Preparing for a Changing Climate
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Slowing and stopping global emissions of carbon dioxide are vital for mitigating climate change. But scientists say even if we stopped all emissions now, some climate disruption is already guaranteed. Host Steve Curwood talks with Harvard University's John Holdren about adapting to a warming planet. (05:30)
Filtering Seawater/ Erik Anderson
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Shrinking supplies of fresh water combined with new advances in technology are making California officials take another look at seawater desalination. Erik Anderson reports from KPBS in San Diego. (06:00)
Health Note/Spud-aid/ Jessica Penney
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Living on Earth’s Jessica Penney reports that researchers have used potatoes to develop a substance that stems the blood flow at least as well as standard treatments. (01:15)
Almanac/Blowin’ in the Wind
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This week, we have facts about the Festival du Vent. Wind lovers gather in the extra-breezy island town of Calvi, Corsica in the Mediterranean. (01:15)
Revolutionary Lighting/ Cynthia Graber
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Lighting accounts for 20 percent of all electricity use in the US, but a great deal of the energy used to produce that light is wasted as heat. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on light-emitting diodes, a new energy-efficient technology that experts predict may take over the lighting industry. (06:00)
Light Up the World
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Dave Irvine-Halliday recently won an international award for using light-emitting diodes to bring light to homes throughout the developing world. He speaks with host Steve Curwood about his efforts. (06:00)
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Host Steve Curwood talks with physicist Don Gurnett, who has branched out from his usual studies to make music with sounds he’s collected through the years from space. Gurnett collaborated with composer Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet to fashion a 10-movement composition called "Sun Rings." (03:00)
Tech Note/Personal Beacons/ Jennifer Chu
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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a new satellite beacon for hikers that may take the search out of search and rescue. (01:20)
Lead Paint Mistrial
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The state of Rhode Island contended in a landmark court case that lead paint still in buildings from decades ago is a public nuisance. But the jury couldn't agree on this question and a deadlock led to a mistrial. Host Steve Curwood talks with the Providence Journal's environment writer Peter Lord about the case. (03:30)
Lead Committee/ Diane Toomey
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The makeup of a CDC advisory panel on childhood lead poisoning has come under fire. Critics say the Bush administration has nominated people with a conflict of interest in the outcome of the committee’s decisions. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports. (04:00)
Deceit and Denial
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Early in the 20th century, most countries in Europe banned the use of lead in paint, based on its harmful effects on children’s health. But the lead industry in the U.S. was just beginning to flourish, despite its knowledge of lead’s poisonous effects. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Rosner, co-author of a book on the history and complicity of the lead industry called: "Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution". (07:15)
HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Erik Anderson, Cynthia Graber, Diane ToomeyGUESTS: John Holdren, Don Gurnett, David Irvine-Halliday, Peter Lord, David RosnerUPDATES: Jessica Penney, Jennifer Chu
CURWOOD: From NPR News, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The incandescent light bulb is more than 100 years old, and it wastes almost all the power put into it. Now, light emitting diodes promise to revolutionize the industry.
ZORPETTE: When you have the established giants, in this case General Electric, Philips, and Osram Sylvania all pumping significant quantities of money, of research funding into LED research, something is definitely happening.
CURWOOD: LEDs use so little power, they could be the answer for the two billion people who don’t have electricity today.
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: This is the first night in the entire life of all my five children that they’ve been able to read at night.
CURWOOD: Also, music from the heart of outer space.
GURNETT: It varies from whistling tones, you know, which go (whistles) like that.
CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
The latest round of climate change talks just ended in New Delhi, India. Negotiators at the UN gathering were meeting to move countries towards ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and implement its emissions reductions. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to five percent below their 1990 levels over the next decade.
Even if that goal is met, scientists say there will still be significant warming of the planet. John Holdren directs the program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says along with climate changes, the world is likely to see related political disruptions, starting in the developing world.
HOLDREN: In many respects, for example, the developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change than the industrialized nations; they have less capital and infrastructure with which to adapt to climatic change. They’re more directly coupled in their economies to biological resources, to farms, and forestry and fisheries, which would be directly impacted. And so you’re going to have a phenomenon that partly aggravates the existing disparities between north and south. That’s going to generate further political tensions. You’re going to generate flows of environmental refugees. There are going to be disputes about blame and responsibility as these problems get bigger. And so, I think you have to expect that if we stay on this "business as usual" trajectory, it will be a world increasingly troubled.
CURWOOD: Let’s say that the world gets together and puts the brake on carbon dioxide just as fast as it can. There are going to be changes though. How can we best prepare for the changes of the doubled greenhouse gas world?
HOLDREN: People are going to need to back away from the coastline, in some cases, because rising sea level and the probability of increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms is going to be a big problem for coastal property. Farmers are going to have to prepare to make, what in many cases are, expensive adjustments, which means, among other things, that the price of food is going to go up. We’re going to have to make adjustments to preserve the livability of many of our cities in the summer. We’re going to end up spending more money to air condition even more of the indoor environment so that people continue to work and function. We’re going to need to invest more in air pollution control, because the air pollution situation in our cities is going to be aggravated, in most cases, by increasing temperature.
There are lots and lots of adjustments that we’re going to have to make. My view is without minimizing the importance of those adjustments and preparing to make them, we should also be trying to minimize the magnitude of the adjustments we have to make, by minimizing the amount of climate disruption in the first place, which means reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: How well-prepared do you think the world is to deal with climate disruption?
HOLDREN: I don’t believe that the world is nearly as well prepared as it needs to be. In the first place, I think people around the world are under something of an illusion about the capacities of modern technology to protect us from environmental fluctuations. We tend to believe that we are protected from disease by modern sanitary engineering and by modern medicine. We tend to believe that the distribution of water is controlled by dams and ditches rather than by the patterns of precipitation.
And in every one of the examples I’ve just given, it is an exaggerated impression of how much of the environment we’ve engineered versus the extent to which we’re still dependent on natural processes. We are going to find as climate changes that we are more dependent, still, on environmental conditions and processes than we thought and that the costs of replacing environmental goods and services with engineered substitutes are going to be higher than we thought.
CURWOOD: What’s your prescription for the climate change problem?
HOLDREN: Well, I think we absolutely have to get off the "business as usual" trajectory. And the way to get off the "business as usual" trajectory has two parts. One is to create incentives for people and firms to choose the low carbon and no carbon alternatives that are already available, and at the same time, to use our tremendous capacities in technological innovation to improve those options. We need to put in place the incentives to use the best alternatives that we already have, and to invest in improving the alternatives, and those incentives are not nearly strong enough today.
We need, in my view, either emissions caps on carbon implemented through tradable permits, which worked very well for reducing sulfur emissions in the United States, or, alternatively, we need a carbon tax. We need to accept the principle that it is better to tax bads, things that we’re trying to reduce, and correspondingly, lower the taxes on good things, things we’d like to encourage, like income and capital investment. And in that way, changing the incentive system that’s out there, we would start to move the society off the "business as usual" trajectory, in the direction that would reduce the disruption of climate with which we’re going to have to deal.
CURWOOD: John Holdren directs Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government program on Science, Technology and Public Policy. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.
HOLDREN: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Southern California is looking to the ocean to help quench its thirst for fresh water. That’s because it’s becoming cheaper to get the salt out of sea water, as long as you have plenty of power. Desalination is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s already doing a brisk business in the Middle East. Now there is a proposal to build five plants along the Golden State’s southern coast. From member stations KPBS in San Diego, Erik Anderson reports.
[SOUND OF OCEAN WAVES]
ANDERSON: The ocean has long been a tantalizing solution to Southern California’s water woes. Filtering seawater was expensive and Colorado River water was cheap. Recently, the bottled water and pharmaceutical industry have driven technological advances in water filtration. San Diego County Water Authority spokesman Bob Yamada says new filters can treat twice as much water with half the energy, and that’s dramatically lowering the cost.
YAMADA: As we look out to the future in developing new water supplies, seawater desalination is right on the cusp of being cost competitive with those new water supplies.
ANDERSON: So Southern California water officials are proposing enough desalination capacity to provide water for 250,000 families a year. The new optimism for large-scale ocean desalination projects is based on the success of a host of small groundwater plants, like this one in Oceanside.
[SOUND OF MACHINERY]
ANDERSON: First, says manager Casey Jaworski, they filter sediment out of the brackish water.
JAWORSKI: Then the water goes to the high pressure pumps, then the water goes to the membrane. There, the feed water is separated. Seventy-five percent of the water will be drinking water, twenty-five percent will be concentrate water, which goes out into the ocean.
ANDERSON: After the salt is removed, the water’s pH levels are balanced.
[SOUND OF WATER]
ANDERSON: Inside the plant’s lab, workers can monitor a series of faucets that are constantly running. The taps represent water at different stages of the desalination process.
JAWORSKI: Raw, no we don’t want any raw. Here is product, okay.
ANDERSON: Jaworski puts a glass under the finished product and takes a drink.
JAWORSKI: We do use sodium hypochloride as disinfection, so you won’t get a smell, and most people don’t taste it at all.
ANDERSON: But the lessons learned here only go so far when you start talking about filtering hundreds of millions of gallons of ocean water. Even with recent technological advances, it takes a lot of power to filter large volumes of water. That’s why Southern California officials are proposing to build their desalination facilities right beside the region’s power plants.
[SOUND OF WATER]
ANDERSON: County Water Authority spokesman Bob Yamada stands near the Encina Power Plant north of San Diego. The towering 900 megawatt facility sits on the coast, and Yamada says it’s natural: the salt water, and power, are already there.
YAMADA: As you can see over here behind my shoulder, they have a cooling water circulation system that takes water from the ocean. And then it’s discharged back to the ocean, and they circulate large volumes of cooling water.
ANDERSON: Poseidon Resources hopes to tap into that system, drawing off water that’s already been used to cool the turbines. Half that water would be filtered to produce 50 million gallons of fresh water, and the salty residue would be mixed back in with the rest of the coolant water and piped offshore. Company spokesman Peter MacLaggan says this solves a major environmental hurdle for desalination plants: what to do with the salt.
MACLAGGAN: That 50 million gallons a day of concentrated sea water mixes with the 800 million gallons going out of the power plant. Before we even discharge into the outfall from the power plant, we are well below the natural variability in the salinity.
ANDERSON: Biologists say the discharge shouldn’t hurt the coastal environment. But some people are concerned about something else: the heavy draw on California’s power. In the Middle East solar energy is fueling some new desalination projects, but here, MacLaggin says that’s not practical. He says it would require buying large swaths of expensive coastal land to build solar arrays.
MACLAGGAN: We’ve looked into other sources of energy to fire the power plant, renewable sources and traditional sources, and typically, what you find is while the renewable sources are becoming more cost-effective, they still haven’t gotten to the point where they’re able to compete with purchasing the power directly from the power plant itself.
ANDERSON: But the reliance on traditional energy sources makes some people leery. The director for the Center of Energy Studies at San Diego State University Alan Sweedler says the push to build power plant-based desalination facilities could leave the region with a difficult choice. If power supplies get pinched, like they did during California’s recent energy crisis, public officials may be forced to choose between water and power.
SWEEDLER: We need the power from those plants. And if we begin to rely very heavily on desalination, that means we’re going to have to import more power, we’re going to have to possibly build another power plant on the coast, or we’re going to have to generate power someplace else in the county.
ANDERSON: All of those options could be very costly for an area that already has some of the highest power prices in the country. But with the memory of the California power crisis ebbing, and the supply of Colorado River water shrinking, officials appear ready to spend billions to tap into the ocean’s potential as a drinking water source. For Living on Earth, I’m Erik Anderson in San Diego.
CURWOOD: Coming up, the amazing power of lights that require almost no power to make them shine. First, this Environmental Health Note from Jessica Penney.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
PENNEY: Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have developed a powder made from potatoes that can instantly clot blood and stop wounds from bleeding. To make the powder, scientists send the spuds through a multi-step chemical and physical process, resulting in very fine particles of potato starch. These tiny spheres act like a sponge to soak up water and small molecules of blood plasma at the surface of a wound.
Meanwhile, blood platelets and potato starch form a thick gel. As the gel slows bleeding, the natural clotting process begins.
Because the potato starch is so fine, the body breaks it down quickly, leaving a completely normal scab after about one day, with no traces of potato--an improvement over some typical blood stoppers that can remain in the body for weeks and can cause infections or allergic reactions.
The potato powder also is less likely to transmit disease than current blood clotting agents made from animal or human tissue. The powder could be used to reduce the need for blood transfusions during surgery, and it can also be effective in emergency or military trauma situations. In tests with lab mice, the powder even stopped bleeding at incisions that are usually fatal. The researchers say they are negotiating with the manufacturer to make bandages with the powder for every day use. That’s this week’s health note. I’m Jessica Penney.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Peter Thomas “The Spell of the Sinister One” FUTUREMUZIK (Caroline, 1998)]
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Vince Guaraldi “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” VINCE GUARALDI’S GREATEST HITS (Fantasy, 1989)]
CURWOOD: If you’re in the mood to go fly a kite this weekend, you should head to the Mediterranean. That’s because the Festival du Vent, or Wind Festival, is blowing into Calvi, a little seaport on the northwestern coast of Corsica.
Calvi owes its famed windiness to its topography. It lies smack dab between a cove and a horseshoe-shaped mountain range. Westerly winds blow in from the ocean and slam into the mountains. The trapped air spins back towards the town, creating a breezy vortex.
Ten years ago, town councilman Serge Orru started the wind festival to honor Calvi’s windy heritage with art and sports. This year, the town of 4,000 plans to host more than 40,000 festivalgoers. Activities include kite flying of course, but there will also be street performances, concerts, and art on the beach. The festival also showcases renewable energy vehicles, including solar boats and cars, and even La Canopee, the world’s largest hot air ship designed to transport researchers above Amazonian treetops.
And just how windy is it on Calvi? In the famously windy city of Chicago, the breeze blows in at an average of ten miles per hour. In Calvi, the average is 15--just right to go fly your kite. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: Those of us who live in the industrialized world take lighting for granted. Reading lights, streetlights and headlights, even that little light in your refrigerator.
About 20 percent of all energy used in the United States goes to power lights, and almost all of it is wasted. But now come the new light emitting diodes, or LEDs. These are far more efficient at using electricity for illumination. As Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports, many people are calling LEDs the future of light.
MUSIC: “Listen dear, I’m afraid to go home in the dark…” (fade under)
GRABER: At the end of the 1800’s Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and transformed the world. A New York Herald reporter described this scene in downtown New York in 1882.
MALE: In stores and business places throughout the lower quarter of the city, there was a strange glow last night. The dim flicker of gas, often subdued and debilitated by grim and uncleanly globes, was supplanted by a steady glare, bright and mellow, which illuminated interiors, and shown through windows fixed on wavering. It was the glowing incandescent lamps of Edison used last evening for the first time.
GRABER: The incandescent bulb we use today hasn’t changed much from Edison’s days. An electric current goes through a filament. The filament becomes so hot it glows, producing light. But 95 percent of the electricity used to light up that incandescent light bulb gets wasted as heat. So scientists introduced a more efficient fluorescent bulb in the 1940s.
Fluorescents work by passing electricity through gas in a tube, which creates light. But the fluorescent bulbs never took over the residential market, because the harsh color isn’t as pleasing as the warmer glow of incandescence. Now, scientists are developing something new that they hope will be both easy on the eye, and energy efficient. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham spoke about the promise of light emitting diodes, or LEDs, at the Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington, DC this summer.
ABRAHAM: And it is to fluorescent lamps what the automobile was to the horse and buggy. It’s a revolutionary technological innovation that promises to really change the way we light our homes and our businesses.
GRABER: An LED is made up of layers of electron-charged substances. When an electric current passes through the layers, electrons jump from one to the other and give off energy. The amount of energy the electron gives off depends on the type of material used for the layers. And it’s this energy that determines the color of the light. LEDs can be made in almost any color of the rainbow, and scientists say they will be significantly more energy efficient than either incandenscents or fluorescents.
Jerry Simmons is the head of the LED research team at Sandia National Lab in New Mexico. He says if the new technology penetrates half the entire lighting market within the next 15 years, it could greatly reduce total energy consumption.
SIMMONS: It’s equivalent to about 20 billion dollars a year in electrical rate charges. It’s the same amount of energy that’s used by all the homes in the states of California, Oregon and Washington.
GRABER: Color Kinetics is a Boston-based company designing creative uses for LEDs. An engineer types a few clicks at a keyboard and lights up pinpoints of red, green, and blue LEDs contained in a dozen four-foot-long plastic tubes. The color of light in the tube depends on how many LEDs are lit and in what combination. Kevin Dowling is Vice President of Strategy and Technology.
DOWLING: Our lights can produce 16.7 million colors. Although it sounds like a really big number, unfortunately humans can’t actually discern that many colors, but the richness and saturation of the colors produces colors that are far more varied than almost anything else you see.
GRABER: The colors are mesmerizing. They glow as they change smoothly from yellow to magenta to turquoise to kelly green. Color Kinetics has used LEDs to design lighting displays for store signs, architectural lighting, sets for rock performances, even a bridge in Philadelphia.
DOWLING: There is a sensor at one end. When the train passes over the bridge, the lights actually chase the train. We’ve done other applications where as you walk by a wall, the wall starts to glow in just phenomenal applications that we have not even begun to dream of.
GRABER: Color Kinetics is also selling light bulbs at art supply stores that change colors and effects with the push of a button.
LEDs have other practical uses, such as lighting heat sensitive material like food, or archival documents, because the fixture remains at room temperature. At a larger scale, LEDs are already taking over in applications such as traffic lights. As Jerry Simmons of Sandia National Lab points out, there is a tremendous loss of energy when a white incandescent bulb is covered with a red filter.
SIMMONS: So you would throw away all the light produced by that bulb, except for the red. With LEDs that are already producing only red, you don’t have to throw any of the light away. So LEDs are ten times more energy efficient than the old incandescent traffic lights.
GRABER: And because LEDs are rugged and can last ten times longer than incandescents, they don’t need to be changed as often. But while color LEDs have had a couple decades of research behind them, the substance used to create white light was discovered only six years ago. The next big challenge is to develop a more efficient, brighter white for residential and retail markets. Right now, white LEDs are only twice as energy efficient as incandescents. They’re also very expensive. But researchers believe they can create white LEDs that are ten times as efficient, and one thousand times as long-lasting, making them cost effective, as well.
Glenn Zorpette is executive editor of Spectrum, a technology magazine for the engineering industry. He says the real signal of the potential of LEDs is the investment by the lighting industry.
ZORPETTE: When you have the established giants, in this case General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania all pumping significant quantities of money, of research funding into LED research, something is definitely happening. It would really seem that they see this as an important contributor to lighting in the future.
GRABER: The federal government is also developing millions of dollars to LED research and it’s considering a new research initiative that will allot 50 million dollars per year over the next ten years to make widespread use of light emitting diodes a reality. For Living on Earth, I’m Cynthia Graber.
(The tape of Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham was provided by Johnson Controls, cosponsor with the United States Energy Association of the 13th
annual Energy Efficiency Forum held June, 2002.)
CURWOOD: Worldwide, there are an estimated two billion people who don’t have access to lights. Their use of conventional lamps would require the construction of hundreds of new power plants. But one scientist in Calgary believes light emitting diodes can provide a far more efficient alternative. Dave Irvine-Halliday recently won the Rolex Award for Enterprise for bringing LED light to the developing world. He says the inspiration for the project came while he was hiking through Nepal.
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: There was a wee schoolhouse and I heard these children singing in the schoolhouse. So when I got down there, I popped my head in the window, which, of course, had no glass. And not only were there no children actually inside the school, but there were no tables, chairs, or teacher. And when I popped my head back out of the window, I noticed there was a lovely hand-painted sign above this window and it said ‘To you travelers, our children don’t have any regular teachers, and if you’d like to kind of stay around for a couple of days and help our children, we would really appreciate it.’
I think at that moment, everything sort of came together. Because when I poked my head in the window, my first thought was how dark it was. I don’t know. I honestly do not know why the thought suddenly struck me “Is there anything that I could do as a photonics engineer to bring light to these folk, at least help the children with their education?’
CURWOOD: Now why did you choose light-emitting diodes?
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: It just kind of struck me that if we were to produce light that was affordable and reliable and rugged, and also using very, very low power, we couldn’t go along the standard routes, in other words incandescent bulbs, or even the much more efficient compact fluorescent lights. And because I deal with diodes basically every day of my life, though it’s in kind of fiber optics, for some reason the thought just occurred to me ‘Well, why don’t we try LEDs?’
CURWOOD: Now, why not use compact fluorescents in these villages? Don’t they compare more favorably in efficiency to a white light light emitting diode?
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: I gave compact fluorescents a really deep look, but came to the conclusion that there was still approximately a ten to one difference in the amount of power or energy that I would need in order to light up a home to a useful level. This "useful,” the term "useful," I had to kind of find out myself. And when you find out how a light emitting diode actually emits its light, it emits it as a cone. You can actually direct it very efficiently to where you actually need the light to be, as opposed to lighting up the walls and the ceiling and the corners of the home. In a nutshell, the bottom line is you can light up a home to a very useful degree in the developing world, with a single watt of power. It’s a bit more difficult to do that with a compact fluorescent. It just came down to the energy requirements, plus the reliability, and the fact that LEDs live for literally decades.
CURWOOD: Wait a second, let me get this right. One watt of electricity is all you need to light up, say – effectively, that is – light up a single room where someone might want to read and work and live and cook?
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: When we realized you could read a book quite easily, even for eyes my age with point one of a watt, when you slap nine of these together and give yourself basically a one watt lamp – that was the original design – suddenly we could light up a, when I say a wee room, I mean a room maybe, you know, 10 by 10, or 10 by 14 feet.
CURWOOD: What are the power sources that you’ve been using for these lights? If it only takes a watt, how do you get that one watt?
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: We’ve done it in three ways. The first method was what we called the pedal generator. That pedal generator, which kind of pumped out effectively around 40 watts or whatever, it would charge up five of these small 12-volt batteries simultaneously.
The second method we used was very small hydropower. Thirdly, which is probably the way that we’re going to use mostly in the future, is good old solar power, solar photovoltaic cells.
CURWOOD: What stories have you been told? What have people told you about how all of this has affected their lives?
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: I think the first quote that really made a difference to me – in fact, when I say make a difference, it’s the kind of thing that it kind of chokes you up, there is no question about that. And that is when I was sitting chatting to a villager in the very first village that we lit, and this fellow turned to me and said a friend of his from another village had come up to see the lights. His friend had kind of remarked ‘A foreigner has come and made Tulapokera [phonetic] – that’s the name of the village – has made Tulapokera heaven.’ And it was such a simple, kind of right from the heart statement, that I couldn’t speak for a couple of minutes while I kind of absorbed it.
I think one of the other ones that has meant an awful lot to me and my colleagues was in Sri Lanka, and we just lit our first village there. It was actually about one o’clock in the morning, we happened to have been out visiting people. We were coming back through the jungle and we saw this light, and we recognized it immediately as one of ours. So we went over, and the father was still up. He opened the door and showed us the children who were all kind of lying on a mat on the floor. And he said ‘This is the first night in the entire life of all my five children that they’ve been able to read at night.’ It’s that kind of thing that, as I say, it kind of reduces you to tears almost, but if you ever needed a reason, which we don’t, that certainly gives you it.
CURWOOD: David Irvine-Halliday is director of the Light Up the World Foundation. He recently received the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work to bring light to developing countries. Thanks for speaking with me today.
IRVINE-HALLIDAY: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: For more information on light emitting diodes, go to our website. loe.org. That’s loe.org. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Don Gurnett teaches physics at the University of Iowa. He spent 40 years collecting distant clicks, hums, and whispers from outer space.
[WHISTLING SOUNDS UP AND UNDER]
GURNETT: We just heard a recording of what’s called "Dawn Chorus" which is a plasma wave that’s generated in the earth’s radiation belt that consists of energetic electrons, and these electrons sort of spontaneously get together, and you get these whistling tones.
CURWOOD: Now Professor Gurnett and composer Terry Riley have set these sounds to music.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: The Cosmos and the Kronos Quartet perform together a ten movement work called "Sun Rings."
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: Professor Gurnett, what are the sounds from space that we’re hearing in this movement called "Venus Upstream?”
GURNETT: Well, Venus has some very peculiar sounds. When we went by Venus with the Galileo spacecraft, you could hear these rather high frequency, very short kind of notes, and I could hear that in the background there.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: Let’s listen now to "Planet Elf Sindoori.”
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: I can hear a pretty strong influence from the Orient in this piece. What sounds from space appear in this movement?
GURNETT: Well, the kind of rhythmic thing in the background, I recognize that as another instrument on the Voyager spacecraft that makes an interfering noise, you know, that kind of ‘bong’ type thing.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: What is it about these sounds that make them particularly good material for music?
GURNETT: In space it seems that there are all kinds of things that have a musical aspect to it. It varies from whistling tones which go (whistles) like that, various tones with sometimes harmonics like a musical scale. That’s one of the amazing things about space is it just has so much variety.
CURWOOD: Don Gurnett is a physicist and professor at the University of Iowa. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
GURNETT: Oh, you’re welcome.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CURWOOD: Just ahead, little Rhode Island versus the giant paint industry. The first jury in the case decides not to decide. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Jennifer Chu.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CHU: Lost hikers will soon have an electronic alternative to the emergency signal flare. For the past 20 years, satellite technology has been used to search for downed planes and marooned vessels. Now for the first time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is making this technology available to the average adventurer.
The Personal Locator Beacon is designed as a small handheld device, about the size of a cell phone. In case of trouble, flip the cover up, pull the red tag, and send a radio signal to one of four orbiting satellites, which can pinpoint your beacon to within a mile of its rotation.
The satellite then transmits the distress call to a mission control center in Maryland where computers route the call to the nearest search and rescue team. The whole process could take between one to two hours; from the time a hiker sends a distress call out, to the time a rescue team comes in.
NOAA officials are working on a model that would include a return signal to let hikers know the distress call has been received and that a rescue team is on its way. Personal Locator Beacons will be available in sporting good stores this coming summer. That’s this week’s Technology Note. I’m Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: DJ Cam “Friends and Enemies” BACK TO MINE (Ultra, 2001)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, almost 900,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of one and five have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Exposure to lead can cause neurological and behavioral problems that have been linked to increased school dropout and crime rates. And much of that exposure can be traced to deteriorating housing in which children ingest lead dust.
Lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978, but now the state of Rhode Island has taken paint makers to court. The case could set national precedent on corporate responsibility, the same way tobacco litigation did. But the first phase of the suit has ended in a mistrial. Peter Lord, an environmental writer with the The Providence Journal, is covering the trial. Peter, what is Rhode Island seeking in this massive suit?
LORD: Well, they wanted to get the paint companies to help pay for cleaning up the lead paint that was used two generations ago. Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse announced when he filed this lawsuit two years ago, he said “Everyone is paying for this, except the people who created the problem. The federal government is paying. The local governments are paying. Landlords are paying.” So he filed a suit against the paint companies. He tried a new strategy. They’ve been sued dozens of other times, but he filed a public nuisance suit which is different, and he thought it might be easier to prove. And basically, a jury was asked to answer one question – “Does the presence of lead paint in paint and coatings on houses, schools, hospitals and other public and private buildings throughout the state of Rhode Island constitute a public nuisance?” A simple yes or no.
And he had arrayed a team of lawyers to try this case that was impressive. He had the Ness, Motley law firm that won the tobacco law suits. He had Len Decof who is kind of the dean of Rhode Island trial lawyers, and he had his own assistant attorney generals. So, it was an impressive array of arguments and talent that brought this case forward in this way and captured national attention.
CURWOOD: So, this trial lasted what, some seven weeks? The jury was out for four days of deliberation and then came back and told the judge they couldn’t reach a verdict. Why did this case end in a mistrial, in a deadlock?
LORD: Well, we have some information about that. We talked to the jury foreman, and the jurors themselves talked briefly with the lawyers. The jury foreman said the biggest issue to the opponents was the state’s argument was that there was lead paint in houses, schools, hospitals, and other public and private buildings that was creating a public nuisance.
But the very last thing the jury heard before they went into deliberations was the defense submit paperwork in which the state confessed that it couldn’t prove that any single kid was poisoned in a hospital, school, or public building. That was the last thing they heard.
And the state says that was a trick question. Because the way screening is done, the state never checks hospitals, schools or public buildings. So they sort of got backed into a corner. They were trying to argue it’s a public nuisance. They said “We’ve got 35,000 poisoned kids, 30,000 high risk houses, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a public nuisance. It should have taken the jury two hours to find that.” But the more days the deliberations went on, the more obvious it was that there was a problem. And, in the end, there were four jurors for the paint companies and only two for the state.
CURWOOD: What happens now, Peter?
LORD: Each site has ten days to file briefs asking the judge to, basically, come out with a summary judgment, to rule as a matter of law that one side or another was correct. That’s a long shot. Judges rarely do that. So, also what’s going on is the state is preparing to start another trial. They’re going to ask the judge to let them start this as soon as possible.
CURWOOD: Well, if the state couldn’t get a jury to go along with them in this most recent trial, why would the state expect that another jury would have a different outcome?
LORD: Well, that’s the interesting thing. That’s why they went and talked to the jurors, to figure out what impressions struck them and what didn’t. So they’re going to reconfigure their trial. I’m quite sure it’s not going to be the same as the case they presented this time. I don’t know what it’s going to look like though, because there were a lot of legal limitations on the evidence they could present.
But one thing that was obvious was the kids weren’t part of this trial at all. I mean, the victims are children, and yet this was a trial of experts; there were doctors, and scientists, and economists, and chemists, and there were no mothers, no children. There wasn’t really the human side of this, which is so much more compelling than the chemical side.
CURWOOD: Peter Lord is an environment writer for The Providence Journal. Thanks for filling us in Peter.
LORD: You’re welcome.
CURWOOD: Before the federal government revises or establishes a new public health or science policy, experts will often weigh in on the issue, assessing the current data and recommending changes.
That was the case eleven years ago when the issue was children’s lead poisoning. At that time, a panel assembled by the Centers for Disease Control recommended lowering the acceptable limit of lead found in a child’s blood. Now as the CDC moves to examine the question of whether that blood level standard should be lowered again, the makeup of the current panel is coming under fire. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.
TOOMEY: In the past, when terms of committee members were about to expire, the Centers for Disease Control would submit a list of nominees to its parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services. And then those names were rubber stamped by HHS. But recently that wasn’t the case when three of six nominees were rejected.
LANPHEAR: I was called by a colleague at CDC who essentially said that Tommy Thompson’s office had not approved our nomination, and instead had put forward their own names.
TOOMEY: Bruce Lanphear’s nomination was one of those rejected by HHS, headed up by Secretary Tommy Thompson. Dr. Lanphear is a leading lead researcher who has done work on the effects of low concentrations of lead on such things as children’s math and reading ability. Dr. Lanphear says the new makeup of the committee moves it away from its primary mission of protecting children’s health.
LANPHEAR: Historically, the nominees and the members of this committee have always had expertise in childhood lead exposure; whether that has to do with treatment, or management, or control. This is clearly a shift away from that.
TOOMEY: One of the administration’s nominees was a toxicologist with a corporate consulting firm whose clients include a company involved in a lead Superfund dispute, and DuPont, a defendant in the Rhode Island law suit. She has since pulled her name of out of the running.
Dr. Lanphear suspects his nomination was rejected because he believes that lead concentrations below the current CDC minimum level of concern cause neurological problems. It’s an issue about to be analyzed by the advisory committee. The outcome of that debate will have financial implications for industries, for example, that are held liable for lead Superfund sites. Dr. Lanphear and other critics, including some Democratic members of Congress, say the lead industry presented HHS with a so-called “wish list”’ The Department of Health and Human Services declined a taped interview, but a spokesperson said their nominees are all well-qualified and chosen in order to obtain a spectrum of viewpoints, as well as ethnic and gender diversity.
Another nomination that has generated criticism is that of pediatrician and toxicologist William Banner. He’s the medical director at the Children’s Hospital at St. Francis in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has been criticized for his role in the Rhode Island lead lawsuit. He gave a deposition in that case which was paid for by the paint manufacturers that were the defendants. Dr. Banner testified that studies have not proven that lead concentrations at or above the current minimum level of concern cause learning disabilities or declines in intelligence.
BANNER: There are studies that find statistical interactions, and there are ones that do not. And even now, I think when you look at the difference in these studies, it’s whether there is zero percent effect, or something like three percent of the variance. I think that we need to put that into a public health perspective.
TOOMEY: Dr. Banner says his deposition payment amounted to a tiny fragment of his overall salary. And if this represents a conflict of interest, he says, some of his critics may have one of their own if their careers depend on continuing lead research.
BANNER: If lead disappeared from the periodic table tomorrow, whose careers would be altered? Mine certainly would not be.
TOOMEY: While the Department of Health and Human Services may have rejected some nominations, two of those people will have some say in the direction of the committee. The panel has appointed Dr. Lanphear and another rejected nominee to serve on working groups for the committee. For Living on Earth, I’m Diane Toomey.
CURWOOD: Up until the 1950s, if you wanted a clean and bright environment to show off your home, pure white lead was the paint of choice and the Little Dutch Boy was its poster child. The lead industry touted its paints as healthy and safe, and spent millions to cement that image in consumers’ minds, even though lead paint had been banned from homes in Europe in the 1920s. And authors David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz say that for decades paint manufacturers had full knowledge of lead’s harmful effects on children. Their new book is “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.” In it, Markowitz and Rosner uncover numerous industry documents that reveal a deliberate campaign to repaint the image of lead paint. David Rosner joins me now from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Mr. Rosner, welcome to Living on Earth.
ROSNER: Thank you very much. It’s nice to be here.
CURWOOD: Tell me, when was lead poisoning first documented in children?
ROSNER: Well, in children it really began to be documented at the turn of the 20th century. In about 1904, Australian researchers began to notice children who were dying from classic symptoms of industrial lead poisoning, and they began to document death after death, and they identified railings of homes, and walls of rooms, and painted surfaces in the house as the major source of the lead for the children.
And so in the United States, they began also to identify the woodwork, and toys, and cribs that were painted with white lead, what was called white lead, as the source of this poisoning, so it was fairly dramatic. And the children were convulsing, were squirming around on the floor, they lost their eyesight. They ultimately died horribly, horribly terrible deaths. It’s a dismal history.
CURWOOD: In the course of your research, what did you find to be the strongest piece of evidence showing the lead industry knew exactly what their product was doing to children, that it was harmful to children?
ROSNER: Well, literally, from the first moments of the organization of the Lead Industries Association, discussions about lead poisoning among children are, you know, very, very significant. They literally discuss in their meetings that lead poisoning is becoming prevalent, and they began to develop a campaign that literally tries to minimize the danger by saying that these are children who are relatively few in number, and the ones that are damaged are generally kids who are not being supervised by their parents, or, alternatively, have a disease called pica, which is a craving for non-food substances.
CURWOOD: How did the lead industry choose to handle the growing problem of childhood lead poisoning?
ROSNER: Well, one was to ignore it and to focus the public’s attention on industrial lead poisoning that they believed could become, that was something they could handle. The second way was literally publicizing the healthful and sanitary qualities of lead, rather than the dangerous and noxious qualities of lead.
In the 1920s there began a campaign that they called “Catering to the Children” in which they would advertise and promote lead as an essential ingredient in the modern household.
In the 1950s and 1960s the industry will promote the idea that the dangers from lead are only for those children who are living in slums, and who are being raised by what they call – and these are words that they use – ineducable Hispanic and Negro families. So, you start seeing the kind of defense of the industry becoming “It’s not our fault. It’s not that we did anything wrong. It’s just the fact that families, largely poor families living in slums, are irresponsible in that they don’t keep their houses clean, they don’t clean up. And hence, it’s not really our problem so much as the problems of the landlord later, and the parents in the first case.”
CURWOOD: Now, the lead industry used advertising to a great extent, but what other avenues did they follow to try to build public confidence in lead?
ROSNER: Well, they would sometimes visit doctors who were reporting on lead cases and tell them that they were not really seeing it, or challenge their clinical abilities. Sometimes they’d actually visit clinicians who wrote about lead poisoning and would threaten them.
One very famous case is the case of Randolph Byers, who was a researcher at Harvard, who wrote an article in 1943 talking about the long-term effects of lead poisoning on children, and pointing out that lead poisoned children, even after they were detoxified, or the lead was taken out of their bodies, were permanently damaged, and that it caused problems in reading, perceptual problems, et cetera. And his argument gained a lot of national attention in Time magazine.
And in his memoirs, he talks about his confrontation with the industry; that when he published that article the Lead Association and its lawyers descended upon him in Boston and, essentially, threatened him with lawsuits. So you can see that not only were there benign attempts at promoting lead, but there are also less benign, and actually malignant attempts of intimidating researchers.
CURWOOD: From the lead industry’s own records, what efforts did they make themselves to document the danger of lead to children?
ROSNER: Very little. In fact, from 1928 through the 1950s, the issue of lead poisoning’s effect on young children was buried. So the industry really didn’t do anything until the 1950s. So in the 1950s, the gentleman I talked about before, Randolph Byers, following that infamous meeting when he saw himself as being threatened by lawsuits, he was actually given a grant by the industry, and for the next ten years he published no more than two articles, both of which did not really ever address again the severity of the lead poisoning problem in children. So clearly the industry was intent on, in some sense, capturing the loyalty of the researchers who were doing work.
CURWOOD: What was the turning point in the lead paint saga in the United States?
ROSNER: Certainly, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was absolutely critical in making lead paint poisoning a really public issue. You had all sorts of groups throughout the nation that began to see lead paint poisoning in poor people’s communities as another symptom of the exploitation of those communities and the oppression of those communities. So that’s very critical.
The other part of it is that you start developing a whole cadre of researchers who were independent of the lead industry in the 1960s. So this whole generation of researchers all began to look for lower and lower levels, and see that lead, at even lower levels, is beginning to affect children. And this was a really important turning point, when suddenly the world of lead poisoning changed from being seen as only a problem for those kids who were convulsing, and dying, and having horrible, horrible seizures, to children who were all around, and children who were exposed to much lower levels of lead.
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CURWOOD: David Rosner is professor of history and public health at Columbia University, and co-author of the book “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.” Thanks for taking this time to talk with me today.
ROSNER: Thank you very much.
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CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Next week, California starts to phase out the dry cleaning chemical known as perc. Mom and Pop cleaners say the move may put them out of business, but others say perc is a hazard.
MAN: There are so many problems with kidney, your liver, skin problems, getting headaches. You don’t realize. You don’t realize right away, but after a while you will find out.
CURWOOD: Getting the perc out, next time on Living on Earth. And don’t forget that between now and then you can hear us any time and get the stories behind the news by going to loe.org. That’s loe.org.
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CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a mix of insects, birds and lemurs that inhabit a spiny desert region in southern Madagascar. This composition by Douglas Quin is from his CD "Forest, a Book of Hours."
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum and Maggie Villiger, along with Al Avery, Susan Shepherd and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Andrew Strickler and Nicole Giese. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art, courtesy of EarthEar.
CURWOOD: Our technical director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. 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.
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