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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

November 16, 2001

Air Date: November 16, 2001

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Mexican Activists Freed

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After more than two years in jail, two Mexican environmentalists have been released. Host Diane Toomey talks with Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the human rights situation Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera face as they return to their home region. (06:00)

German Nuclear Transport / Mike Muehlberger

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Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants. But its nuclear waste is still being reprocessed and then transported to a small farming town in that country. Mike Muehlberger reports on the demonstrations against these shipments. (05:30)

Health Note: Violence and Asthma

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Living on Earth's Maggie Villiger reports that neighborhood violence may be contributing to elevated levels of asthma. (01:15)

Almanac: Duck Calling Contest

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This week, facts about the World Championship Duck Calling Contest in Arkansas. (01:30)

Farm Subsidies / Richard Manning

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Commentator Richard Manning says that the key to both preserving the West's grassland prairies and maintaining economic prosperity is simple. Bring back the bison. (04:00)

Cambodian Farmers / Susan Shepherd

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Living on Earth's Susan Shepherd reports on an innovative program in New England that is helping Cambodian refugees return to the farming life they left behind in their homeland. (09:00)

News Follow-up

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New developments in stories we've been following recently. (03:00)

Tech Note: Bacterial Sunscreen

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports that deep sea bacteria can help make sunscreen more effective. (01:20)

House Hazards

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Unseen creatures may lurk in your home. Host Diane Toomey talks with indoor air quality expert Jeffrey May about his new book "My House Is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma." (08:30)

Solar System Model / Matthew Algeo

(stream / mp3)

A 40-mile long model of the solar system is currently being built in northern Maine. The project is the brainchild of a geology professor at the University of Maine and it's believed to be the worldÕs largest scale model of the sun and planets. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo has our story. (06:20)

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Mexican Activists Freed

TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Earlier this month Mexico's president Vicente Fox ordered the release of two jailed Mexican peasants. Human rights groups, including Mexico's own Commission of Human Rights, said the men had been tortured after trying to protect forests in their region from illegal logging. But the homecoming of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera is bittersweet, since activists say the human rights situation in Mexico remains egregious. I'm joined now by Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Mark, remind us about the case of Montiel and Cabrera; How did they wind up in jail in the first place?

HERTSGAARD: Well, Montiel and Cabrera were simple peasants who noticed that the forests that they were depending on for fresh water to grow their crops were disappearing. And so they began to organize against this and ended up blockading the roads that were taking the logging trucks in and out. And this was quite successful. They ended up pushing out Boise Cascade, the large multi-national from North America. They excited the resistance of a lot of the local wildcat loggers. Indeed, it got to be so tense that in May of 1999 the men were arrested after a raid by the police and the Mexican army. They were charged with possessing weapons and growing marijuana, and thrown into jail. There, they signed confessions to these crimes. Human rights groups said later that these confessions had been fabricated by torture and that was later authenticated by the Mexican government's own Commission on Human rights. As a result of this Montiel and Cabrera were considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. They won many international awards including the Goldman Environmental prize, and there was enormous pressure around the world from both activists and the press and government officials to get these men out of jail.

TOOMEY: Last January, Living on Earth spoke with President Fox's environmental minister and at that time we asked him about this case. He said there was evidence of torture but he also pointed out that the two men had been found guilty not once but twice. There were several appeals in this case over the years and they were unsuccessful. So why did President Fox step in and act now?

HERTSGAARD: President Fox stepped in now, according to Mexican officials who were quoted in The New York Times, because President Fox had realized that he could no longer count on these men receiving justice through normal channels in Mexico. Fox wanted them to be released, he had said so publicly, he believed in their case. But, as you mentioned, Diane, there were these two trials - highly irregular trials, I might add, because in both cases, at both the state level and the federal level, the justices in question simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that these men's confessions had been extracted under torture. And I think because of that President Fox realized that normal channels were not going to deliver justice in this case and so he acted on his own prerogative, after, of course, the increase of international pressure. You remember that just last month, in October, the lawyer for Montiel and Cabrera, a woman named Digna Ochoa, was murdered gangland style in her office. And a note was left next to her body, warning that more such murders would follow, for all of her fellow lawyers and people defending Montiel and Cabrera. I think that was the last straw for President Fox and he decided to act on his own prerogative to get these two men out of jail.

TOOMEY: With that murder in mind, will Montiel and Cabrera pick up where they left off and head back home to fight illegal logging?

HERTSGAARD: I interviewed their new lawyer on this, Mario Petron, from the same group, earlier this week, and he said, look, they're not sure what they're going to do. They are very afraid. They have angered very powerful interests down in Guerrero, they saw their previous lawyer murdered gangland style, so it's not surprising that they are very nervous. They are right now about to leave Mexico City, in a caravan, with an escort from something called the International Peace Brigade, that will take them back down to their region. But they are not going home to a safe place. We have new information now, in fact, that the week before they were released there were yet more murders in that region, of people who were thought to be environmental activists. La Jornada, the Mexican daily, has reported that three innocent victims were shot on November 1st, the week before, by unknown assailants who stopped a truck and shot up the inside, and there were three people killed, including a seven month old baby. Apparently, according to the local activists, the assailants believed that the environmentalists were inside that truck, including the new leader of Montiel's group. The environmentalists, in fact, had arrived five minutes later. And so they believe that the hit was intended for them and, luckily enough, they avoided it. So it's a very, very dangerous, tense situation down there.

TOOMEY: In other words, really nothing has changed, then, in terms of the climate for environmental activists, since Montiel and Cabrera were first arrested.

HERTSGAARD: You'd have to say that the situation remains very grim. In the Guerrero region, more than 40 percent of the forest has been destroyed in the last ten years, and the activists who are trying to stop it face continued repression. Not only as shown by these recent murders, but the fact that in the last two years, there have been 22 documented cases of torture at the hands of police and military officials. The lawyers for Montiel and Cabrera said, look, you have to understand that what happened to Rodolfo and Teodoro is happening to many, many other people here right now. They just don't happen to be as well known. And the only thing that is going to stop it, say these lawyers, is more international pressure.

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

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German Nuclear Transport

TOOMEY: A few months ago, the German government finalized a deal with the utility industry there to phase out nuclear power. But, for the time being, nuclear power plants in that country still send their spent fuel to France for reprocessing. That's the procedure in which useable fuel is separated out from nuclear waste. Twice a year, this highly radioactive waste makes its way back to Germany, to the small farming town of Gorleben, where it's permanently stored. And when it does, the town's residents, as well as antinuclear activists, gather there to protest. Mike Muehlberger has this report.

[SOUND OF CHANTING]

MUEHLBERGER: A train bearing six containers of highly radioactive nuclear waste pulls into the station in the small northern city of Dannenberg. At the same time, several hundred demonstrators surge forward. They're within sight of the crane that will lift the containers onto flatbed trucks. From there the trucks will move at a snail's pace 12 miles down the road to Gorleben, where the waste is stored in an above-ground building. The demonstrators want to take their protest onto the tracks and onto the streets, but they can't. They face a wall of police officers in riot gear and police trucks with water cannons. The message from the crowd is clear. Go away, they shout, to the 15,000 police officers who take control of this region twice a year.

[MAN SPEAKING GERMAN]

VOICEOVER: They want to break us. This is not a democracy anymore. We have no rights. They have taken away our right to move freely and to demonstrate. They just cut us off.

MUEHLBERGER: This local resident has been part of the German antinuclear movement throughout its entire 25-year history. He and his fellow protesters want an immediate end to nuclear power, but, short of that, an end to nuclear shipments, which they believe are inherently dangerous. The protestors know they can't stop these transports, but delay them with sit-ins and other non-violent tactics. But during the last transport, in March, a small group of violent protestors clashed with police, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. This time around, the police have a different strategy, says Rebecca Harms, regional representative of the German Green Party.

[HARMS SPEAKING GERMAN]

VOICEOVER: They just forbid things. Almost everything that the citizens here try to organize, and get permission for, is turned down. The police always claim that they have reason to expect violence, but as far as I'm concerned, their suspicions aren't grounded in enough detail.

MUEHLBERGER: Many of the demonstrators were once members of the Green Party, but since the Greens became a member of Germany's coalition government they've become disillusioned. They say they feel betrayed by the Greens for allowing the nuclear waste transports to continue. A shipment had been halted for two years, after radiation was found on the outside of the transport containers. At that point, spent fuel from Germany's 19 reactors was stored without reprocessing at the reactor sites. But the material was starting to build up. The Greens defend the resumption of the shipments, saying that they're an integral part of the deal to get the utility industry to phase out nuclear energy in the next 20 to 30 years. It's a compromise, they say, but that's the reality of being in government. For the environmental activists here, the current time frame is a sellout to the nuclear lobby. Edelgard Graefer is the head of Dannenberg's antinuclear movement.

[GRAEFER SPEAKING GERMAN]

VOICEOVER: The sad thing is we no longer have a real opposition to the nuclear lobby. The current agreement is not a compromise, it's worse than what we had before. It really is a pact with the nuclear industry. They can continue to produce radioactive waste without a permanent storage site. For us it's been a tough blow, the way the Greens have betrayed the antinuclear movement.

MUEHLBERGER: As the nuclear waste transport winds its way through France and Germany, it is protected from above by police helicopters. The six stainless steel caskets, with their cargo of glass-encased atomic waste, contain 20 percent more radiation than was released in 1986, during the world's worst atomic accident, in Chernobyl. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States, opponents to nuclear energy have been worried about the threat of nuclear terrorism. But the police see no risk at the moment and say security measures for the transports have not changed because of what happened on September the 11th.

[MUSIC]

MUEHLBERGER: With music blaring from their tractors, local farmers try to lift the spirits of demonstrators worn out by their futile attempts to hold up the transport. The final stretch of road to the storage site is lined by thousands of police officers. And yet every so often small groups of demonstrators manage to break through police lines and sit on the road; one by one, they're carried away. It's a slow, painstaking journey, but 30 years and 3 generations have taught the protestors to be patient. Edelgard Graefer remains optimistic.

[GRAEFER SPEAKING GERMAN]

VOICEOVER: I think it's great that people still care enough in Germany to protest. I'm sure that this is an issue which won't go away until we find the solution that gives us the security we want and politicians listen to the people instead of just bowing to industry.

MUEHLBERGER: For Living on Earth I'm Mike Muehlberger, in Dannenberg, Germany.

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Health Note: Violence and Asthma

TOOMEY: Coming up, Cambodian farmers go back to the land, in New England. First, this Environmental Health Note, with Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: Recent students have shown that there are more documented cases of asthma in low-income and minority neighborhoods than in other areas. Scientists say higher rates of air pollutants, tobacco exposure and home allergen exposure in these neighborhoods contribute to this difference but don't fully explain it. Now a new study shows that the higher rates of violence reported in low-income neighborhoods may be contributing to the heightened level of asthma. Stress has been known to bring on attacks of the disease, but this is the first study that explicitly documents the effects of violence on asthma sufferers. Researchers from two Boston hospitals examined the case studies of four girls from low-income neighborhoods who suffer from the condition. In all four cases the girls had severe asthma attacks after witnessing or experiencing acts of violence. These range from being threatened or actually assaulted, to witnessing domestic abuse, to hearing about the death of a peer. Researchers conclude that asthmatic children in violent neighborhoods will not recover through traditional medical treatment, unless it's accompanied by counseling and stress management. In addition, researchers caution that until the roots of violence in these neighborhoods are addressed, it will be difficult to effectively lower the nation's high rate of asthma. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.

TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Almanac: Duck Calling Contest

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

[SOUNDS OF DUCKS]

TOOMEY: Duck hunting season begins this week in the southern part of the U.S., and to kick off the event the citizens of Stuttgart, Arkansas are celebrating. They're hosting the weeklong Wings Over the Prairie Festival, which includes, among other things, a queen mallard beauty pageant. But the highlight of the event is the 66th annual World Championship Duck Calling Contest. Duck calling is a crucial skill for hunters, who imitate the birds' vocalizations to lure them closer. To make the waterfowl sounds, duck callers use pocket-sized wooden or acrylic instruments, though a rare few use only their vocal chords. The contest works like this: after a 30 second warm-up, each competitor has a minute and a half to do four different duck calls, including the mating call and the hail call, a series of loud excited notes, used to attract the attention of distant ducks.

[HAIL CALL]

TOOMEY: We're listening to Barney Calef, the reigning world champion duck caller and a judge at this year's competition. Whomever is chosen as the new winner is sure to walk away happy. This year's prize package includes 8,000 dollars cash, as well as a shotgun, a Labrador retriever, and, of course, the latest in camouflage hunting apparel. And that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

[DUCK CALL]

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Farm Subsidies

TOOMEY: Congress is in the process of rewriting the current Farm Bill, which is set to expire next year. For decades, this legislation has provided subsidies to farmers who grow certain crops. But some environmentalists say that money would be better spent on incentives to preserve critical habitats on farmland. Commentator Richard Manning agrees, and has these thoughts on how to restore the grassland prairies of the west.

MANNING: People visit a place like Yellowstone National Park, videotape a few megafauna, then leave, believing they have seen the west. One can get a better picture of the west, however, outside of the parks, where the view opens to gentle grassy hills rolling to the horizon - no buildings for miles, just fences, and a few cattle. Easy to think this landscape is unchanging. The truth is, though, the plains states are changing rapidly. Manifest Destiny said that the plains were to be populated with yeomen farmers, that the nomadic natives and the bison were to be exterminated and the grass was to be plowed under. Our nation accomplished much of this in the last quarter of the 19th century. Then the settlers came, settled, and almost immediately began unsettling. Most rural plains counties peaked in population near the beginning of the 20th century. The central lesson in all of this was best stated on a sign left by an unsettler, as he abandoned a plowed-up chunk of Nebraska's Sandhills: "God made this country right-side-up. Don't turn it over." This was learned individually by every defeated settler throughout a century, which makes it even more curious that, collectively, we have yet to learn it.

We regard farming as a permanent condition of rural life, but in the arid west, it is, in fact, a brief experiment of 100 years. From the outset, it began failing - a destiny now manifest - and farm subsidies are the best evidence of that failure. Last year, our nation spent a total of more than 22 billion dollars on direct farm subsidies, much of it paid to western farmers to grow wheat, or to not grow wheat, on highly erodable lands. Still, the west can have population and economy. It had both for thousands of years, strong ones.

History remembers the plains Indian wars best, because they were the fiercest, and they were the fiercest because the natives were supported with a vibrant economy based in bison and motion; an economy evolved to fit its context. We can have that again by encouraging grazing, not farming. Grass-fed cattle will work, but bison, designed by evolution to suit this harsh place, are better.

There is an exception to the trend of shrinking population in western places. Indian reservations are growing. There is an exception to farmers and ranchers either going broke or depending on subsidy. The bison business is booming.

At the core of this renaissance is a coalition of 30 Indian tribes that are bringing back the bison and, with them elk, prairie dogs, ferrets, hawks and, especially, the grass. During the next few months Congress will write a new farm bill. Lobbyists for tractor manufacturers, seed companies and such, will probably prevent federal policy from actually aiding the grassland renaissance. Perhaps, though, a coalition of wildlife interest, ranchers, taxpayers and unsubsidized farmers can at least persuade the government to stop impeding it.

TOOMEY: Richard Manning is author of "Grassland: the History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie." His commentary first appeared in "The New York Times."

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Cambodian Farmers

TOOMEY: New England is home to a large population of Cambodians, many of them farmers who fled from the Khmer Rouge. But life here hasn't always been easy. Some of these refugees came without family, many are poor, and almost all long for something of the life they lived in Cambodia. Now, a project is helping hundreds of Cambodians recapture some of their farm heritage. Susan Shepherd has our report, but first, a side note. In this story you'll hear from John Ogonowski, a mentor farmer with the program. Mr. Ogonowski was also a commercial airline pilot. He was killed when his plane was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11th. This story was recorded several weeks before his death.

[OUTSIDE SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: Ladyfingers, fish cheek herbs, gourds, taro, holy basil - this is pay dirt for a family of Cambodians that farms a small plot in Dracut, Massachusetts. On a warm day in early September a husband and wife and several children wearing straw hats squat among the green rows, in the brilliant morning sun. They're harvesting some of the first Cambodian vegetables of the season.

[SOUND OF WORKING IN THE FIELD]

WOMAN: I take only the good ones.

GIRL: It's fun; it's hard working. It's hot staying in the sun.

SHEPHERD: White Gate Farm, where eight Cambodian families have plots, neighbors the city of Lowell, where some 20,000 Southeast Asian immigrants live. Most of them are poor, and many use assistance programs to help feed themselves and their family. Here, on the farm, they are growing traditional Cambodian foods they've rarely been able to buy here, because they're expensive or hard to find.

SON: The older generation, they love this stuff.

SHEPHERD: Born in Cambodia, SophieRoth Son is community liaison and translator for this project. In his late twenties, dark-skinned, with a round face, he walks carefully through the rows of vegetables, stopping to pick a leaf to taste.

SON: The flavors of the pig weed is a little bit lighter than spinach, and the reason why Asian people love eating pig weed, because it's sort of, to them, it's a kind of medication that provides and supports the immune system. Basically to cool your body down. It's good for the summer.

SHEPHERD: SophieRoth's father was a well-known general in Cambodia. He was assassinated by the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for nearly 2 million deaths.

SON: During the Khmer Rouge oppression, almost the whole entire Cambodian cultures vanish because of that. All the intellectual people were killed. That's why, you can tell, there's a lot of Cambodian people here in the United States are farmers. Khmer Rouge don't kill farmers, they treasure farmers.

SHEPHERD: Many came to America, where they had trouble finding work, or took low-paying jobs. Farming wasn't an option. Most came with no money and buying land was out of the question. Then, a few years ago, a coalition of universities, nonprofits, and government agencies formed the New Entry Sustainable Farming project.

OGONOWSKI: It started out with a phone call from the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Gus Shumaker, and this was kind of a little project that he was starting, and he was looking for a place to get it going.

SHEPHERD: This farm belongs to John Ogonowski. Ruddy-faced, with a shock of light hair and a strong farmer's build, he's just come from fixing a tractor outside his enormous barn, which is stacked from floor to ceiling with hay. When not selling blueberries, pumpkins and horse feed, Ogonowski is a fulltime commercial airline pilot. He was also a pilot in Vietnam. That may be why, when Gus Shumaker called, Ogonowski was prepared to try to help southeast Asians in America.

OGONOWSKI: He called me and told me what he had in mind and I said, sure, I've got some excess land available right now that we can try it on, and we've been doing it ever since.

SHEPHERD: The project was designed to match immigrant farmers with unused farmland. Some of this land belongs to the state, some to conservation groups, some to private landowners. The idea was to grow specialty farm products for burgeoning farmers markets, to get immigrants back to the land and to provide food for a population in which hunger is all too common.

OGONOWSKI: My family, they're all immigrants, they came over here and had to start farming over here, so it sounded like a good chance to get people farming who were farmers in their country before. So I think once a person is a farmer, they're a farmer for life. They're hooked.

SHEPHERD: Ogonowski has been a mentor farmer for the past four years. He lends his land, helps the Cambodians till, apply pesticides, and irrigate. He also built several greenhouses at his own expense so the farmers could get an early start in the spring. He talked about the difficulties these farmers face, farming here in America.

OGONOWSKI: Their climate and their soils were a little different where they were; probably their pest problems were different. Even the weeds are probably different. Over there, they would farm with water buffaloes.

SON: They use ox, use water buffalo, to plow and to do the tilling.

SHEPHERD: A group of farmers and their families talk about what it was like to farm in Cambodia, as they congregate in a makeshift kitchen, set up in the field, under a bright blue tarp. They may not be using traditional farming methods here, but these farmers are eating traditional Cambodian food again. Some stay as long as fourteen hours in the fields, or race from the farm to the factory. So a place to cook is crucial.

EAP: That's called yahoun. That's yahoun, but I don't know in English.

SHEPHERD: That's Khat Eap. He takes the lid off the boiling pot and smells the stew he's been tending. Thin, with hollowed cheeks and a scarred complexion, he stirs and adds pea tendrils, fresh from the field.

EAP: I like to farm, I don't know why. They said, in my job in my country, I like to farm too much.

SHEPHERD: Khat Eap fled to the U.S. at age 28, but was separated from his family. They went to Australia. And since then, he has only seen his mother once.

[WATER SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: On the floor, near the pot, several children on their knees lean over a plastic blue baby pool filled with water and pig weed. They swish their hands around, washing the greens, as their parents prepare the meal. Over and over, these Cambodians talk about how much they miss their former lives. Again, Khat Eap

[EAP SPEAKING KHMER]

VOICEOVER: Well, he was brought up on a farm and his whole entire family was farmers, back in Cambodia. So it's his way of saying that's my blood, that's my heritage, and he has the passion of doing farming.

SHEPHERD: As they sit down to eat, the children say they'd rather eat McDonald's. Their parents, however, are hoping that most of the Cambodian population in Lowell is willing to buy this traditional fare.

[MARKET SOUNDS]

SHEPHERD: Early on a Saturday morning the farmers and their families congregate in a large vacant parking lot in Lowell. It's pay dirt time at the farmers market. Khat Eap squats inside the back of his truck. He smokes a cigarette, watching as several Cambodian women pile the produce he's hauled on tables, under tarps. Despite the unspoken anticipation of whether they'll make money today, Eap looks patient, even detached. He looks like a man who knows how to wait, and right now, he's waiting to see whether his vegetables are going to sell.

MAN: Baby corn, most Asians like that.

SHEPHERD: Everyone involved in this project is hoping that farming will make economic, as well as emotional and cultural, sense for these Cambodians. To accomplish this they've posted signs and billboards, in Khmer as well as English. Still, there are no more than a dozen people buying produce. But it's early in the day and early, still, in the season.

MAN: Sweet corn is four for a dollar.

SHEPHERD: A new program which has been successful providing Asian produce to high-end restaurants in Boston and New York may help these growers make enough money to live on until the farmers' markets catch on. But, for now, the leftover food will go to nearby food pantries. Cambodian produce is rarely available in the emergency food system, and it is clear that, since the Southeast Asians in Lowell are so poor and so many of them use public assistance, this food will not go to waste. For many of these farmers the coming winter will mean looking for jobs again or going back to the factories. But come May, they'll be plowing and planting, putting their hands in the dirt, making green things grow again. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Shepherd in Lowell, Massachusetts.

TOOMEY: A follow-up to this story. Congress has just approved the renaming of a federal program in honor of pilot and mentor farmer John Ogonowski. The program provides aid to farmers in developing countries. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

Related link:
hjoseph@tufts.edu or (617) 627-4102.">

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News Follow-up

TOOMEY: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative earlier this month that will make the foggy city the country's leader in renewable energy. Proposition B allows San Francisco to sell revenue bonds to fund solar and wind power projects on city owned property. Mark Leno is a City Supervisor who sponsored the ballot measure.

LENO: San Francisco is plainly taking a lead here, and we hope to be able to create 10 to 20 megawatts of solar-generated and 30 megawatts of wind-generated power through the issuance of up to 100 million dollars of these revenue bonds.

TOOMEY: This is enough to supply more than a quarter of the city government's energy needs, including power for streetlights, buses, and jails.

[MUSIC]

TOOMEY: Last month we profiled Sandra Lanham, a woman whose conservation research is done from the air. Recently the pilot won a MacArthur genius grant. She'll receive 500,000 dollars over the next five years. She says the award has already changed the nature of her work.

LANHAM: I can commit now to projects that can go on for two or three years, and I was terrified before, that I would not only fail myself because I couldn't raise the money, but I would be leaving the researchers in a bind.

TOOMEY: Lanham says she also hopes to replace her 1956 Cessna airplane with a slightly newer model.

[MUSIC]

TOOMEY: This summer we discussed shark attacks in Florida and a possible ban on shark feeding dives. The ban passed recently and will be implemented on January 1st. Henry Cabbage is with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service. He says that feeding the animals had nothing to do with the killings, but predators should never be encouraged to link humans with food.

CABBAGE: Any marine life that is conditioned to associate people with food is not going to behave naturally. Now, sharks are one of the species that the divers feed. There are also rays and barracudas and other marine life. But the fact that these marine creatures learn to associate people with food is not good for the resource and it's not good for the people.

TOOMEY: Two diving companies have already filed suit to try to stop the ban from taking effect.

[MUSIC]

TOOMEY: And finally, in June we reported on a province in Canada that uses rat patrols to keep the area rat-free. Now Rio de Janeiro is trying to enlist its citizens for help with its rat problem. The Brazilian city recently began paying residents to turn in dead rats. Critics of the plan aren't happy with the idea; they worry the city's poor will start breeding rats to bring in extra cash. And that's this week's follow-up on the news, from Living on Earth.

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Tech Note: Bacterial Sunscreen

TOOMEY: Just ahead, your home could be harboring unseen creatures that may be hazardous to your health. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: A French cosmetics company has discovered a new way to make sunscreen more protective by using bacteria from the ocean. Conventional sunscreen doesn't protect against all types of long-term skin damage. If ultraviolet rays penetrate the sunscreen's filter, they can create what are known as free radicals. These free radicals can lead to cell damage and, potentially, even to skin cancer. There are enzymes that can neutralize free radicals, but these enzymes wouldn't be very effective in the sun because they break down in the heat. Deep sea bacteria thrive in the scaldingly hot waters of thermal vents, far below the ocean's surface, and they live in an environment rich in free radicals, so scientists guessed they must have the right enzymes to neutralize them. They fermented the bacteria and then extracted proteins and enzymes from them. It turns out that the scientists' hunch was correct. These compounds do help combat free radicals created by the sun's ultraviolet rays. And not only can the compounds work under the sun's beating rays, but they actually perform better the hotter it gets. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

TOOMEY: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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House Hazards

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey. What lurks beneath your sheets, on your rugs and in the vents of your house may be making you sick. That's what Jeffrey May says. He's an indoor air quality expert who's often called upon to inspect buildings on behalf of their sick inhabitants. Like a detective, Mr. May follows clues to figure out whether mold, mites, or chemicals might be to blame and then he prescribes a course of action to correct the problem. Jeffrey May has written a new book, titled "My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma." Mr. May, some people might think calling your book "My House is Killing Me!" is a little over the top. How much artistic license did you take with that name?

MAY: Well, not very much, actually. A lot of my clients have actually described the problems in their house to me and ended with "my house is killing me." So I didn't invent the title at all.

TOOMEY: What are some of the problems that some of your clients have because of their homes? What are their symptoms?

MAY: Typically, people have respiratory problems. I mean, I think that's the common denominator. Bronchitis, chronic coughing. Some people have sinus problems. There are a lot of children with asthma and adults with asthma. People sometimes call me up, they've just moved into a house and suddenly they can't breathe.

TOOMEY: Describe for me what we're up against. What are the unseen enemies that lurk in our homes?

MAY: Those are two good words: unseen and enemies. Because, really, that's exactly what they are. They fall into different classes of sort of biological things, basically. They're organisms that lurk in hidden places and affect our health, because they get from their little hiding place into the air that we breathe. Typical locations for these might be in the heating system, in a furnace, or in a cooling system, in a radiator, or in carpets, or in beds, or in couches. And they can be microbiological organisms - things like mold, bacteria and yeast - or they can be insects that feed on these other organisms, or, actually, on our own human skin scales. I mean, we are very often the source of the entire problem. Someone sitting in a chair for many hours during the day is actually incubating organisms.

TOOMEY: I learned a new word from reading your book, and the word is "frass." Tell me about frass.

MAY: Well, frass is - I'm not that polite a person; I'm sort of a nerd. So most people use the word frass. But, I mean, I use the word insect fecal pellets. I mean, it drives people crazy when you're sort of blunt like that, but frass is basically insect droppings, and a very large percentage of house dust, in different areas, consists of insect droppings. And literally, it's just dust. The problem is that if you've got a lot of insect frass in a carpet for example and you walk on the carpet it becomes airborne.

TOOMEY: Let's take a virtual tour through a house. You're called to do an inspection. Tell me what your first step is.

MAY: My first step is to look at the outside of the house, to see if there's any issues that might contribute to moisture problems on the inside, because any kind of water problems on the outside can lead to excess moisture and mold and mite problems in the basement. Then I look around the basement to see whether there are any significant mold problems in the basement. And that's typically what I'll find. I would say that most finished basements and homes end up in dumpsters after I've done an inspection of the house. It's very satisfying to me to actually drive by the house after the inspection and see, because then I know that I was right. When they take the walls out of the basement and you see the mushrooms growing out of the walls that no one knew were there, you realize why people are sick.

TOOMEY: Mushrooms growing out of the walls?

MAY: Yeah. I inspected a physician's home who regularly sort of picked the mushrooms around the wood and the floor actually in one of the bathrooms of the house. It's really an enormous problem. The mushrooms are the sort of visible fungi, but the invisible fungi - they're called microfungi - they grow on surfaces. They form what we know as mildew, and a lot of times the mildew is colorless, you can't even see it. So you may have mildew growing on a carpet or on a wall. So that's really my big stop. Then I look at the heating system, because, particularly with air conditioning and hot-air heat, if you've got air blowing through ducts you have the possibility of distributing all kinds of contaminants. So then I like to look at the areas of the house where people spend most of their time, because it's sort of ironic - where we spend most of our time, those are the places that often will be making us sick.

TOOMEY: Let's imagine, in someone's bedroom, a nice comfy bed, with lots of pillows and lots of layers of bedding on it. It may look beautiful but it may be, as your book says, killing somebody.

MAY: That's right. It looks beautiful but very often, again, like the worst things are the ones with the feather quilts, the really puffy stuffs. I've looked at some of these feather things which, I mean, if I had to guess, I would say that somebody just basically took the whole chicken and threw it into the quilt and the pillow. They just kind of like forgot to separate the feathers from - I mean, I'm not even exaggerating. That's what these things look like when you look at the emissions from quilts and pillows. You'll sometimes find huge amounts of bacteria. And these actually are the bacteria that grow in the wings.

TOOMEY: The bathroom. Tell us what are some of the problems you find in bathrooms.

MAY: Well, one great problem are these mats. People, they step out of the tub, and then they're dripping water, and they drip into this mat. And then they use cornstarch body powder. Well, when you take cornstarch and put it all over your body, I mean, basically it's like you're in a pizzeria, you're throwing cornstarch all over your house, which is basically food. So here you are standing on a wet mat and then you're powdering yourself with cornstarch, so it's called dough, so you have dough in the floor of the bathroom, and then it stays damp and then little things start to grow in there. So you find dust mites, and you find all kinds of bacteria. There's even yeast growing in there. And that's sometimes the smell in the bathroom.

TOOMEY: So do we get rid of our beautiful bedding? Do we have to go around spritzing our walls with bleach? What are some practical tips that we can do to prevent these little creatures from overtaking us?

MAY: What's I think very important for people, particularly with asthma, is to put these mite covers on the beds and pillows, the allergy control covers, and it's absolutely essential. You want to be very careful, you want to put the covers on all the beds. It's expensive but it's worth it, because if there's mites in one bed there could be mites in another bed. That's very important. Another really important thing is keeping relative humidity low, in the basement below 50 percent. Very few people actually measure that. A lot of people run dehumidifiers but they never check and if the relative humidity's high it's just a waste of money. The filtration in air-conditioning and the heating systems is absolutely key. People seem to think that the filters in their home, the heating system and air-conditioning system, the purpose of the filter is to clean the air, and that's how they kind of sell these things. But it's not that at all. Really it's to keep the system clean. And if you've got cornstarch body powder and skin scales and all this other food running around in the air in your house and then you don't keep it from the air-conditioning coil, which is cold and wet all the time, you're going to end up with mold problems. So, filtration is really essential. And the type of filters that I always recommend are called media filters. So if you can see through a filter, it's useless. And I always recommend people use futons. We actually did just that. I mean, we have now only futon couches, because the futon couch can be covered with a dust mite cover and then look like a normal couch.

TOOMEY: So you practice what you preach.

MAY: You bet.

TOOMEY: Jeffrey May is an indoor air quality expert based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of "My House is Killing Me! The Home Guide for Families with Allergies and Asthma." Thanks for joining us today.

MAY: Thank you, Diane.

[MUSIC]

TOOMEY: You can hear our program any time, on our website. 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. Once again, 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 $15.00.

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Solar System Model

TOOMEY: What's thought to be the largest scale model of the solar system is under construction in northern Maine. When it's completed, sometime next spring, the model will stretch for 40 miles along U.S. Route 1 in Aroostook County. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo recently visited the planetary work-in-progress and he has this report.

[SOUND OF SPRAY PAINTING]

ALGEO: In a garage on the campus of the University of Maine in Presque Isle, Kevin McCartney is putting the finishing touches on a giant model of the planet Saturn. McCartney is a geology professor at the University and the driving force behind the scale model of the solar system now under construction in Aroostook County, Maine. When it's completed the model will be the largest of its kind: at a scale of 93 million to 1, McCartney says it will not only show the relative distances between the Sun and the planets, it will also show their relative size.

McCARTNEY: We're doing the distances and the diameters at the same scale, which is a bit unusual. Most solar system models or illustrations have the distances at one scale and the diameters at another scale, because the distances are so large in comparison to the size of the planets. But we have them all on one scale.

ALGEO: For example, the smallest and most distant planet, Pluto, is about the size of a golf ball, and will be located 40 miles from the Sun, in Presque Isle. Saturn is more than 10 feet across, including the rings, and will be placed nearly 10 miles from the Sun. The planets are being constructed of fiberglass and steel. McCartney says they have to be built tough to withstand the harsh winters of northern Maine.

McCARTNEY: These are not made out of papier machZ. The components need to withstand the winter, they need to withstand our worst storm conditions, the worst weight of snow that might be on these things. That's one of the reasons why the planets are very substantially built. Winter conditions here are harsh and we've tried to build the system accordingly.

ALGEO: Along the way McCartney has had to make some practical adjustments to the model. Built to scale, the Sun would be so big that it would fill a five-story building, so instead it's represented by a wooden arc that runs up the stairwell in one of the buildings on campus. All the planets, though, are represented in three dimensions and, while the four most distant planets are still under construction, the five inner planets are already in place.

[SOUND OF CAR]

ALGEO: Recently I accompanied Kevin McCartney for a quick tour of the unfolding solar system. Beginning at the University, we headed south on Route 1, moving away from the sun.

McCARTNEY: If we were to proceed at the speed of light, going as we tour the solar system, we would be driving at 7 miles an hour. That would be the scale speed of light for the solar system model. But we are actually violating laws of physics right now, as we are traveling faster than the speed of light!

ALGEO: The first stop on our trip is Mercury, which is just four-tenths of a mile down Route 1. Mercury looks like a small gray tangerine and sits atop an 11-foot pole. Just another three-tenths of a mile down the road is Venus, which sits on a pole outside the Budget Traveler Motel.

McCARTNEY: And we are now moving towards the Earth. When we reach the Earth, we will be an astronomical unit away from the Sun, or 1 mile from the Earth, according to the scale of this model. The Earth is at Percy's Auto Sales, here on our left, just beyond the sign. You can see it from here.

ALGEO: We pull into Percy's to get a closer look at the Earth, a blue and green ball about as big as a baseball. Scott Norton is the general manager at Percy's, the Chrysler dealer in Presque Isle. Norton says he's glad Percy's got the best planet in the solar system.

NORTON: I considered myself lucky. In fact, I thought, how can I incorporate this into my business somehow? And this is "down to earth prices" or whatever we wanted to use. We did get lucky, I think, that we were going to be Earth, I thought.

[OUTDOOR SOUNDS]

MAN: Kevin, you want the red spot pointing in this direction, towards the road?

McCARTNEY: Going that way, so people coming in from the south can see it.

MAN: O.K.

ALGEO: Kevin McCartney has organized a small army of volunteers to build the model, and they were out in force recently, as Jupiter was put in place, in a field just off Route 1, 5.2 miles from the Sun.

[CLAPPING AS JUPITER IS PLACED]

ALGEO: It was no easy feat. Jupiter is five feet in diameter and weighs about half a ton. It took a flatbed truck and a small crane to do the job. Trevor Folsom studies environmental science at the University in Presque Isle and he's one of McCartney's volunteers.

FOLSOM: I think it's incredible, the community support. I mean, this is zero dollars that you see here. That's pretty amazing, any time a community can come together for free. We've got a job site going here and it costs nothing.

ALGEO: While Kevin McCartney says the ultimate goal of the project is educational, Jim Brown, the director of economic development in Presque Isle, hopes it has another effect. He says it could boost the county's economy, by attracting tourists.

BROWN: It's an interesting project and I think that by itself, the fact that it's one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world, there's a certain drawing value to that that I think we can capitalize on.

ALGEO: According to the scale being used to build the model in Aroostook County, the nearest star outside the solar system, Alpha Centauri, would be located on the Moon - the real Moon that is, 250,000 miles from Presque Isle. And Kevin McCartney says he just might ask NASA for some help in putting it there. For Living on Earth, I'm Matthew Algeo, in Presque Isle, Maine.

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