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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 17, 2000

Air Date: March 17, 2000

SEGMENTS

The Untold Story of Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 1

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Journalist Jamie Kitman about his research into the hidden history of leaded gasoline. A lead additive developed in the 1920s by DuPont, General Motors and Standard Oil to control engine knock introduced millions of tons of toxic lead into the environment. In an article published this month in The Nation magazine, Mr. Kitman says the companies knew of the possible health effects of their product but suppressed the information. (06:52)

Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 2

Steve Curwood continues his conversation with Jamie Kitman about the history of leaded gasoline, including its surprising effects on cars. (08:09)

Listener Letters

Comments on toxic mine disasters, New York's community garden battles and killing rabbits. (03:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about the vernal equinox, including why we have more than 12 hours of sun on the day on which is supposed to be split evenly between daylight and darkness. (01:41)

The Drive for Clean Cars

Host Steve Curwood speaks with E Magazine editor Jim Motavalli about the latest milestones in the push toward non-polluting electric cars. Motavalli is the author of the new book Forward Drive. (05:26)

Workplace Ergonomics: Preventing Repetitive Stress Injuries on the Job / Steve Tripoli

Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the federal government's new proposals for worker safety regulations for offices. (05:08)

Seattle Lights up the Heavens / Bellamy Pailthorp

Bellamy Pailthorp of member station KPLU reports on the fracas over the new high-powered "light saber" installed on the roof of Seattle's Space Needle. The tower's owners say the high-tech light will bring the 60's relic into the 21st century, but local stargazers want to snuff the light out. (05:10)

Snowshoes - The Old Way / Nina Keck

Nina (Nye-nuh) Keck of Vermont Public Radio visits with two women who still make old-fashioned wood-and-leather snow shoes in Vermont. Sales of lightweight aluminum snow shoes are booming, but some folks still prefer traditional, handmade, wooden frames. (05:58)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Steve Tripoli, Bellamy Pailthorp, Nina Keck
GUESTS: Jamie Kitman, Jim Motavalli

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The charge is huge profits at the expense of public health. The accused are General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil. The alleged means is the introduction of lead into the nation's gasoline supply back in the 1920s.

KITMAN: The directors of General Motors and DuPont cottoned to the fact that if they could make lead ubiquitous, because they had patented it, they would earn a royalty on every gallon of gasoline that was sold.

CURWOOD: The tragic and hidden history of leaded gasoline, uncovered by journalist Jamie Kitman and published in The Nation magazine. He spent a year and a half investigating the issue and exploring the archives of the government and companies involved.

KITMAN: I think that they really figured this one was swept under the rug, and they had gotten out of the twentieth century clean on it.

CURWOOD: The story of lead in gasoline and its impact on America's children coming up on Living on Earth, right after this summary of the news.

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The Untold Story of Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 1

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It was a corporate scheme that polluted the world on a grand scale, and the three titans of American business responsible have yet to answer for their actions. So writes journalist Jamie Kitman in the cover story of the March 20th issue of "The Nation" magazine, that chronicles how lead came to be added to our gasoline supply. In an investigation that lasted a year and a half, Mr. Kitman uncovered the story of a 1920s pact of General Motors, Standard Oil, and DuPont, which patented and sold a gasoline additive called tetraethyl lead, and suppressed information on its hazards. The compound would soon become ubiquitous in the U.S. and around the world, even though lead was a notorious poison, especially for children. GM and Standard Oil joined together in 1924 to form the Ethyl Corporation to produce the toxic additive, which was designed to cure engine knock caused by a premature combustion of fuel. But Mr. Kitman says the story really began in 1916. That's when General Motors purchased the laboratory of inventor Charles Kettering.

KITMAN: At the time of the purchase they were most enthusiastic about using ethanol, or grain alcohol, as an additive to gasoline to cure engine knock.

CURWOOD: It works, doesn't it?

KITMAN: It works great, and in fact it works so great that in 1921 Kettering's trusted aide, Thomas Midgley, drove a car that was fueled by a blend of 70 percent gasoline and 30 percent ethanol to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis from his lab in Dayton to demonstrate it.

CURWOOD: So alcohol works fine, but GM seems to have some sort of corporate amnesia shortly after this trip to the Society of Automotive Engineers. And they seem to forget about ethanol research and turn to lead. What happened?

KITMAN: Making lead, while it was a desperately dangerous enterprise, was a relatively simple process. Dictating a large supply of ethanol was somewhat harder for General Motors to do. But more importantly, it couldn't be patented. You know, people had been making ethanol throughout history. Any idiot with a still in his back yard could make it, and of course there were a lot of stills then because this was in the time of prohibition. And the DuPonts, who owned General Motors, were an unusually profit-oriented bunch of guys. And the directors of General Motors and DuPont cottoned to the fact that, if they could make lead ubiquitous because they had patented it, that they would earn a royalty on every gallon of gasoline that was sold -- which in fact was the case until General Motors and Standard Oil sold Ethyl in 1962.

CURWOOD: So this was all about short-term profits.

KITMAN: Correct. Within a dozen years, 90 percent of all gasoline sold in America would have lead in it.

CURWOOD: In collecting that royalty on the ethyl lead, what kind of money are we talking about in today's terms?

KITMAN: In today's terms, you know, I couldn't give you an exact figure. I know that at the time they were hoping to make three cents a gallon gross on it, but they knew that they were going to be making hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1920s. In fact, there is an interesting letter that Charles Kettering received from Thomas Midgley , who's repaired to Florida to recover from his own bout of lead poisoning, wherein he spells out the economics and says, "Dear Boss," you know, "I think we ought to get into this business right away. Look at how much money we can make."

CURWOOD: Now, everyone at GM and at DuPont and Standard Oil knew just how toxic this lead additive was. The original researcher, as you mentioned, he got poisoned from it. They had deaths in the plants putting this together. Why did they want to go forward with something that seems so dangerous and so toxic?

KITMAN: The fundamental tone for things was set by the DuPont family. They had an extremely high threshold for making and selling dangerous products. It's well to remember that they spent the entire 19th century selling gunpowder. And coming out of World War I, they had made so much money selling gunpowder that they could afford to buy General Motors.

CURWOOD: Now, of course the factory and lab exposure is one thing. But what did the companies say would happen if the lead was used and came out of the tailpipe?

KITMAN: They took several positions, ultimately. One was that the lead would stay in the engine and the exhaust system and wouldn't enter the street. The next position was that even if it did enter the atmosphere, it wouldn't really be a problem because it wouldn't enter people's bodies. Then they later took the position that if it did enter people's bodies, it didn't matter because high lead loads were normal in human beings.

CURWOOD: Let me see if I have this right. First they said it wouldn't leave the car. Then they said if it left the car, it wouldn't get into people. Then they said if it got into people, it wouldn't hurt them. What did they say to the research that shows that lead is highly toxic to people?

KITMAN: There seems to be complete disconnect. People knew that lead was poison 3,000 years ago; and in the years immediately preceding this, lead had been outlawed in paint in several European countries. There was a lot of current science in the United States. And indeed, they had been contacted by the heads of many schools of public health in America, warning them that tetraethyl lead was a toxin. They seemed to make the case that if it came out in a diffused form, that it wouldn't have the same effect as anything else. It defied common sense, but it was a different time, I think. And it's important to remember that, while people had this suspicion, nobody had ever made leaded gasoline before. So you couldn't prove exactly that it was the lead in gas that was causing any effect -- certainly in the short time that was given to the anti-lead forces to make their case, which was short indeed.

CURWOOD: Where was the federal government's research, or studies from academic, throughout this time? In your article you wrote that General Motors contracts the Federal Bureau of Mines to research the dangers of leaded gasoline.

KITMAN: People were actually dying at GM, Standard, and DuPont tetraethyl lead plants. They started to search around to get some science that defended their position. They were largely rebuffed by academics, who objected to the restrictions they wanted to put on them. And then they started approaching government agencies. The Public Health Service, in what was a sad day for the world, really, declined to study it. They said it would be too hard. And suggested that General Motors approach the Bureau of Mines, which was in the habit of receiving monies from industry to conduct studies for them, and was happy to accept money to do these types of studies. The Bureau of Mines saw its role almost in a promotional vein, rather than in a regulatory aspect.

CURWOOD: What kind of control, if any, did General Motors or the Ethyl group have over the research that came out of the Bureau of Mines?

KITMAN: Ultimately they had veto power over the research of the United States government. In their contract they were able to establish that only they would control the timing of the release, the setting, and, in fact, the fact of the release itself. If the findings weren't satisfactory to General Motors, they reserved the right to kill them.

CURWOOD: So, in essence, General Motors and the lead ethyl group were able to buy regulators.

KITMAN: Well, that's one way of looking at it, yes.

CURWOOD: Journalist Jamie Kitman , author of an expose published this month in The Nation magazine on the history of leaded gasoline. When we continue, more of our conversation with Mr. Kitman , including the surprising effects of leaded gas on cars. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 2

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We continue our conversation now with journalist Jamie Kitman . He's the author of an expose of the secret history of leaded gasoline, published in the March 20th issue of "The Nation" magazine. The gasoline additive tetraethyl lead was sold for more than 50 years by the DuPont corporation, and a subsidiary of General Motors and Standard Oil known as the Ethyl Corporation. Today Mr. Kitman says they've all gotten out of the lead additive business, although it's still made and sold elsewhere in the world. Jamie Kitman says that between the late 1920s and the 1980s, millions of tons of lead came out of the tailpipes of cars in America. Over the same period, an estimated 68 million children suffered from toxic exposure to lead from gasoline. I asked Mr. Kitman how lead levels in American children have changed since the U.S. began to phase out leaded gasoline in the 1970s.

KITMAN: This is the most remarkable part, because you can reason backwards from it to know that all the science that came out of the industry was faulty, wherein they would say that this isn't raising people's lead levels, that people have high lead levels naturally. When the United States started to phase down lead, there's a direct correlation between the amount of lead that was used in the gas, which is a falling number, and people's blood lead levels. Today it's estimated that the average American's blood lead level is roughly 80 percent lower than it was in the height of leaded gasoline's use.

CURWOOD: So, leaded gasoline becomes ubiquitous worldwide. But then to add insult to injury, it turns out that leaded gas is not only bad for people, it's bad for cars.

KITMAN: Well, amusingly, I was interviewing a Ford Motor Company engineer, who told me that -- he asked me, "Do you know why people don't have to change their oil every 3,000 miles any more? Some cars you change the oil every 15,000 miles now. Do you know why spark plugs last 50,000 and 100,000 miles now, as opposed to having to be changed every six months, which used to be the case?" And he said, "That's because they took the lead out of the gasoline." The EPA has estimated that engine life has increased about 150 percent since lead has been removed from gasoline. The days of cars blowing up at 40,000 and 50,000 miles, which was quite common in our lifetimes, is over. And I think that's directly attributable to the removal of lead from gasoline.

CURWOOD: Leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S. completely by 1986. The European Union has just banned it altogether this year. But it's still used throughout Africa, Latin America, Asia. You, in your article you say this is an egregious case of environmental racism.

KITMAN: I do. And clearly, when the United States market dried up and then it became clear that the European market was going to dry up, the companies that sell lead went out of their way to develop their business overseas. And they say as much in their annual reports to shareholders: "We've offset our declining U.S. sales with growing sales in Africa and Mexico." In Africa, 94 percent of the gasoline is leaded. In the United States zero percent is leaded. It's hard to reconcile that.

CURWOOD: Mr. Kitman, you spent a year and a half researching this story. How difficult was it to get it?

KITMAN: It was -- a lot of this stuff is out there, and I think a lot of the strands were just not connected. I think a lot of the people who were studying the lead issue, academics, were not aware of the ethanol history. And you really have to look at them both together to really put the pieces together.

CURWOOD: Did you run into any hostility from DuPont or General Motors or the Ethyl company?

KITMAN: Oh, absolutely. They really don't want to talk about it. But one of the interesting things I found is that General Motors archives are so disorganized, and unlike most large corporations they've never had their own histories done. I interviewed one General Motors executive who had worked there for four decades, who told me that it was his belief that this was deliberate. Because there was so much stuff in the archives that they didn't want to know about, that they liked to keep it that way.

CURWOOD: How did you get access to these company records?

KITMAN: How did I get access to them? A lot of this stuff I have to credit professor William Kovarik, Bradford University in Virginia, who's been through the archives. He shared a lot of documents with me that he had been through. But you know, they are there. A lot of this stuff is there in government archives and in the company archives. You go in and you look at them and that's that. They're very big companies, and while one thinks that a certain level of paranoia is appropriate, they're really not paying very much attention. I think that they really figured this one was swept under the rug, and they had gotten out of the 20th century clean on it.

CURWOOD: I have to ask if the lead companies are at risk of the kind of lawsuits that we've seen against the tobacco industry and against the asbestos industry for exposing people, knowingly exposing people, to toxins.

KITMAN: Well, actually, the first one has just happened. It's actually in an early stage. There was a suit pending in Maryland Circuit Court against the makers of lead paint. And recently the plaintiffs have moved to add the lead gasoline makers as defendants in that case. And that's pending before a judge in Maryland now. Clearly, their own actions indicate that they think that it's an issue; otherwise why would they be restructuring in ways that are only explained by a move to avoid legal liability?

CURWOOD: And by restructuring, you mean that they have divested the profitable parts of their companies away from the entity that makes the lead, so if --

KITMAN: They've separated them, right. On the theory that should they get sued, that their liability will be limited just to the lead companies. And the lead companies as stand-alones are certainly not as big as the insurance companies and some of the coal mines and other things that they've bought.

CURWOOD: Mr. Kitman, what's the lesson in this story?

KITMAN: I think there are several lessons. I think one of the main ones is that it is very risky for society to rely on the scientific assurances of an industry whose product is in question. I think a good parallel might be -- although there are parallels to a lot of industries' history -- tobacco, asbestos, pesticides. But in today's world it's interesting to look at the example of genetically-modified food, wherein there is alleged to be a large body of science proving that it's safe. However, most of the research has been conducted or underwritten by the affected industry.

CURWOOD: Jamie Kitman's article, "The Secret History of Lead," appears in the March 20th issue of the magazine "The Nation." General Motors and Exxon, the successor to Standard Oil, have yet to comment. DuPont faxed us the following statement: "DuPont strongly disagrees with the view of events related to tetraethyl lead in a recent article in The Nation. The history of tetraethyl lead is well-known and has been available to the public for many years. DuPont stands behind its actions as a responsible corporation with respect to this product." By the way, I asked Jamie Kitman one more question about his investigation: how he found out about the story in the first place.

KITMAN: I own a couple of old cars, an old Lancienne, an old MG. And at the time when the lead phase-down was happening, the lead industry was saying that, oh, if you take the lead out of gasoline, there will be catastrophic mechanical problems. So I kept waiting for them to happen and they never occurred. Then in the late 90s, when Europe started phasing down lead, I started seeing the same things -- by which point I had been driving an MG for 13 years without leaded fuel, and had experienced no mechanical problems whatsoever. So it absolutely made me wonder, and I started researching it. And I just couldn't stop.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Time to look into the mailbag.

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CURWOOD: Hilton Evans of Randolph, Massachusetts, heard our diary of the fight over a city-owned vacant lot in New York on Boston's WBUR, and was not impressed. "Your story, hitting the big, bad developer and nasty Mayor Rudolph Giuliani against the little people in their community garden, made for cute drama but was uninformed," he wrote. "For the record, I don't like Mr. Giuliani," Mr. Evans continued, "and I'm no fan of developers. But even rich people need a place to live. Having these folks in town and not in suburbia betters the odds they'll use public transit or even walk instead of drive. Isn't this better for the environment? Would you prefer they built 70 houses on undeveloped land along the Hudson River?"

Tom Hawley, the transportation reporter for KVBC-TV in Las Vegas, says he listened with great interest to our story about the backlash against public transportation funding in Washington state. "One person said the buses in Seattle are too crowded," Mr. Hawley writes, "while another complained about wasting money on empty buses running around all hours of the day and night. If both statements are accurate," he says, "it seems like the sensible thing to do is study the ridership patterns for a more effective use of the existing system."

Helen Zipperlen , who listens on WHYY in Philadelphia, called to say she appreciated our coverage of the recent cyanide spill in eastern Europe, but had one problem with the story.

ZIPPERLEN: Please, could you tell us more about these cyanide lakes when there is no disaster, when the dam does not break. I know of a number of problems of, for instance, wild birds landing on the lake and getting burnt up by the cyanide. It seems to be an utterly immoral piece of non-technology to leave these lakes all over the place. Please give us a follow-up, and tell us more about the lakes themselves, where they are, how they are, and what the alternative might be. Except to stop gold mining, of course.

CURWOOD: And our recent conversation with author Linda Tatelbaum brought this response from Suzanne Rubin , who listens on WBUR in Boston. "It's highly unfortunate that the person you interviewed on homesteading and the simple life has not excluded cruelty to animals from her lifestyle. Her description of killing the rabbits she raised was horrifying. My three foster rabbits were watching me patiently, waiting for their breakfast, when the description of killing rabbits was broadcast. It was a remarkably disturbing experience. I do not protest you broadcasting this feature, but strongly urge that you balance it by interviewing an expert on humane practices and a plant-based diet."

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CURWOOD: We'd love to hear from you. Hop on over to your computer and drop us an e-mail at letters@loe.org. That's letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Or you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to 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 W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health; www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of Living on Earth: From getting the lead out of gasoline to getting the gasoline out of cars altogether.

MOTAVALLI : What's got the automotive fraternity interested is a vision, almost within technical reach, of an automobile that's the industry equivalent of a smokeless cigarette.

CURWOOD: Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In Latin it's called equal night, and for those of us in the northern hemisphere the equinox that occurs toward the end of March signals the start of spring. Scientists tell us that the spring equinox is the moment when the Earth's axis lies exactly at a right angle to the sun. We lay people may better understand it as the time of year when the length of daylight and darkness is virtually the same, hence "equal night." In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox in March marks the point when the days start growing longer than the night, meaning more sun and more warmth for plants to grow. The autumnal equinox in September signals the opposite point in the solar cycle, when darkness starts eclipsing light, and we make the inexorable turn toward winter. If the Earth had no atmosphere, there would be exactly 12 hours of sunlight on the equinox on every point on the globe except for the poles. But because the atmosphere bends sunlight like a lens, we see slightly more than 12 hours of sunlight on the day of the equinox. As the sun rises and sets, there are a few minutes when it's visible, even though it's actually beneath the horizon. Nature's little bonus. And by the way, thanks to the light-bending powers of the atmosphere, on the equinox observers at both the South and North Poles can see the sun for the entire day circling around, just above the horizon. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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The Drive for Clean Cars

CURWOOD: In the late 20th century a major environmental challenge was met when cars in the United States stopped using leaded gasoline. In the early 21st century, another major environmental challenge will likely be met when cars stop using gasoline altogether. And the switch could come sooner than many might think. In his new book, "Forward Drive," journalist Jim Motavalli chronicles the quest for high-mileage, low-pollution electric vehicles. Mr. Motavalli is the editor of the monthly environmental journal "E Magazine," and he also has a thing for cars.

MOTAVALLI: I am a car fanatic. I've been one for many, many years. I read car magazines. I follow the latest models. I test drive them. So I'm sort of immersed in the technology of cars. At the same time I'm also an environmentalist. So it's sort of a strange dichotomy, I guess you could say.

CURWOOD: It certainly is. And you've kind of married the two. You're interested in cars, and you're interested in alternatively-fueled cars. Quick, give me the skinny: Where are we going with electric cars?

MOTAVALLI: Electric cars are evolving quite a bit. I would say the battery electric is taking a back seat, as it were, in favor of hybrid electric cars and fuel cells. Hybrid cars are on the market now. The Honda Insight is available at Honda dealers now, and that has both a gas motor and an electric motor. In the Toyota version, which will be out in a few months, either the gas motor or the electric motor can run the car, and the computer makes decisions about what would be more efficient at any given time.

CURWOOD: Explain to me now the difference between an electric car and a hybrid car, in terms that someone who's not an engineer would be able to understand.

MOTAVALLI: It's quite simple. The electric car simply has an electric motor driven by batteries. And the only power source is the battery, so the batteries have to be recharged. A hybrid car has both a small gasoline motor, usually about one liter in displacement, and an electric motor, and a small battery pack. So the gas motor is really what keeps the batteries charged up and the electric motor going. So you don't need to plug it in. And --

CURWOOD: What's the advantage? Why bother to have both kinds?

MOTAVALLI: Because of the efficiencies you get. Seventy miles per gallon is very, very hard to achieve in just a gasoline-powered car. The electric motor, for instance, is very, very efficient at low speeds. Once you're cruising, the gas motor is very efficient, so it switches to that.

CURWOOD: These hybrid cars are but a stepping stone to another generation of cars you write about in your book. Can you explain that?

MOTAVALLI: Yeah, I think they're a stepping stone to fuel cells, and we're going to see the first fuel-cell cars around 2003, 2004. Fuel cells are the key to the future. I think they are the technology that will replace internal combustion forever, and they have the potential of being completely renewable and non-polluting.

CURWOOD: Jim, explain for me how a fuel cells works, could you please?

MOTAVALLI: A fuel cell is like a chemical battery. You put hydrogen into it, and from the hydrogen you get enough electricity to drive a car. So it's sort of like a battery, but it's one that you have external fuel for.

CURWOOD: Do you have a copy of your book there, Jim?

MOTAVALLI: I do.

CURWOOD: You write on page 50 that there will be teething problems in any switch to EVs. I wonder if you could keep reading there.

MOTAVALLI: (Reading) "There will be teething problems in any switch to EVs. But what's got the automotive fraternity interested is a vision, almost within technical reach, of an automobile that's the industry equivalent of a smokeless cigarette. If hydrogen could be produced from renewable resources, like photovoltaics and wind power, cars would become virtually emission-free, and greenhouse gas production from vehicles would drop as much as 90 percent."

CURWOOD: So this is like the Holy Grail.

MOTAVALLI: It is. It's completely the Holy Grail. It's why the auto industry is spending billions of dollars researching it. And they're forming unprecedented alliances across the industry.

CURWOOD: With these fuel cell cars, Jim, there seems to be just one problem. For us, you know, overgrown adolescent boys, there's not going to be any vroom to it all.

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think there's a misconception that every EV, every electric vehicle, is slow. But there are electric drag racers out there. The EV-1, General Motor's car, is very fast
0-to-60 time. And I think we'll see that with hybrids. We'll see that with fuel cells. There's nothing inherently limiting about the performance. That's the image people have. That's an image that has to be overcome. Everyone thinks that they are these underpowered Ralph Nader mobiles, and that really isn't the case. The fun factor can definitely be there. I think the Prius is very fun to drive. I've had fun driving it. I really like driving the Insight. And I have fairly high standards. I drive Ferraris and things around. You know, I have a different car every week. And I want performance, too, and I don't think that's necessarily not a factor with these cars.

CURWOOD: They won't sound like a Ferrari.

MOTAVALLI: No they won't, but you know, you could have a tape that you could run. (Both laugh) But you're going to get used to this sound. Soon it will be beautiful music.

CURWOOD: Jim Motavalli is editor of "E Magazine." His new book is called "Forward Drive." Thanks for spending this time with us today, Jim.

MOTAVALLI: Thank you.

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Workplace Ergonomics: Preventing Repetitive Stress Injuries on the Job

CURWOOD: For many people, the most important daily environment is their workplace. Every year millions of Americans suffer ailments related to their job, caused by lifting or typing or even staring at computer screens. Now the federal agency known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is proposing a major initiative to prevent these kinds of problems at work. Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR reports from Boston.

TRIPOLI: In the instrument sterilization room of a Boston-area hospital, a woman we'll call Mary works at washing and sterilizing surgical tools. Mary, who didn't want her real name or the hospital's name used for fear of a clash with supervisors, claims the everyday motions of work here are taking a toll.

MARY: Out of approximately seven full-time employees, currently we have three people that are injured or have been injured in the past who have to have continued therapy due to the repetitive motion of the job.

TRIPOLI: One co-worker has carpal tunnel syndrome affecting her wrists, which Mary says was caused by constantly pulling trays of instruments from the deep sinks where they're washed. Mary herself has hurt her back.

MARY: Well, I lift constantly, and this one day I just lifted one that was just a little too heavy, too high, and I pulled it out of place.

TRIPOLI: It's situations like this one where the federal government proposes to step in, with rules aimed at easing the strain of office typing, hospital lifting, assembly line stretching and bending, or any repetitive job. Nationwide, OSHA estimates that repetitive stress injuries afflict 600,000 workers a year, creating a wide range of so-called musculo-skeletal disorders. After reviewing hundreds of case studies, says OSHA assistant secretary Charles Jeffres, the agency believes new regulations can cut injuries by half in just the first year.

JEFFRES: There is incontrovertible evidence that these disorders are related to working conditions, and that there are things that can be done to solve the problems.

TRIPOLI: The rules would require businesses to act quickly when even one worker suffers a repetitive stress injury. In most cases, once a problem is spotted the employer would have to launch an ergonomics program to make jobs safer. This could include everything from remodeling work stations to simply training workers in how to lift heavy objects, or adjusting the position of lights, chairs and computer screens. Charles Jeffres says the regulations won't only prevent injuries, they'll save employers almost five billion dollars more in the first year than the cost of implementing them. That figure is based on OSHA's experience with companies that have already raised their ergonomic standards.

JEFFRES: What we found from meeting with those employers was that the earlier that they addressed a problem, the more they saved, because they got to a problem before someone got hurt so badly it required surgery. Bottom line, the ergonomics programs in place saved these employers significant amounts of money.

TRIPOLI: Many business leaders scoff at these contentions, claiming the regulations will cost employers far more than OSHA admits. And Peter Eide of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce complains that OSHA's proposals can put employers on the hook for injuries that may have occurred elsewhere.

EIDE: What they're doing is they're taking the workplace activities that may cause or exacerbate the actual pain that an employee or person is suffering. If you walk into a workplace and you injured your knee in a football game over the weekend, and if you do something that causes pain to your knee, then in the definition under the proposed regulation, then it becomes a workplace disorder.

TRIPOLI: OSHA denies that can happen, saying existing laws clearly determine whether an injury is work-related. But Peter Eide also says the ergonomic rules will hurt small business. From construction companies to bakeries to accounting firms, he says small companies will be burdened by these regulations in ways big ones won't.

EIDE: If you're talking about a major corporation, I'm sure that they have on their staffs ergonomists and labor lawyers and specialists in occupational safety and health. Now you take a small employer with, say, 25, 50 employees, there is, like, one person who runs that operation. And they probably don't even have a human resources professional. That's going to be an extremely onerous burden on small businesses because they don't have the time to (a) find the reg, (2) read the reg, understand it, and, finally, to make sure that ongoing compliance is there.

TRIPOLI: OSHA and several labor unions say those worries are blown out of proportion, but the debate is far from over. At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a major study of repetitive stress injuries and will issue a report next January. But OSHA doesn't need Congressional approval before enacting the new rules, and the agency has scheduled public hearings this month and next in Washington, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. Business groups claim the Clinton administration is rushing the regulations as an election year plum to its allies in labor. If the administration goes forward, business leaders vow to challenge the rules in court. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Tripoli in Boston.

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CURWOOD: Seattle's famed Space Needle is coming under fire for polluting the local sky with too much light. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Seattle Lights up the Heavens

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's not quite the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower, but the Seattle area is fond of its landmark tower, known as the Space Needle. The 60-story observation tower on the edge of Puget Sound was built for the 1962 World's Fair. Now, in an effort to update the obelisk for the twenty-first century, the Space Needle's owners have installed a giant laser beam on the roof. Some local residents don't appreciate the upgrade, though, and they've turned it into the latest battleground in the fight over light pollution. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Bellamy Pailthorp has this report.

(Milling)

MAN: Well, welcome everyone to the world-famous Seattle Space Needle...

PAILTHORP: Crowds of tourists gather at the base of the Space Needle each day, eager to visit the top of Seattle's flying saucer in the sky.

MAN: I'd like to invite you all into this room, here...

PAILTHORP: Observation towers like the Needle sprouted up all over the world in the late 60s and 70s. Some people regard this tower as the most elegant of the breed, with slender white legs that form an hourglass shape. It's also been touted as one of Seattle's greatest architectural achievements, as in the boastful documentary Steel in Space.

(Film music. A man's voice-over: "The best-known symbol of the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River -- steel rising 600 feet above the high-speed monorail train, and the fairgrounds.")

PAILTHORP: Once the novelty of its height wore off, the Space Needle's owners began trying to capture the attention of the city by dressing it up on a regular basis. The top has been decorated to look like TV's Wheel of Fortune. There's been a giant red crab crawling up the legs, and even a giant goose flying off the top to celebrate Eddie Bauer's 100th birthday. Space Needle Corporation president Dean Nelson.

NELSON: So, the Space Needle's always been about fun, and we've tried to do whimsical things, and we'll continue to do that.

PAILTHORP: The Space Needle Corporation is investing $20 million in renovations for the new millennium, including a complete, new lighting design. One feature is a laser-like beam of light shooting straight up from the top of the tower.

NELSON: The lighting system is all white light. It's being done by one of the most accomplished lighting designers in the country. It's a gentle approach to a terrific asset that could be shown to better advantage than it currently is.

PAILTHORP: But a small group of activists disagrees. Attorney Hal Green is a member of the International Dark Sky Association. He objects to the idea of turning the Space Needle into a giant flashlight that shoots high-intensity lights into the heavens.

GREEN: Bear in mind that these are three 7,000-watt lamps, and it's going to produce a beam of 85 million candlepower going into the sky.

PAILTHORP: Mr. Green remembers first visiting the Needle in 1962, when it was built. He says the new beam of light contradicts the historical intent of a monument constructed for a World's Fair.

GREEN: The theme of that World's Fair was the Space Age and our desire as humans to want to connect with space. So, I don't want to see the Space Needle become a symbol for the world of how to obliterate that connection by blinding us from our view of space.

PAILTHORP: Seattle has no law to regulate light pollution. So Hal Green has taken his crusade to the only agency with any say, the city's Landmark Preservation Board. But despite a stack of letters from citizens and environmental organizations, city staffer Karen Gordon has refused to put the issue on the Board's agenda.

GORDON: Because it's not an issue at this point that we really have the authority to discuss. Are we going to have a vote on whether there is a gorilla or Christmas lights on the Space Needle? What if there is someone who is offended by, you know, a plastic inflatable animal on the Space Needle?

PAILTHORP: Something of a compromise seems to have been brokered. Ms. Gordon has accepted a list of 15 days a year when the beam can be turned on to mark national holidays. In addition, the beam can go on under special circumstances, like times of public sorrow, such as the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 with dozens of Seattle passengers on board.

(Footfalls)

PAILTHORP: Despite the Dark Sky objections, the new light has been on and off for several months now. The public seems on the whole to like it, when they happen to notice. At a popular viewpoint, several visitors admired the beam recently on a soggy President's Day.

MAN: It's not ugly, at least in my opinion. It does bring attention to the Space Needle, and that's kind of like one of the things that we're kind of known for.

MAN 2: Great. It's beautiful.

WOMAN: As we walked up here we thought, oh, there's the moon shining through the clouds. And then we realized as we came around the corner that no, it was a spotlight coming out of the top of a building.

PAILTHORP: Dark Sky activists continue to object to the beam, but they're fighting a steep uphill battle. Especially since on most nights in the Pacific Northwest the stars are obscured anyway by a naturally occurring phenomenon: clouds. For Living on Earth I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

Snowshoes - The Old Way

CURWOOD: The last of the winter snow is rapidly disappearing from most of the country. But as long as there's still some white stuff out there, there will still be a few diehard snowshoers tromping around in it. Snowshoeing is booming these days, with the sale of snowshoes increasing by 25 percent a year. Most buyers prefer snowshoes made from inexpensive lightweight aluminum. But there is still a small, loyal market for old-fashioned wooden snowshoes. Reporter Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio recently paid a visit to two seasoned craftspeople who make wooden snowshoes in Stowe, Vermont.

(Loud, high-pitched buzzing)

KECK: The main room of Tubbs Snowshoe Company factory is filled with hydraulic pounding, clanking, and hissing. It's the sound of modern aluminum snowshoes being born. Not far away, in a quieter corner of the plant, Tubbs' only full-time snowshoe lacer talks about the other snowshoes the company makes: hand-crafted wooden ones that make up just one half of one percent of overall sales. Joan Scribner-Lemieux says that while the newer models are lighter, less costly, and easier to maintain, wooden snowshoes have advantages.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: One of the things about wooden snowshoes is that they are more quiet in the woods. And if people really want to get out and see wildlife and not disturb it any more than necessary, the wood shoe seems to be a good choice. To me, I like the way they're made, I like the way they look, I love making them.

KECK: Joan Scribner-Lemieux has short, silver hair, big-framed glasses, and a quick smile. The native Vermonter is in her mid 60s. She grew up watching her father, a farmer, make and repair his own snowshoes. Now she laces about 15 pair a week. She explains the process as we walk into the company's wood shop.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: Okay, come on, we'll go out here and see Dave. (Opens door)

KECK: Dave is David Darreh, the other half of Tubbs' wooden snowshoe team.

(Drilling)

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: He's making the holes that I lace through for the toe, and the tail section, that go completely through the frame.

DARREH: I go buy the lumber, go get the lumber, mill it out, make the shoes, and I do the dipping and Joan does all the lacing.

KECK: Dave Darreh's workshop smells like sawdust and camp fires. Routers, sanders, drills, and saws stand ready for each phase of the work. The snowshoes are made from light ash. Darreh says before he can assemble a pair, the wood needs to be cut, steamed, and dried to the right moisture content.

DARREH: If it's too wet, the moisture will push the grain and split it. And if it's too dry it will just break. So it has to be just so. And then I take it and put it on holding racks, and we put it in the drying room and dry it for about three days. Then I take it out of there and start making the shoes.

(Loud knocking)

KECK: Preparing the frames for lacing can take more than a week. While Dave Darreh's workshop is big and noisy, Joan Scribner-Lemieux's area is quieter and more compact. A wall-mounted vise holds the shoe she's working on. Various tools lay nearby. Dry cowhides are rolled up on a back shelf like wrapping paper. She soaks the hides in a big metal tub to soften them, and then feeds the dripping leather through a special slicer.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: This is my refrigerator that I keep my hide in when it's wet, so that it doesn't spoil. People are welcome to use it to keep their milk for their coffee in there, but I tell them the temperature is down enough so it almost freezes.

KECK: Joan Scribbner Lemieux reaches in and grabs a wet bundle of what looks like enormous fettuccine. She pulls out one long ribbon of hide and ties it to the snowshoe frame. She stretches the lace tightly, and wraps it around the other side of the shoe. Her hands move quickly and gracefully, over and under, stretching and tying, twisting and looping.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: This is really pretty quiet work. The only thing you hear is probably the squeaking of the vice and stuff when it wiggles when I pull things through it. Lacing is watching the pattern grow. As many times as I've done all the patterns, I still enjoy watching it start to shape. It's sort of a triangle type of thing, and you keep adding rows and rows and rows. But it's always kind of interesting to watch it grow.

KECK: The work isn't difficult. Though she admits arthritis makes her hands stiff and tired at the end of the day.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: You have to keep the lacing tight, fairly tight. What I call white-knuckle tight. So that when you tie the knots around the frame, if it does for some reason pick up moisture and start to soften, it doesn't slide out of position. Because then they don't look good and they don't provide the support they need to for the person wearing them.

KECK: After lacing them, she'll give the shoes a second and third coat of polyurethane, before sending them on their way. From start to finish, it can take about three to four weeks to complete a pair of wooden snowshoes. That's a big reason why they cost more than some of the newer models. Tubbs' wooden snowshoes start at about $200, while aluminum ones begin at half that amount. Joan Scribner-Lemieux says that, for many people, nostalgia is worth it.

SCRIBNER-LEMIEUX: When I'm doing lacing demos at stores and so forth, the older people are the ones who stand there with a kind of a dreamy look in their eye that says: Oh, I remember this.

KECK: That's part of what Joan Scribner-Lemieux likes about her job, the idea that she might be helping to preserve a north woods tradition that's been around for thousands of years. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck in Stowe, Vermont.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Next week, struggling family farmers and urbanites longing to reconnect with the land are giving birth to a new rural hybrid, agro-tourism.

WOMAN: My father would not understand entertainment farming. He would not understand that people come to the farm and they want to see how things are made. They want to see how things are done. He would not understand cooking breakfast to try to push your maple syrup. He thought there was going to be a market for all his vegetables forever. That is simply not the case any more.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth was produced this week by Peter Thomson, with help from Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, and Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. We also had help this week from interns Hannah Day-Woodruff, Steven Belter , and Emily Sadigh. Our administrative staff includes Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Liz Lempert heads up our Western Bureau. And our science editor is Diane Toomey. Terry FitzPatrick is the acting senior editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We bid a reluctant farewell to producer Jesse Wegman, who has made these airwaves sing over the last three years with so many of the pieces you've enjoyed on the show. Always with a cheerful smile, and with that extra effort that can turn good into great. Good luck, Jess. Living on Earth is a production of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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