National Security and Climate Change
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Military experts are concerned about the effects of global warming on national security. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, a retired Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, about some of the threats our nation may be facing in a changing climate. (05:00)
The Great Turtle Race
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The leatherback turtle is quickly approaching extinction. Now, scientists, conservationists and big business have come together to support the first Great Turtle Race to raise money and awareness about the plight of the leatherback. Host Steve Curwood talks with George Shillinger, a PhD candidate at Stanford University who came up with the idea for the race, and Johnny Glidden, a nine year old leatherback turtle enthusiast. (06:00)
Reporting on the Environment
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Barely a day goes by without a story on global warming or other environmental issues popping up on the news. But it wasn’t long ago that reporters had to fight to cover environmental stories for their media outlets. As part of our Earth Day coverage, Living on Earth looks at the state of environmental journalism today. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dan Fagin, director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environment Reporting program and former Newsday reporter, Chip Giller, founder of the online environmental news journal Grist.org, and Judy Muller, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and former ABC News reporter. (13:15)
Emerging Science Note/Nanogeneration/ Paige Doughty
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Paige Doughty reports on a big development in an industry focused on the tiny. (01:30)
Squirrel Subdivision/ Verlyn Klinkenborg
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An empty lot across from the local Donut & Burger in southern California is the surprising habitat of a colony of ground squirrels. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg muses on the squirrels’ adaptation to city living. (03:30)
Mothers' Milk: A Modern Dilemma/ Andrea DeLeon
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Nature's perfect food, breast milk, helps growing infants develop resilient immune systems. But along with the welcome antibodies are the persistent toxins mother may have ingested in her lifetime, which are stored in her fatty tissue and passed on to her baby. In 1996 reporter Andrea DeLeon was the nursing mother of a newborn. Her story on the toxins in breast milk won an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Living on Earth re-airs the story and talks with Dr. Linda Birnbaum, head of the Experimental Toxicology Division at the EPA, for an update on what’s in mother’s milk today. (17:20)
HOST: Steve Curwood
GUEST: Dennis McGinn, Johnny Glidden, George Schillinger, Dan Fagin, Chip Giller, Judy Muller, Dr. Linda Birnbaum
REPORTER: Andrea DeLeon
SCIENCE NOTE: Paige Doughty
COMMENTATOR: Verlyn Klinkenborg
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Military experts are voicing growing concern over global warming. They say the US needs to be better prepared to respond to climate-driven conflicts and humanitarian disasters.
Also, this Earth Week, it’s the great leatherback turtle race! Scientists and school kids are tracking migrating pacific leatherbacks to draw attention to the ancient turtle… why?
GLIDDEN: One, it’s the biggest, two, it’s so graceful and looks so nice, and third, it’s the most endangered. And since it’s the most endangered, I thought I should go to it first, since we don’t want it to become extinct, just they need me.
CURWOOD: The Great Leatherback Turtle race and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
Earth Day began back in 1970 as a massive rally during a time of great polarization over the War in Vietnam. The public had been fired up in part by the flames on Cleveland’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River. This year Earth Day finds a public deeply divided over another war, this time the one in Iraq, and once again there is much concern about the environment, now focused on global warming.
What to do next is It’s now a matter of intense debate within the UN Security Council, the US Congress and the national security establishment. Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, recently appeared before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, and joins me now.
MCGINN: Hello Steve. It’s great to be with you today.
CURWOOD: So why are bodies like the UN Security Council and the United States military interested in the effects of climate change?
MCGINN: I think if we look in the past slightly we’ll get a sense of what we could be facing in the future. You recall the terrible aftermath of the tsunami in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, Thailand, India. It was a major humanitarian assistance disaster relief exercise for multinational forces but led by the United States. So the effects of weather on populations, on human health and on, if you will, stability are well documented throughout our previous history. The problem that global warming poses, or the challenge I should say, is that there’ll be increasing likelihood of those natural disasters and the natural disasters could become more chronic rather than acute.
CURWOOD: So could you please rank climate change, global warming relative to other threats. For example how does it compare in importance to say terrorism or a rogue nation getting a nuclear weapon?
CURWOOD: Let’s look at the military side of this for a moment. From a purely military perspective how do we need to be prepared to respond differently given the threats posed now by global warming?
MCGINN: I think we’re going to see more demand for military capabilities to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenarios. That is complicated by the fact that in many cases it isn’t simply people suffering as a result of natural disaster. It can be a combination of natural disaster and unrest in a particular country or region of the world.
CURWOOD: There’s been a lot of attention to this suddenly and growing at the UN, Congress, the latest report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change and you folks at the National Security establishment. How soon do you see these concerns really starting to settle into our national security agenda and how are we going to turn this battleship around towards the new threats or I should say perhaps carrier because battleships, I guess, aren’t around very much these days.
MCGINN: They aren’t. The carrier, ah, metaphor will do just fine Steve. I think it has already started. The rudder is over. It’s not over full but it’s over ten degrees in the right direction. At a hearing by the Select Panel on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Chairman Markey called for the conduct of the nation intelligence estimate. This is the format, if you will, for significant in-depth studies of potential threats to our national security and I’m absolutely certain that the national security establishment will conduct a national intelligence estimate. This could be the, ah, start of some significant policy reviews by the military and by our entire national security establishment including the State Department and the diplomatic sphere.
CURWOOD: Optimist on this Admiral or are you pessimistic today?
MCGINN: I am optimistic. I believe that action begins with awareness. I think the awareness is growing. I think that we have ability in this country to rise to any number of challenges just as we have in the past. In Apollo project, let’s get a man to the moon within this decade. Clarion call by John Kennedy in 1961. Manhattan project or perhaps even a better analogy that Tom Friedman has used is the New Deal in which people at every level of American Society in the midst of the dark days of the economic depression were able to do something that helped bring the nation out of that tough time and led to continued success through World War II and beyond.
CURWOOD: Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn is senior vice president and general manager of the Energy, Transportation, and Environment Division at the Battelle Memorial Institute. He recently testified in front of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
[MUSIC: United States Military Academy Band “Drum Salute (Drum Cadence)” from ‘West Point On The March’ (Altissimo! – 2007)]
[CROWD SOUNDS, BUGLE]
CURWOOD: And they’re off!
[MUSIC: Mathew H. Phillips & His Circus Band “Steeplechase” from ‘Thoroughbred Thunder’ (Albany Records - 1998)]
- Center for Naval Analysis National Security and the Threat of Climate Change
- United Nations Security Council
- House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on Sourcewatch.org
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
CURWOOD: Sometimes Earth Day celebrations can take on the ambience of a county fair, and this year do we have a race for you! No, it’s not a harness race or even cute baby pigs chasing Oreos. This week, it’s the Great Leatherback Turtle Race. On April 16th, (the same day as the Boston Marathon) eleven massive leatherbacks set off from their nesting beach on the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica for their favored feeding grounds near the Galapagos Islands. The turtles have each been outfitted with satellite tracking tags. Scientists are watching, of course, but these ancient and endangered beasts also have their own sponsors and cheering sections. Stanford graduate student George Shillinger came up with the idea for the race and joins us now from Pacific Grove, California.
Hello, welcome to Living on Earth!
SHILLINGER: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.
CURWOOD: And also joining us today is Johnny Glidden. Johnny attends the Hillside Elementary School in Closter, NJ. Johnny welcome to Living on Earth.
GLIDDEN: Thanks for inviting me over. This is really fun.
CURWOOD: Now Johnny I’ve met a couple leatherback turtles but I wonder if you could describe one for me?
GLIDDEN: Well, they are the biggest sea turtles and they do weigh a lot. They don’t live as long as the smaller turtles but they are very graceful and if you can see a mother laying her nest she is just driven to do it. And then they become into a trance where they just don’t stop laying eggs. So they don’t mind if someone will put a tracking device on.
CURWOOD: Now when you say big Johnny, how big is big? Is this like as big as a car or something?
GLIDDEN: Well sometimes yes. But usually about the size of half an SUV or something like that.
CURWOOD: And how long have these creatures been around, George Schillinger?
SHILLINGER: Leatherbacks have been around for about 100 million years.
CURWOOD: And how are they doing today?
SHILLINGER: They are in pretty dire shape. They’re considered critically endangered. Their populations have declined in the eastern Pacific by upwards of 95 percent in the last twenty years and in the western Pacific levels of around 90 percent or so.
CURWOOD: All right well listen. I want to get onto this race now. The race has started. These turtles are going from off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica towards the Galapagos. So, ah, Johnny, which of these turtles is your favorite in this race?
GLIDDEN: Well, I have a couple favorites but I don’t think I should say them on the radio.
CURWOOD: All right. We’ll let you keep your cards close to your chest. George can you tell us where you’re going to put your money down on this race?
SHILLINGER: Well let’s see. They’re all my favorites but I’m a big fan of Stephanie Colburtle the turtle and I really like Wendy and Billy. You know there are a couple really special turtles in this race as well. There’s the Bullis Charter School turtle, the New York Life Sciences Secondary School turtle and the Drexel turtle. And I love that these kids have gotten together and have turtles representing those institutions.
CURWOOD: You have quite an assortment of turtles in this race but there is one here that has I think has a great name for a turtle and that’s Perseverance. Tell me about this turtle Johnny.
GLIDDEN: Well, she’s the first leatherback I ever saw. I named her Perseverance because she went onto the beach and she tried to lay in a nest and three times the nest collapsed. And then it looked like she was going to go back to the ocean and another turtle came up and Perseverance then tried to dig a fourth nest, which then she got to deposit her eggs in and she then left after closing up her nest and throwing sand all over to camouflage it and um that’s why I named her Perseverance.
SHILLINGER: Well truthfully, probably one their biggest challenges in years past is just getting out of the starting gate. And the beach where we work in Costa Rica, Playa Grande, is the last viable nesting beach for leatherbacks in the Pacific coast of the western hemisphere of the Americas. But once they get out of the gate they face a gauntlet of longlines and gillnets, both inshore and offshore. They face targeted hunting in certain places and they face problems with ingestion of plastics.
CURWOOD: Now Johnny, how is it that you came to care so much about the leatherback? Why is the leatherback your turtle?
GLIDDEN: Well one it’s the biggest. Two, it’s so graceful and looks so nice, and third it’s the most endangered. And since it’s the most endangered I thought I should go to it first because we don’t want it to become extinct. And just they need me.
CURWOOD: Some people listening to us will say Johnny you’ve already picked your career. That in ten or 20 or 30 years from today you’re going to be known as one of the worlds most important turtle scientists. What do you think?
GLIDDEN: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to be, how popular I’m going to be, but I know I’m going to keep on working with the turtles and just I love them. I hope I can swim with them more. I just want to keep on protecting them.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for taking this time. Johnny Glidden attends Hillside Elementary School in Closter, New Jersey. Johnny thanks so much.
GLIDDEN: Thank you for inviting me.
CURWOOD: And George Schillinger is a doctoral student at Stanford’s Block Laboratory studying migratory predators. Thank you so much George.
SHILLINGER: Thank you very much for having Johnny and me.
CURWOOD: Johnny, do you have a cheer for turtles for us here?
GLIDDEN: Well, all I want to say is go leatherbacks!
[MUSIC: Phil Leadbetter “Happy Together (Instrumental)” from ‘Philibuster’ (Rounder – 1999)]
CURWOOD: And you can choose your own favorite for the Great Leatherback Turtle Race… go to a link on our website loe.org.
CURWOOD: Coming up: an Earth Day look at the state of environmental journalism.
That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Spacemen 3 “Transparent Radiation (Long)” from ‘Mind Expansion Compilation’ (Mind Expansion - 2006)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If the environment has a voice, it’s the writers and journalists who cover it. Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson have been some of most eloquent voices. But mostly it’s been left up to journalists with a deadline to meet and an editor to convince that have brought us these stories. And the editors haven’t always been interested. These days, though with the news media suddenly hot on the story of global warming and its related issues, environmental reporting is once again at the top of the news. So this Earth Day we decided to take a look at the state of environmental journalism, with three leading journalists.
Joining us from New York is Dan Fagin. He directs the Science, Health and Environment reporting program at New York University and was a longtime reporter at Newsday. He’s also a former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Hi there, Dan.
FAGIN: Hi Steve.
CURWOOD: Also with us is Chip Giller. He’s the president and founder of Grist dot org, which is an online journal of environmental news and commentary, and he joins us from Seattle. Hey, Chip.
GILLER: So glad to be here, Steve.
CURWOOD: And in Los Angeles is Judy Muller. She’s a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC and until recently a long-time correspondent at ABC News. Hi there, Judy.
MULLER: Hi, Steve
CURWOOD: So environmental reporting has gone through a lot of periods of boom and bust coverage from the Cuyahoga River fire up through Katrina. Climate change coverage right now is on the front page of almost every newspaper but tell me is the climate change story just one of those blips in the regular news cycle or does it feel like things have fundamentally changed? Let me start with you Dan Fagin.
FAGIN: Well, I would say that it’s a bit of both. Obviously we’re at a particularly high water shed right now for climate news for several reasons including a series of reports put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and especially the prominence of Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. But the climate issue is really much more than a blip because it is truly a transformative issue. It touches on so many things. So I think it is with us to stay although perhaps not quite at this level of interest.
CURWOOD: Judy Muller, you spend a lot of time at the television networks. What’s your take on how TV is handling climate change at this point?
MULLER: Well, it’s very hot right now of course for all the reasons Dan just mentioned. The problem is how do you keep the momentum going on such a major story. I mean it is so huge. What could be more important than the life of the planet? But you have a lot of people that are more interested in the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith. So you’ve got to see how can you keep a story that’s important going without sounding like just beating away at the same thing. Yes the polar bears are still threatened. Yes, you know. But I think when you get down to how this affects people in very real ways I think that’s the way to get at the story. And I think it will keep it on the front page.
CURWOOD: Now one of the things about it is it’s such an incremental story. I mean it’s moving; pardon the pun, at a glacial pace isn’t it?
MULLER: It is and network news hates that. Show us a picture. That’s why I mentioned the polar bears. When you show polar bears swimming desperately looking for an ice flow to land on, viewers get that. Editors get that in television. But when you’ve got the drip drip drip of a glacier that’s not quite as compelling. And it takes some very creative reporting to tell the story and that’s why I think the internet is going to be such a huge advantage for telling this story because you have such great interactive graphics and tools you can use.
CURWOOD: Chip Giller of course you put Grist online and everyone who comes there is already looking for an environmental story. How are you seeing the climate change stories?
GILLER: Ah, you know, to build on what the other two guests have already said, I believe the climate change story is one that touches on all facets of life. So it can be a business story. It can be a fashion story. It can relate to a food story. And what we at Grist are really trying to do is connect the environment to all facets of life. And so that’s one advantage I see of the climate change story and I don’t think it’s going to be leaving the front pages any time soon.
CURWOOD: So what do you do to come up with something fresh to avoid tiring out your viewers?
GILLER: Well at Grist we use humor. We say we’re gloom and doom with a sense of humor. Kind of a beacon in the smog. So we approach a lot of our information with a sense of irreverence. Um, for example, let me cite the official Grist haiku. It goes something like: a frog in water, doesn’t feel it boil in time. Dude we are that frog.
GILLER: And my point is, and this came to us from readers. We did a whole contest. And online we can be in touch with our audience all the time. We can ask them their impressions of environmental stories. How they’re relating to the different stories going on. So with online media it’s a much more participatory event than uh traditional journalism.
CURWOOD: But now who’s going to pay for the deep deep stories. Pulitzer Prize just recently announced Ken Weiss and his team from the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer, an explanatory Pulitzer for their series on the degradation of the oceans. But you know it costs a lot of money to do that kind of reporting. How can the online community afford that kind of research, Dan?
FAGIN: I think you’re right to be concerned about that Steve. I mean, I’ve seen little indication of true depth reporting online. There are many wonderful things that are happening on line in terms of reaching new audiences and finding interesting new ways to tell stories. I have not seen a lot of agenda-setting truly ambitious reporting online and it’s because the economic model is not there yet. There’s reason to be concerned about that.
CURWOOD: So you’re throwing out a challenge here. Chip, how do you respond?
GILLER: You know, on the contrary what you’re beginning to see right now, you know with the recent news this week that Home Depot is coming out with an eco-options label. You’re seeing Wal-Mart enter the space. The advertisers are going to enter this space. Hearst Media announced a big online environmental project that they’re launching. Washington Post Interactive is starting a whole green presence. So I think advertisers are going to begin to really pay attention to this green space. And where they’re going to pay attention to it is online. So I have hope for the business mode.
CURWOOD: Judy Muller?
MULLER: Yes, and I do too. And remember the LA Times story that just won the Pulitzer was a very big online venture as well. They had graphics, they had video. They teamed together to make it very very exciting. And a lot of the citizen reaction came to that, not the newspaper. And I know at ABC News dot com the editors of the news division take a look at how many hits the stories get and they’ll say we’ve got to do more follow-ups on television. So it’s almost turned around completely so I think that there’s a great opportunity for advertisers and other people to get into this act.
CURWOOD: Let’s turn now specifically to the question of science. Because whether you’re covering the oceans or climate change or pollution there’s a lot of science in the newsroom. And we saw for a long time newspapers, and research demonstrates this, inappropriately gave a lot of weight to scientists who said, “Oh no, no climate change is not a big deal.” When the basic laws of chemistry and physics told somebody that in fact you have to look at what’s happening to the earth’s energy budget. So how do you get smarter science at the editorial level for emerging stories? It’s fine if things are getting hits because the public wants it. But how do you get the science that is going to educate the public?
MULLER: Well, I’ll take a shot at that one. I think there has been a lot of cowardice on the part of editors in newsrooms in terms of, under the name of fair and balance, of taking a subject where clearly all the major scientists in the world were in agreement. This was no longer a debate of if, but when, and making it a debate of it. And putting on voices, giving equal weight to a preponderance of other people. And I think that that was a very big mistake and now everybody is trying to play catch up. And they waited for these major international reports to come out to give them some cajones if you will. I mean truly, I, I think that they were bad on this but I’m hoping that now they will now see that there is a real interest on the part of the public to say, “Well, what can we do and how can we help?”
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin?
FAGIN: I certainly don’t disagree with that. I mean this problem of what we call phony balance is endemic in journalism. This idea that if somebody says X you need to find somebody else to say negative X. And that’s certainly not reality. It’s not the way science works and it’s not the way we should try to figure out answers to these questions. I do think that I’m a little bit more optimistic on this front. I think that we do learn from our mistakes. And that the climate issue has been both illustrative of the problem and very educational in terms of showing reporters and more importantly editors, ah, of where we went wrong and what we can do better in the future.
CURWOOD: Now at Grist I imagine, Chip, that you don’t have trouble selling the climate change story. But rather you have perhaps some folks who think “Well this is an advocacy organization. This isn’t truly journalism.” How can you hit hard on a story like climate change where you have a strong point of view like this and be able to respond to that kind of criticism?
GILLER: For us with our journalism with everything that we do, we try to take a critical eye and our readers are skeptical consumers as well. So we aren’t dogmatic or prescriptive in our approach to news and information. But I think what you’re seeing with Grist is consistent with where the media is heading, um, over all. And that is you know, with the rise of the blogosphere with the shift of talent and resources to the online media space you’re basically seeing media with more of a personality, with more flavor, with more voice to it. And I think for journalism to continue to play an important role that’s just where things are headed.
CURWOOD: In your view, what’s the most under-covered environmental story out there right now?
MULLER: I believe that water is the most under-covered story. It’s covered in other ways, it’s part of climate change, it’s part of this, it’s part of that. But I think the next big conflict in this world may very well be fought over water. Where do we get it? How do we get it? Who gets it? Who goes without and what happens to them? I think it’s a huge story.
CURWOOD: Chip Giller?
GILLER: I think the ties between health concerns and the environment are only beginning to get adequate attention but they’re very significant. So if you look at folks like Pete Myers who are really researching these connections and Theo Colburn. I mean to some extent there are concerns that plastic might be this generation’s lead. It’s really an emerging field of science and um, the conclusions are just coming in. But chemicals, plastics, they really are affecting, um, very basic systems in the human body- reproductive systems, the endocrine system. This is a complex story, like the climate change story, but again you can bring it back to everyday life.
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin in your view what’s the most under-covered environmental news story out there right now?
FAGIN: Well, if you’ll permit me I think I’d call it a tie. I certainly agree with Chip that the environmental health story has, is not getting nearly the amount of attention that it deserves and that’s not just because that’s been my life’s work is writing about environmental health connections. In fact I think we’ve seen some back sliding on environmental health, that it’s getting less attention now than perhaps it did 10, 15, 20 years ago. And perhaps that’s starting to change and that’s for the good. But the other issue that I think is drastically under-covered because people don’t really recognize it is what we put under the broad term biodiversity loss.
And that is whether we recognize it or not every place in the world is starting to resemble every other place. You know we’re turning this polychromatic world into monochrome. Ah, and that relates not only to the diversity of plants and animals. It relates to our landscape. We’re really loosing our sense of place, our sense of uniqueness in this world and that is a profound environmental issue, just as profound as climate change. We’re homogenizing this world and we’re all going to be the poorer because of it.
CURWOOD: Dan Fagin directs the Science, Health and Environment reporting program at New York University and is a former environment reporter at Newsday, and former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Thanks, Dan
FAGIN: Good to be with you Steve.
CURWOOD: Chip Giller runs the online journal of environmental news and commentary Grist dot org. Thanks Chip
GILLER: Thanks so much Steve.
CURWOOD: And former ABC News correspondent Judy Muller is now at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Thanks Judy.
MULLER: Thank you
[MUSIC: El Ten Eleven “Lorge” from ‘El Ten Eleven’ (Bar/None Records – 2005)]
CURWOOD: You’ll find a link to the Society of Environmental Journalists and other resources on this topic at our web site, loe.org.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, colonizing the wastelands of Los Angeles. First this Note on Emerging Science from Paige Doughty.
[MUSIC: Franc Comstock “Out of This World” from Project Comstock: Music From Outer Space” (Mister Nobody – 1962]
DOUGHTY: Tiny devices that navigate the bloodstream to deliver medication have been the stuff of scientists' dreams at least since the days of the 60’s film Fantastic Voyage.
[Fantastic Voyage Excerpt Film Clip (20th Century Fox - 1966)]
But it’s not science fiction anymore. These days scientists can make devices as small as a billionth of a meter, or one nanometer, wide. But powering these "nanobots" remains a challenge.
Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology may have an answer. They've demonstrated a prototype nanogenerator.
Some possible applications include biosensors that use the flow of blood as power and animal monitoring devices that need no power other than the animal’s own movement.
So, while they can’t promise you a Fantastic Voyage through the human body in a miniaturized submarine just yet. The scientists do say we might be one nano-step closer to the real application of the tiny technology of the future.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Paige Doughty.
[MUSIC: Frank Comstock “Out Of This World” from Project Comstock: Music From Outer Space” (Mister Nobody – 1962)]
CURWOOD: Few species are as adaptable to different conditions as humans. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently encountered one of them in the wilds of Los Angeles.
KLINKENBORG: It was a blank noon on one of those southern California days that is like a shallow bowl filled with almost nothing, a day when the main event turns out to have been lunch at Donut & Burger. I ate in the truck with the windows down, looking at the vacant lot next door through a chain-link fence. The view seemed to say more than I wanted to hear about the kind of day this was turning out to be.
But the grass beyond the fence parted and a head poked up. Then more heads. The vacant lot wasn’t vacant at all. It was occupied by a prosperous colony of ground squirrels, Spermophilus beecheyi, named after the English explorer Sir Frederick William Beechey, who visited California in the HMS Blossom 180 years ago. I didn’t know about Sir Frederick at the time. I knew only that these were ground squirrels and that this vacant lot was a ground-squirrel subdivision and that I had just eaten a burger and a donut for lunch in the city of Pomona, California, which is named for a minor Roman goddess of tree fruits.
But you don’t have to read very much about Spermophilus beecheyi to realize that California ground squirrels are nearly human in their adaptability. And like all creatures, that are nearly human in their adaptability, humans consider them pests. Ground squirrels invade gardens and damage plants. They can carry bubonic plague. They destroy the eggs of ground-nesting birds. Their burrows can extend for dozens of feet. I found myself telling a new story. The ground squirrels in that vacant lot are colonists, opening new terrain to an expansionist species, developing the site before human developers can do so. Perhaps there is an archipelago of ground squirrels quietly shaping the earth to suit their needs. They watch the humans eating at Donut & Burger and know their time will come.
[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “Broken Arrow” from ‘Into The Blue Again’ (Sub Pop – 2006)]
CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg is an editorial writer for the New York Times. And is teaching writing this year at Pomona College in California.
CURWOOD: Coming up, mother’s milk in a toxic world. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation, and from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, celebrating the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize winners. Learn more about each winner at www.goldmanprize.org. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[Pinetop Seven “The Comedy is Ended” from ‘The Night’s Bloom’ (Empyrean - 2005)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This Earth month we’re looking back at some of the best stories we’ve done over the past sixteen years and giving a few of the award-winners an encore. We head back this week to 1996, and a story about breastfeeding. It took a hard look at the toxins that can be found in breast milk, and the dilemma that poses for a nursing mother.
The story was reported by Andrea DeLeon, then of Maine Public Broadcasting, who had recently given birth to her second child. We asked Andrea to share both her findings and her feelings with us. Her report won a Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We’ll take a listen to it now, and later we’ll check in with one of the principal scientists in the story to see what’s changed over the last decade. One thing that hasn’t changed is that most scientists agree that despite the health concerns, mother’s milk remains the best food for babies.
Here’s Andrea DeLeon.
DE LEON: That's my son Carter. Four months old and he still wakes me each night at about this time: 3 AM, hungry.
DE LEON: I can stumble to the cradle in the dark, now, without knocking into the rocking chair. I take him into my bed to nurse. He stops crying as we lie belly to belly under the covers in the dark. In this position I can bend my face down to kiss the top of his fuzzy head, to breathe his baby smell as I doze. In all the chaos of my days, the only word that even comes close to these moments is peace.
DE LEON: Peace at least until a month ago, when I tuned my car radio to a speech about a health threat long suspected by scientists but only now gaining public attention.
GIBBS: (on radio) Dioxin affects every man, woman and child. It comes from solid waste incinerators.
DE LEON: The speaker was Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal homemaker who turned activist when she discovered her neighborhood was built on a toxic waste dump. Her topic: dioxin and a host of other persistent toxic chemicals which, she says, are waging covert war on the human population.
Gibbs: It goes out into the air, it goes out into the water, it gets into our food supply. It gets into the cow. When the cow is milked, it gets into our bodies. And ladies and gentlemen, the top of the food chain is our infants. Women who are breast feeding their babies are the top of the food chain. So when the cow is….
DE LEON: That evening, when my son fell back, milk drunk and ruddy cheeked in my arms, I carried him upstairs with a sense of unease. Was he really as all right as he looked? I needed to know if my milk contained chemical time bombs that might wait half his life to go off. I called Dr. Beverly Pagan, a senior staff scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbour, Maine. She told me she hated to talk about contamination in breast milk, and then reluctantly agreed to meet with me.
PAGAN: Breastfed babies are taking in dioxin at a level that is 10 to 100 times more than an adult is getting. This is quite a serious issue. In fact, a breastfed baby takes in 10 to 15% of his entire lifetime dose during that first year.
DE LEON: Dr. Pagan told me that dioxin, PCBs, furans, and other persistent toxics have been entering my body in minute servings as part of the food I eat, and accumulating over my lifetime in my fatty tissues. I get my largest doses in meat, dairy fat, and freshwater fish. The older I get, the higher my levels become. When I nurse my son, Beverly Pagan says, toxics long stored in my fat migrate into the fatty breast milk.
PAGAN: Particularly, these chemicals are often an antagonist to the male hormone. These chemicals also might increase cancer in hormone target organs, such as breast cancer, testes cancer, prostate cancers. All 3 of these types of cancer are going up dramatically in America. And we don't know any reason, except for the exposure to these chemicals.
DE LEON: And there was more.
PAGAN: The sperm count in men has been falling. We think this is because of these hormone-disrupting chemicals, because most of them seem to interfere with the male hormone. We know that they can decrease sperm production in animals.
DE LEON: Breastfeeding is the only natural way humans can rid their bodies of some of these poisons, but with the demeanor of a friend breaking bad news, Pagan told me that most human mothers are carrying around enough chemicals to pose some threat to their children. But a single conversation and a couple of magazine articles didn't convince me that my own milk could bring harm to my baby. My bedside table sprouted stacks of literature on the subject. I read about the alleged dangers of nursing while nursing. I learned that the endocrine system is kind of like the postal service, delivering messages to all parts of the body, using cortisol to regulate my metabolism, releasing estrogen to trigger and modulate my reproductive cycles, telling my son's genes when to trigger each miraculous stage of his journey from egg to embryo to baby.
I needed someone to explain how chemicals in such small amounts could affect my hormone system and my child's as well. If my endocrine system is the postal service, toxicologist Linda Birnbaum explained that dioxins, PCBs, furans, and certain persistent toxics were keeping some of the mail from getting through, delivering letters to the wrong addresses, or forging messages of their own. I reached Dr. Birnbaum in North Carolina, where she heads the Environmental Toxicology Division at the Environmental Protection Agency's Health Effects Research Laboratory. She says that while there's a lot researchers don't know about how these chemicals do their work in the human body, they do know a great deal about the effects of dioxin.
BIRNBAUM: In some cases dioxins have been shown to increase the levels of hormone receptors, in other cases decrease. In some cases dioxin lead to changes in the transformation of hormones, so there are a number of ways in which compounds like dioxins or PCBs or other synthetic chemicals can impact hormone systems. There's not a single mechanism that can explain everything.
DE LEON: And higher levels of these chemicals do not necessarily mean more troubling effects on the body. But hormonal disruptions are blamed for everything from neurological problems to suppression of the immune system. Dioxin also appears to interfere with insulin. Hormonal effects have been documented in seagulls in Canada, in lab mice in Maine, and victims of an industrial accident in Italy. But none of this told me my son's risk. I weighed my years of vegetarianism against my fondness for tooling down the highway with a double cheeseburger balanced on my knees, my organic garden against the pint of ice cream in my freezer. I lay in bed in the middle of the night nursing, obsessing.
Beverly Pagan suggests that women have their milk tested, but such tests can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and with so many chemicals out there which would I test for? More importantly, what would I do with the results? My son has to eat something, and in the first months of life the choices are limited to formula or breast milk.
Everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the formula manufacturers themselves says that breast milk is superior. Does the information coming to light about persistent toxic chemicals mean that's no longer true for some infants? Not from what scientists have learned so far. No one I talked with for this story told me to stop breastfeeding. Lactation consultant Bettina Pearson says a woman's breast milk is perfectly suited to her child at each stage of his development. It even serves as the infant's immune system in the first few months, until the infant's own immune system begins to function.
PEARSON: So in that interim, we’re providing our babies with our antibodies, and our antibodies are specifically a result of what our own environment is. So the antibodies I make, being exposed to my 5-year-old for a newborn child, would be different than someone else. And each of our environments, what we're exposed to for illnesses or, um, contaminants.
DE LEON: She says babies fed on breast milk spend less time in hospitals and have lower incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They also have fewer infections and fewer allergies. I'm hoping Carter won't be plagued with the ear infection so common in young children. Though how my milk adapts to his needs remains something of a mystery. Bettina Pearson says formula could never show such response.
Dr. Birnbaum of the EPA says a study underway in the Netherlands demonstrates that even breast fed children born to mothers with high levels of contamination are healthier than formula fed infants whose mothers have similar levels of persistent toxics. But no one knows for sure whether breast milk actually counteracts some of the very contaminants it contains. Pregnant and nursing women are left to consider the evidence for themselves and discuss it with their caregivers. So far, these discussions seem to be few and far between. My own midwife says clients have only just begun to raise the issue. My search turns up no doctors and only one midwife who regularly discusses the issue with clients.
DANIELS: Let's take a listen. There we go. Got the heart, and I can feel the baby thumping around in there, too. There's a kick.
DE LEON: Midwife Ellie Daniels runs her hand over a young woman's rounded belly, conducting a routine prenatal exam.
DANIELS: I think the baby has the hiccups.
DE LEON: She warns her clients to avoid freshwater fish, and the clams and lobsters that are a staple for many of the coastal Maine residents in her practice. One hundred percent of the women Daniels cares for breast feed their babies: an incredibly high rate. She encourages me to continue.
DANIELS: What could we find that is better? I mean, any milk source is going to have dioxin contaminants in it. If you feed a soy formula, you're feeding a formula that's made from the most heavily sprayed soils in the country, you know, the Midwest, I mean, is in a terrible crisis with all of the chemicals that we've grown our crops with and sprayed on our crops. I mean, what can we find that is better? This is just a terrible situation.
DE LEON: This terrible situation is taking its toll on my breastfeeding experience, which was already almost as difficult as it is emotionally rewarding. I tote a breast pump and cooler everywhere I go, so that I can collect milk for my son when I'm not with him. It is a struggle to keep up with his needs and work full time. I eye the free samples of formula I brought home from the hospital.
Child health advocates worry that information about the potential contaminants in breast milk will drive women like me away from breast feeding, even though none of the scientists studying the effects of persistent toxics believe women should forego nursing. Lactation consultant Bettina Pearson says American culture remains anti-breast feeding. Women are criticized for nursing in public. Television programs show only bottle-feeding moms. And employers are sometimes unsympathetic to workers' needs to express milk on the job.
DANIELS: Breast feeding is so personal an experience, and I think women feel so vulnerable emotionally around it that if you're to say to them, um, you could be poisoning your baby, the last thing they're going to want to do is breast feed. So until we really know if there is a reason not to breast feed, even bringing it up, I think, is going to decrease the rates just because women are so conscientious about what they're doing.
(CARTER LAUGHS BABBLES)
DE LEON: I'm still breastfeeding, despite all that I've learned about contamination. Because I believe it's the best thing I can do for my baby. I'll try to mitigate his exposure at the breast by feeding him a diet low in animal fat when he's ready for solid food. The thing that strikes me is that these chemicals are already being reduced in the natural world, and that is good news. The fish caught in the rivers near my house last summer are cleaner than those taken the year before. But these same substances will persist in our bodies, in our breast milk, and in the bodies of our children. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeon.
CURWOOD: It’s been 11 years since we first aired that report, and to get an update on the science of toxins in breast milk, we called Dr. Linda Birnbaum. You just heard from her a few minutes ago in Andrea DeLeon’s story. She’s still head of experimental toxicology at the EPA and is a former president of the Society of Toxicology.
Dr. Birnbaum, welcome back to Living on Earth.
BIRNBAUM: It’s nice to be here Steve.
CURWOOD: So tell me. How has our knowledge of potential contaminants in mother’s milk advanced since Andrea Deleon first did that story back in 1996?
BIRNBAUM: I think we have more information on more contaminants being present in mother’s milk then we knew about 11, 12 years ago. The good news is that some of the contaminants, about which we had the most concern several years ago, the dioxins, the PCB’s, their levels are decreasing in mother’s milk just as they are in all of our bodies. I think some of the concern is, is that there are other contaminants whose levels are increasing in mother’s milk. And we’re also beginning to understand that it’s not only the fat-soluble chemicals. There are other persistent chemicals and then some non-persistent chemicals to which we’re exposed to everyday that are also appearing in mother’s milk and therefore being transferred to our babies.
CURWOOD: So tell me about these new chemicals that you’re paying attention to now along these lines.
BIRNBAUM: I think that there are maybe three major classes all of which have the ability, like the dioxins and the PCB’s, to affect our hormonal systems. The first class are some of the brominated flame retardants, some of the PBDE’s. And these chemicals in many ways are similar to the dioxins and PCB’s and therefore can get transferred to the nursing infant. So the levels of PBDE’s are going up while the levels of dioxins and PCB’s are going down. And there is growing evidence from animal studies that these PBDE’s can affect the developing nervous system, the developing reproductive system, and alter hormone signaling.
CURWOOD: And how about the other chemicals that you’re paying attention to now?
BIRNBAUM: Well, some of the other chemicals, the other persistent kinds of chemicals that we’re interested in, are some of the fluorinated compounds, the PFOS, the PFOA, the kinds of chemicals that are present like in kind of the lining of popcorn bags or in the nonstick finishes in cookware. And those compounds are persistent. They’re not very fat-loving but there’s a small amount that does get into the breast milk and therefore can also be transferred to the baby that way.
CURWOOD: So at the end of the day, this age old question of which is better, breast milk or formula for infants, where do you fall on this?
BIRNBAUM: I don’t think there is much of a question that breast milk is the optimal food for most babies. I think that it’s specifically designed over evolution to meet all the needs that a baby can have. And formula is the second choice for when, for some reason that the mother is not able to breastfeed.
CURWOOD: You know this is such a heart-rendering story. I mean here you have a mother looking at her child, wondering if she’s doing the right thing doing what mother’s have done, you know, for thousands upon thousands of years. Is there any good news in this story?
BIRNBAUM: I think knowledge is power and the more information that we have about what contaminants are present in our breast milk, it gives us the ability to talk about what we have to control and what we have to reduce. And finding the dioxin-PCB’s at high levels in breast milk 15 years ago led to a lot of the regulations that resulted in the decreased levels of those compounds in our bodies and in breast milk.
I think finding the elevated levels, for example, of the flame-retardants in breast milk has led to the producers voluntarily reducing the production of those chemicals. So I think when we find something in breast milk, if it’s a compound of concern, we know it’s there now, we can begin the steps to reduce it.
STEVE CURWOOD: Dr. Linda Birnbaum is head of Experimental Toxicology at the EPA and a former president of the Society of Toxicology. Thank you so much Dr. Birnbaum.
BIRNBAUM: My pleasure Steve.
[MUSIC: Colleen “Babies” from ‘Check The Water’ (The Leaf Label - 2006)]
Experimental Toxicology Division of the EPA
CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth. Our Earth Month retrospective concludes with an update on the question: Who owns life? Scientists have been scouring the planet for potentially valuable genes including human genes and using them to build businesses.
MOONEY: We have a new kind of an industry out there. We no longer have a food industry or a pharmaceutical industry or a chemicals industry per se; we really have a life industry.
CURWOOD: Human genes for sale, next time on Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ian Gray, Ingrid Lobet, Jennifer Percy, Emily Taylor, Peter Thomson and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Paige Doughty and Meghan Vigeant. Dennis Foley is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. We’re online anytime at loe dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. And from all of us here at Living on Earth, thanks for listening.
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