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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

December 10, 1993

Air Date: December 10, 1993

SEGMENTS

Deadly Particulates / Kim Motylewski

Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski reports on the latest study linking particulate air pollution — microscopic airborne grit — to higher death rates, even at levels the EPA calls safe. Scientists say that particulates cause up to sixty thousand premature deaths each year in the United States. (03:43)

American Lung Association VS EPA

Host Steve Curwood talks to Ron White of the American Lung Association about his organizations' lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over particulate regulation. White says the EPA must reexamine those regulations in light of new studies suggesting that the standards aren't strict enough. (03:22)

Gulf War Vets - The Battle at Home / Wade Goodwyn

Wade Goodwyn reports from Dallas, Texas on a number of Gulf War veterans suffering from debilitating illnesses. Doctors at the Environmental Health Center say the vets developed a severe allergic reaction to the chemicals and oil smoke they were exposed to in the Gulf War. For some vets, the symptoms, also known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, have carried over to civilian life. The Veterans' Administration refuses to acknowledge the cause of the illnesses or the Health Center's unconventional treatments. (07:27)

Evergreen Books for the Holiday Season

Steve gets some suggestions for eco-books to give to others from Kathleen Courrier, who reviews books for the Information Please Environmental Almanac. (05:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Jan Nunley
REPORTERS: Don Gonyea, Thomas Lalley, Stephanie O'Neill, Kim Motylewski, Wade Goodwin
GUEST(S): Ron White, Kathleen Courrier

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Air pollution can be deadly, especially the fine particles from vehicles and power plants, and may be responsible for as many as 60,000 premature deaths a year in the US. A new study shows that federal rules may not be adequate:

VOICE #1: "It does indicate that there is serious public health problem associated with particulates at levels well below the current federal standards."

CURWOOD: Also, some Gulf war veterans complain they're sick, and now allergic to many chemicals in the environment. One spouse says her house is now like a hospital.

VOICE #2: "We can't go to the movies, we can't eat regular food anymore. You have to be on your guard all the time because anything could make him have an allergic, life threatening reaction."

CURWOOD: And eco-books for the holidays on Living on Earth. First, news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

More dark secrets from the US nuclear weapons program may soon see the light of day. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary is promising to declassify millions of documents from what she calls the Energy Department's "repressive" history of nuclear weapons development. Among her revelations so far - that the US held more than 200 secret nuclear tests, And that the government conducted radiation experiments on people without their consent. Some DOE critics are encouraged by O'Leary's moves, but say that key questions have yet to be answered.

Meanwhile, a Congressional report says 11 US nuclear weapons sites may be vulnerable to the same type of chemical explosion that spread radioactivity over part of Russia last spring. The report says the contents of nuclear storage containers at facilities in six states are believed to be chemically unstable. Senator John Glenn, who headed the investigation, has told Energy Secretary O'Leary that the potential for explosions is widespread throughout the entire weapons system. Glenn has asked the DOE to improve safety procedures at the tanks.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have announced a new clean-car plan that they hope will keep northeastern states from adopting tougher clean air standards. The standards would effectively require Detroit to sell large numbers of electric cars by 1998. The Big Three claim that's virtually impossible. From Detroit, Don Gonyea reports.

GONYEA: The Big Three car makers have proposed that Northeastern states adopt clean-air rules which they say would provide improved air quality without mandating zero-emission electric vehicles. Under the plan, starting in the year 2001, cars which burn a special low-emission fuel would be put on the market. The emissions from these vehicles would, according to the industry, be 99% cleaner than vehicles of 25 years ago. By comparison, the industry says, today's cars are only 96% cleaner. Thomas Jorling, the Environmental Commissioner for New York State, is skeptical. He says the automakers are merely trying to avoid having to build zero-emission electric vehicles. But other environmental officials in the northeast say they are willing to look at the proposal. For Living on Earth, this is Don Gonyea in Detroit.

NUNLEY: The Federal government will begin switching to low emission vehicles next year. The move may help spur a national infrastructure for non-gasoline cars. From Washington, Thomas Lalley reports.

LALLEY: From postal trucks to limousines, the Federal Government buys tens of thousands of vehicles each year. Starting next year, the government will begin adding vehicles which run on alternative fuels to their fleet. President Clinton says that, with a gentle shove, the Federal Government can provide stimulus to a whole new industry.

CLINTON: These recommendations point the way to using the purchasing power of our national government to promote vehicles that run on clean, domestic fuels, including natural gas, ethanol, methanol, propane, and electric.

LALLEY: The President wants to add over 11,000 alternative fuel vehicles to the Federal fleet, but an Energy Department official said that the project is largely underfunded and it's likely that goal won't be met. For Living on Earth, this is Thomas Lally in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

California officials hoped they had won the expensive and controversial battle against the crop-destroying Mediterranean fruit fly three years ago. But the state's now facing a new infestation that might be its worst yet. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill has the story.

O'NEILL: So far, a Federal agricultural quarantine has been imposed on more than a thousand square miles in three southern California counties. That's just slightly smaller than the quarantine imposed during the massive Medfly infestation in 1989 and 1990. But this time around, agricultural officials as of yet have no plans to revive the controversial aerial spraying of Malathion. Instead, they're ground-spraying Malathion bait to poison the pests and releasing sterilized Medflies to slow the insects' reproduction. At stake is California's $18.1 billion agricultural industry. If the quarantine is extended north into the state's fertile Central Valley, farmers could have difficulty shipping fruits and vegetables to domestic and international markets. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: A much-publicized report suggesting that global warming could cause abrupt temperature shifts may be inaccurate. Studies of Greenland ice cores published earlier this year found what was thought to be evidence of sudden and dramatic regional temperature changes at the end of the last ice age. But a new study of Greenland ice cores, reported in the journal Nature , suggests that what the previous studies had interpreted as abrupt changes in temperature may actually have be the result of shifts in the ice.

There's a new city showing up on satellite photos. Actually, it's an old city, which for years was so shrouded in smog that it couldn't be seen from space. Now, after a multi-million dollar air pollution control program officials say the northeastern Chinese industrial city of Benxi is back on the map, so to speak. But the state run Chinese Daily newspaper reports that future clean-up efforts may run short of cash. It adds that a general lack of anti-pollution funds and the booming economy have worsened environmental conditions throughout China.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Deadly Particulates

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Air pollution is generally bad for our health, and increasingly, researchers are saying fine little particles are the most lethal form of air pollution. Much of this microscopic grit comes from vehicles, especially diesel engines, and from power plants and factories, especially those burning coal. People in cities are most at risk, but even country dwellers can't escape. Wood burning stoves, crop burning and dusty roads also generate worrisome particulates. The US Environmental Protection Agency is required to set limits on particulate pollution to protect public health. But scientific studies are calling the current EPA standards into question. They suggest that officially safe air is in fact causing serious health problems, and as many as 60,000 premature deaths a year in the US. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski has our story:

MOTYLEWSKI: Outside the mall in Watertown, Massachusetts, shoppers instinctively cover their noses as a bus pulls away from the curb. They try to keep from breathing the gritty exhaust from its diesel engine. Exhaust from buses like this one is regulated under US clean air laws, and the EPA says the levels of particulate pollution in the air of this small city outside Boston are safe. But a study of the air in Watertown and five other cities, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that particulate levels which are considered safe are significantly shortening people's lives. The study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health is the latest of several documenting the health effects of the microscopic grit collectively known as particulates. Particulates come not only from diesel engines, but also from power plants, wood stoves, industrial coke ovens, mining, and construction operations. They've been linked with a whole host of health problems and higher mortality rates. Previous studies have suggested that if the air in the United States was perfectly particulate-free, each year 60,000 fewer people would die. The new study is noteworthy because it followed 8,000 people in six cities for 14 years, and controlled for cigarette smoking and other risk factors. It correlated death rates with particulate levels and other types of air pollution, and it found that certain particles were consistently the most important. Overall, the city with the most particle pollution in the sample had about a 25% higher death rate than the cleanest city. Douglas Dockery is the epidemiologist from Harvard who led the research team.

DOCKERY: Let me express it this way. The effect would be to reduce the average life span in the more polluted cities by one to two years.

MOTYLEWSKI: Dockery says none of the particulate levels they studied was safe.

DOCKERY: One of the striking findings here was that we could observe increased mortality across the full range of exposures. Any small increase in particle exposures across these six communities was associated with a small but detectable increase in mortality.

MOTYLEWSKI: These new findings add to the growing pressure on the EPA to review its particulate standards. John Bachman of the EPA's Air Quality office says that if the agency verifies these findings, a stricter standard is likely.

BACHMAN: I think it would be premature to say that while it's all new information, it's correct, there's no question about it, and therefore the current standards are wholly inadequate. On the other hand, it's important to take cognizance of the new information. It strongly suggests that the standards may not be adequate in terms of protecting public health.

MOTYLEWSKI: Bachman says a review of particulate standards will take at least five years. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

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American Lung Association VS EPA

CURWOOD: Even before the latest report on particulate air pollution was sent to the printers, another new document concerning particulates was already circulating: a lawsuit, filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency by the American Lung Association, the Arizona Lung Association, and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Ron White directs the Environmental Health Program of the American Lung Association. I asked him what prompted the suit.

WHITE: Well, the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act required that EPA review the adequacy of the Federal health standards for air pollution at no more than five-year intervals. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has consistently failed to carry out this requirement of the Act, and we are suing the Environmental Protection Agency to force them to review the adequacy of the Federal standards.

CURWOOD: What do you want the standards to be?

WHITE: The American Lung Association has not at this point determined what the current standard should be revised to. Clearly, the Clean Air Act requires by statute that the Federal government set air quality standards at a level that will protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. And we are asking EPA in our lawsuit to indicate what an acceptable level of health impact should be. In other words, how many premature deaths, how many people with loss of lung function, how many hospital admissions for respiratory problems constitutes an acceptable level for public health purposes? And from the American Lung Association's point of view, we feel that the level should be set low enough to protect as many people as possible, recognizing that there's always going to be some background level, some natural level of pollution in the air that comes from natural sources.

CURWOOD: Looking ahead, assuming your suit is successful, what will it cost us to have tighter particulate regulations?

WHITE: Clearly, the economic impact on industry is going to depend on exactly how tight EPA revises the standard. Assuming for the moment that they make modest changes to the standard, then I think that we're looking at certainly more than one billion and probably less than 20 billion. Those are just very rough figures. What we do know is that the kind of pollution control equipment for heavy industry - they're called bag-house filters or electrostatic precipitators are the technical names - are available, and while they're not cheap, are somewhat less expensive than the scrubber technology that's required, for example, for controlling sulfur dioxide emissions that were related to acid rain. And exactly what industries and to what extent these industries will be affected will be to a certain extent determined by how EPA decides to revise the standard, if they decide to revise it at all.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you. Ron White is the director of the Environmental Health Program of the American Lung Association. Thank you, sir.

WHITE: Thank you.

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Gulf War Vets - The Battle at Home

CURWOOD: In Dallas, Texas, an alternative clinic called the Environmental Health Center is in the middle of a growing national public health controversy. At issue are the claims of some of America's Gulf War veterans, who believe they were poisoned by exposure to chemicals overseas. The Veterans Administration says it won't pay for the vets' treatment because there is no definitive proof that their illness is service-related. That's prompted many stricken veterans to seek treatment elsewhere. A dozen have ended up at the Dallas clinic, which is a leading facility in the emerging - but still unproven - field of environmental medicine. Some credit the clinic with saving their lives. Wade Goodwin has our story.

GOODWIN: For environmental illness patients, the Environmental Health Center is a mecca of sorts. The clinic, founded by Dr. William Rea in 1974, is jammed with patients. Some wait in the hallway with filter masks over their faces. Like "Mike" from TV's Northern Exposure, who lives in an environmentally-friendly geodesic dome, these patients believe that their immune system has been terribly damaged through exposure to chemicals. Many traditional medical doctors consider this a controversial notion. But for a dozen of the more seriously ill veterans of the Gulf War, the Environmental Health Center is the only place they have found where the doctors seem to have any idea what's wrong with them.

ZESPIN: I was down to less than a hundred and twenty-nine pounds, and I'm six-foot-three.

GOODWIN: Gulf War veteran Gary Zespin served aboard the USS New Orleans and during the war his ship was enveloped in oil well smoke and attacked by a scud missile. He's now so ill that he can no longer leave his room. After getting what he believed was inadequate and off-hand treatment by VA doctors, Zespin sought help at the Environmental Health Center.

ZESPIN: My stomach is so destro - is messed up to the point where I can only tolerate about 15 different types of food. My lungs are destroyed to the point where it's hard for me to breathe. I'm on oxygen all the time. It's hard for me to describe what it is to be me. I feel like I've lost all dignity.

GOODWIN: Zespin's symptoms mirror those of the other patients at the clinic who've been diagnosed as suffering from what is called "multiple chemical sensitivity." He gets sick from chemicals released into the air from carpeting, television sets, perfume, and deodorants, even drywall - almost everything that has any synthetics in it. It's taken an enormous toll on his family, especially his wife, Betty.

BETTY ZESPIN: It's been a total nightmare. We have a hospital home, we don't have a normal home anymore. We can't go to the movies, we can't eat regular food anymore. You have to be on your guard all the time because anything could make him an allergic, life-threatening reaction.

GOODWIN: On the advice of Dr. Rea, Gary Zespin has begun treatment which includes isolating himself in a special room he's building onto his house, which is made of glass, steel, and tile. He has also started a special diet designed to build up his immune system. Whether these treatments actually help still seems to be anybody's guess. Zespin thinks they have. Dr. Rea believes that brain imaging technology shows that chemical poisoning has affected the blood flow to the vets' brains.

REA: If you do a brain scan on them you'll see the toxic patterns in their brain, and they've really soaked up a lot of fuel oil, apparently from the fires and there's about a list now of 20 different things that we've found, for example, a lot of them worked in the motor pool and they were getting fumes from all the trucks and tanks and everything, and their showers were, the water was carried in tanker trucks, oil tanker trucks, and it would bead off their skin when they took their showers.

GOODWIN: According to VA statistics, out of 250,000 veterans who returned from the war, 88,000 have been seen at VA hospitals. And at least 725 have died since their return. Staff Sergeant Gerry Phillips is another Gulf War veteran who's being treated at the Dallas clinic. He's a National Guard mechanic who thinks that he was poisoned by the repeated spraying of Saudi pesticides while he served in the rear.

PHILLIPS: The Saudis had come around and fogged the area, and in about 15-20 minutes I started getting these symptoms of numbness around the mouth, shortness of breath, chest pains, nausea, confusion. So they started treating me for a heart attack.

GOODWIN: It was not a heart attack. And after finding nothing else wrong, doctors at the 85th Evacuation Hospital sent him back to active duty. But the next time that the Saudis sprayed, Phillips again got sick and stayed sick, and he was shipped home. He tried to return to work at his post in Oklahoma, but can no longer be around the chemicals that are part and parcel of his trade as a mechanic. Interestingly, Phillips served three years in Vietnam, and was repeated doused with a chemical defoliant known as Agent Orange. But until now he suffered only minor health problems. A lifelong soldier, Phillips says that the VA hospitals and doctors haven't changed much since he was treated for Agent Orange 20 years ago.

PHILLIPS: Their attitude is that you're looking for a handout. I just want to be fixed so I can go back to work.

GOODWIN: Like Zespin, Phillips has been treated by Rea with special diets and isolation. Many mainstream doctors consider the diagnosis of environmental illness to be controversial at best. Some consider it quackery. Clinical trials have failed to prove that the affliction called "multiple chemical sensitivity" even exists. And it is that medical ground upon which the VA stands for refusing to pay for the vets' treatments. Dr. Susan Mather is the VA's assistant chief medical director of environmental medicine and public health.

MATHER: There is no universal acceptance in the scientific or medical community that such a disease exists. It's a problem area. Removal from the chemicals appears to help. But there's no evidence that the other kinds of things that are put forth - the rotational diets and those sorts of things - do in fact do any good.

GOODWIN: Unfortunately for the veterans, VA doctors haven't been able to come up with anything better. And the entire situation has been complicated by a recent admissions by the Pentagon that remnants of chemical weapons were found on Gulf War battlefields. Whether that plays a role in the vets' illness is still under investigation. Though the medical controversy about what's making the vets sick is intensifying, what is not in debate is that some of them have come very ill. For Gary Zespin, the fact that doctors at the Environmental Health Center believe that they know what is making him sick is, in and of itself, a breath of fresh air.

ZESPIN: The clinic in Dallas is wonderful. They have been seeing veterans without asking for anything. They're just wonderful. They've saved my life, I know.

GOODWIN: Several senators and congressmen have angrily accused the Pentagon of being evasive about the possibility that the vets have been chemically poisoned. Congressional investigations into the cause of the vets illness are continuing. For Living on Earth, I'm Wade Goodwin in Austin.

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Evergreen Books for the Holiday Season

CURWOOD: It's the holiday season, and if you're like me you haven't prepared all of your gifts yet. I love books, so I thought I'd ask someone who reads for a living what's out this year that would work as presents for my family. Kathleen Courrier directs publications for the World Resources Institute in Washington. And she also reviews books for the Information Please Environmental Almanac. I got her on the line from Washington, and first I asked her what she'd recommend for my twelve-year-old son, who's particularly taken these days by forests and trees.

COURRIER: Actually, there's one with a perfect title: Trees. It's part of a series that Dorling Kindersley does on all aspects of nature and technology. In a way, it's an encyclopedia, but it's been described as a "museum between books" and I think that's the best way to look at it. It's not heavy on the politics, and it has wonderful visuals.

CURWOOD: OK. Well, by the way, what about a book on forest for adults?

COURRIER: Final Forest by William Dietrich is about the best piece of environmental journalism I've seen in years. It's an examination of the spotted owl-logging controversy in the Pacific Northwest, but in this book it's not a two-sided story, it's a 10-sided story and he captures the voices of not just logging interests and not just scientists, but also park rangers who are receiving mixed signals, local politicians, school teachers - people really are real people in this book and not just types. He doesn't show his own hand until the very end.

CURWOOD: Ah - and this is what sets it apart from all the others that we've seen.

COURRIER: Right. I think it's such an emotional issue that most journalists have a hard time not weighing in on about page two.

CURWOOD: Now, what about for my wife? Liza's a psychologist, she loves fine arts. We've also moved into an older house and of course it needs some work. Any books that you would suggest that would interest her?

COURRIER: Janet Marinelli's The Naturally Elegant Home. This is a sumptuous coffee table book on the possibilities for designing with the sun and the land, and it's quite different from the books of the seventies where you were supposed to have a house made out of beer cans of the 90s where your walls were wallpapered in dollar bills. There's this underlying notion of thrift - that things can be beautiful and still not cost the world.

CURWOOD: You mean I can afford the ideas that are in this book?

COURRIER: Most of them. I mean, there are a few homes to die for in this book, but a lot of them embody ideas that you could imagine in your own home.

CURWOOD: OK, now what about my oldest daughter? She's a sophomore at Bryn Mawr, and she's exploring the world, especially from the feminist perspective. Is there something on the environment for her this year?

COURRIER: A book I liked a lot is Joni Seager's Earth Follies. She's a human geographer at the University of Vermont, and she's taken a look at the environmental movement from a feminist perspective, but she doesn't really take a party line. Her main point is that we don't look closely enough at who's doing the damage and who gets hurt. She calls this a question of agency, and she looks at corporations, the military, big government, and decides that they're the problem and that the mainstream has much in common with these three "masculinist institutions", as she calls them.

CURWOOD: Now, what about for my youngest daughter. She's eight, she loves to read, she's got a big collection of Barbies, but I don't figure they're going to fit into the environment too well.

COURRIER: I can't help you with the Barbies part, but there are a couple of books that come to mind. One of them is called Save my Rainforest, by Monica Zak, and it's a book that was first published in Sweden. And it's a true story about a boy in Mexico who single-handedly tried to save the Lincondian Rainforest in southern Mexico and got as far as the president. Now the effort's still on hold, but the message to kids is that one kid can make a lot of difference and a lot of kids can really make a big difference. A series that she might also enjoy is by Judy Allen. One's called Whale, one's called Tiger, and there are Elephant and Panda. In each of these books there's a young adventurer, a child, who sets out to do something with an adult and gets separated, and has a secret knowledge or an intuition that an adult would never have that turns out to save the day.

CURWOOD: OK, now, can you help me with my sister? She's a tough one. She lives out in the country in New Hampshire. She has a cottage, she loves the trees around her, the birds around her. She loves things that really look beautiful. Do you have any ideas for her? Any coffee table book?

COURRIER: Well, Sierra Club Books has come out with a book, Save the Elephants, and I don't think she'll see any elephants looking out her window. But if she wants to fantasize, that might be a choice. I think my favorite coffee table book this year wasn't about the birds and the bees. It's called American Ground Zero and it's about the physical and the psychological fallout from bomb testing in the 50s, primarily in Utah and Nevada. This is a beautiful book - a tragic subject, but there's a kind of dignity in the photographs, and the text is really an attempt to capture the voices of these people, and to get the point across that so many years have passed now that getting a government settlement of cash is not what it's about for these people, but rather exposing what they think are misinformation and neglect.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Book critic Kathleen Courrier's list of the Best Environmental Books is in the Informational Please Environmental Almanac. And for those of you who missed the titles I'll run through her picks once again: Trees, from Dorling Kindersley Publishers; Final Forest, by William Dietrich; The Naturally Elegant Home, by Janet Marinelli; Earth Follies, by Joni Seager; Save My Rainforest, by Monica Zak; the Whale, Tiger, Elephant and Panda series by Judy Allen; the Sierra Club's Save the Elephants; and American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, by Carol Gallagher.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.

 

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