipt for that bill. (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: (Laughs.)

GRENERTH: So anyhow, yes - it’s a good change of pace.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve kind of become an evangelist for the trucker-biker.

GRENERTH: Yeah. First I just kind of meet a few people through other drivers I knew. That’s what inspired me to put together a website which is rideandroll.me. On that website, there is a map - a Google map - that shows places you can safely and legally park your truck and have somewhere interesting to ride nearby.We also have a Facebook group.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I noticed, because I went to your Facebook page and it shows a lot of tricks of the ride trade - you’ve got bike stores, you've got conversations about routes. I like the trucker who was from Logan, Utah - he writes: “Even the coolest bar has a bike rack out front and a rooftop view of the mountains.” (Laughs).

GRENERTH: Yes, that would probably be Jeff Clark; I think he was just out there recently and he's just like me, he'll find a good local microbrew. We ride to find good food and good brew. And so, it’s become a really active community there. And so we get questions about all that - how do you carry the bike in the truck? Do you carry it on the truck?

We had a comment on there - probably a month or so ago - a gal who said ... she just admitted, "I’m very overweight. I really need to lose weight and I think this is the best way to do it. Any suggestions?" I think hardly a day goes by where we don’t get at least one new person.

GELLERMAN: What kind of reaction do you get from talking to other truckers about your rides?

GRENERTH: So, most of the time it’s very, very positive. And they immediately go, "You know, that would be great - to get away from the truck stop, and that would be some exercise," because it’s low impact. And that’s what a lot of drivers need because they’re in poor shape to begin with - it’s not like they can just start, you know, running marathons.

And as a matter of fact, that brings up one point: the people who are going to be listening to Living on Earth, probably not going to be 100 percent truck drivers. But the likelihood that they know someone who is a truck driver, that’s huge, because of all the drivers we do have in this country. And if they could pass the word on and say: "Hey, have you ever thought about doing this?" and give them that resource; that would be most awesome. If people could do that, that would be great!

GELLERMAN: Scott, before I let you go, you’ve got to tell us your name: Grenerth. I’ve never heard somebody with the name Grenerth.

GRENERTH: There’s a reason for that - my wife and I are the first Grenerths that there are. I’ve worked in the field of environmental education and I still volunteer in that field. So when we got married on Earth Day in 1995, at a cave in a state park in Ohio, that’s the name we took on. It is Grenerth.

GELLERMAN: Scott Grenerth is a long-haul trucker operating out of Ohio. For links to his website and Facebook page, check us out at LOE dot org. Hey, Scott…


GELLERMAN: Keep on biking!

GRENERTH: I will. You bet. Absolutely!

Related link:
Scott Grenerth’s trucking cyclist page

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GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth: the artist Christo plans to spend 50 million dollars covering the Arkansas river in fabric.

CHRISTO: Nobody can own this project. Nobody can charge tickets for this project. Even myself, I do not own this project. All our projects, they're irrational and totally useless, but they cannot be bought.

GELLERMAN: But Christo’s artistic statement, “Over the River” isn’t through the woods just yet - his environmental impact statement needs federal approval. That's next time on Living on Earth.

[SFX – CD: “Windchimes in the Rain” King Tet ® Productions, Ltd. © 2004]

Earth Ear/Windchimes in the Rain

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in California, during a mid-night rainstorm. Eric Van der Wyk recorded this California rainstorm for a CD he calls “Wind Chimes in the Rain.”


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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.
ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.


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