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

April 28, 2000

Air Date: April 28, 2000


Mexican Logging / Kent Patterson

Battles over logging in the forests of Guerrero (Yeh-RAY-ro), Mexico are drawing in the Mexican army, foreign companies and even international human rights and environmental groups. Rodolfo Montiel (Mahn-TEE-yo), an anti-logging leader recently awarded the Goldman Environmental Award, is in prison for his activism. Kent Patterson files reports. (06:00)

Earth Day Aftermath

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins host Steve Curwood to discuss the lack of media coverage on Earth Day 2000. (05:40)

Technology Update / Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber reports on new technologies that are making it possible to produce synthetic fibers and plastic wrapping entirely from plants. (00:59)

Cane Toads / Alex Chadwick

In his latest National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick reports on how the South American cane toad got to Australia, and why Australians want it to go away. (08:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about -- Arbor Day, first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872. (01:30)

Toxic Schools / Celeste Wesson

Los Angeles spent 200 million dollars building a badly needed inner city high school, only to abandon the project because the school site is located on a former oil field. As Celeste Wesson reports, it’s increasingly difficult for urban school districts to find clean land for new schools. (05:45)

Health Update / Diane Toomey

Diane Toomey reports on studies which find that pollution is having a deleterious effect on brain development and human intelligence – worldwide. (00:59)

Tibetan Medicine, Part II / Diane Toomey

In the second part of our series on alternative healing, Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey explores the pitfalls of using a Western scientific approach to examine Tibetan medicine. A Western company is also marketing a form of Tibetan medicine, but some question how close to the real thing it is. (08:40)

Rating Alternative Medicine

In the May issue of Consumer Reports, readers rate how well they thought a variety of alternative treatments worked for medical conditions ranging from arthritis to depression. Host Steve Curwood talks with the magazine’s Health Editor Ronni Sandroff about what consumers need to keep in mind when shopping for alternative treatments. (04:50)

Sun Song / Barrett Golding

The sounds of charged solar particles hitting the atmosphere and the voice of the man who records them, set to a swirly rock n’ roll beat by producer Barrett Golding. (03:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Kent Patterson, Alex Chadwick, Celeste Wesson, Diane Toomey, Barrett Golding
UPDATES: Cynthia Graber, Diane Toomey
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Ronni Sandroff

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The question of human rights and protection of the environment go hand in hand in a conflict in southern Mexico over logging.

QUERAL: One cannot be an environmentalist if one's rights to speak, to get organized, are not respected. These are basic civil rights that allow people to make a change.

CURWOOD: Also, Mother Nature's revenge. Australians brought in the cane toad to solve one problem but found they had let loose a plague on the landscape.

HOSKIN: It really is incredibly toxic, like it can kill dogs, cats. So it has no trouble killing wildlife that eat it. And the big problem is, a lot of the wildlife doesn't have the capacity to learn about the toads, and you know, they just don't get the chance to learn about them before it's too late.

CURWOOD: Those stories, a review of media coverage of Earth Day, and Ralph Nader eyes the U.S. presidency. That and more on Living on Earth this week, but first this round-up of the hour's news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Mexican Logging

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A campaign against logging operations in southern Mexico is gaining more and more international attention. Rodolfo Montiel is a key leader in this anti-logging crusade, and he's just won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. But Senor Montiel won't be picking up his prize in person. That's because he's locked up in a Mexican prison on drug and weapons charges. Kent Patterson has the story behind Rodolfo Montiel's arrest and the reason for the logging dispute in the forests of Guerrero.

(Motors and fans)

PATTERSON: In a large factory, hundreds of Mexican workers turn logs into sheets of plywood. Located in the Costa Grande region of Guerrero state, this plant, owned by Spanish investors, provides jobs and income for one of the poorest regions of Mexico. But not everybody is happy about the logging in the nearby mountains.

(Maximino Pineda speaks in Spanish)

PATTERSON: Farmer Maximino Pineda represents the campesino ecologist organization Apetatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan. He contends that Mexican authorities are not enforcing laws against illegal logging. He says the environment is in jeopardy.

PINEDA: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The timber is ending up in the hands of a few people who are the officials of the forest-owning communities. The mountains are practically being stripped bare, and water resources are getting scarce.

PATTERSON: Three years ago the campesino ecologist organization began putting up roadblocks that stopped trucks carrying lumber. At that time, the wood was being shipped to a mill owned by the U.S.-based company Boise Cascade. The timber industry giant has since closed down its Guerrero operation, but others like the Spanish investors have taken their place.

(Noel Cruz speaks in Spanish)

PATTERSON: Noel Cruz works for Mexico's environmental enforcement agency. He says the government will investigate complains of illegal logging and carry out audits of timber harvest plots. He criticizes the tactics of anti-logging protesters.

CRUZ: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The truth of the matter is that people are unhappy with the timber stoppages, because it has stopped our money flow. Everyone was living off, off this business. There were repair shops for vehicles, freight haulers, heavy equipment operators, and chainsaw operators.
PINEDA: [speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: The timber is ending up in the hands of a few people who are the officials of the forest-owning communities. The mountains are practically being stripped bare, and water resources are getting scarce.

PATTERSON: In recent months, logging disputes have heated up in Guerrero and other parts of Mexico. At this meeting in Guerrero, pro- and anti-logging factions debate a proposal to ban logging in one area of the southern Sierra Madre mountains.

(A man argues in Spanish)

PATTERSON: Although local environmental and economic issues are at stake, the battle over Guerrero's forests is turning into an international controversy. It's becoming known through the story of one man, Rodolfo Montiel, one of the leaders of the campesino ecologist organization.

(Ubalda Cortez speaks in Spanish)

PATTERSON: Ubalda Cortez is the wife of Rodolfo Montiel. She says that on May second, 1999, she and her husband were in the mountain village of Pizolta when Mexican soldiers arrived, firing their weapons.

CORTEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I asked them whether they were government soldiers and bandits, because a military government has no right to come in the way they did. They asked me to go with them and help secure the surrender of my husband and his friends, or they would kill me. And in any case they would kill my husband. They pointed their guns at me and threatened to kill me.

PATTERSON: When the shooting was over, Montiel and his friend Teodora Cabrera were in custody, and a third man, Salome Ortiz, was dead. Mexican authorities charged the men with possessing weapons and drugs, but Ubalda Cortez says her husband and friend are being framed for opposing the logging. A number of international environmental groups agree. Rodolfo Montiel this month was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award by the San Francisco-based foundation. And he's currently a nominee for the Sierra Club's Chico Mendes Award.

QUERAL: The case of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodora Cabrera is one of many, unfortunately, in the world, where environmental activists are being harassed. They're being beaten or tortured, even killed at times, for their environmental activism.

PATTERSON: Alejandro Queral, the director of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and Environment Campaign, together with Amnesty International and a network of international groups. The Sierra Club is campaigning for the freedom of Montiel and Cabrera. Queral says their case is one key example of a growing trend in international environmental movement.

QUERAL: Environmental activism, we are realizing, is closely tied to issues of human rights. Both go hand in hand. One cannot be an environmentalist if one's rights to speak, to get organized, are not respected. These are basic civil rights that allow people to make a change. In many of the countries, particularly poor countries, many of these people's rights are being violated, and in doing so they are not being allowed to protect their own environment. If they can't do it, no one else will.

PATTERSON: Even as logs continue to be cut and processed in Guerrero, Alejandro Queral and other supporters of Rodolfo Montiel vow they will step up their campaign. He adds that Mexico's attorney general, Jorge Madrazo, pledged in a recent meeting with the Sierra Club and others that he will personally review the case. Nevertheless, members of Rodolfo Montiel's organization say they are intimidated by an ongoing military presence in their communities. The Mexican government did not return a phone call seeking comment. For Living on Earth, I'm Kent Patterson reporting.

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Earth Day Aftermath

CURWOOD: Earth Day's thirtieth anniversary festivities drew millions worldwide from the star-studded event in Washington, D.C., to the first-ever Chinese celebration in Taiwan. But the media coverage was weak. It was upstaged by the Elian Gonzalez story and focused mainly on Earth Day celebrity spokesperson Leonardo diCaprio. Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins us now to talk about where the media was looking on Earth Day 2000. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, there was a lot of uproar from the media about Leonardo diCaprio being the Earth Day spokesperson, and then of course his interview on ABC television with President Clinton. Why are all those reporters so upset?

HERTSGAARD: I think that they were upset at the idea that a celebrity and an actor would be interviewing the president, rather than a so-called real journalist. Which is very odd, when you think of the fact that in America right now, so many of our so-called journalists really are little more than celebrities and actors themselves. Sam Donaldson, for example, big celebrity, took great umbrage at this. And it's not as if these mainstream journalists are so concerned or knowledgeable about environmental issues. Just look at the coverage that the Washington Post did on Earth Day morning. They covered Vice President Gore's speech in Michigan the day before, his first big environmental speech. Look in the second paragraph of that story and you will see a howler of a mistake, where they write that, quote, "Gore and other environmentalists argue that the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer," unquote. Now, that is about like saying that a law that's passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives must go to the chief justice of the United States, rather than the president, for signing. Because of course, the release of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, is responsible for global warming, not the ozone hole. That story went out to 700 papers on the Washington Post syndication service. It got caught at the copy desk in the Washington Post itself, but 700 other newspapers picked it up, including my home paper here, the San Francisco Chronicle.

CURWOOD: There were a number of great celebrations of Earth Day all around the world. In this country, it seemed to me that the whole thing kind of got eclipsed by the Elian Gonzalez story, though.

HERTSGAARD: In this country, exactly, Steve. I'd emphasize that. It's hard for Americans to know what happened on Earth Day anyplace else in the world because the coverage here was so poor. In the Washington Post, again, for example, they covered that story on the inside pages. It didn't even make the front of the news section. CBS News dropped an entire special that they had planned on Earth Day for that evening in order to do all Elian all the time. Now of course, the U.S. government raid to retrieve Elian Gonzalez is a big story. No one's denying that. But the way that it blew out all of the other coverage, I think, is indicative of what has happened to the media in the last ten years. This sort of blockbuster mentality that any story that's big you put all your resources on, and especially a story like this. This was a soap opera story, the kind of story that the media has loved ever since O.J. Simpson. And as a result, you had a lot of coverage of Elian and almost no coverage of these other events on Earth Day, unless by the way, you looked on the BBC or the Toronto Globe and Mail. This was an American phenomenon that the Elian Gonzalez story got so much play.

CURWOOD: On Earth Day, it was interesting to see that Al Gore, Vice President Al Gore showed up at the Mall in Washington. That presidential contender Ralph Nader was in San Francisco and Berkeley, but no George Bush anywhere. Why do you suppose that was?

HERTSGAARD: Well, he certainly was asked. Denis Hayes, the organizer of Earth Day, gave Mr. Bush an invitation and he declined it. Hard to know why. It would seem a poor tactical maneuver.

CURWOOD: And speaking of Ralph Nader, looks like he might be picking up some significant endorsements along the way. What have you heard?

HERTSGAARD: Publicly it's already been announced that the Friends of the Earth organization is considering endorsing Nader. You remember, of course, Steve, that they endorsed Bill Bradley last fall over Vice President Gore, gave Mr. Gore a real wake-up call. But more importantly, I interviewed Nader in San Francisco, and he told me directly that Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club, had said to him that the Sierra Club might endorse both Nader and Gore. I called the Sierra Club about that and they are noncommittal. They say that's possible, we're not going to decide until July. But that would be a pretty big deal for Nader, because Sierra Club is much bigger and much richer than the Friends of the Earth. And if you had both of those groups endorsing you, that's a pretty strong foundation to run your campaign on.

CURWOOD: How would this affect the race? I'm thinking particularly of Mr. Gore, who reissued his book Earth in the Balance on Earth Day. He'd like to have this environmental turf.

HERTSGAARD: Absolutely, Steve. I think it's a real problem for Gore. If Nader starts to peel away those votes of the environmental world, and even more importantly, if Nader attracts the environmental activists, that's where it's really going to hurt Gore. He needs those people. He needs his signature issue to be strong on that, especially if he's looking at a close race with George W. Bush. So I would say that if Nader keeps going in this direction, it's going to push Gore to be more outspoken and more aggressive in his own environmental advocacy.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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CURWOOD: How the South American cane toad got down under, and under the skin of Australians who want it gone from their wild places. The story is just ahead, right here on Living on Earth. First, this environmental health update from Diane Toomey.

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Technology Update

TOOMEY: Pollution is dumbing down the human race, and the scale of the problem, a British researcher charges, is woefully underestimated. That's because a number of factors may be working together to damage our brains. In a review of previous studies, Chris Williams, a social scientist at the University of London, found pollution from lead, PCBs, and nuclear radiation are affecting brain development and lowering intelligence levels worldwide. In some parts of Africa, for example, 90 percent of children have levels of lead in the blood high enough to damage their IQs. Deforestation may be making the situation worse, because nutrients that we need for proper brain development, like iron and iodine, are being washed out of crop soil. Humans, Mr. Williams concludes, are hurting their brains through the very technology they so smartly developed in the first place. And that's this week's Living on Earth health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: It's 19 minutes past the hour.

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Cane Toads

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ecosystems are hard things to balance. Consider the challenges faced by European settlers in Australia. A hundred and fifty years ago, they brought in rabbits. Without natural predators, there were soon rabbits everywhere. Fine, the settlers said. We'll bring in foxes to eat them. Trouble was, the foxes found indigenous species easier to catch than rabbits, and the rabbits continued to multiply. It's all part of the chain of unintended consequences. And if you think the Australians learned from their bunny explosion, think again. It was just a prelude to something even more vexing. NPR's Alex Chadwick tells us why in his latest National Geographic Radio Expedition.

MAN: This ferry is going upstream, all stops to the university.

CHADWICK: Brisbane, halfway along Australia's east coast. At evening, a ferry churning up the Brisbane River to the last stop, the University of Queensland. Where we meet amphibian researcher Conrad Hoskin, and begin to look for something called a cane toad.

(Animal calls)

HOSKIN: The biggest ones I've seen have been up to about 24 centimeters.

CHADWICK: You've seen them that big, a foot long?

HOSKIN: Probably not quite a foot, but maybe 20, 22 centimeters. And really heavy, too.

(More animal calls)

CHADWICK: The toad search is a five-minute walk across campus to a small pond. It's gotten dark; huge bats skitter low overhead. Now, listen for the toads.

(Toad calls)

HOSKIN: There we go. And that's their call, going in the background there, that -- (Purrs).

(Calls continue)

CHADWICK: There are famously strange creatures native in Australia. The South American cane toad is not one of them. Farmers in the northeastern state of Queensland got some 60 years ago. The toads were supposed to eat sugar cane beetles. It turns out they don't. Mostly what they do is make more toads.

HOSKIN: The most amazing thing is, when they all metamorphose, they come out in waves. So, if she goes down and dumps, say, 25,000 eggs in, in one go, they'll all come out within about a month.

CHADWICK: Twenty-five thousand --

HOSKIN: Tiny little toads, yeah.

CHADWICK: In the decades after the thirties, cane toads spread quickly. And people began to discover one more very important cane toad factor. They're highly poisonous.

HOSKIN: It really is incredibly toxic, like it can kill dogs, cats. So it has no trouble killing wildlife that eat it. And the big problem is, a lot of the wildlife doesn't have the capacity to learn about the toads, and you know, they just don't get the chance to learn about them before it's too late.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: There are a lot of frogs in Australia, and a lot of creatures evolved to eat them, not expecting ever to encounter a poison toad. Where the cane toads appear, there are massive die-offs of Australian wildlife.


CHADWICK: Conrad had a long pole with a large net at one end, and we set off walking the edge of the pond, looking for toads.

(To Hoskin) So that's one?


CHADWICK: Palm-sized, brown and warty on the back, pale yellow on the belly. The captured toad was utterly calm.

(To Hoskin) How dangerous is the toad to pick up, or handle, or be around, for us?

HOSKIN: It's not too bad. I've picked up thousands of toads, and I've never had any trouble.

CHADWICK: Well, you're handling them with bare hands, though.

HOSKIN: Yeah, that's fine. People lick these.

CHADWICK: They do?

HOSKIN: They've sort of got a hallucinogenic effect.

CHADWICK: Have you ever licked one?

HOSKIN: No. I'm not sure how many licks you can get away with. (Laughs)

CHADWICK: If you ate one of these toads --

HOSKIN: If I ate one, I'd die. I'm sure.

(Footfalls amidst toad calls)

CHADWICK: Already, cane toads have spread through almost half of northern Australia. They're getting near Australia's Yellowstone, Kakadu National Park. A wonderland of forest and wildlife. And many people worry what the cane toad could do there.

(Animal calls)

CHADWICK: Kakadu is in the center of Australia's north coast. It's in a place called the Northern Territory. The capital city is Darwin, named for the man who developed the theory of evolution. And a scientist there is waiting for the cane toad with Darwin in mind.

FREELAND: I'm Dr. Bill Freeland. I'm the director of the Paxon Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory.

CHADWICK: Many wild predators do die from cane toads, Dr. Freeland says. But so far, none is extinct. He ran an experiment with a big Australian lizard called a gowana.

FREELAND: Very impressive. They're carnivorous.

CHADWICK: He used Darwin gowana from a local farm that was raising them for lizard hide. These gowana had never seen a cane toad.

FREELAND: What happened was that the gowana would immediately, I mean immediately, leap on the toad, grab it, hold it for five minutes. Then release the cane toad, which hopped away. And 15 minutes later, the gowana died. And I'm talking about, you know, five foot or more long lizard is dead within 15 minutes. It's quite dramatic.

CHADWICK: When the toads infest new wild areas, two thirds of the gowana die from eating them within months. But others do survive, and their numbers slowly return to normal. Maybe they learn to avoid toads, Bill Freeland thought, and he put a baby cane toad in with a big gowana. And the lizard gobbled the tiny amphibian like a jellybean gone bad -- ugh.

FREELAND: It went into a coma, and the lizard was in a coma for approximately six hours, with massive heart palpitations.

CHADWICK: That lizard, Dr. Freeland observed, had a very memorable lesson about cane toads. So, when it was fully recovered, he tried it with an adult toad.

FREELAND: And the first thing the gowana did was leap upon it, and attack the toad, and rolled over dead in 15 minutes. And it seems to me, at least, that the poor old gowana isn't too bright when it comes to learning about what it should and shouldn't eat.

CHADWICK: If the lizards don't learn, then something else is going on. Because when Dr. Freeland used wild gowana captured from areas where the toads are living, the results were very different.

FREELAND: None of them would even go near a cane toad. They just ignored them. And what seems to be going on, I think, is it's an evolutionary phenomenon. All we get that's happening here in Australia is that demand for the lizards are simply evolving to live with the cane toad. It's Darwinian selection before our very eyes, and it's really, really very, very exciting.

CHADWICK: His theory, here it is. A genetic difference among gowanas. Some eat cane toads. Some don't. The no-toad gowanas, and other creatures, too, that avoid them, will survive. And things will look pretty much the same, at least for a while.

(Toad and other calls)

CHADWICK: Dr. Freeland will tell you that Australia's road to toad hell is more likely a road to heck. Cane toads are a nuisance. Most wildlife probably will adapt. Which leaves people.

HOSKIN: Yeah, when I was younger, I used to really get into toad-busting, and knocking them over the fence with a golf club and the rest of it.

CHADWICK: University of Queensland zoologist Conrad Hoskin confesses his early cane toad interests, which many kids still pursue. It's hard to overstate just how much nuisance cane toads can be.

(Animal calls)

HOSKIN: There'd be maybe 40 toads, or just walking around suburban gardens in a place like Cairns. Just incredible, you know, you put the food out for the dog at night and they come up and eat the dog biscuits.

CHADWICK: Still, no creature is without its appeal. Conrad Hoskin, former toad warrior, now amphibian researcher. Fascinated by cane toads. And at least a little admiring.

HOSKIN: I don't find them ugly or anything. They're quite a -- you know -- maybe even an intelligent-looking little beast. And they just, they're so successful here despite everyone hating them, that you know, I really like them. But that doesn't mean I want them to stay.

CHADWICK: In Brisbane, Australia, for Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

CURWOOD: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Our story on the cane toads of Australia was produced by Carolyn Jensen and recorded by Minoly Weathereau.

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CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org.

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

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: The biggest dangers to school children these days aren't the highly-publicized shootings. They're the toxic sites on which many of the schools sit. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday each April. And one celebrates by caring for trees and planting a few. Arbor Day originated in Nebraska, a state rich in prairie but poor in trees, until settlers began setting them out. The pioneers relied heavily on wood for shelter, fuel, furniture, even food and medicine, not to mention shade. The first Arbor Day celebration took place in 1872, and taking advantage of tax breaks, land grants, and the chance to socialize, settlers planted one million trees that day. Trees are no less cherished today. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates the value of a 50-year-old tree at more than $200,000. Among the contributions it provides are oxygen, water, shade, energy conservation, prevention of soil erosion, and shelter for wildlife. It's no surprise, then, that many communities do not tolerate the crime of arborcide. In tree-scarce New York City, for example, you can be fined up to $15,000 and spend a year in jail for cutting a tree without a permit. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Toxic Schools

CURWOOD: In January, the Los Angeles school board reluctantly put a halt to construction at the Belmont Learning Center. The state of the art high school was slated to serve more than 5,000 students near downtown L.A. But none of the planners were aware that the school was being built on top of an old oil field. The site emits potentially explosive methane and hydrogen sulfide gases. It would have cost up to $60 million to fix the problem. Celeste Wesson reports that the Belmont scandal has put the issue of toxic schools on the map.

WESSON: The scandal is a tangle of shady land deals, lawsuits, and investigations. But the upshot is that the district did not conduct adequate environmental tests when the land was bought, and again when construction began. School board member David Tokovsky says the underlying factor was the enormous pressure to get the school built, and make it big enough to serve as many kids as possible.

TOKOVSKY: How do you find land that large in a densely-populated urban section? Well, it's not going to be pristine open land. It's not going to be strawberry fields that you can buy up. It's going to be places that have been used once, twice, or three times in the century.

WESSON: The board is already scouting alternate sites. One option is building more but smaller schools that don't require huge parcels of land. An accidental benefit of small schools, says Mr. Tokovsky, would be a less alienating, more nurturing environment for students. Any new sites will also be selected using stricter environmental standards. State Assembly member Scott Wildman sponsored a new law that was directly inspired by his investigation of the Belmont scandal. Instead of letting local school boards control the environmental review of new sites, it's now up to the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control.

WILDMAN: Every time a district now acquires a site, they are required to bring this department in to determine whether it's feasible to build a school on that site. And then, if it's determined that they can build a school on the site, they have to supervise the remediation of the site. Because we're not talking about mitigation. We're talking about making these sites safe.

WESSON: The district itself hired an interim director of environmental health and safety. He's making several proposals dealing not only with new school sites, but also with problems at existing schools, including those near landfills and others undergoing asbestos removal. Some community activists say there will need to be even more changes to deal with the full scope of the toxic schools problem.

(Weeping, sobbing)

WESSON: At a park in Bell Gardens, an industrial area about ten miles from Belmont, Communities for a Better Environment is staging a political skit. The first scene is a funeral. The mother is mourning the death of her child. In the second scene, she testifies at a government hearing.

WOMAN: (Shouting) How many more children have to die? How many?

MAN: Ma'am. Ma'am. There's nothing to worry about. Our studies show that there's no sign of a health hazard. You have my word.

MAN 2: I second that motion. No eye evidencia --

WESSON: Twenty local children have died of cancer in the past ten years. Deaths the group attributes to emissions from chrome plating plants that operated for decades next door to two local schools. Carlos Porras , speaking over the beat of an Aztec drum and dance troupe, says Bell Gardens is just one of ten neighborhoods with toxic schools where Communities for a Better Environment is seeking tougher air standards. New schools like Belmont are the tip of the iceberg, says Porras. The bigger problem is pollution at existing schools.


PORRAS: The challenge economically to make some very hard choices. Do the schools close? Do the industries close? Do we force regulation on existing industries? Many industries threatening to move if regulation is made tighter. That requires a strong political will with very strong and forceful leaders, and we don't have that.

(Drumming and rattling)

WESSON: Porras says it's a national problem anywhere schools have been built in poor urban communities near industrial areas. Lois Gibbs experienced the problem first-hand when her family was evacuated from their home in the contaminated neighborhood of Love Canal, New York. More than 20 years later, she says, it's still not known how many schools are environmentally unsafe. Although her group, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, recently launched an informal survey in conjunction with PTAs and other groups. And, she says, the Center is already working with affected schools in states from Louisiana to Connecticut to Ohio. Gibbs hopes that these local battles will lead to new federal standards for safe exposure to toxins for children. And she says these standards will need to apply not only to schools, but also to day care centers, parks, and playgrounds.

GIBBS: I have a nine-year-old, and he's a catcher in baseball. And when they take home base and brush the dust off it, and all that goes into my son's face, I wonder what is on that dust. You look at baseball fields. They look like golf courses, they're so manicured. And that's about weed killers, fungicides, all of these other chemicals that children are being exposed to. So it goes well beyond the school itself.

WESSON: In California, state legislators will have a chance to enact stricter controls in the upcoming session. Bills that deal with environmental safety at existing schools, and to begin to assess the specific risk to children of toxic exposure, are in the works. I'm Celeste Wesson in Los Angeles.

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CURWOOD: The promise of Tibetan medicine, and the efforts to understand it in Western terms. That's coming up right here on Living on Earth. First, this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

Health Update

GRABER: The next time you slip on that polyester shirt, don't be surprised if your appetite picks up. Synthetics like polyester are made from petroleum-based plastic fiber, but some manufacturers are now developing plastic fiber from plants. Today they're using corn, but any starchy plants, like wheat, sugar beets, even agricultural waste will do. The starch is turned into sugar and then lactic acid. When processed, it can make a flexible and strong product. And this veggie process uses 30 to 50 percent less fossil fuel, and it produces a lot less carbon dioxide. And next in line, the experts say, is packaging made entirely from agricultural products. So you might find yourself unwrapping that new shirt and tossing the wrapping right onto the compost pile. And who knows? Perhaps some day the shirt could end up among the orange peels and coffee grinds, too. And that's this week's Living on Earth technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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CURWOOD: It's 21-and-a-half minutes before the hour. You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

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Tibetan Medicine, Part II

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Tibetan medicine is a complicated system that takes a very different view of the human body, and the causes of disease, compared to its Western counterpart. Demonstrating how it works is difficult to do in terms that are easily understood by Westerners. But some California researchers are trying. In the second in our series on alternative healing, we look at Western attempts to assess Tibetan medicine. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: If you want advice from a Tibetan doctor, you don't have to travel to the rooftop of the world to see one. At least not on this morning. All you have to do is walk into this New Age bookstore just outside of Boston. Go past the electric fountain.

(New Age music, and chimes)

TOOMEY: Pass under the ceiling dripping with chimes. And turn into a small back room, where for $50 you can consult with Lapsong Tensin Sowa, both monk and doctor. He's here on a fund-raising tour for his monastery in India. Dr. Sowa, short in stature and quick of smile, sits near a table piled high with dozens of plastic jars. Each container is filled with large pills made from rock and resin, fruit, and herb.


SOWA: [speaks in Tibetan]

TRANSLATOR: This medicine will help those who have a problem with wind element and blood. It balances their elements. So then, when it's playing an important role to move our bodies and supply energy to our channel.

TOOMEY: Channels balance a system of wind. This is the lexicon of Tibetan medicine, which defines illness as the state of imbalance among three humors, or principle systems in the body. The wind system Dr. Sowa speaks of deals with circulation, including that of blood and nerve impulses. The system of heat deals with metabolism, and the cold system governs the body's structure. Among a long line of patients today is Mark, not his real name. He's a computer programmer who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. Western medicine, he says, hasn't relieved the pain he experiences when using a keyboard. He's heard about Tibetan medicine and thought he'd give it a try.

MARK: I've already been through experiences of going for a quick remedy and finding out it wasn't what I had hoped for. And then having to go to a deeper level. When I heard the Tibetan monks were coming, it had a special appeal to me, because I know that there's something they can offer that's rare in this country.

TOOMEY: After an examination that included feeling not one but 12 pulses, the doctor had some recommendations for Mark.

MARK: He felt that I should not eat cheese, or hot food, spicy foods. He decided that the best course of action for me involved massage. So it ended up that he didn't prescribe any of his natural remedies. He felt that that wasn't necessary.

TOOMEY: Massage and dietary changes are a growing part of Western medicine, but cutting out spicy foods and cheese to treat a nerve problem may seem like a stretch. Mark's condition is painful and chronic, but the Tibetan doctor didn't think it required any pills. In Tibetan medicine, these are used as a last resort, only after dietary and behavioral changes have failed. So how would Tibetan medicine treat a life-threatening disease? That's what a group of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, are studying. A Tibetan physician is working with them on the project. That's given UCSF professor Debu Tripathy the chance to observe the power of the Tibetan physician's diagnostic skill.

TRIPATHY: I've been very impressed by Dr. Dhondan's acumen in talking to someone very briefly, examining their tongue, taking their pulse, and making conclusions about their medical situation that I could never get from that straightforward an exam.

TOOMEY: The UC-San Francisco study will gauge the ability of Tibetan medicine to shrink tumors in about 30 women with advanced breast cancer. From a Western viewpoint, all these women have the same condition. But where the Western doctor sees one disease, the East sees many. For the Tibetan doctor, cancer can arise from numerous and very different imbalances. And it's these imbalances that dictate which customized combination of ingredients must be used to treat the patient. Again, Dr. Tripathy .

TRIPATHY: It's quite possible that certain genetic and protein characteristics of a tumor may correlate with some of the humor imbalances that a Tibetan physician might see.

TOOMEY: But there are problems in studying Tibetan medicine. In Western experiments, just one drug can be studied at a time. So with a nod to the Eastern system, UCSF researchers have allowed the Tibetan doctor to use seven formulas. Even so, he's had to reject some patients for inclusion in the study. He explained that their disease wouldn't respond to any of these seven medications. Dr. Tripathy says it isn't clear whether this compromise on the part of both medical systems will produce a valid study. But he hopes this research will at least help build a bridge between the two. He already sees links between recent Western discoveries and the Tibetan method of differentiating cancers.

TRIPATHY: We are now starting to individualize patients by molecular and protein characteristics, in the same theme, the same way that Oriental medicine has been doing this for centuries. So I kind of find it ironic that we are now following in these footsteps.

TOOMEY: But one company isn't waiting for the results of clinical trials. Herbert Schwabl heads up Padma, a company that's been selling Tibetan preparations in its home country of Switzerland for more than 25 years. Padma didn't ask any Tibetan medical school for permission to use these formulas. The company is using ones handed down from a Mongolian doctor, who traveled to the West in the nineteenth century.

SCHWABL: Tibetan medicine is not an old style medicine that only lives out of the past. It is really in Padma, Tibetan medicine is living today, also.

TOOMEY: Padma is now selling its so-called basic formula in the U.S. Mr. Schwabl says the supplement, a mixture of 20 ingredients, boosts the immune system and promotes healthy circulation. Mr. Schwabl says the company also wants to help organize and promote Tibetan doctors working in the West.

SCHWABL: We are Westerners. We know how the things work here. We have not a mission to make a better Tibetan medicine in a traditional way as the Tibetans can. They can do this in a perfect way. There's no need to help them there. But we can help them here with our know-how in the West, to work here and to help Western people who need Tibetan medicine. I think that's the point of Padma.

TOKAR: Tibetan medicine is not a pile of pills.

TOOMEY: Eliot Tokar is a New York-based practitioner of Tibetan medicine, and one of the few Westerners to have apprenticed with its physicians. Mr. Tokar is skeptical of Padma's approach. In seeking to profit from Tibetan medicine, he says, Western pharmaceutical companies could end up boiling down this ancient and complicated system into nothing but that pile of pills. And even those might not be authentic.

TOKAR: On the other hand, they might be based in traditional formulas, but then a lot of the herbs are changed. So when you take a traditional formula, even, and then bring it through some several stages of change, then you're selling it to people who don't even understand the traditional way that those formulas were used. In what way is that really Tibetan medicine?

TOOMEY: Small published studies carried out in Israel have demonstrated that Padma's formula helps patients who suffer from severely-blocked leg arteries. But Padma isn't marketing its product for this condition alone. The company advertises that its supplement will, quote, "keep baby boomers in the fast lane." Eliot Tokar says people could end up buying this product for any and every condition.

TOKAR: This is not good medicine. It's not good science. It doesn't help really many patients.

TOOMEY: Padma says it's not competing with Tibetan physicians, and if someone has the chance to see one of the handful of Tibetan doctors practicing in the U.S., it's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. But Eliot Tokar cautions, Tibetan medicine can maintain its integrity as it develops here, but only through the careful and considered work of its individual doctors working with individual patients. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Rating Alternative Medicine

CURWOOD: Few Americans have tried such exotic healing practices as Tibetan medicine, but more and more are trying a variety of other alternative treatments. There have been some notable successes, but there are also some problems. For example, many herbal products aren't standardized. The May issue of Consumer Reports offers an overview of some common alternative treatments and herbal supplements. The magazine polled its readership about how they treated some common ailments. Health editor Ronnie Sandroff says 35 percent of the respondents had tried alternative medicine, for problems ranging from arthritis to depression.

SANDROFF: It was very interesting. Sixteen thousand of the 46,000 readers who replied to this survey had tried at least one alternative medicine, and most of those who tried it found that it helped somewhat or a lot for the problems that they had.

CURWOOD: What kinds of things did they try?

SANDROFF: A whole range of things, from dietary supplements and herbals, garlic, magnet therapy, to hands-on treatments like chiropractic, deep tissue massage, and acupressure and acupuncture.

CURWOOD: So, what kinds of alternative approaches seem to be the most effective?

SANDROFF: For the ten medical conditions that we looked at, the common ones, prescription drugs actually did better than anything else, except in the area of back pain. That's a very difficult condition for medical science to treat. And there the alternative therapies did better. Deep tissue massage, chiropractic treatment, also exercise, physical therapy, and acupressure, all rated higher than prescription drugs for back pain. Of course, this is not a medical study. This is our readers’ reports on what they think helped them.

CURWOOD: How appropriate were people's attempts to use alternative therapy, do you think?

SANDROFF: Many of them were appropriate, but there were also some patients who tried what we thought were very odd things, like garlic for back pain, and Echinacea or allergies. That's commonly used for colds, Echinacea. And interestingly, those people who tried herbals upon the recommendation of a health professional or an alternative practitioner said they work better than those who just relied on the advice of friends and their own research and reading.

CURWOOD: Well, could there be a placebo or white coat effect, of the woman sitting there in the white jacket says try this, that it works?

SANDROFF: I think that's possible, but I think it also might be that the health professionals made more appropriate choices. For example, the most common treatments recommended by health professionals were dietary supplements for arthritis, and saw palmetto for prostate. And those are treatments that have done pretty well in clinical trials.

CURWOOD: I've noticed as a consumer that the quality of what's being sold seems to vary. I'm a user of saw palmetto, and I found that sometimes what I get out of the bottle does nothing, and other times it works just fine. What's going on here?

SANDROFF: Well, no one is really monitoring to make sure that what it says on the label is what is actually in the pills. And Consumer Reports has tested a number of supplements and found that the contents vary a lot from brand to brand and even from bottle to bottle in the same brand. So we very strongly feel that consumers need better information and kind of a more honest sell, so that they know what they're getting.

CURWOOD: Are there dangers here that consumers need to be worried about?

SANDROFF: Well, we very strongly believe that these things need to be safety-tested. For example, St. John's Wort for mild to moderate depression has done well in clinical trials. But, you know, if it acts like a drug, perhaps it acts like a drug in every way, including side effects and interactions. And recently, St. John's Wort has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of over 30 prescription drugs, including birth control pills. And some treatments for AIDS. So it's really very important, if you're taking an herbal or any nutritional supplement, to discuss it with your doctor. Make sure first of all you're taking the right thing, that you know what condition you have, and also that it won't interfere with your other treatments.

CURWOOD: So basically, you're recommending that if you're going to do this work with your physician, you see this as a more complementary form of medicine rather than an alternative.

SANDROFF: That's the way it seems to be moving. And the mainstream and alternative community are beginning to work together more, and that's definitely for the benefit of the consumer.

CURWOOD: Ronnie Sandroff is the health editor of Consumer Reports. The May issue of the magazine has a cover story about alternative medicine. Thanks for talking with me today, Ronnie.

SANDROFF: Thanks a lot.

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(Music up and under: "Sunshine Superman")

Sun Song

CURWOOD: The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are one of nature's most sublime performances. They're pulsating sheets of white and colored lights streaming down from the heavens above the North Pole. Auroras appear when surges of charged particles from the sun hit the Earth's magnetic fields. The particles emit light, and, it turns out, they admit sound as well. But unlike the lights, you need special equipment to hear the sound of the aurora. Steve McGreevy has some of that special equipment. He calls himself a natural radio recordist, and he travels around in a van recording the sound of natural phenomena. Steve McGreevy invited producer Barrett Golding to turn these sounds of the aurora borealis into radio. The result is called Sun Song.

(Crackling and whistles accompanied by guitar)

McGREEVY: There's just a whole litany of different natural radio sounds to record.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Whistlers and growlers and howlers and tweaks.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Particles from the sun are hitting Earth's magnetic field and generating these noises, probably several thousand miles out in space.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's beautiful. It's primordial. It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: Space weather.

(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: And it's wild. Oh, listen to this. Oh, this is beautiful.

(Sounds continue)


(Sounds continue)

McGREEVY: It's Mother Earth singing.

(Sounds continue up and under)

CURWOOD: Sun Song was produced by Barrett Golding with natural radio recordist Steve McGreevy and the sound of the aurora borealis. Music by Jeff Arnsten and the band Racket Ship. Sun Song was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as part of the Hearing Voices series.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, and Maggie Villiger, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Hanna Day-Woodruff, Steven Belter, Emily Sadigh, and Christina Russo. Alison Dean composed the theme. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is science editor. And Peter Thomson is special projects editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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