• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 28, 2001

Air Date: December 28, 2001

FULL SHOW

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

Green Tobacco Sickness / Leda Hartman

(stream / mp3)

While the dangers of smoking are well known, tobacco also poses a health threat to those who pick it. Leda Hartman reports from North Carolina. (08:00)

Winter Beach / Sy Montgomery

(stream / mp3)

Commentator Sy Montgomery tours a New England beach in the dead of winter and finds it’s alive with surprises. (03:45)

Health Note / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on how some common food seasonings like garlic, pepper and fennel may help the body build up its anti-bacterial properties. (01:30)

Living on Earth Almanac: The Lorax

(stream / mp3)

This week, facts about The Lorax. The furry figment of Dr. Seuss’s imagination just turned 30. (01:30)

Dust

(stream / mp3)

Millions of tons of dust cross the oceans to distant continents, and new research shows the dust may bring along some toxic guests. Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News, discusses this issue with host Steve Curwood. (04:55)

Recycled Prostheses / Orlando de Guzman

(stream / mp3)

In Thailand, many people have lost limbs in land mines along the country’s borders with Cambodia and Burma. A recycling program is collecting aluminum cans and plastic bottles, making artificial limbs from the materials and offering them free to anyone who needs them. Orlando de Guzman reports. (06:50)

Mystery Moose

(stream / mp3)

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Rick Ward, a biologist from the Yukon Territory in Canada. It appears that some hunters there shot what they thought was a bull moose. But despite its set of antlers, the moose wasn’t as manly as it appeared. (03:30)

Animal Note: Knockout Spider / Maggie Villiger

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on the discovery that male funnel-web spiders release a knockout pheromone so they can safely mate with females. (01:30)

Golden Rice

(stream / mp3)

Host Steve Curwood talks with Canadian environment reporter Bob Carty about golden rice. It’s the latest genetically modified crop, and like all GM organisms, it brings with it its own set of controversies. (10:00)

Wae Rebo / John Ryan

(stream / mp3)

Producer John Ryan takes us to the tiny Indonesian village of Wae Rebo, (WHY-ri-BO) and tells us what it’s like to be in a place few westerners have ever seen. (05:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Leda Hartman, John Ryan, Orlando de Guzman
GUESTS: Janet Raloff, Bob Carty
COMMENTATORS: Sy Montgomery
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Maggie Villiger

CURWOOD: Landmines disable thousands of people in war-torn countries, and often they're too poor to get artificial limbs. But for Cambodians, a novel solution made from recycled plastic bottles and metal cans.

[MAN SPEAKING CAMBODIAN]

VOICEOVER: With this new leg, I can carry up to 65 pounds and make a living that way. Before, I couldn't work or do anything. Now I can walk, even run.

CURWOOD: Also, golden rice is the vitamin A enriched and bio-engineered grain that comes with the claim that it could save millions of lives in poor nations. But some worry that it's the Trojan horse of biotech foods. And commentator Sy Montgomery says forget the hard bodies and the hard sand. Head for New England's beaches in the dead of winter.

(Crashing surf)

MONTGOMERY: I'm either having a really vivid hallucination or that was a seal at pretty close range.

CURWOOD: That and more on Living on Earth, right after this.

[NEWS]

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Green Tobacco Sickness

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore presentation of Living on Earth. The dangers of smoking tobacco are well known, but farming tobacco can also be hazardous to human health. People who pick the crop can come down with a syndrome called Green Tobacco Sickness. Leda Hartman reports from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

HARTMAN: For four summers, Eriberto Salvador has come to North Carolina from the Mexican state of Michoacan to work in tobacco. His first harvest is etched in his memory. Salvador was bent over the tobacco plants, picking the leaves, when he felt weak and nauseous and had to call for help.

[SALVADOR SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: At that time, I was walking in a field, when I felt it, and I said to the other guys "Which would you like better, to lose a second of work or to lose a friend?"

HARTMAN: The other farm workers came to Salvador's aid.

[SALVADOR SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: Yeah. They got up out of the field, the others who were carrying the tobacco, and they went and rescued me and took me from the field and then they washed me with cold water and that's how I got back to feeling normal again.

HARTMAN: Salvador's experience is not uncommon. Green Tobacco Sickness is actually acute nicotine poisoning that can occur when farm workers absorb the drug through their skin. A new study out of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that almost 25 percent of all tobacco workers will get Green Tobacco Sickness at least once during the growing season. Researcher Tom Arcury says that's a significant occupational hazard.


Photo: North Carolina State University(Photo: North Carolina State University)

ARCURY: One quarter of your workers are sick, not because of the flu, not because of pneumonia, not because of measles, but because of something they do on the job. It's an incredibly high rate.

HARTMAN: Tobacco is harvested in a process called priming: workers pick the leaves by hand and then carry them under their arms. Wake Forest researcher Sara Quandt says it's at this point that the workers are exposed to the nicotine.

QUANDT: Particularly if their skin is wet from dew or perspiration and the tobacco itself is wet, the nicotine dissolves in the water and it's then absorbed through the skin.

HARTMAN: Quandt says Green Tobacco Sickness, or GTS, can last up to two days and, in rare cases, require hospitalization. Symptoms can sometimes be alleviated with anti-nausea drugs.

QUANDT: Once it gets into the bloodstream it affects a number of different systems in the body, including the nervous system, and it causes the symptoms that are characteristic of GTS, which are headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting and nausea.

HARTMAN: Green Tobacco Sickness is not new. It was around back in the days when families farmed tobacco in small plots. Today, most farm work in North Carolina is done by foreign-born Latino workers who usually send their earnings back home. These people labor under vastly different conditions than in the old days, says Tom Arcury.

ARCURY: A woman I worked with grew up on a tobacco farm and one of her sisters got sick from Green Tobacco Sickness. She did other work; the other two sisters did the priming. Unfortunately, when migrant framers come here, they come here to work. And if they don't work, they don't get paid. So, they don't have a choice. They either work sick, if they get Green Tobacco Sickness, or they have to move on.

HARTMAN: Yet, not every worker is always able to move on. Those who are here without legal papers can try to find work in a different crop, but those who came into the U.S. on a federal guest worker contract, known as H2A, may have less flexibility.

ARCURY: It becomes an issue because if they get sick and can't work on a tobacco farm, then, because of the regulations of the H2A visa, they may have to go back to Mexico, if there's no other work on that farm for them to do.

HARTMAN: The North Carolina Growers Association says otherwise. The group brings in about 10,000 H2A workers to the state each year, and Executive Director Stan Eury says it makes a good faith effort to try to relocate workers with GTS.

EURY: Tobacco is certainly the main crop, but we have thousands of acres of other crops that our members grow and harvest. We attempt to move workers into vegetable crops or into activities where they're not exposed to tobacco when they show an extreme adverse reaction to the tobacco crop.

HARTMAN: Eury also says the Growers Association trains the guest workers in GTS and other potential health hazards upon their arrival in North Carolina. And there are ways to prevent the illness. Because nicotine is most easily absorbed when the tobacco leaves are wet, healthcare workers recommend that farm workers wear a rain suit during the early morning hours or in the rain. When the leaves dry off the workers should change to dry clothes, including a long-sleeved shirt. But it's hard to disseminate this information, partly because many farm workers lack ready access to health care. Dr. Deb Norton is medical director of the North Carolina Farm Worker Health Program.


Photo: North Carolina State University(Photo: North Carolina State University)

NORTON: They don't fit very well in our traditional medical system because they usually don't speak English. Most of the workers are uninsured. Most of them cannot get off work during the day. That makes it very hard to access our medical system because most doctors don't have office hours at night.

HARTMAN: It's up to farm worker health outreach workers like Eldon Rogers to spread the word about GTS prevention. He makes regular visits to more than 300 tobacco farms in the greater Winston-Salem area.

ROGERS: Most farmers who have been working several years know who I am, are very helpful. There are a few, maybe, who are new or who are not that familiar with what I do, sometimes are a little bit reticent when I'm coming around, but, in the main, I would say 95 percent plus are very receptive.

HARTMAN: One farmer who's unusually receptive is Bruce Tilley. He says after 40 years of farming, he has figured out how to keep his five guest workers from getting sick.

TILLEY: Don't never go to a wet tobacco field without a rain suit on, and that solves all the problems, it saves the farmers having to take the men to the hospital, working with them. Tell the farmers when the men first get here, before they start topping tobacco, to get every man a rain suit.

[MEN SPEAKING SPANISH]

HARTMAN: On this day, Eldon Rodgers and some of Wake Forest researchers are at Tilley's farm to create a fotonovella, that is, a flyer with photographs, explaining what Green Tobacco Sickness is and how to prevent it. The farm workers become willing actors. The protagonist, Geraldo, starts off working without a rain suit, in short sleeves. Then he gets sick. He takes a swig of soda for the camera and spits it out, to simulate vomiting.

[SOUND OF VOMITING SCENE]

HARTMAN: After the shoot is done, veteran farm work Augustin Figueroa says he thinks the fotonovella will go a long way toward helping workers like him understand GTS.

[FIGUEROA SPEAKING SPANISH]

VOICEOVER: At the moment, we're acting it out, but, yes, a lot of people who are new to working in the United States in tobacco do get sick. They're unfamiliar with tobacco work and it can hurt some of them. And this magazine is a good idea because people can look at it and take note of what they're doing. Yes, it's very important.

HARTMAN: There is still no perfect solution to eradicating Green Tobacco Sickness. Not all workers will agree to wear a rain suit, given the heat and humidity of a North Carolina summer. And, workers will continue to hold the tobacco leaves under their arms because the leaves are too sticky to put into a sack. And, the researchers at Wake Forest are still looking into the question of why some workers get sick while others seem to have a tolerance to nicotine exposure. For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

[SOUND OF FARM]

Back to top

 

Winter Beach

CURWOOD: The thought of a windswept, snow-lined beach may send a shiver down the spine of many folks this time of year. But commentator Sy Montgomery says the beach is the place to be in winter. Creatures you would never spot on a summer stroll on the hot, crowded sand suddenly appear undisturbed by the presence of a solitary human.

[SURF]

MONTGOMERY: At first you notice what's not here. The summer crowds, the heat, the scent of suntan oil. The burrowing crabs called beach fleas are hibernating deep in the sand. The cormorants and terns have flown south. But the winter beach is far from empty. Migrations bring surprises, and storms wash up wonders on the tides.

[CRASHING SURF]

MONTGOMERY: Here in New England, residents of Martha's Vineyard woke one day to find the shellfish fairy had come. More than 100 bushels of sweet bay scallops had literally blown out of the water onto their doorsteps. Storms give us a glimpse of life in the deep sea. You might see a big orange starfish, its five arms bordered in gold. Or a purple sunstar, a starfish with ten arms.

Along the seaweed line, you might find a sea cucumber. Not a vegetable, but an animal. It's a relative of the starfish and looks like a miniature football. It moves as a starfish does, by pulling itself along the ocean floor with sucker-tipped tubes on its underside.

Another mystery is a single, black, leathery rectangle with a set of inward-curving hooks at each end. We call it a mermaid's purse, but it's really the egg case of the skate fish, a flattened member of the shark family.

More wonders lurk offshore, so bring your field glasses. Immature loons who breed on northern lakes winter at sea. On a calm day, you may hear the dark bird's eerie call rolling off the surf. You might also spot a tundra creature at the beach, a snowy owl. This uncanny creature hunts by day, and you might spot one sitting stone still on the beach, eyes fixed on the horizon, searching for its next meal.

Here along the Atlantic coast, winter's the time to spot one of the rarest mammals on earth, the right whale. These giants summer in Canada's Bay of Fundy and show up here in New England only in winter, sometimes shockingly close to shore. The right whale looks like a huge black rock sprinkled with white barnacles. But this rock moves. It opens an enormous mouth hung with baleen, comb-like plates attached to the upper jaw. At the tip of Cape Cod, beachcombers have seen a 50-foot whale surface only 20 feet away. But it's also a thrill to view these whales from a distance. Look for a V-shaped spout on the horizon. The V means this leviathan has not one blow hole, but two.

You may not see a rare whale on your walk on the winter beach, or a snowy owl, or even a starfish. But any trip to the beach is really a visit to the rich border of two worlds, land and sea. And in the silvery light of winter, each illuminates the other anew.

CURWOOD: Beachcomber and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of "Journey of the Pink Dolphins."

MONTGOMERY: Seal, there's a seal! I can't believe it! His hip came right up over there. (Surf crashes) I mean, I'm either having a really vivid hallucination or that was a seal at pretty close range.

(Music up and under)

Back to top

 

Health Note

CURWOOD Coming up: A good solution for a bad situation. Changing trash into prostheses for bodies broken by land mines. First, this Health Note from Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: For thousands of years, humans have relished the flavors of spices in our foods. But we also may have been enjoying another benefit from those substances. Many spices such as garlic, pepper and fennel kill bacteria and fungi in food that can make us sick. Cornell University researchers set out to see how well various cultures made use of this anti-bacterial property. First, they looked at traditional meat recipes from 36 countries around the world. All of them called for bacteria-killing spices. What's more, recipes from hotter countries where bacteria grow more quickly, contained a higher concentration of these spices. But researchers wondered how much early cooks actually knew about the safety benefits in their spice cabinet. They decided to compare meat dishes with vegetable dishes to find out. Plants are protected against bacteria by natural chemicals, strong cell walls and a high acid level. This protection remains intact, even after some cooking. So, vegetable dishes should need fewer protective seasonings. The researchers hit the recipe books again. In all 36 countries, vegetable dishes called for far-fewer spices than meat dishes. It looks like our ancestors chose spices for more than their flavor or fire. That extra punch in the dish may have also kept them from getting sick. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Living on Earth Almanac: The Lorax

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. He was shortish, and oldish and brownish and mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy. He, of course, is the Lorax, and he just turned 30.

VOICE: I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs!

CURWOOD: The Lorax, created by Dr. Seuss, was one of the first deliberately "environmental" children's books. It's a story about greed, consumption, pollution, economics, extinction, deforestation and stewardship - but kids wouldn't know it. To them, it's a colorful story about Swomee-Swans, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming-Fish, and the dangers of Gluppity-Glupp, Schloppity-Schlopp, and smogulous-smoke. It all starts when the Once-ler, a greedy entrepreneur, discovers that the tuft of the wonderful Truffula Tree is perfect material for making a Thneed - a thing which everyone, everyone, EVERYONE needs! So he moves into town, builds a factory, biggers his business, and, ultimately, cuts down every last tree. When the native creatures can no longer survive, the Lorax becomes their only spokesperson, urging the Once-ler to clean up his act.

VOICE: Now, thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground, there's not enough Truffula Fruit to go 'round. And my poor Bar-ba-loots are all getting the crummies because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies!

CURWOOD: Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax because it seemed to him that most ecological books about wildlife and conservation were "angry things that people don't want to read." Theodore Seuss Geisel died in 1991 at the age of 87. He wrote more than 50 books, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his stories for young and old alike.
And as for the Lorax, he left this one parting gift: The last of the Truffula tree seeds.

VOICE: Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.

Back to top

 

Dust

CURWOOD: To most of us, dust is a local nuisance. We find it on the countertop and underneath the bed. Maybe a bit of it blows across the road as we walk or drive along. What we don't realize though is that a lot of the dust we see comes from far away--hundreds of millions of tons of it blow across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas. From Asia, tons of dust cross the Pacific. Some of the dust that North America generates winds up in far away places, as well.

Now, new research shows that this dust may bring along some unwanted hitchhikers. Science News Editor Janet Raloff joins me now. Hi Janet.

RALOFF: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: So, Janet, what evidence is there that dust can transport unwanted disease across the oceans?

RALOFF: Well, some scientists, federal scientists, just cultured some dust that had been falling out in the Caribbean. It had originally come from Africa, and they could track it through satellite photos to know that it made those movements. And they're finding lots of bacteria, fungi and viruses in the dust that comes from Africa. And not only is it there but--this is pretty surprising--they found out that the stuff can grow. They can culture it and it blossoms in a petri dish. Looks pretty awful.

CURWOOD: Any diseases, specifically, they link to this dust?

RALOFF: Well, they haven't identified many of the germs yet, but the ones they have tend to be plant pathogens, and that's particularly interesting because in the late seventies there had been an epidemic of sugar cane rust in the Caribbean that seemed to come out of nowhere. And when an analysis was done about a year after the epidemic broke, they noticed that it seemed to be occurring in areas downwind of an area in Africa where the disease was also an epidemic. And now this would seem to give strong support to the idea that the germs that set off that epidemic in the Caribbean actually came from Africa.

CURWOOD: What about diseases in animals?

RALOFF: Well, there are fewer that have been tied at this point, but again, there's this nice, intriguing little episode, back about 20 years ago, where some British scientists looked at outbreaks of foot and mouth disease throughout Britain and Europe. And there are lots of cases that seem to, again, come out of nowhere, but they would show up on different sides of bodies of water, like the English Channel or the Baltic Sea. And at that time they said there was, at least, circumstantial support for foot and mouth disease having traveled by air, across water.

CURWOOD: What about us humans? What kind of risk do we run from dust-borne disease?

RALOFF: Well, one of the big concerns right now is asthma. There's a big asthma epidemic in Barbados and that's one of the eastern most islands in the Caribbean, one of those that gets the first dustfall from Africa. And they're finding that emergency room admissions for asthma are peaking at times when African dust is in the atmosphere. And they think they have linked it now to a particular bacterium that's present in that dust; when the bacterium isn't there, the asthma epidemic doesn't peak in emergency rooms.

CURWOOD: We've had dust forever. Why are we just noticing this now?

RALOFF: Well, part of it is that we have better monitoring, more air sampling stations, and more chemical analyses that can sort of finger print where dust is coming from. They can match it up with soils and tell that it's not like where it's landing. But there's also probably more dust just because of changing land use practices, which often leaves ground uncovered during dry seasons, making it very vulnerable to erosion. And there's, in addition, a lot of diversion of water bodies right now, to try and irrigate soils for crops and also to feed populations that are getting thirsty, like Los Angeles.

CURWOOD: What's going on in Los Angeles?

RALOFF: Actually, the situation there developed beginning around 1900. They could see that Los Angeles was growing fast and didn't have sufficient water, so they started tapping rivers that fed Owens Lake, in the mountains, several hundred miles to the east of Los Angeles. They took so much water that the lake totally dried up within ten years. And since then, the lake bed has been eroding and throwing lots of dust into the atmosphere and totally inundating several of the towns right next to it--to the extent that there's now lawsuits over that, and the city of Los Angeles is going to have to pay for re-mediation of Owens Lake.

CURWOOD: What's in this dust?

RALOFF: The thing of primary concern is a lot of arsenic, from 19th century gold mining operations upstream. There's sufficient arsenic, they think, that exposed individuals in the nearby towns can increase their life time cancer risk to about 1 in 40,000. And usually anything above one in a million is considered very serious cancer risk.

CURWOOD: Anything that we can do, in general, about dust?

RALOFF: Well, we do usually a fairly good job in this country of controlling erosion. Many people in the developing world don't have the money and resources to do the same, and I think a lot of people in North America figured, well, that's their problem, not ours. Now that we see that their dust and any of the wastes in it can end up in our back yard, it might turn out to be in our vested interest to help them out with some kind of agricultural aid, so they can also practice good soil conservation techniques.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News. Thanks, Janet.

RALOFF: Thank you, Steve.

Back to top

 

Recycled Prostheses

CURWOOD: In the 1970s, Cambodia's ruling faction, the Khmer Rouge, put more than a million land mines along the nation's northern and western borders. The aim was to stop Cambodians from fleeing into neighboring Thailand. The Khmer Rouge is no more, but few of the mines they left behind have been cleared away. And each year those mines maim and kill hundreds of people. Most of those who survive do not have access to affordable artificial limbs. But a solution has been found through an innovative recycling program in Thailand. Orlando de Guzman has our report.

(Voices)

DE GUZMAN: Every day at the Thai border town of Aranyanya Prathet, about 10,000 poor Cambodians cross a narrow concrete bridge dividing Thailand and Cambodia. The tide of people swells by mid-afternoon. Dozens of carts piled with sacks of rice and scrap metal are pushed across the border. This border crossing is also where you'll see the legacy of Cambodia's 30 years of war. Hundreds of land mine victims come here to work. Many find jobs as porters hauling heavy sacks of clothing and food back to Cambodia. Sitting in a pool of shade, Sammath, a 44-year-old porter, takes a break from the afternoon sun. He says he remembers the day he lost his left leg.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.

TRANSLATOR: It all happened on the twentieth of November 1990. I was a soldier with the Cambodian government, and our platoon was told to chase a group of Khmer Rouge guerillas hiding out in the jungle just across the border. We were walking down a dirt road when I hit a tripwire. That's all I can remember.

(Traffic sounds)

DE GUZMAN: Sammath says he thought he would never walk again. Then he heard about a charity here in Aranyanya Prathet that was helping land mine victims. He signed up for the service, and, along with 200 others, got an artificial limb last year. He rolls up his left cuff to show off the prosthesis.

SAMMATH: Speaks in Cambodian.

TRANSLATOR: With this new leg, I can carry up to 65 pounds and make a living that way. Before, I couldn't work or do anything. Now I can walk, even run. I still have to be careful and not put too much pressure on my legs. I can't carry 100 pounds like the other porters who have both legs.

(Motors)

DE GUZMAN: Sammath owes his new leg to an innovative program in Thailand that is recycling cheap and readily available plastic and aluminum and turning them into useful prostheses. In the outskirts of Bangkok, aluminum cans are processed and molded into parts for artificial limbs.


Photo: Courtesy of Holland Sentinel(Photo: Courtesy of Holland Sentinel)

THERDCHAI: These prosthetic parts are made in our country, and all of them are plastic and aluminum.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai Cheevaket is the man behind the program. He is the founder of the Thai Prosthesis Foundation, and he's an orthopedic surgeon at Chiang Mai University. The foundation has distributed about 7,000 artificial limbs to land mine victims since 1995, says Dr. Therdchai as he examines one of his first inventions.

(Clattering)

THERDCHAI: This is the artificial leg. It's a good-looking one for daily use now. If they want to go to work in the field, to go into the water, they can use this one. You see most of the Thai amputees, you know, they are farmers.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Therdchai says he did not have a lot of money when he started his foundation. So he went looking for cheaper materials to lower the production cost of his artificial limbs. He found help from the Ajinomoto Company, which makes the popularly sweet Thai coffee packed in aluminum cans. Orchachai Atcharanukul, the manager of Ajinomoto's marketing department, started a recycling drive called "One Flip-Top Toward a New Step." Within a year, Mr. Orchachai says they had collected enough aluminum to make about four-and-a-half thousand artificial limbs.

ORCHACHAI: (Speaks in Thai)

TRANSLATOR: The main reason for the recycling campaign's success comes from the ancient belief of Thai people, which has origins in Buddhism. In Buddhism, if you do a good act, then good things will come back to you. The second reason is more recent. More and more people are being educated about the environment, and there is a growing awareness about the benefits that resource conservation has on our quality of life.

DE GUZMAN: In addition to aluminum, the Thai Prosthesis Foundation experimented with plastic. Plastic bottles litter most of Thailand's highways and markets. Dr. Therdchai discovered that most of the plastic bottles used in Thailand can be melted without heat, using a solvent. The melted plastic is then spun around a cast to create a prosthetic leg. The process is so simple that it can be made by trained technicians at local villages. Because it's made on the spot, amputees don't have to wait weeks for an imported artificial limb. Dr. Therdchai says until he started his program, artificial limbs remained beyond the reach of about 70 percent of all amputees along the Thai-Cambodian border.

THERDCHAI: The prostheses made in Thailand in the past is expensive. Because you have to import the material and parts of the prosthesis. So the poor cannot afford to buy it.

DE GUZMAN: An imported prosthesis costs more than $100, but the ones made of recycled material were five times cheaper. That's allowed Dr. Therdchai to give his artificial limbs away for free. Christian Brunner, the regional delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says foreign aid agencies often overlook how important it is to keep the costs down.

BRUNNER: The problem is always with organizations. If they are active in prosthesis projects, they want to sell their own products. Like if an American organization would come, they would like to bring American technology and American products. The same with the Germans. And that makes the thing expensive. And this is, of course, the big problem for these countries.

DE GUZMAN: Imported prostheses are not only more expensive, but they must always be used with shoes. That meant breaking a well-guarded Southeast Asian custom of removing your shoes before entering a home. Dr. Therdchai solved that problem by making a small slot between the toes on his prosthetic feet so a rubber sandal can slip on and off without much effort.

THERDCHAI: You can use a sandal, you see? There's a grip in here. It's a hole between big toe and the second toe. Gives you grip on the parts of the sandal.

DE GUZMAN: This year, Dr. Therdchai plans to give away more than a thousand of his environmentally-friendly and culturally-appropriate artificial limbs. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman in Bangkok, Thailand.

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.

Back to top

 

Mystery Moose

CURWOOD: Recently hunters in the Yukon territory of Canada shot a young bull moose, or so they thought. Despite the fact that the moose had a set of antlers, the hunters soon discovered that the animal was missing a few other things you might expect to find on a male moose. Here to talk about this mystery moose is Rick Ward, a biologist with the Yukon government. Mr. Ward, please describe for me what these hunters found when they went to butcher the moose

WARD: Well, when they got up to the animal and started to handle it, they realized that, except for the fact that it had antlers, it appeared in every other respect to be a cow moose.

CURWOOD: I gather these hunters got in touch with authorities because it's not legal to shoot a cow moose, and I guess this is how you heard about the incident, huh?

WARD: Well, it's not legal to shoot a cow moose, but I suspect it was more the fact that they realized that this was something quite unusual and they wondered what was going on.

CURWOOD: What did you think, when you heard about a cow moose with antlers?

WARD: Well, I was actually quite excited, I was quite interested, of course. I've never seen a hermaphroditic moose before, and in fact I've never talked to anybody who has said that they have seen them, so it is quite unusual. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see the animal personally, because it was disposed of before I had a chance to get there.

CURWOOD: What is there in the way of pictures?

WARD: We do have some pictures but unfortunately the person who took them is not going to get any awards for photography, so they're a bit fuzzy and they don't show things as well as they might. Dead moose photography is definitely a specialized skill, I suspect.

CURWOOD: Well, what do you make of this animal?

WARD: At the genetic level, there are a couple, several possible explanations in fact, in terms of having multiple X and multiple Y chromosomes or perhaps having only one X or Y chromosome. But, in this case, I suspect, although I'm not sure because we haven't had a chance to do the necessary analysis, but I would expect that it was a hyperactive adrenal gland, perhaps, that was putting out more testosterone than it should.

CURWOOD: What did they do with this moose?

WARD: Well, the moose actually also had a fairly significant infection where it had either impaled itself on some sharp object or where it had been injured by another moose. So our enforcement people suggested that the hunter not eat the moose, and it was given to a dog musher, to be used as dog food.

CURWOOD: I've heard that you're trying to get the antlers. Any progress in that?

WARD: Not yet. I'm still working on it. I've been talking to the local folks up there, and they said that they would try to get in touch with the hunter and see if they could get them for me.

CURWOOD: Now, Mr. Ward, I understand that there was another sighting of a moose like this a number of years ago. What do you suppose it has to do with, you know, that snow that falls up there in Yukon?

WARD: Well, I expect that it's probably just a coincidence that these two animals were shot in the same general area.

CURWOOD: Rick Ward is a biologist with the Yukon government. Hey Rick, thanks, thanks so much.

WARD: You're quite welcome.

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Animal Note: Knockout Spider

CURWOOD: Coming up, a new bio-engineered rice might save millions from malnutrition. But first this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.

VILLIGER: If you think your love life is challenging, you might find some comfort by taking a close look at the courting rituals of the funnel web spider. Males in this aggressive species are sometimes eaten by their mates before, during, or soon after their eight to ten hour intercourse session. To ward off the sexual cannibalism, the guys have come up with a defense. They lull females into unconsciousness so they can mate without becoming dinner. Until recently, observers thought the males' elaborate courting dance somehow intoxicated females. But now, biologists have discovered proof that the spider Romeos are actually slipping a Mickey to their Juliets. When scientists ground up dead male funnel web spiders and wafted the extract near live spiders, almost three quarters of females were, literally, knocked out. Surprisingly, males also succumb to the potion. They must take very careful aim when releasing this chemical so they don't knock themselves out cold. Scientists are working on identifying this knock-out pheromone. It's unknown whether or not humans possess a similar reception pathway.
That's this week's Animal Note, I'm Maggie Villiger.

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

[MUSIC]

Back to top

 

Golden Rice

CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Genetically modified food crops are controversial. Australia and New Zealand have begun labeling all food that contains any genetically modified ingredients. And though the European Union lifted a ban on GMO foods this past spring, a debate there also continues about the safety of these crops. But makers of these products say they are safe, and are needed in a world where one out of five people goes to bed hungry each night. One potential new crop these companies point to is called Golden Rice. It's a form of the grain that contains genetic material taken from other plants, including daffodils and peas. The process adds a form of vitamin A to the rice, and imparts a golden hue. Bob Carty covers science and the environment for the Canadian Broadcasting Corportation, and he joins me now. Hi Bob.

CARTY: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, why do this to rice? What need could this satisfy?

CARTY: Well, the fundamental goal is to deal with the problem, a global problem, of Vitamin A deficiency. All of us, or most of us, get our Vitamin A, of course, in things like carrots or milk or cod liver oil. Did you ever have cod liver oil when you were a kid?

CURWOOD: Oh, yes.

CARTY: (Laughs) You, okay -- distasteful. But it's very effective in delivering beta carotene. And beta carotene is what the body then converts into Vitamin A. And you need Vitamin A to survive. If not, it can cause blindness, it can cause death. And around the world there are millions of kids who don't have enough Vitamin A. Between one and two million children die a year from lack of sufficient vitamin A. Another 500,000 go blind. So, the inventors of this thing called golden rice wanted to put beta carotene into a rice that didn't have it before, to solve this problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

CURWOOD: Now, who's pushing this genetic modification?

CARTY: Well, this is interesting. It's not the private sector in this case. The biotech revolution we've had over the last half dozen years or so has been led by companies like Monsanto. But they've been concerned with things like putting pesticides into potatoes and cotton, so they resist the pests themselves. Things like making soy and corn resistant to herbicides so herbicides can be used more efficiently. Now, this is very fine for the pesticide makers, I suppose, and perhaps for farmers; there's a debate about that. But it certainly doesn't deliver anything to the consumer. Golden rice, though, was on a totally different research path. It started about ten years ago, cost about $100 million, and much of the funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. Much of the research was done in public research institutions in Germany and Switzerland. And they did it, of course, not to increase the profits for pesticide companies, but to fight Vitamin A deficiency. Because, though, there are patents on a lot of this process, at the end of the day this publicly-financed research is actually owned by a private company, AstraZeneca, who has agreed to provide the eventual golden rice product free of royalties.

CURWOOD: Now, the critics of golden rice say that this technology is a Trojan horse. Why do they say that, Bob?

CARTY: I suppose because it looks so good on the outside and may have a few dangers within. And the suspicion of it being a Trojan horse is because of the way it was presented. Across North America, there have been a number of television advertisements using golden rice as an illustration that genetically-modified foods can be good for you. Not just good for you but good for humankind. Good for the poor and the starving of the world. Now, remember that this is being presented, these ads are being presented in a certain context, in the context of quite a serious market meltdown for genetically-modified foods. You know, the images of protestors outside of supermarkets and people tearing up test plots in Britain and the United States and Canada. So in that context, these ads appear. They are promoted by the Council for Biotechnology Information; it's a representative of the biotech industry. The pictures are quite lovely, Steve. They have mothers with rice bowls feeding their children. They have doctors in lab coats and children happily skipping and running. And what you hear in the golden rice commercial by the Council for Biotechnology Information is this message:

(Commercial music)

WOMAN: Around the world, mothers want to protect and nourish their children. So biotechnology researchers have developed golden rice. It will contain beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. Golden rice could help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children. From medicine to agriculture, biotechnology is providing solutions that are improving lives today. And could improve our world tomorrow.

CURWOOD: Oh, my. Well, if that was a feel-good ad. Boy, Bob, I feel great. It sounds like everything is wonderful with golden rice.

CARTY: Absolutely. And I think there's a very convincing argument here. That is, it takes the moral high ground. This is feeding the poor and the hungry, and if you had some qualms, as many people do, or some doubts about genetically-modified foods, surely feeding the poor is a greater good and people could put those qualms and objections aside.

CURWOOD: But not everybody seems to like this ad, I take it.

CARTY: Not even some of the supporters of this technology. The Rockefeller Foundation itself has tried to distance itself from these ads. They say they're too much hype. Those are the supporters. The critics say there's a number of problems here. One is that this golden rice is not going to be available for five or six years. The ad makes it sound like it's available right now and it's out there doing its job helping the poor. But it takes five or six years in field tests and very rigorous science to look and see if this rice will have possible new allergies in it that people will react to, possible toxins that could be dangerous to health. They have to find out whether it's safe for the environment. And above all, people have questions about whether or not this really solves Vitamin A deficiencies. And one of the people with that question is Pat Mooney. He's the executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International. Here's his take on golden rice.

MOONEY: The argument that golden rice itself will cure, as the industry has said, half a million people a year, children a year, of blindness, I think is nonsense, absolute nonsense. And even the inventors themselves I think now say that's the case. For kids to actually consume enough rice to meet their Vitamin A deficiency requirements in Southeast Asia, for example, or in Africa, they'd have to be eating about eight or ten pounds of rice a day.

CARTY: And that's Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

CURWOOD: How do the inventors of golden rice respond to his math, that this is not enough to fix the problem?

CARTY: Basically they say give it a chance. They point out that yes, the first invented golden rice is very low in levels of beta carotene, but it'll improve over the years. And this rice does not have to meet, they would argue, all of the Vitamin A needs of children, 100 percent. It would only have to meet maybe 25 percent or 50 percent that is deficient. So give the technology a chance, they would argue. And one of the inventors is particularly quite forceful in arguing back. He's Ingo Potroykus. He lives in Switzerland. And apparently he experienced some hunger and malnutrition right after the Second World War, Steve. And so has a very personal motivation for working on this vitamin and food problem with genetic engineering. Last fall he was in Des Moines, Iowa, won an international world food prize. And on that occasion he took on his critics, and so here's a bit of Ingo Potroykus.

POTROYKUS: We are really acting criminal, because we have here a technology which has the potential to help many, many poor people to prevent deaths and blindness. Every delay of the exploitation of this technology leads to unnecessary blindness of millions of children and to unnecessary deaths of mothers.

CARTY: And that's Ingo Potroykus, one of the inventors of golden rice.

CURWOOD: Boy, he sounds quite sincere.

CARTY: Yeah, and people who have met him say he really is. He's quite committed to this technology and to what it can do for poor people. On the other hand, development experts also say he's quite naive. They point to a number of things. One is that the world currently produces enough food for everybody on it. It just is terribly mal-distributed, and there is a lot of economic injustice. They also point out another fundamental problem, and that is that people who lack enough Vitamin A in their diet are also likely to lack the fats and the proteins in their bodies that actually are necessary to extract from the beta carotene the Vitamin A.

CURWOOD: What are the less controversial ways to provide Vitamin A to poor people that these critics suggest?

CARTY: Well, they're as simple as a half a teaspoon of red palm oil a day, much like the cod liver oil that you and I had when we were young. In the tropics this could be a very, very easy and simple and accessible solution. Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Foundation International also argues that there are simple and traditional alternatives available in many countries. Here's Pat Mooney.

MOONEY: In India, for example, there are literally hundreds of food plants throughout India that have an abundance of Vitamin A in them. They historically have been used by people to meet their Vitamin A requirements. They've been pushed out of the marketplace by sort of the Western approach to food and the heavy emphasis on cereal consumption in these regions. Frankly, it's probably much cheaper, definitely safer, and much better for the environment to reintroduce those plants that are already there, that are natural in the environment, and have them back in the market place.

CURWOOD: So where do things stand now?

CARTY: Well, golden rice samples have been handed over to a Third World research institute, the International Institute for Rice Research in the Philippines. And they're going to do some of the major testing on this. They say it will take five or six years. In the end of the day, I think the questions are about who has the burden of proof here? I think consumers in the north are thinking the burden of proof still lies with the inventors to show that this is safe. And the perspective from the south that's increasing is that the best solution, as the Philippines Institute says, to Vitamin A deficiency, is really a simple diverse diet.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty reports on environmental issues for the CBC. Hey, Bob, thanks for joining us today.

CARTY: Okay, Steve.

[MUSIC up and under]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime 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. CD's, tapes and transcripts are fifteen dollars.

Back to top

 

Wae Rebo

CURWOOD: The archipelago of Indonesia has many threatened species of birds. Many live in Wallacea, which is home to more than 250 birds found nowhere else on Earth. Little is known in the West about the region, and its first field guide to birds was not published until 1997. But there are plenty of experts on Wallacean wildlife if you look in the right places. John Ryan found some on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: Inside an ancient volcanic crater, a steep and muddy five-hour hike from the nearest road is the village of Wae Rebo. At its center are six giant houses ringed by the crater walls, cloaked in cloud forest. Each house is a pointed dome of smoke-darkened thatch, like a five-story-tall Hershey's kiss. I went there by chance. I'd been on the truck to another town when a Wae Rebo school teacher invited me to his village. A
hard day's travel later, I became the second American ever to visit Wae Rebo.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: Women started banging a gong to announce the arrival of a
foreigner.

(Gamelan music)

RYAN: In Wae Rebo, drums are called "the voice of the village." One
rainy afternoon shortly after I'd arrived, five village women sat on the
plank floor of the biggest house and practiced their beats on goatskin
drums and small brass gongs. Between jam sessions, I was leafing through
my 500-page Guide to the Birds of Wallacea.

(Voices)

RYAN: Several older women and a teenage boy gathered around the book.
And as they turned the colorful pages, they pointed out the birds that
live in the forests around Wae Rebo. They argued in a local Manggarai language over their names and their songs.

(Voices and imitated bird calls)

RYAN: A villager in her seventies, Agatha Nout taught me the calls of
the bare-throated whistler, or kiong in Manggarai. Villagers call the kiong
the champion singer, for its amazing repertoire of songs that fill the forest air every morning.

(Agatha Nout imitates the kiong)

RYAN: Agatha explained things that don't appear in any book. Like how
villagers rely on the call of the sisisia or Wallacean drongo to protect
their crops. The drongo's sisisia call often comes just before
troops of monkeys emerge from the forest to steal corn. The farmers know
to send their dogs toward the drongos to chase the monkeys back.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: As the forests shrink and the older generations fade away, this
kind of local ecological knowledge is getting harder to come by in
Wallacea. Wae Rebo's isolation has kept its culture
and its surroundings relatively intact. People in Wae Rebo are proud of
their traditions, but mostly unaware of how unusual their ecosystems are.
Nobody I spoke with knew that many of the region's birds could be found
nowhere else on Earth. Or that their homeland had been declared a global
priority by Bird Life International and other conservation groups. And
nobody knew that their bird-friendly method of growing coffee in the
shade of other trees, with little or no chemical use, was highly valued
in international markets. They do know that isolation isn't easy, and
people here want a road. Coffee farmer Bruno Sumardin.

SUMARDIN: (speaks in Manggarai)

TRANSLATOR: If they don't open a road, that means we people of Wae Rebo
will keep having to haul coffee and rice and everything on our backs
every day. If they do build a road, that probably means that our
environment will lose its uniqueness and our traditions will eventually
be lost. If I have to choose, I'd open a road.

(Bird calls)

RYAN: For now, the top elected official in western Flores wants to
preserve the village as a cultural heritage site. Combine that with
Indonesia's economic crisis and it's unlikely that a road will be built
any time soon. Even so, I was hesitant to tell this story and risk
ruining this place. Yet people in Wae Rebo want more visitors and more
cash for their impoverished village. And in truth there's little danger
of Wae Rebo becoming a major tourist destination. It's not on any map.
And even if you can ask directions in Indonesian, most people on Flores
don't even know where Wae Rebo is. So have at it. Go to Wae Rebo in the
Manggarai region on Flores Island in Indonesia. Just remember, check your
legs for leeches as you hike up the volcano. Be sure to eat what you're
served, even dog curry, for refusing food is a deep offense in a Manggarai house.
And when it's time to settle down for the night between bamboo mat and
bamboo blanket, the only sound, the low hum of insects in the surrounding
forests and fields, sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite.

(Gamelan music up and under)

RYAN: For Living on Earth, this is John Ryan in Wae Rebo, Indonesia.

(Music up and under: Wae Rebo Village Drummers)

Back to top

 

CURWOOD: And for this week, That's Living On Earth.

[Sound of water dripping]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a few well-chosen drips. Well, more than just a few, really. It's the resonant chorus of water dripping into pools in a cave, recorded by Jean-Luc Herelle.

(Sounds of water dripping)

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 Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penney and Jonathan Waldman. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. 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 Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for reporting on Western issues; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

This Week's Music






 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.