Air Date: June 6, 1997
Crime and Heavy Metal
A group of researchers at Dartmouth College says the presence of lead and that of a similar heavy metal, manganese, in a community is directly correlated with the rates of violent crime. Roger Masters is a professor of political science at Dartmouth whose team recently looked at the government's Toxic Release Inventory. Comparing levels of lead and manganese emissions with crime statistics, the researchers came up with some remarkable trends. (09:45)
The Silent Epidemic - Part Two/ Deirdre Kennedy
Most often the way people get acute lead poisoning these days is through exposure to old paint in dwellings. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated home. But plenty of cases come from lead dust particles too small to notice. While children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk, especially during or just after major renovation. In part two of our series, Deirdre Kennedy reports on one young family who learned about lead poisoning the hard way. (07:20)
HURRAY FOR HOLLY WOOD?/ Daniel Grossman
William Shakespeare wrote, "All the world is a stage" and for Hollywood that can also mean eveything is fair game as props for sets. Watching a film crew prepare a corner near our Cambridge offices for a feature film shoot, Living On Earth producer Daniel Grossman noticed a team with ladders, saws, and a hydraulic lift in the trees. Littered on the ground around them were dozens of branches, and a crowd gathered to watch them work. Dan got his tape recorder when he realized film crew workers were not taking branches down, but putting them up. (03:30)
The Living on Earth Almanac
Facts about... tornadoes and their debris. (01:15)
Dioxin Update/ Andrea DeLeon
Paper mills around the nation are being scrutinized by the US federal Environmental Protection Agency. The state of Maine has a new anti-dioxin law that is the toughest in the nation but, critics say the new rules fail to go far enough to protect public health from the deadly dioxins and other dangerous by-products in paper mill waste water. From Maine Public Radio, Andrea DeLeon has our report. (06:30)
The federal government says nearly six trillion pounds of chemicals are produced every year for industrial and agricultural use. According to an investigation by two journalists, some chemical companies are not above manipulating scientific studies to win legal approval. Dan Fagin is the environment writer at Newsday in New York City who teamed up with Marianne Lavelle of the National Law Journal to write a new book called, "Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health." Mr. Fagin says he began his research by looking at how the funding of scientific studies on chemical safety may affect the results. (05:53)
Charming the Snake Pit/ Sy Montgomery
North of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the town of Narcisse, Canada is home to one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth. For a few weeks every spring, 3 giant limestone pits holding about 45 thousand snakes seethe with thousands of mating, red-sided garter snakes. Naturalist and Living On Earth Commentator Sy Montgomery was there to witness the phenomena this year. She says the greatest wonder of the snake pits is their power to charm the hundreds of non-scientists who visit Narcisse each year. (02:40)
SNAKE TRADE: OPERATION ROCKCUT STINGS/ Martha Bebinger
The ten billion dollar a year worldwide trade in rare and endangered snakes includes a lot of poaching. At an illegal snake market in Big Bend National Park in west Texas from 1993 to 1994 the National Park Service launched its biggest poaching sting there. But instead of catching and convicting the poachers, the Park Service itself has come under fire for the conduct of its probe. Martha Bebinger visited the Park recently for a look at the lessons of “Operation Rockcut”. (07:20)
HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: James Jones, Jenny Brundin, Stephanie O'Neill,
Dierdre Kennedy, Daniel Grossman, Andrea DeLeon, Martha Bebinger
GUESTS: Roger Masters, Dan Fagin
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery
(Theme music intro)
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. New research says crime rates go up in areas with high amounts of lead and manganese pollution, regardless of income, race, or population density. Alcohol abuse makes it even worse, says a Dartmouth professor.
MASTERS: So that in the counties that have higher than average rates of alcoholism, and the release of both toxics, the crime rate is three times that of the national average.
CURWOOD: Also, while poor people are more at risk from lead poisoning because of old paint and dilapidated housing, middle-class people can get it, too, especially with home renovations.
HODGES: We had moved our kids into what we thought was our dream come true, and it ended up being our worst nightmare. It was terrible.
CURWOOD: Our series on lead poisoning, the silent epidemic, continues this week on Living on Earth, but first this round-up of the news.
White House Faces Clean Air Dilemma
MULLINS: For Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The White House is facing an all-out blitz from industry groups and many in Congress to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed clean air standards. The EPA says the proposed rules will save thousands of lives, but industry says the standards will cost too much. James Jones reports from Washington.
JONES: The resolution of an ongoing debate within the Clinton Administration over the new standards will determine whether EPA's proposal is weakened, or whether the White House should prepare for a nasty battle with Congress. Administration sources called the internal review of the EPA regulations a normal part of the rulemaking process. But they admit that the White House faces a difficult political dilemma. Many in Congress, including some Democrats, are urging the White House to delay or weaken the proposed standards, which they say would impose huge and unnecessary costs on industry. Representatives of industry recently met with White House staff on the matter. But EPA administrator Carol Browner has argued that the Clean Air Act and public health concerns dictate she impose the new tough standards. Any effort by the White House to force her to back down would draw a strong rebuke from environmental groups. The Administration must issue the new standards by mid-July. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.
Nevada Nuclear Dump Leaking More Low-Level
MULLINS: A former low-level nuclear waste dump in Beatty, Nevada, is leaking increasing amounts of radioactive material into the ground, and the US Geological Survey says it's traveling farther and faster than predicted. Opponents of a similar dump proposed for California's Ward Valley point to the leak as evidence that desert dumps cannot contain waste properly. The proposed California site is 20 miles from the Colorado River, which supplies water to the West. The Interior Department has put the California dump on hold until scientists better understand how contamination migrates in the desert.
Government May Allow Oil Exploration in Grand
The oil company Conoco has moved one step closer to drilling an exploratory oil well in Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management says the company does not need to draw up an environmental impact statement for a proposed well. From Salt Lake City, KUER's Jenny Brundin reports.
BRUNDIN: In a 45-page assessment of the environmental impacts of Conoco's proposal, Bureau officials concluded that a more detailed environmental impact statement wasn't necessary. Conoco holds leases on thousands of acres of Federal land inside the monument, and the company is anxious to drill the well as soon as possible. Environmental groups, meanwhile, criticize the Bureau's decision and have called for a boycott of Conoco. They say drilling will irreparably damage the 1.7 million-acre monument, a labyrinth of red rock cliffs and terraces established by President Clinton last September to protect it from development. Bureau officials say they will issue a final decision after a public comment period that ends June 27. For Living on Earth, I'm Jenny Brundin.
Potential Land Swap in California Desert
MULLINS: In what's being described as a mega-deal land swap in California's Mojave Desert, a military base will expand while thousands of acres of fragile desert land elsewhere will be protected. Stephanie O'Neill explains.
O'NEILL: Under the plan, the Department of the Interior would get about $100 million of fragile desert land now owned by a private developer. The preservation of this prime habitat for the California desert tortoise would offset the US Army's proposed southward expansion of its tank training facility at Fort Irwin. In exchange, the private developer would then be paid either with cash or with surplus military property. The Department of the Interior is hailing the proposal as a viable way to accommodate Fort Irwin's long-sought expansion in the Mojave Desert, while at the same time remaining in compliance with the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. But the Sierra Club opposes any plans for Fort Irwin's expansion. A recent study co-sponsored by the environmental group says Fort Irwin is the largest generator of particulate matter air pollution in California. Environmentalists say the Army should first show a compelling reason for expanding the military base. A decision on the matter is not expected for at least 3 months. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.
Feed Ban Might Not Protect Against Mad Cow
MULLINS: Consumer groups say the government's partial ban on feeding slaughtered animal parts to livestock is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough to protect the public from deadly brain illnesses linked to mad cow disease. Farmers had been feeding livestock ground up animal parts to add protein to their diets. This practice led to the spread of mad cow disease in Britain. The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that US livestock cannot be fed the remains of cows and sheep, but pigs were not included in the ban. Consumer groups say several studies have shown the pigs are vulnerable to the disease as well and should be included in the ban.
Minks Released in Oregon
Thousands of mink have died in an apparent act of eco-terrorism gone wrong. Vandals released 10,000 mink from their cages at an Oregon fur farm, but at least half the animals are expected to die from exposure or from fighting with each other, according to the mink farmer. He's blaming animal rights groups for the release.
That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.
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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There is new and disturbing news on the problems associated with lead poisoning in children. Research over the last 2 decades has linked childhood exposure to lead with altered brain development, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and lowered IQ scores. More recent research has linked high school drop-out rates, aggression, and juvenile delinquency to the metal. Now, researchers at Dartmouth College say the presence of lead and that of a similar heavy metal, manganese, is directly correlated with rates of violent crime. Roger Masters is a professor of political science at Dartmouth. His team recently looked at the government's Toxic Release Inventory, compared levels of lead and manganese emissions with crime statistics, and came up with some remarkable trends.
MASTERS: What we found was that in the counties where there is no record of environmental pollution from either lead or manganese, the crime rate is 278 per 100,000 per year. That's all the violent offenses for homicide, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and the like. In the counties where both kinds of pollution are present, the crime rate is 578 per 100,000. That's more than twice as high. Now, as soon as you have a correlation like that you check, could it happen by accident. That could happen by accident for each of those metals less than once in 10,000 times, which is the level of correlation significance that my colleagues in social science would die for. But when you have a correlation coefficient that doesn't tell you everything, there may be something else involved, and we've checked all the statistical approaches that I know of and find that controlling for income, population density, ethnicity, unemployment, there still is a significant effect of the presence of pollution on crime rates in the United States.
CURWOOD: So what you're saying is if you live in a neighborhood, if you live in a county, regardless of your income, regardless of your race, regardless of the fact if it's the inner city or the countryside, if there's more lead and manganese in your county, you're more likely to commit a crime or be a victim of a crime?
MASTERS: That's correct. I like to think of this, and this is a standard concept, as a risk factor along with other risk factors.
CURWOOD: Dr. Masters, we're used to thinking that violent crime is generally associated with things like poverty, drug use, the breakdown of family, you know, the bad home, the bad apple. Are you saying we're wrong?
MASTERS: No. The factors that we traditionally associate with crime are probably clearly associated with crime. Not every poor individual goes out and kills someone. Not everyone from a broken home kills someone. What we have to understand is that human behavior is usually the result of many factors, and that most of the competing explanations are probably all correct. My concern is that we need to look at why it is that within some poor families that are broken, where people are unemployed and living in poor environments, there are criminals and in others there are not criminals.
CURWOOD: Now, your research shows that alcohol is involved here. What's the relationship of alcohol to this?
MASTERS: It turns out that many human beings have aggressive impulses, and the reason why we're not all violent is not that we never imagine hurting somebody. Lots of people imagine violent behavior. But we usually inhibit it. And so, when you look at violent behavior, it's useful to think of it as a loss of the control of inhibition over your impulses. Now, alcohol leads people to lose control. There is a good deal of evidence that one of the effects of these toxic metals in the brain is to down-regulate or destroy the capacity of the brain to deal with other toxins, so that if you've got lead, manganese -- and there are other toxic metals that also have this kind of effect, cadmium -- in the brain, then the effect of alcohol is much greater than it would otherwise be. And what we find is that counties with higher levels of alcoholism also have much higher crime rates, and that this interacts with the existence of the toxic metals. So that in the counties that have higher than average rates of alcoholism and the release of both toxics, the crime rate is 3 times that of the national average.
CURWOOD: What are the social implications of what you're saying?
MASTERS: One of the consequences is the realization that studying biology gives us better control over outcomes. In the last 4 years there have been annual declines in crime rate. And at first people said well, there's better policing in New York, but that doesn't lower the crime rate in Toledo. What's interesting is that it takes about 16 years to grow a criminal, and if you look at the time series, we are now gaining the benefit, if I'm right, in having taken lead out of gasoline.
CURWOOD: You're saying that these recent declines that we see in crime rates can be attributed basically to lack of atmospheric lead from car exhaust now in this country.
MASTERS: I'm not sure of that. What I would suggest is that it's the kind of factor that might explain not only the decline in crime rates, but a small but significant increase in SAT, which has been mysterious, and a small but significant decrease in teenage pregnancies, which has been associated with attention deficit disorder, which in turn has been associated with lead. So we don't know why crime has fallen across the country, but the usual explanations don't explain the kind of statistics that we're seeing in the United States.
CURWOOD: Isn't it true, Professor Masters, that the greatest exposure of lead in this country is to deteriorating paint in houses, and historically has been from gasoline and in the soil outside? Looking at the Toxic Release Inventory for lead and manganese, is that really giving us an accurate picture of the exposure of lead in this country?
MASTERS: Certainly not. There are a number of ways in which individuals are exposed to lead and manganese, and the presence of factories is only one of them. I have no evidence at all that there's any one measure that can catch all of the absorption of lead. We are beginning a study where we have some data on actual uptake of lead in individuals, and we can compare that to the crime rate. But I think that the basic lesson of our research may be much simpler. It's that instead of wondering if we have every possible source of lead, and every possible source of manganese, to begin to think about ways of using our knowledge of brain chemistry to prevent or reduce rates of crime.
CURWOOD: What would you have us change now, in our society? How can we take this information that lead and manganese and perhaps other heavy metals are related to our crime rate, and reduce our crime rate?
MASTERS: One of the key factors in the absorption of toxic metals seems to be diet, and especially deficiencies in basic elements such as calcium and zinc. What this means is that better diet may be an absolute wonderful thing for reducing crime rates, increasing educational performance, and improving the lives of people who are both poor and exposed to toxic elements like lead and manganese. I have in mind such things as school lunches, better dietary supplements. There are a whole set of issues connected with prenatal care to make sure that pregnant mothers do not absorb toxics and transmit them to the fetus. I think that there are a number of traditional approaches to good health that can have a huge effect once we realize that they are directly connected to the way in which individuals have become vulnerable to environmental pollution. Let me give a simple example from a laboratory study. Rats were put in an environment where there was manganese, and when they had a good diet, the rats didn't absorb it. If the rats had a bad diet and there was no manganese, they were normal. If they had a bad diet and there was manganese in the environment, then they got manganese in their brains. What I'm suggesting is that the evidence is quite clear that if your diet is deficient in basic elements like calcium, and if there's a pollutant in the environment, then that chemical gets in the brain.
CURWOOD: What's your next step here? How do you plan to get more confirmation of this?
MASTERS: The next 2 things that I plan to do are to look at data we have from one state on individual rates of lead in the blood of children, to find out by town whether environments in which lead is actually being absorbed by children have higher crime rates. We're going to be looking at our national data in the United States to see the effect of toxicity on health, particularly death from heart disease and cancer. And I hope to be looking at some foreign data to find out whether, in foreign countries as well, communities where there's environmental pollution have higher crime rates.
CURWOOD: Okay. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Roger Masters is Professor of Political Science at Dartmouth College. Thank you, sir.
MASTERS: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: While lead can contaminate large areas through industrial emissions or as a gasoline additive, most often the way people get acute lead poisoning is through exposure to old paint in dwellings. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated home. But plenty of cases come from lead dust, particles too small to notice. And while children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk. In Part 2 of our series, The Silent Epidemic, Deirdre Kennedy reports on how one young family learned about lead poisoning the hard way.
(A gathering. Woman: "Can you open up that ravioli?" Man: "That's potato salad." Child: "Can I do it, Dad?")
KENNEDY: Linda and Dan Hodges live with their 5 children in what looks like a picture book Victorian house near the San Francisco Bay. When they went shopping for their first home, they had a particular dream house in mind.
L. HODGES: I wanted a Victorian. And I wanted 5 bedrooms, formal dining room, and a fireplace. And when we saw this house we couldn't believe it. We were just thrilled.
KENNEDY: The house the Hodges bought was a 110-year-old fixer-upper. They knew they had a lot of work to do, but they didn't bargain for what they got.
L. HODGES: We had moved our kids into what we thought was our dream come true, and it ended up being our worst nightmare. It was terrible.
KENNEDY: Their nightmare came to life about 3 months after they moved in. Almost by accident, a friend suggested that they have their house checked out for lead.
L. HODGES: We had a Halloween party. We were giving, you know, the nickel tour. And Doug, who works for the lead abatement program, came to the party. And he said you know, you should probably have the house tested. And the guy came out, and the minute he started testing, it was off the charts and they came back with the results right away saying we had near hazardous waste levels outside in the soil, and lead everywhere in the house. And we had no idea. You can't see it.
KENNEDY: What the Hodges didn't know was that a previous owner sandblasted the outside of the house, sending a fine lead dust raining down into the soil. When the Hodges moved in their children were age 3 to 10 years old. Within weeks their youngest child Zachary's blood lead was around 25 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice the level of concern for children.
(Child making noises: "Hm hm hm hm hm hm...")
KENNEDY: But Dan Hodges says, like most lead poisoned youngsters, Zachary didn't show any obvious symptoms.
D. HODGES: That's the thing -- that's the most scary. By the time you start seeing any signs, there's usually permanent damage already been done. And so, hopefully we've caught it before any permanent damage was done.
L. HODGES: We were very, very lucky. Because we weren't educated. We just thought oh, lead, our kids don't eat paint chips. You know, we didn't know we were breathing it in.
KENNEDY: The Hodges had an emergency lead clean-up and containment done. They moved out of their home while a crew used solvents and a special high-tech vacuum cleaner to remove the fine lead particles. Then, specially trained contractors sealed up the old lead paint and covered the leaded soil in their back yard with concrete and wood chips.
(Child: "Hey, you pushed me down. Don't push me down.")
KENNEDY: The lead remediation cost the Hodges about $20,000, which they paid for with an interest-free emergency government loan. Their lead problem is finally contained, but, they say, after their ordeal they're not taking any chances.
L. HODGES: Zack?
L. HODGES: You need to wash that plum before you eat it. Because it fell, was it on the ground?
L. HODGES: Okay. It needs to be washed.
We're watching them, you know, every minute. And then you want them to be able to play outside, but then there's all the dust and you worry and it's just -- oh, it's always on your mind. You know, you're living in it.
KENNEDY: Like many more affluent parents, the Hodges didn't think their children were at risk for lead poisoning. Because they didn't think they lived in the kind of neighborhood where kids got lead poisoning. What parents don't realize is that a vintage mansion may have more lead than a modest home built in the 1980s. Alice Chankoffman, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Foundation, says in houses built before the 1950s, it's not uncommon for the underlying paint to be up to 50 percent lead.
CHANKOFFMAN: People thought lead was great in paint. It made the paint more durable. Any building that is relatively old is going to have lead paint somewhere, unless it's at any point been sanded right down to the walls and repainted.
KENNEDY: But unless it's done by a qualified contractor, sanding down the lead can be worse than leaving it alone. That's how the Hodges' home became a lead nightmare in the first place. Under a new Federal law, owners of homes built before 1978 must tell buyers and renters about known lead hazards on their property and provide them with a pamphlet about lead poisoning. But only a few states and cities actually require property owners to test for lead hazards or to fix them.
(Water runs from a tap)
KENNEDY: Paint is the main source of lead poisoning in children, but there are many other sources, including tap water. In Roman times plumbing was made of pure lead. In fact, the word plumb comes from the Latin word for lead. These days lead in drinking water is a problem for about 1 in 6 homes in the United States. It can leach out of old municipal water tanks or lead pipes in older homes. It can even come from lead solder in copper plumbing installed until a decade ago. Lead can also come from faucets.
(Water boiling; a teakettle whistles)
KENNEDY: Alice Chang Kaufman says water absorbs lead when it's been sitting in lead- contaminated pipes for several hours. Unlike germs, lead can't be boiled out of drinking water, but she says you can help reduce the amount of lead by letting the water run for a minute or more before using it. Groups like the Environmental Law Foundation also provide inexpensive home kits to test for lead in water, soil, paint, and imported ceramics.
CHANG KAUFMAN: I certainly would advise -- certainly somebody who's buying a home, and probably somebody who's renting a home if they have children -- to check the place out before buying it. To conduct lead tests to find out if there's a problem. Because once you've discovered lead problems in a house, it can be very costly to take care of.
(Machinery; sanders or saws?)
KENNEDY: Now that Dan and Linda Hodges have gotten their own lead problem under control, they're facing another hazard: the same one threatening residents across America. Lead dust blowing into their yard from their neighbors' renovations.
D. HODGES: And they're working on that house next door.
L. HODGES: I'm worried about that.
D. HODGES: Yeah. Because they have lead and asbestos over there, and I'm not sure how aware they are of it. And, you know, we've done so much work to help protect ourselves from our house, and then to have all that construction going on next door, you know, with dust being stirred up and things. I just wonder what our exposure risk is for that.
KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.
CURWOOD: Next week our series continues with a look at the problem of lead poisoning for industrial workers and how it affects their children.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: All the world is a stage, wrote William Shakespeare. And in Hollywood, that means everything is fair game as props for sets. We recently learned that lesson firsthand, watching a film crew prepare a corner of Harvard Square for an upcoming shoot. Our producer, Daniel Grossman, noticed a team with ladders, saws, and a hydraulic lift in the trees just a block from our office. Littered on the ground around them were dozens of branches, and a crowd had gathered to catch the action.
(Saws; wood being cut)
CURWOOD: Dan grabbed his tape recorder when he realized workers were not taking branches down, but putting them up.
(Man 1: "Keep going!" Man 2: "Up, and down." Man 1: "That's a good place to start, so let's cut it and re-drill it." Sawing sounds.)
MAN: We're here trying to restore the natural beauty to a linden tree which was damaged in a spring storm here in Harvard Square in Cambridge.
(Water sprayed. Man: "See it up there? Which of the branches...")
MAN: What we're basically doing is replacing the top of the damaged tree with the top from another tree. And that's a series of branches that we're sort of applying on in a temporary fashion. Excuse me. Hello -- yeah.
WOMAN 1: They've put spikes in the bits of the tree that were damaged from the ice storm in April, and they've cut other bits and pieces of the tree, and they've drilled holes in it and they're going to screw those pieces on the top. And it's for a movie, says one of Cambridge's finest standing over there.
WOMAN 2: Wow. So it's like --
WOMAN 3: They cut other pieces? Are those pieces from other trees, or are they from this tree?
WOMAN 1: I don't know where they --
WOMAN 3: It's like the Brady Bunch when they broke the vase and tried to glue it back together. You mean, they're gonna get caught.
MAN: We're going to have to substitute. We'll use that somewhere else.
MAN: Take it off of the stub and bring it in till I tell you -- we'll shorten it by that much.
WOMAN 1: I think it's extremely bizarre.
WOMAN 2: Does anything make sense?
WOMAN 1: Again, people are trying to deny the reality of what is.
(Noises from the crowd; sawing)
WOMAN 2: It's pruning without consent.
(Sawing sounds increase)
WOMAN 2: I live in the town where they did some of the filming for Witches of Eastwick, and they sprayed all the trees red, orange, and green in the middle of summer to simulate the fall. It doesn't surprise me. (Laughs)
MAN: For us it was -- you know, we came here and we scouted and we wanted to use this location and then the storm came. So it had already been chosen and basically it ends up that there's already too much going on to, you know, change horses. So for us it was to try and bring this back a little bit.
WOMAN 1: Anything for a movie.
WOMAN 2: And who are these guys? Like, who are these guys that know how to bolt branches onto trees? Like, when have they ever had to do this before? (Another woman laughs) I'd like to see his business card.
CURWOOD: Thanks, Dan Grossman, for that audio snapshot of Hollywood in action.
(Music up and under: Hooray for Hollywood)
CURWOOD: If you have a story idea or a comment about our program, call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write to us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Once again, email@example.com. And check out our web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.
(Music up and under: Hooray for Hollywood continues)
It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.
(Music up and under: Hooray for Hollywood continues)
NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
CURWOOD: Coming up: critics charge that the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the public by allowing industry to call the shots on safety research for toxic chemicals. That story is ahead on Living on Earth.
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SECOND HALF HOUR
(Theme music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood
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CURWOOD: June is tornado month. With little or no warning, a tornado can suck up everything in its path. But where does all that stuff get spit back out? Since 1994, the Norman, Oklahoma-based Tornado Debris Project has been tracking the payloads of these mercurial storms, and has come up with some pretty incredible findings. For example, the current record for distance traveled goes to a canceled check from Stockton, Kansas. After a 1991 tornado, the check was found in Winetoon, Nebraska, 230 miles away. But larger things can travel, too. Bricks. Telephone books. Even sacks of flour have ended up 50 miles from their point of origin. One Mississippi resident found a freezer more than a mile from where it started. By analyzing information like this, the scientists in Norman are developing models of tornado debris fallout, and they hope for a better understanding of tornado aerodynamics.
(Music up and under from The Wizard of Oz)
CURWOOD: So far, though, they haven't been able to link the deaths of any witches to falling farm houses. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
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CURWOOD: Paper mills in the state of Maine are being told to reduce deadly dioxins and other dangerous byproducts in their wastewater. The new law, approved by the Maine legislature, could provide a model for the rest of the nation. Dioxin regulations are now being rewritten by the US Environmental Protection Agency. While the Maine anti-dioxin law is the toughest in the nation, some people are saying that even so, it doesn't go far enough to protect public health. From Maine Public Broadcasting, Andrea DeLeone has our report.
(Tides washing up on a river bank; turbines in background)
DeLEONE: The Androscoggin River has worked hard for generations, spinning turbines and carrying wastewater from factories, paper mills, and towns in New Hampshire and Maine out to sea. Old timers recall knowing what color fabric the textile plants were dyeing by the color the river ran. And they recall the stench of sewage and mill waste. Those foul smells and unsightly colors have been cleaned up, and today the Androscoggin seems pristine as it flows past a small park in the western Maine town of Rumford. But environmentalists say looks are deceiving. Ann Hagstrom is with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
HAGSTROM: There's a discharge of millions of gallons of bleaching, polluted bleaching wastewater every day into those rivers, that contains dioxins, other organochlorines, other toxic pollutants, as well as color, odor, and foam. That's not good for our rivers. It's not good for our estuaries or our coastal waters.
DeLEONE: Nor are dioxins good for humans and animals. They've been linked to cancer, human reproductive problems, and a host of other maladies. These chemicals are an unwanted byproduct of the paper bleaching process. They may eventually find their way into fish and up the food chain to people. Industry officials and regulators say they share Ms. Hagstrom's concern. In fact, later this year the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to order paper makers to spend $1.4 billion to cut emissions of dioxins and furans. In Maine, the second biggest paper producing state, the legislature has approved a bill crafted by Maine Governor Angus King ordering the industry to adopt bleaching methods that would dramatically reduce dioxin levels in the waste stream.
KING: We're trying to come up with a results-oriented solution that says we don't want this stuff, dioxin, in our rivers. But we're not going to dictate the technology to get there. We just don't want the stuff here. Mr. Industry, you figure out how best to do it.
DeLEONE: Governor King is proud of this hands-off style of regulation. The new law doesn't tell the companies how to run their mills, as long as effluents from their bleaching plants have no detectable levels of dioxins, and fish sampled downstream of each mill contain no greater concentration of dioxins and furans than those taken above. Chlorine is the key ingredient in the deadly recipe for dioxin. Since bleaching with elemental or pure chlorine makes dioxin in relatively large amounts, all 7 Maine bleaching mills are expected to stop using the chemical in its elemental form. This one in Rumford already has.
MAN: It's coming off at a fairly high consistency. It's already been washed. It's been through the bleaching process and you can just see that it's white.
DeLEONE: This massive cylindrical machine deep in the Meade Corporation's Rumford mill is turning cocoa-colored wood pulp white with the compound chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine. Anticipating new regulations coming from both the state of Maine and the Federal Government, Meade is spending $40 million to make the switch. Steve Hudson is the mill's environmental manager. He says dioxin can no longer be detected in the mill's bleach plant effluent, and the levels of other pollutants in the water and air emissions have gone down, too. The two other bleaching mills on the Androscoggin have also announced plans to stop using elemental chlorine. Mr. Hudson says anglers may soon be able to eat fish caught in the river without fear of dioxin.
HUDSON: Every indication we've seen in talking with people that have studied the issue of dioxin in fish flesh and how long does it take a fish population to recover indicates that once you've made the conversion to elemental chlorine free, your fish populations tend to show a pretty quick response.
DeLEONE: The state toxicologist says he expects to lift dioxin advisories on Maine's paper- making rivers in just a few seasons. Activist Ann Hagstrom admits getting the legislature to impose new restrictions on an industry so critical to the state's economy is a victory. But the staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine isn't dusting off her fishing tackle. Ms. Hagstrom and others say the Maine law and the similar rules pending on the Federal level don't go far enough. She says since chlorine is still used in the plants, small undetectable amounts of dioxin could still be released into waterways. And she says no amount of dioxin is safe.
HAGSTROM: Dioxin is a very toxic chemical, and it's toxic in very minute amounts, in amounts that are often too small to measure. Dioxin is a cancer causing agent and it's also believed to have non-cancer effects in reproductive and immune systems and neurological systems. It is also believed that most of us have levels of dioxin in our bodies right now that are at or near levels where adverse health effects can occur. So that any additional dioxin should be of significant concern.
DeLEONE: The changeover in Maine's mills to the chlorine dioxide process could be followed by a nationwide conversion. The EPA is poised to require all bleaching mills to switch from elemental chlorine to chlorine dioxide processing. The Agency estimates the change will reduce the paper industry's water and air emissions of dioxins and furans by 90%. Environmentalists are disappointed with the EPA proposal. They'd like the industry to become totally chlorine-free, eliminating dioxins completely from the wastewater and from the smokestacks. Industry officials say that would cost paper companies an additional $3.1 billion. The new Federal rule, currently under review in the White House, is expected later this year. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeone in Portland, Maine.
CURWOOD: The Federal Government says nearly 6 trillion pounds of chemicals are produced every year for industrial and agricultural use. In 1995, the 100 largest US chemical companies earned about $35 billion in profit. With so much at stake, the chemical industry lobbies hard to get and keep its products on the market. And according to an investigation by 2 journalists, some chemical companies are not above manipulating scientific studies to win legal approval. Dan Fagin is the environment writer at Newsday in New York City. He teamed up with Marianne Lavelle of the National Law Journal to research and write a new book called Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health. Mr. Fagin said he began his research by looking at how the funding of scientific studies on chemical safety may affect the results.
FAGIN: About 3 out of 4 studies that were financed by chemical manufacturers or their associations tended to reflect favorably on the chemicals involved. On the other hand, when objective folks were doing the studies, universities, government-funded researchers -- when they were doing their work, the studies tended more than half the time to reflect unfavorably on the chemicals.
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin, I'm wondering if you found any examples of companies that really tried to cook the results.
FAGIN: Well, it depends on how you define cooking the study. In terms of outright fraud the answer is no. In terms of being careful to ask the kinds of questions that would tend to reflect favorably on their chemicals, the answer is absolutely yes, and I'll give you just one example. One of the products that we looked at in detail is alachlor; that's a product made by Monsanto. It's a weed killer that's used extensively in the Midwest. It's listed as a probable carcinogen by the EPA. Well, the EPA was taking a very close look at alachlor in the mid-1980s, and one of the key issues with alachlor was the extent to which alachlor was getting into drinking water, either groundwater or surface water. So the EPA told Monsanto, look, we're considering banning this product. We want you to do a study to show how extensive this water contamination problem is. Well, Monsanto set about doing their study, and in the Midwest they were very careful about the kinds of wells that they picked to sample. They tended not to pick well sites where the soil was sandy. They tended instead to pick places where there were clay layers, where wells would tend not to get contaminated. And sure enough, when it came time for the EPA to do its final risk assessment of alachlor and to try to determine whether or not this very pervasive product should be banned, the EPA concluded that it simply couldn't include the drinking water risk in its risk assessment because it didn't have any good data. And the end result was that the EPA decided not to ban alachlor.
CURWOOD: Why didn't the EPA just do the study itself?
FAGIN: I think most people have a fundamental misunderstanding about what the Agency does, at least on the subject of chemical regulation. When it comes to making these core decisions about whether a given chemical should remain on the market or should be gone, the EPA is not a white coat agency. They're an agency of bureaucrats that rely on studies that are submitted to them, and those studies are overwhelmingly submitted by chemical manufacturers.
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin, I'm wondering when drugs come to market, the government requires that they prove safe, and this is not true for chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Why is that?
FAGIN: Well, it all goes back to the way that the law was written. The key pesticide law is called FIFRA; it's the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. It had its origins after World War II as a law designed not to ensure that pesticides were safe but to ensure that they were sufficiently lethal to bugs and to weeds. The burden of proof lies with the EPA to get the product off a market, not with the manufacturer to get their product onto the market.
CURWOOD: Okay, so your thesis is that our chemical regulatory system is unbalanced. That manufacturers have far more input than the public whose health is supposed to be protected. What do you think should change?
FAGIN: Well, a lot of things should change, in my view. There are many different ways to go.
CURWOOD: For example?
FAGIN: Well, California is a really good example. They decided that they would have Lawrence LIvermore Laboratory, not the chemical industry but this Federal lab, conduct tests on several hundred ubiquitous chemicals and consumer products. Using those tests, the state, not the Federal Government, would set a level that it considered safe. And then what would happen was that the state would inform the manufacturer that it would have to put on a label that says hey, this particular product contains excessive levels of a given chemical. So what's happened? Well, the folks that make Liquid Paper, confronted with the possibility of having a warning label put on their product, withdrew their product from the market and then returned it quickly with a different formula that did not contain excessive levels of perchloroethylene, PERC. And the nice thing is that because it doesn't really make sense for manufacturers to do different products from California that they would do in the rest of the country, they wound up using these new and improved formulas throughout the country.
CURWOOD: Why do you think the Federal system is so stuck right now?
FAGIN: Well, I think it's the same reason that we are unable to make progress on so many important national issues, whether it's health care or campaign finance reform. There are a lot of people who have an incredible amount of money invested in preserving the status quo. It's going to be very tough to change that.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.
FAGIN: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin is coauthor of Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health.
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CURWOOD: Making friends with snakes. A comment is just ahead on Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Two hours north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the town of Narcisse is home to one of the greatest natural spectacles on Earth. For a few weeks every spring, 3 giant limestone pits seethe with thousands of mating, red-sided garter snakes. Each pit holds about 15,000 snakes, so many snakes they're piled more than a foot deep. You can hear them before you see them. Their slithering sounds like a breeze blowing through leafy trees. Scientists come from around the world to study this spring emergence. Naturalist and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery was among them this year. She says the greatest wonder of the snake pits is their power to charm the hundreds of non- scientists who visit Narcisse each year.
MONTGOMERY: When the snakes emerge from their 8-month hibernation and roll themselves into copulating clumps, Narcisse may attract 700 visitors a day. Parents even come pushing their babies in prams. For these snakes are utterly harmless. Slithery to be sure, but extremely gentle. And at about 18 inches long, they're perfectly kid-sized. One mom handed her 18-month-old a snake and the girl instantly grasped it with delight. The little girl saw that pretty yellow and black striped reptile lift his head, flick his pink tongue, and look her in the eye. She hadn't read Genesis so she immediately saw the snake was as cute and lovable as a chipmunk.
In a world where most people fear and hate snakes, these creatures make wonderful ambassadors for their kind. Their skins are soft and shiny like satin, their fluid movements as graceful as the waters of a stream. While even a pet hamster might bite you if you picked it up suddenly, these snakes won't. And even if it did, it wouldn't hurt because they don't have any teeth. And yet, just a few decades ago people around here used to dump gasoline into the snake dens and torch them, just because they were snakes, and all snakes were vermin.
But attitudes are changing. School buses decant up to 400 children a day here, and park interpreters show kids how to handle the snakes. Soon children are rushing about, eager to tell someone, anyone, "Look! I'm holding a snake!" Or, "Do you have one yet? Go ahead, they're not slimy." A few kids are afraid at first, like the fifth grader who came up to me an announced his dilemma: "I want to hold one, but I don't want to hold one." So I let the one I was holding slither out of my hands and into his. He literally leapt with joy. "Wow! It's nice," he said.
How could you hate snakes after spending time with these lovely animals? At 74, Ruth Nesbitt looks like the quintessential little old lady in her hand-knit pink wool hat and white hair and glasses. Except she's at the bottom of a rocky pit hauling snakes up by the handful. She's helping researchers here investigate some of the most basic questions in biology, like how animals compete for and select mates. Ruth joined the team last year as a volunteer and loved it so much she came back again this spring. Her friends think she's crazy, but she doesn't mind. She wants to bring her 14-year-old grandniece next year.
As Ruth Nesbitt and the children see, the Narcisse snake dens offer us a second crack at Paradise. Here we can rewrite the tale of Eden, with snakes as our neighbors instead of the villain. And give it a happier ending this time.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of The Tiger. She comes to us by way of New Hampshire Public Radio.
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CURWOOD: The worldwide trade in rare and endangered species is big business. Ten billion dollars a year, according to government officials. In the early 90s, trade officials urged the Department of Interior to take a more aggressive approach to wildlife poaching and collecting. Rangers at Big Bend National Park in West Texas responded. An illegal snake market there had been the subject of rumors for years, as zoos, pet shops, and collectors sought Big Bend snakes because of their unique markings and colors. So, from 1993 to 1994, the National Park Service launched its biggest poaching sting ever, at Big Bend. But instead of catching and convicting a lot of poachers, the Park Service itself has come under fire for the conduct of its probe. Martha Bebinger visited Big Bend recently for a look at the lessons of Operation Rockcut.
BEBINGER: Big Bend National Park is 810,000 acres of rugged mountains and vast desert along the Rio Grande. Looking out over the wide open space, it's easy to feel you're the only person in the park. But when night falls a very different world emerges according to Chris Scott. He remembers driving park roads at night as an undercover agent on Operation Rockcut.
SCOTT: In some areas the traffic was so heavy from snake collectors that there was actual near-traffic jams. There were 4, 5, 6 cars very close together and they'd be driving 15, 20 miles an hour so they could see snakes. I saw near-fistfights a couple times from people arguing who saw the snake first.
BEBINGER: Snake collecting is legal in Texas if you buy a hunting license and stay off private and protected land, including parks. Big Bend is home to unique varieties of the colorful gray-banded King Snake and Trans-Pacos Rat Snake, among others. Agent Scott says that illegal trade in those snakes was fueling a multi-million dollar business.
SCOTT: Really, we learned what many of us suspected right along, that we just barely nipped the iceberg. There were just so many people doing, breaking so many laws down there, that after a certain amount of time we shut it down with 20-some possible defendants.
BEBINGER: That was the summer of 1994. The Park Service called Operation Rockcut a huge success, announcing plans to file 290 state and Federal charges against 27 suspects. But a final report issued this spring shows only 10 guilty pleas, most from misdemeanors like traffic violations. Just 4 were directly related to the snake trade. When asked why, National Park Service investigator Philip Young says some judges just didn't care about snakes, and many state and Federal prosecutors were too busy.
YOUNG: We find case loads to be so extreme, especially along the border, that a lot of times resource crimes certainly are prioritized down the ladder.
BEBINGER: Lax poaching laws are another reason prosecutors don't make wildlife cases a priority, according to Young. But he admits the Park Service also made its share of mistakes. There was very little follow-up because the office that handled Operation Rockcut closed as part of a Park Service reorganization. Critics add that inexperienced seasonal workers were hired for the investigation, and that their supervisors were hundreds of miles away. Responding to these criticisms, investigator Young will only say that the Park Service is reviewing its rules.
YOUNG: We have learned a lot from Operation Rockcut, which is really initially the first operation of that scope. And discussions continue at this point about when and where we'll be taking those lessons.
BEBINGER: That's a disappointing response for some suspects, who claimed they were set up by Operation Rockcut. Rick Denham is one of them. He used to own a pet store in Alpine, Texas, the only sizeable town within 100 miles of the park.
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BEBINGER: Sitting in his truck near his former store, Mr. Denham recalls buying a snake from undercover agent Chris Scott.
DENHAM: The first time he come in I refused him, because I told him that they didn't sell well here. And about a week later he returned and offered a snake to me at a real cheap price. He presented himself as a reptile distributor, and I thought all the animals I was getting from him was legal reptiles.
BEBINGER: That's not how Chris Scott remembers the trade.
SCOTT: He had told me that he had collected several snakes out of Big Bend National Park, which he sold. And this is all on tape. And he says that he accidentally ran over a gray- band King Snake within the national park, and he claimed that would have been a month's pay.
BEBINGER: Based on Chris Scott's testimony, Federal agents raided Denham's store, seized the snake he bought and some store accounts. But for reasons prosecutors won't discuss, Rick Denham was never charged. That's not much comfort to Mr. Denham. He says even though his legal record was cleared, his reputation was ruined.
DENHAM: Rumors got started and business dropped down, and I pretty much lost my business from that. It also started problems at home. Me and my wife ended up getting a divorce and everything because there was so much stress and all.
BEBINGER: There are similar stories of frustration and anger among the other suspects whose cases were dropped. One man, a New York State trooper accused of buying an illegal snake, says the allegations are a permanent blot on his record. Another alleged poacher is suing investigators involved in the operation. But resentment against the Park Service is not confined to the accused. It has also spread to hundreds of legitimate snake collectors in West Texas and across the country. Norman Nunley, one of those so-called "herpers", works at the True Value Hardware Store in Alpine. He's been legally catching and breeding West Texas snakes for 20 years. Mr. Nunley claims the Park Service bungled Operation Rockcut by exaggerating the market for Big Bend snakes, the extent of the poaching problem, and pretty much everything else in the investigation.
NUNLEY: As far as I'm concerned it was a lie from beginning to end. It was gross neglect on part of Chris Scott and those involved, spending taxpayer dollars for something that resulted in destroying individual lives, local economy, future economy. Because these people who are avid reptile collectors will not come to these areas because they feel they're going to be harassed from then on.
BEBINGER: Park Service agents don't have much sympathy for losses to area motels, restaurants, and stores that may have been supported in part by illegal snake hunters. Even though they won just 4 convictions on illegal snake trading, the Park Service says the sting put poachers on notice and reduced a real problem. The investigation also led to changes within the Park Service. Rangers across the Southwest are building a database of alleged poachers, conducting overnight snake patrols, and going to special trainings where they learn to spot snake hunters.
SPANIER: There's a number of things that kind of tip us off. There's no one thing that will scream at you...
BEBINGER: Big Bend ranger Steve Spanyear patrols the park's western district.
SPANIER: Snake hunters, they need light because they work at night. And so a vehicle that's rigged with a lot of spotlights is a pretty good indication. Somebody that sleeps all day in their camp and then gets active at night -- the less experienced ones may actually leave out a snake stick propped up against something. And obviously, if you see that sort of thing it's a great clue.
BEBINGER: Ranger Spanyear says he sees lots of people who fit the snake hunter profile. But he's never caught anyone leaving the park with a snake. And in the wake of Operation Rockcut, the biggest challenge Big Bend rangers now face may be restoring the public's trust and cooperation in guarding park wildlife. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Bebinger.
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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Liz Lempert, Peter Shaw, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, Jesse Wegman, Susan Shepherd, Jill Hecht, and Daniel Grossman. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Karen Given at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and see you next week.
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