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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 7, 2001

Air Date: December 7, 2001

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Human Pesticide Tests / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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Under the Clinton Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency refused to consider results of pesticide testing done on humans. Now, the Bush Administration is taking a second look at this restriction. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on the controversy. (05:50)

Bitterroot Logging

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After the forest fires of 2000, the US Forest Service's plan for Montana's Bitterroot National Forest calls for salvage logging on 46,000 acres. And they've cut off the possibility for public appeals by sending the plan straight to the Agriculture Department. Host Steve Curwood talks with Missoulian reporter Sherry Devlin about this controversial decision. (03:50)

Celia Hunter Obituary

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We remember Alaskan activist and environmental pioneer, Cecilia Hunter who died on December 1st at age 82. (01:40)

Health Note: Herbal Tea

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports what drinking some herbal teas can do to your teeth. (01:25)

Almanac: U.S.S. Arizona

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This week, facts about the U.S.S. Arizona. The sunken ship has rested in Pearl Harbor Harbor for the past 60 years, and now, it's leaking oil. (01:45)

Mountain Lions / Clay Scott

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Mountain lion populations in western U.S. and Canada are as high as they have been in decades -- but there are far more people in the West as well -- and with the steady spread of suburbs into the mountains, there are more encounters than ever before between mountain lions and humans. Clay Scott reports, from the Black Hills of South Dakota. (09:30)

Hanukah Light / Fred Scherlinder Dobb

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Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb comments on a national movement to connect Hanukah, the festival of lights, to energy conservation. (02:45)

All Thumbs

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New technologies can have unintended effects on the ways we live our lives. Host Steve Curwood talks with Sadie Plant, author of a new report on how cell phones are changing human behavior. (03:00)

Tech Note: Tobacco and TNT

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on how tobacco might help clean up pollution from TNT. (01:20)

Downwind Ground Zero / Jennifer Chu

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Three months after the events of September 11th, the cleanup at the site of the World Trade Center continues. Fires are still burning, and as workers remove more of the rubble, they uncover chemicals and toxins that are released into the air. Government officials say that the air in lower Manhattan is safe to breathe. But people who live and work in the area are not so sure. Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports from New York. (15:30)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Clay Scott, Jennifer ChuGUESTS: Sherry Devlin, Sadie PlantCOMMENTATOR: Rabbi Fred Scherlinder DobbUPDATES: Diane Toomey, Cynthia Graber

[INTRO THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Pesticide makers have to show what levels of exposure are safe for humans, but current EPA rules exclude the results of human testing. Those rules may be changing soon, at the urging of industry.

VROOM: We need more and more science including, on occasion, the ability to use and reference human clinical trials done in an ethical manner, to refine and be more precise about what we know about the safety of these products.

CURWOOD: But critics say that approach can lead to questionable science.

CAPLAN: The people involved in pesticide testing are either poor and vulnerable, or people who come out of the companies who are the employees. In every case, their ability to give informed consent and to kind of protect their own interests is somewhat suspect.

CURWOOD: Also, air quality under fire, downwind from Ground Zero. That, and more, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.

[NPR News follows]

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Human Pesticide Tests

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected soon to approve the testing of pesticides on humans. The move would reverse rules adopted under the Clinton Administration. The EPA had been refusing to accept data from human studies conducted by the pesticide industry, citing ethical concerns. But chemical manufacturers say, in some cases, carefully monitored human tests can safely provide the most accurate assessment of toxicity. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has our story from Washington.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency convened a special panel of scientists. Their directive: to advise the agency on whether and how it should use data from pesticide testing done on human subjects. The panel concluded that such data could be permitted if the results could not be obtained through any other methods, such as animal testing, and if stringent ethical guidelines were followed, and, of course, the science must be sound. Dr. Art Caplan directs the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of the scientists on the panel. He and his colleagues reviewed a handful of human pesticide studies submitted to the EPA by pesticide companies. What they found, says Caplan, was simply bad science.

CAPLAN: For one very simple reason: there aren't a lot of subjects. Even if you pay a lot of money, there are not a lot of people who are going to step forward and say, "Okay, for 50 dollars, you can slightly poison me."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Caplan says the statistical validity of such tests is further undermined by the fact that they almost never use pregnant women or children, the populations considered most vulnerable to pesticide exposure. Conventional medical studies have the potential to benefit the test subjects or others with the same disease. Pesticide testing in which people swallow pills containing a toxin offer no such promise. Those who volunteer, says Caplan, do so under pressure.

CAPLAN: Let's face it: the people involved in pesticide testing are either poor and vulnerable, or students who are desperate for money. Once in a while, there are people who come out of the companies who are the employees. In every case, their ability to give informed consent and their ability to kind of protect their own interests is somewhat suspect.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Many environmental groups would go further. They condemn human testing of pesticides under any circumstance, and warn that allowing the considering of human data will open up a floodgate and encourage the chemical industry to do more human tests. Two members of the EPA science panel also denounced any sort of human testing of pesticides. Dr. Caplan was not a member of that minority but he recalls the panel's deliberations as some of the most difficult of his career.

CAPLAN: I know we hear about cloning and stem cells and many, many other controversial issues, but this one was really rough, really divided the members, and came under extraordinary pressure from industry and environmental groups--everybody kind of watching what this panel was going to do.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act required the EPA to reassess safety levels for over 9,000 pesticide uses. Most tests are performed on animals, then the EPA applies an extra 10 fold safety factor to those results to arrive at a safe dose--that is, the maximum amount which does not produce a measurable chemical change in the body. But, when pesticides are tested directly on humans, the safe dose is generally found to be higher. So, going by those results would usually increase the amount of allowable pesticides.

As the EPA undertook its sweeping pesticide review, officials saw a significant increase in the number of human studies sent in by pesticide companies. Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association, the leading pesticide trade group, explains why.

VROOM: Now, under the tougher scrutiny that our industry products are facing in review and new product approvals, we need more and more science, including, on occasion, the ability to use and reference human clinical trials done in an ethical manner, to refine and be more precise about what we know about the safety of these products.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Vroom says it's not just industry interests at stake. Without human testing, he says the limits on certain pesticide uses could be set too low. That would hurt farmers, and the public, as well.

VROOM: We could lose a massive amount of the entire class of insecticide products that farmers depend on, and, if we're doing that for no real scientific risk elimination, then we're hurting our economy.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Meaning, the U.S. Government may unnecessarily deny American farmers the ability to compete with foreign growers who are allowed the use of these chemicals. Along with other industry lobbyists, Vroom has met to discuss human testing with senior EPA officials on several occasions. Those officials refused requests to be interviewed for this story. The agency has not yet issued a formal policy on whether and how it will use human testing results in its pesticides review, but it has used data from three human studies this year. The EPA expects to come out with a policy proposal on human testing of pesticides in January. A public comment period will follow. It's sure to be contentious, but those familiar with the human testing debate say it's not simply about ethics or statistical validity as it appears. The broader political issue looming over this dispute is a more basic one, about the safety of using any pesticides on our crops. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

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Bitterroot Logging

CURWOOD: Wild fires roared through Montana's Bitterroot Valley during the summer of 2000. More than 355,000 acres burned, most of it national forest land. Timber companies are anxious to cut the burned timber before it's spoiled, for commercial use, but some activists oppose this so-called salvage logging. The U.S. Forest Service has streamlined the approval process for its management plan, which includes logging on 46,000 burnt acres. The head of the Forest Service sent the plan straight to a top Agricultural Department official for ratification, bypassing the usual opportunities for public appeals.

Sherry Devlin has been covering the ensuing controversy for the Missoula newspaper. Sherry, how has the way this Forest Service plan is proceeding different from usual?

DEVLIN: Well, you know, they started out with the normal process, and started talking with people even as the fires were still burning. But almost from the start, the discussion in this case was pretty intense, and it's continued that way throughout the past year. The Forest Service wrote an environmental impact statement on the burned area. They held dozens and dozens of public meetings. They collected more than 4,000 written comments. And everyone expected the forest supervisor to announce his final decision late last month. Instead, the chief of the forest service asked the agricultural under-secretary, Mark Rey, to sign the decision. And that's what's different here. By having Mark Rey sign the decision, there is no one higher to whom the critics can appeal the decision, at least administratively.

CURWOOD: Why did the Forest Service decide to bypass all these possibilities for appeal?

DEVLIN: Environmental group and loggers both have said that they might sue over these decisions. The loggers now seem to be more inclined to go along with the decision. The environmentalists have said they are probably going to be going to court.

So the Forest Service says that, as long as this is ending up in court eventually anyway, they ought to just cut to that action. They're also worried about getting out into the woods while the timber is still valuable, before it's attacked by bark beetles, which carry a blue stain on their legs and would decrease the commercial value of the wood. And they want to, kind of, bring down the tone of the debate in the community. Things have become increasingly hostile between these different groups, and the forest supervisor has said that he's concerned. He wants to get the community back talking with one another and back at work.

CURWOOD: You've talked to various forest conservation groups, Sherry. If this thing is likely to wind up in court anyway, why are they upset about getting to that stage sooner?

DEVLIN: Well, you know, they think that this decision is really arrogant on the part of the Forest Service. The local people want a chance to go through the administrative process and discuss their concerns with the local regional level and then, national level foresters. Also, lawsuits are expensive, they take time, they involve a lot more effort than the administrative appeal process. Environmentalists are also worried about the precedent that this sets; they're afraid that this is the start of a larger assault on the appeals process and on citizen access to forest decisions, on the national level.

CURWOOD: So, what happens if under-secretary Rey signs the decision shortly, as is expected?

DEVLIN: Fairly shortly, the Forest Service would expect to advertise these timber sales and to get loggers out in the woods working. They want people out there in January, at the latest, while the ground is frozen and while they're able to do the work with the least damage to the soil. Then, the other thing that probably will happen is that there will be lawsuits filed by environmentalists hoping to stop that work before it can begin.

CURWOOD: Sherry Devlin covers the environment for the Missoula newspaper in Montana. Thanks for filling us in on this issue, Sherry.

DEVLIN: Thank you.

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Celia Hunter Obituary

CURWOOD: Pioneer activist Celia Hunter died in her sleep December 1st, at age 82, at her home near Fairbanks, Alaska. Ms. Hunter first traveled to Alaska during the Second World War, when she flew military aircraft as a Women's Air Service Pilot. Falling in love with the northern landscape, Ms. Hunter built her own log cabin and made Alaska her home. And, in trying to protect the beauty of her surroundings, she became a leader of the emerging environmental movement.

In the 1950s, Celia Hunter and companion and fellow pilot Ginny Wood founded the Alaska Conservation Society, and started many key conservation projects in the state. Together they set up a wilderness camp, at the foot of Mt. McKinley. It eventually inspired Denali National Park. The couple also fought the Atomic Energy Commission's plan to detonate four nuclear bombs in Northwest Alaska, to create a new harbor. Ms. Hunter and Ms. Wood were also instrumental in halting the damming of the Yukon River, and helped to convince President Eisenhower to set aside the original Arctic National Wildlife Range in 1960.

Celia Hunter became the first woman to head a national environmental organization when she became president of the Wilderness Society in 1976. The night before she died, she was on the telephone, lobbying senators to vote "no" on an upcoming bill that would allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond mourned Celia Hunter this way: "Her death," he said, "leaves an enormous smoking crater in the environmental landscape."

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Health Note: Herbal Tea

CURWOOD: Coming up, when nature meets the subdivision. Mountain lions come 'a calling on a South Dakota neighborhood. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: Many people are turning, these days, to herbal teas as a healthy alternative to caffeinated drinks. But some of those beverages may have their own downside. Researchers in Great Britain studied the erosive effect of certain herbal teas on tooth enamel. They brewed up black currant, ginseng, and vanilla tea for their experiment. Then they placed extracted teeth in baths of the various teas for 14 days. That's the equivalent of drinking three cups a day for 18 years. For comparison, they also placed teeth in solutions of regular black tea, as well as water. The researchers found that enamel on the teeth in the herbal solutions eroded five times faster, compared to teeth bathed in black tea. Researchers say that's because the herbal teas were made from fruits with high acid content and it's the acid that damaged the tooth enamel. The researchers say their results indicate that regular consumption of herbal teas based on citrus fruits may have a cumulative effect. And so they advised teetotalers to think about how much herbal tea they drink every day. That's this week's health update, I'm Diane Toomey.

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

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Almanac: U.S.S. Arizona

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

[VINTAGE NEWS REPORT]

REPORTER: 5:00 PM, New York City, here's a bulletin. Honolulu: Japanese bombs killed at least five persons and injured many others, three seriously, in a surprise morning aerial attack today on Honolulu. The sky was filled with tufts of smoke from exploding shells fired by American Army and Navy anti-aircraft units...


Photo: Steve CurwoodPhoto: Steve Curwood

CURWOOD: During the attack on Pearl Harbor the battleship U.S.S. Arizona was sunk when a bomb ignited thousands of tons of ammunition on board. Today, the ship rests in shallow water exactly where it went down 60 years ago. The site is a national war memorial, an aquatic grave for 900 sailors and marines still entombed within. Visitors to the memorial often notice a trail of iridescent splotches shimmering on the surface of the water above the ship. That's because the Arizona is slowly leaking oil, about a quart a day, or one drop every ten seconds. But now, some scientists are worried that beneath the surface the ship is fast becoming an ecological time bomb. It's hull, after six decades under water, is becoming thin from corrosion, and, inside the hull are at least a half a million gallons of oil. So far, scientists have found shiny black globules of oil leaking from two holes in the rear of the ship and one in the mid-section. But stopping the flow of oil would mean tampering with the national shrine. Some folks go so far as to say that the Arizona is bleeding, or that she's crying tears of oil for her crew. Others suggest the battleship will stop leaking when the last survivor joins his shipmates. And that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

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Mountain Lions

CURWOOD: Researchers say that mountain lion populations throughout the western United States and Canada are robust these days. The big cats are back, after enduring a sharp decline that began 200 years ago. But these days, there are far more people in the west, too, and, as suburbs sprawl into the mountains, encounters between mountain lions and humans are becoming more frequent. The Black Hills of South Dakota is one place where lions and humans are increasingly coming into contact, and conflict. Clay Scott has our report.

[DOG BARKING]

SCOTT: Country Estates is a new housing development not far from Rapid City. Here, pleasant two story homes, identical except for the different shades of pastel, are set back from freshly paved cul-de-sacs and winding names with names like Moon Meadows, Blue Stem Way, and Cougar Court. This is a perfect place to live, people say, the best of both worlds, only ten minutes from the city but with a hint of wilderness. The ponderosa pine forest beyond the neat lawns is home to deer, wild turkeys, and other animals. It's also prime habitat for mountain lions, a fact that residents here, especially those with pets or children, are trying to deal with.

[DOG BARKS]

WOMAN: You don't let it immobilize you, and you don't let it take over your life. Just keep heads up and keep your eyes open, that's about it. Go on with life.

SCOTT: If people here are cautious, it's not without reason. Lions in the Black Hills have killed dogs and cats, even a 500-pound llama. Elsewhere in the western U.S. and Canada there's been a startling increase in mountain lion attacks on humans. So far, that hasn't happened in South Dakota. Researchers here are just beginning to gather data on the lion population and its behavior. Dorothy Fecske, a doctoral student at South Dakota State University, has been studying the Black Hills lions for two years.

[AIRPLANE SOUND]

SCOTT: In a four-seat Cessna 205, Dorothy, pilot Bob Laird and I fly low above the Black Hills. With stomach churning dips and loops Bob passes again and again over a steep wooded canyon. We're trying to pick up a signal from lion number six, a three year old female Dorothy radio-collared last year. Not far from Country Estates we hear the ticking we've been listening for.

[SIGNAL BEEPS]

LAIRD: I was a little early on my --

FECSKE: Bob, I think it was on my side a little bit here. I don't know if she's in the canyon or not yet, but they're in the canyon or on the top of the canyon.

SCOTT: After one more pass, we pinpoint the cat's location, and Dorothy writes down the coordinates. She's currently monitoring seven animals, but this one is of particular interest to her. Lion number six has a home range that extends to the very edge of the suburbs, possible evidence, says Dorothy, that the cats are more tolerant of the presence of humans than previously thought. But, state wildlife officials are not convinced that's such a good thing. Many western states allow hunting of mountain lions, and there's growing sentiment here that the animals should no longer be protected. Mike Kintigh is regional supervisor for South Dakota's Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

KINTIGH: It's not our intent to eliminate them entirely. However, it's not our intent to let them increase their numbers without any system of checks or balances. I do believe that we're at near or at saturation levels. We have as many lions in the Black Hills as the ecosystem can sustain.

SCOTT: The Black Hills ecosystem is a relatively small one, especially given the territorial needs of mountain lions. Adult male lions jealously guard home ranges of 100 to 200 square miles or more. Young males without a home range of their own are driven away or even killed. The result is that young transient males are often forced into marginal habitat, and that's where they're most likely to come into contact with people.

REID: That's where they killed the lambs, right over here, in this little pasture right here. He killed some up north here, about a mile, and then, two days later he come down here after I moved them down here and he killed three more.

SCOTT: Rancher Vic Reid has just lost five lambs to a mountain lion. When state hunters tracked and killed the animal, they discovered that it was indeed a young male, very likely a cat that couldn't establish his own territory in the Black Hills. Reed's ranch is 25 miles north of the hills, an open landscape of closely grazed prairie with very few trees. There's almost no cover here for lions to hide in, or to stock their prey.

[SOUND OF LEAVES CRINKLING]

SCOTT: Along a fence row, in a small pasture, the half-eaten carcasses of two lambs lay among the weeds. With a pointed boot, Reid flips one of them over to expose a gaping cavity.

REID: They eat through the--get the heart, the liver and the lungs, and also the teeth marks in their throat. And usually a coyote don't have that big a mouth to go around their throat like that, and you can kind of tell by the puncture in their throat, too, you know.

SCOTT: Reid won't be compensated for the loss, and it's little consolation to him that the lion was killed. Like many ranchers here, he's angry at the state for continuing to protect an animal he sees as dangerous to both his livelihood and his family. And he's scornful of people in cities, he says, who want to protect lions without ever having dealt with them.

REED: We've had some calls, people saying, "Well, why did you shoot this animal?" Well, my gosh, what was they going to do with him? These people that way to say that, they ought to just stick them in their yards and fence them in and see how they like that, see what they think of the nice little lion. (Chuckles.) That's my personal opinion.

[HOUND BARKING]

SCOTT: Back in the Black Hills, Dorothy Fecske is on the ground, looking for lion number six. With her are a state trapper and his two hounds, a state biologist, and her professor, Jon Jenks. Dorothy is hoping to put a new collar on the cat, a special GPS unit that will give her exact readings of the animal's movements. Our starting point for the hunt is the top of the canyon, where we located the cat from the air.

[HOUND BARKING]

SCOTT: Within minutes, the Walker-Redtick hounds have picked up fresh scent. We stumble and slide down steep, pine-needle-covered hillsides, straining to keep up with the dogs. But this is not turning out to be a wilderness chase--after half a mile the trail leads us through a cluster of houses. Biologist Steve Griffin stops to reassure a startled woman and her young son, in a new Jeep Cherokee.

WOMAN: Has she always been in this area?

GRIFFIN: She runs from Sheridan Lake all the way down to Reptile Gardens.

WOMAN: I see.

GRIFFIN: It just happens, today she's in this vicinity.

WOMAN: I see. Okay.

GRIFFIN: I think she was up on the hill up there this morning when we started, but nothing to worry about.

WOMAN: I see. Okay. All right. Thanks.

SCOTT: Past the houses the terrain gets rough once again, as we scramble up a steep ridge. The dogs have lost the trail, and they work frantically back and forth to pick it up again, noses in the air. The unusually warm weather is working against us today. On the open south slope, the scent quickly dissipates in the heat. But today we're in luck. Both hounds suddenly get a whiff of fresh lion scent, and they disappear into the pines.

[FOOTSTEPS, TWIGS BREAKING]

HOUNDSMAN: Maybe we'll have her in the next mile or so.

SCOTT: A few minutes later the voice of Steve Griffin comes over the two-way radio.

GRIFFIN: We got her. She's down here. The dogs just ain't hollering and I know she's right here. They've seen her, so come on over this way.

SCOTT: The chase is over. Lion number six clings to a slender ponderosa pine 30 feet above the ground, staring down at us with yellow eyes. Quickly we stretch a net around the base of the tree while Professor Jon Jenks gets out a CO2 pistol. He loads it with a drugged dart and takes aim.

JENKS: Wish I had a tree I could lean against. I'm shooting.

[SOUND OF SHOT]

JENKS: Got her. Got her. Dorothy, don't worry.

SCOTT: Within minutes, the drugs take effect. The combination of Telazol and Xylazine has immobilized her. Now Steve Griffin has the dangerous job of climbing into the tree with the still-alert lion. He injects her with Ketamine, the notorious "date rape" drug and lowers her down with a rope.

[SOUND OF LEAVES, ETC.]

HOUNDSMAN: Steve, is the rope on her? Just tie it on and get away from her, and let her go.

JENKS: Come on down. You've got the rope.

HOUNDSMAN: Just tie it onto her, get away from her.

SCOTT: Less than two hours after the chase began, the lion is on the ground in front of us, sides heating faintly. Dorothy Fecske and Jon Jenks work quickly to weigh and measure the animal, take her vital signs, and fit her with a new GPS collar.


Photo: Jon JenksBiologist Dorothy Fecske checks lion's vital signs.
(Photo: Jon Jenks)

FECSKE: How's her eyes, Jon?

JENKS: She's blinking fine. Look at that, she's great, she's coming out of it.

SCOTT: For the next eight months, the collar will give almost hourly readings of the cat's movements. Those data could give valuable insight into the behavior of mountain lions around humans, especially in those rapidly growing areas where the line between suburbia and wilderness is starting to blur. Finally, the lion starts to move again. She struggles to her feet, looks briefly in our direction, then staggers drunkenly away. Except for the white plastic collar she's nearly invisible against the tawny pine needles that coat the forest floor.

[SOUND OF WIND IN THE TREES]

For Living on Earth, I'm Clay Scott, in the Black Hills, South Dakota.

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Hanukah Light

CURWOOD: As the shortest day of the year draws near in the Northern Hemisphere, people around the world celebrate light amidst winter's darkness. For Jews, that's Hanukah, a fun, if not religiously significant holiday over eight days that ends this year on December 17th. And, according to commentator Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, across the United States, there's a new movement to tie this festival of lights to energy conservation.

SCHERLINDER DOBB: Today, when we think of Hanukah, we think of menorahs, dreidles, and presents. Actually, it all began in Israel in 163 BCE, when a rag-tag bunch called the Macabbees overthrew the mighty Greek Selucids, and rededicated the temple in Jerusalem with lights. The word "Hanukah" actually means dedication. Some 500 years after the Macabbees, the Rabbis, uncomfortable with the military might angle, told the now famous story of lights. In rededicating the temple the Macabbees found only one day's supply of pure oil, yet it lasted eight days, a miraculous 700 percent increase in energy efficiency.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, including most major groups in the Jewish community, has a campaign this Hanukah titled, "Let there be renewable light." Jews around the country are signing Hanukah pledges to rededicate ourselves to protecting the Earth. We're studying Jewish responses to global warming. We're taking one energy saving action for each night of the holiday, from having a candlelight dinner, to running one more errand on public transit, to contacting Congress about energy issues.

Back home, our synagogue is distributing special Hanukah presents: low-cost, compact, fluorescent bulbs, along with energy saving tips. Compact fluorescents use just one-fourth the energy of standard incandescent bulbs. That's halfway toward the Macabbee's eight-fold efficiency goal. And, simple steps, like improving our cars' fuel economy, can take us even closer.

Some people translate the Hebrew imperative "mitzvah" as "good deed," but it actually means "commandment." The way I see it, saving energy isn't just a good deed; it is a mitzvah in the true sense of the word, a moral and theological concern. The more energy we save, the less of creation we destroy.

More than 2000 years ago, the Rabbis say it took a miracle to make a little bit of energy go a long way. Today, all it takes is the everyday miracle of changing our ingrained habits to make Macabbeean strides toward energy efficiency. Now, that's something to think about as you light your menorah, or Christmas tree, or Kwanzaa lights, or solstice candle.

CURWOOD: Fred Scherlinder Dobb is the Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, in Bethesda, Maryland.

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All Thumbs

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. New technologies often catch on because people think the contraptions will change their lives. Sometimes these changes happen in unintended ways. The Motorola Company recently commissioned cultural critic Sadie Plant to study how cell phones are affecting people and, surprise, surprise--they can affect our behavior.

Dr. Plant, you found that mobile phones tend to give people what you call "bi-psyches." What's that all about?

PLANT: Well, I think it's quite striking, and I'm sure we've all had this experience if we use a mobile phone: that you can often be in one context and you're having a conversation which is radically different and puts you into a radically different context. You're, for example, on the street, or you're on a train, and maybe you're speaking to somebody in another country, in another time zone, in quite a different reality. So, there is this tendency for us to have to now get used to dealing with almost literally being in two places at once.

CURWOOD: Using the cell phone has also affected the ways that people physically interact with other parts of the environment, your study has found. For example, you conclude that some cell phone users have become adept at using their thumbs, in other non-cell phone related tasks.

PLANT: Yes, indeed. Well, this again relates to not just using the mobile phone for the purposes of telephone calls, but text messaging and all the other things, like games and of course internet access, are now increasingly common through the mobile. And I think people do almost evolve to become very sort of dexterous and adept in inputting the information through what is after all a very tiny little keypad. And it does seem that in many parts of the world the people here are most efficient and perhaps, can literally do it with their eyes closed, do tend to use one or both thumbs to input this information. And this observation really was sparked off by many people pointing this out to me in Japan, where people actually refer to the current generation of youngsters as the "thumb tribe" or the "thumb generation." So it really has become sort of a noticeable part of society there.

CURWOOD: So, what do these thumb kids do with their thumbs?

PLANT: The best example that was given to me was ringing on doorbells, something which perhaps would have instinctively have been done with the index finger in the past. But the thumb seems to have become the leading digit.

CURWOOD: Huh. How does a change like that come about?

PLANT: I think these, on the one hand, very small but, of course, very profound changes often accompany new technologies. And what's interesting about the mobile phone is, because it's used in public, it's perhaps the first piece of technology that we can really sort of just walk around and observe these changes happening. But I'm sure it's true that with every generation of new technologies we do, even physically, subtly adapt to using them. Look at something as simple as the wristwatch, say. That gesture of looking at the time, that's the kind of thing which has become, obviously, a part of human behavior, really, and instantly recognizable. And I think you can see the mobile phone effecting similar changes to that.

CURWOOD: Sadie Plant is a cultural critic who lives in Birmingham, England. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

PLANT: Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.

[PHONE BEEP MUSIC]

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Tech Note: Tobacco and TNT

CURWOOD: Just ahead: evidence that smoldering fires and dusty debris from Ground Zero are the source for an outbreak of respiratory problems in lower Manhattan. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: Weapon production and weapon use can leave behind chemicals and explosives that are deadly to plants and animals. TNT is one of the most toxic of these chemicals, and one of the most difficult to get rid of. At the moment, the only way to treat soil contaminated with TNT is to excavate and burn it, a process that creates air pollution and leaves behind contaminated ash. So scientists went looking for an alternative and they found that some plants, such as tobacco, have the natural ability to take up low levels of TNT from the environment and then turn it into harmless organic molecules. The problem is TNT is so potent that at high levels it will stunt the growth of roots and leaves and eventually kill the plant. So genetic engineers at the University of Cambridge, in England, introduced a bacterial enzyme into tobacco plants that allows them to flourish in highly polluted water and soil. At the same time, they remove and destroy nearly all the TNT around. The lab tests have shown good results with tobacco plants, so the researchers plan to try the technique with poplars. Their deep root system would allow the trees to more effectively reach and destroy all the TNT in the soil. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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

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Downwind Ground Zero

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been three months since September 11th and the tricky task of cleaning up Ground Zero continues. Just a few days ago, part of the site had to be evacuated when workers accidentally punctured several dry cleaning containers uncovered in the rubble. The EPA feared a release of dangerous ammonia vapor, but the damage was contained. Over all, though, air quality in lower Manhattan has become something of a controversy. Government agencies say it's safe, but others who live and work in what's called "the breathing zone" remain unconvinced. Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports.

LAPSON: We're on Harrison Street, we're going toward West Street, and as you can hear the cranes creaking right now means we're getting close, and there in front of you, you see the World Trade Center, what's left of it.

CHU: Welcome to the clean-up of America's nightmare.

LAPSON: And whenever I'm home, this is what I see and hear.

[SCREECHING AND BANGING OF EQUIPMENT]


Photo: Jim Estrin/The New York TimesPhoto: Jim Estrin/The New York Times

CHU: Diane Lapson lives with the remains of the World Trade Center. Her apartment is just a few hundred feet from where trucks and cranes dump the debris from Ground Zero onto barges headed for a landfill on Staten Island. It's a 24/7 operation and on this warm autumn night, streetlights illuminate a steady arc of water, as a worker with a fire hose sprays an incoming truck.

[SOUND OF SPRAYING]

LAPSON: They're wetting down the debris as it's being loaded. The reason they're wetting it down is because there's a lot of dust on the debris. The debris is spewing everything all over the neighborhood. And, it's not just our neighborhood. The wind carries this across Manhattan.

WOMAN: One thing you turn left, one little thing you turn right, and another one, that stuff carried with him. I have a healthy child, so I think that something's wrong with your information.

[APPLAUSE]

CHU: A block south of the barge staging area, a few hundred parents pack the auditorium at Stuyvesant High School. They sit patiently, as health experts and public officials try to answer their questions about air quality at the school. Stuyvesant was recently reopened and declared safe for its 3,000 students. The school was thoroughly cleaned, and the air is still monitored for toxins. But, some students complain of headaches; others have nagging coughs and colds. And parents want to know if the air here is making their kids sick.

WOMAN: And doctor said the most problem is the pollution caused her so much trouble. She got nose bleeding and she breathes very hard, and the whole night coughing, cannot sleep. And I want to ask, should I take my daughter back or not?

CHU: These parents face a tough choice. Stuyvesant is one of the city's most prestigious public schools. Taking their kids out now might risk their chances of getting into a good college. Keeping them in Stuyvesant may risk their health.

WOMAN: Now I want to ask the school about how are you going to do it? I should bring my daughter come back or not? I don't know how can I do.

CHU: Three months after the tragedy of September 11th, people who live and work near the site of the World Trade Center are reestablishing their daily routines. But many of them wonder about the acrid smell and the fumes from the fires that still burn at Ground Zero, and about the dust that seems to coat everything. And some folks are warning them that there's good reason to be concerned about what's in the air.

KUPFERMAN: You have a little sulphur dioxide, a little PCBs, you have a lot of particulates that are quite high, you have dioxins that are several times cautionary levels.

CHU: Joel Kupferman heads the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. His office is a few blocks away from Ground Zero. And he says that when EPA officials were slow to release the results of their air testing in lower Manhattan, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data. Documents reveal toxins including benzene, dioxins and PCBs in the air, asbestos, lead and fiberglass in the dust. And the pollution isn't expected to go away any time soon. Officials say the fires could go on for months, and the clean-up well into the next year.

KUPFERMAN: Watch your step, here comes the fire truck.

CURWOOD: Outside a fire house on Duane Street, Kupferman shows me one way that dust from Ground Zero is spread beyond the clean-up site.

KUPFERMAN: On some of these trucks there's dust right on the back of the trucks that go back and forth to the site, and if I just take my credit card--I hope this doesn't ruin my credit--you can actually hear it being scraped off the back of...

[SOUND OF SCRAPING]

KUPFERMAN: ...the fibrous material. So the people who live around here are concerned that a lot of this is just being carried back and forth, back into their neighborhood.

CHU: So, Kupferman scrambles around the neighborhood, too. His backpack and pockets are crammed with summaries of the data he's collected. He shares it with crews from the site, office workers, and neighborhood groups. He says he's out to counter the impression, put forth by government officials, that lower Manhattan is back to normal.

KUPFERMAN: It just seems that they draw this imaginary line around the site and basically tell the molecules that you can't pass that line.

CHU: EPA officials say the toxins on Joel Kupferman's list do exist in and around lower Manhattan, but not at the levels he claims. They say his interpretation of the data is flawed, because it's based on spikes measured in the very center of Ground Zero.

NORRELL: We take samples directly in the plume as it exits the debris. But we see some fairly high levels of some materials.

CHU: Neil Norrell is in charge of collection air samples at the EPA's nineteen monitoring stations throughout lower Manhattan.

NORRELL: But once we move away from that exit area out into where the folks are working, out into the breathing zone, we take samples there also, and the numbers drop off, sometimes to below levels that we can even detect with our instruments.

CHU: In short, the EPA says wind disperses the toxins. Also, wash stations, set up in the past few weeks to hose down workers and vehicles, have dramatically cut down the amount of dust leaving the site. When asked if she's concerned about the air, working so close to Ground Zero, EPA spokeswoman Nina Habib says "no," even though she's five months pregnant with her first child.

HABIB: Certainly, the thought crosses your mind, but just being able to see the data really has allayed any fears that I might have had. And I'm at work five days a week, ten hours a day.

CHU: Most of the EPA's data is on its Web site, but not everyone has seen it, and some who have say it's hard to understand. And, maybe it's just the smell--the ominous and omnipresent odor that pervades ground zero--that fuels people's doubts about the air. As spokeswoman Mary Mears leads us away from the site, her blue EPA windbreaker attracts a New York City cop.

COP: Now all this stuff that is pulverized, that is in the air, how bad is that?

MEARS: Well, we're testing for the very fine particles as well, and, while there are certainly particles in the air, we're not--it's not exceeding federal standards, believe it or not.

COP: So, for the most part what we're smelling here, a couple of blocks away, is not--

MEARS: Believe it or not, as much as this smells, and I absolutely agree with you, it stinks, the samples that we're taking from this area are coming back fine.

COP: We go home some nights, and our throats are shot.

MEARS: Sure. Absolutely, just because there's not toxics in the air doesn't mean that you're not going to have health effects. I mean, the dust itself, I know I get sinus headaches being in this area. Once those fires are out, I think we'll be golden. Until then, we're going to have this smell, unfortunately.

COP: Just curious, I appreciate your time.

MEARS: No problem.

COP: Thanks.

MEARS: Take it easy.

COP: Thanks.

CHU: As many as ten city, state and federal agencies are involved in the clean-up, testing and monitoring operations at Ground Zero. But, outside the fenced-off perimeter, people who own their own businesses and homes must pay for those services themselves. One of those people is Niek Veraart.

VERAART: I think we'll be throwing out the couch that we have, because it's fabric. We have a carpet, we have bedding that we'll definitely get rid of.

CHU: Niek Veraart lives on the fourth floor of a high-rise in Battery Park City. His bedroom has a view of New York harbor so picture perfect he could use the Statue of Liberty as a night light. Many of Veraart's neighbors have moved back into their apartments, but Niek isn't sure he can bring his family back here. Both his children have asthma, and he worries that the smoke and the dust from Ground Zero will aggravate the condition.

VERAART: You know, there's been very sort of contradicting reports about the air quality. And I think if I were like a single person in my 20s or something like that, I'd probably move here. But with a family and young kids, it's a very different story.

CHU: So Veraart has hired John Peciulli, of North Atlantic Laboratories, one of many independent companies scouring the buildings of lower Manhattan for trace toxins. In some locations, Peciulli's found elevated levels of asbestos, fiberglass and lead. Today he's testing the air and dust in Veraart's apartment.

PECIULLI: So then, based on what you're telling me, I'll end up collecting two micro-vac samples, one from the back of this couch, here, and one also from the bedding in the child's room closest to the window.

VERAART: And in our bedroom.

CHU: John starts up the vacuum that will capture any asbestos in the air. Then he moves to the bedroom, to collect samples of the dust off the windowsill.

PECIULLI: There's a ton of fiberglass in there, you can actually see it. Lots of cellulose, which is what we expect to find.

CHU: Nothing to worry about?

PECIULLI: It's classified as a nuisance dust, in California. Other than that, it's non-regulated. There's a big debate as to whether or not it's carcinogenic. There's no epidemiologic evidence whatsoever on longevity and exposure to fiberglass. So some people err on the side of caution.

CHU: As we head over to test the kids' room, Veraart makes a discovery: it's the family pet that was left behind on September 11th.

VERAART: This is amazing. This tank looks like a disaster, but the fish is, she's unbelievable.

PECIULLI: That's a New York fish.

VERAART: That's a New York fish. Keeps on going. No pump running, no light--just keeps on going.

CHU: Ultimately, the tests on Niek Veraart's apartment show no harmful levels of toxins in the air or in the dust. But, despite the clean bill of health, he decided not to bring his family back to Battery Park City. He says it's just too close to ground zero for him to feel good about what his asthmatic kids would be breathing. And, according to doctors studying air quality in lower Manhattan, that's a wise decision.

LEVIN: You know, there's a certain amount of fine pulverized dust that continues to be in the air and settle on surfaces in the building, and, when these materials are present, they can be re-suspended in the air and people will react to them, variously, from person to person, but some people will react.

CHU: Dr. Steven Levin heads the Mt. Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. In the first days after September 11th, he mostly treated people exposed to the initial cloud of dust after the collapse of the towers, people with a short exposure to high levels of dust and debris.

LEVIN: What we're seeing now, and this is a source of some concern to us and I can't say we really expected this among office workers. So, we have new onset sinusitis, we have new onset upper airway problems, and, in fact, new onset asthma, among people whose only exposure comes by virtue of the fact that they're occupying office space two, three blocks mostly downwind.

CHU: Levin says the main health concern should be the fine particles that are causing new asthma cases, not the benzene dioxin or asbestos. And, while there's a good deal of environmental monitoring going on, Levin says much of it is limited in scope, and too close to Ground Zero. He says residences and office buildings need monitoring too, and the data clearly communicated and explained to the public. So far, he says that's not been happening.

LEVIN: And it allowed people to do one of two things, unfortunately--either trivialize the exposure circumstances and reassure people when there really wasn't basis to give reassurance, or to exaggerate the risks, so that some people found themselves in a real quandary--can I go back to work? So people were left with some unnecessary uncertainty.

DELIETO: I know we've been told by various sources that things are okay, but none of us believe that.

CHU: Stacey Delieto lives in TriBeCa, on the edge of Ground Zero, and, like a number of her neighbors in lower Manhattan, she's frustrated. She says there are inconsistencies in the information public officials are giving her about the safety of the air she breathes. She also wonders what they're not telling her.

DELIETO: Bad enough we all had to experience this tragedy, and I myself was an eyewitness as many people were, and it's a constant. I think when the wind blows and you smell that smell, it's just really upsetting.

CHU: There it is again--another mention of that Ground Zero smell, the smell that people who live near the site can't seem to escape, the smell Stacey says is the reason air purifiers, hepa filters and humidifiers fill her apartment now. Some folks might think she's overreacting, and Stacey herself admits the machines are a nuisance. But they provide some measure of comfort, in a world that now sometimes seems out of her control.

DELIETO: Periodically, I'll open my window and I'll let some air in. I don't even want to say fresh air, because it's never fresh. But if it seems like the wind is blowing in a different direction, I might open my window for a few hours. And then all of a sudden I will smell that infamous smell, and I know, oops, got to close the windows. And my eyes start burning, and my chest starts burning. This is what we go through, what I go through, all the time.

CHU: In response to conflicting data and citizens' concerns, some city and state officials are calling on Mayor Rudolph Guiliani to create a single agency to oversee air quality in lower Manhattan. The agency would establish standards of clean-up for apartment buildings, and extend air monitoring to include residential areas downwind of Ground Zero, including Chinatown, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Right now, the Mayor says, there's no need for these additional measures. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Chu, in New York.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Coming up in just a couple of weeks, it's our holiday story-telling special. This year we're featuring "Celebrations in Latino Landscapes," in cooperation with NPR's Latino USA. And one of our special guests will be Latino USA host, Maria Hinojosa. Maria will share her experiences with the Mexican festival called "The Day of the Dead."

HINOJOSA: In cemeteries that are usually empty, or almost empty, suddenly, on these days, they're like crowded with people. I mean, there are lines forming outside, there are people selling stuff outside.

CURWOOD: "Celebrations in Latino Landscapes," coming in two weeks on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC FADES]

CURWOOD: We leave you today with a contribution to the Vancouver Soundscape Project. German producer Hans Ulrich Werner recorded the sounds of the busy port city in Canada, and created this composition he calls "Vanscape Motion."

[VANCOUVER SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Muñiz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penney and Jonathan Waldman. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues; The National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; and the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

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