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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

July 19, 1996

Air Date: July 19, 1996
(stream/download) as an MP3 file

SEGMENTS

The West Texas Drought: Praying for Rain / Sandy Tolan

New deserts are emerging among the southwestern United States and Mexico on land where drought and soil erosion are combining to make a hostile land much more so. Sandy Tolan reports from the sand dunes and abandoned cropfields of Texas, and south of its border, on the troubled times of the drought of ‘96. (This is the second of a 2-part series which began last week in the second half-hour.) (15:00)

Central Park Nature Center

The Belvedere Castle at Manhattan’s 79st Street has become a natural learning center for youngsters in the heart of the city. Kids explore and learn to identify plant and animal life in the recently restored greenery that is Central Park.. Beth Fertig reports. (5:50)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... nuclear explosions in the Bikini Atoll. (1:15)

Swimming in Bleach / Stephanie O'Neill

For health reasons, chlorine has been widely used in swimming pools for most of this century. Yet there are some alternatives to chlorine use, and some health professionals think consumers should weigh the benefits and advantages to decide which methods are best for them. Stephanie O’Neill reports from Los Angeles. (5:50)

Beating the Heat / Julia King

Commentator Julia King laments that with the use of air conditioning in the home, her neighbors in Goshen, Indiana no longer sit out on the front porch or engage in other traditional summer cool-off escapes. (2:52)

Lawsuit by Chester, Pennsylvania / Paul Conlow

Outside of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania the African American community of 45,000 residents is suing against the disproportionate number of waste disposal licenses issued for dumping there. Reporter Paul Conlow explains. (7:15)

The "Organic Gardener" Replies to Listeners / Evelyn Tully Costa

Living on Earth’s resident organic gardener Evelyn Tully Costa answers recent listener questions about carpenter ants; lead in soil; and horsetail plants, in this garden “advice column" of the air. (6:22)

Lovely Earthworms! / Sy Montgomery

Commentator Sy Montgomery marvels at the slithering, ubiquitous earthworm. (3:05)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: Jill Kaufman
REPORTERS: Owen Bennett Jones, Linda Killian, Sandy Tolan, Beth Fertig, Stephanie O'Neill, Paul Conlow
GUESTS: Evelyn Tully Costa
COMMENTATORS: Julia King, Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley

In Southwestern Texas and Northern Mexico it's hardly rained a drop in 3 years. Farms are going under and officials are at their wit's end.

AGUIRRE: We have tried everything. Indian dances, communal brain, government support to seed the clouds, nature is going to do its work when it's going to do its work. I hope that it rains.

NUNLEY: In places the drought is so bad there's fear that the land may never recover. It's turning from productive farmland into a desert.

ABRAHAMSSON: The desert of Sahara, every year they're getting bigger and bigger, is what's going to happen here. If they didn't do something about it and quick.

NUNLEY: The southwest drought this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

KAUFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jill Kaufman. The world's major oil producing nations have agreed to combat global warming by reducing gas emissions from burning oil and coal. The move follows a call by the United States for legally binding restrictions on greenhouse gases. The surprise announcement was made by US Undersecretary for Global Affairs Tim Wirth at a United Nations sponsored international conference on global warming in Geneva. The British Broadcasting Corporation's Owen Bennett Jones reports.

JONES: By committing the United States to support for tighter and binding controls on greenhouse gas emissions, Timothy Wirth has signaled Washington's belief that global warming is a reality and that it's caused in large part by the burning of oil and coal. He said the United States government is now convinced that the scientific evidence points to a link between human activity and climate change. And in advocating binding targets, Mr. Wirth said that they were necessary to ensure that all nations will honor their commitments to reduce emissions. The US stance will further isolate the fossil fuel-based industries and oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which oppose tighter controls. Environmentalists say that the United States could have gone further in spelling out precise targets. But at the same time, many of them are encouraged by the new American line. They believe that there is now an increased chance that the Geneva negotiations will set in motion a process leading to tough international rule on greenhouse gas emissions. For Living on Earth this is Owen Bennett Jones in Geneva.

KAUFMAN: California's coastal wildlife species are getting a new sanctuary thanks to an agreement between Orange County officials and the United States Interior Department. The plan creates a 38,000-acre nature reserve designed to protect more than 40 plant and animal species threatened by urban sprawl. Initiated by local citizens, businesses and governments, the proposal is an effort to avoid Federal restrictions on development under the Endangered Species Act. In return for the set-aside, developers will be able to build on more than 160,000 acres of land without restrictions. Environmental activists are split over the pact. The Environmental Defense Fund calls it a significant step but a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife says the government is giving away too much because it is limiting protected areas while giving developers a blank check to build elsewhere for decades to come.

A key House panel has passed a landmark pesticide bill that for the first time will apply the same standards for both raw and processed food. Under the old law, no trace of cancer causing pesticides was allowed in certain processed foods, no matter how small the human risk. Modern techniques make it possible to find amounts well below levels considered to pose a health threat. The new law would also force health regulators to weigh the risks of cancer, reproductive system harm, and other threats to women and children when judging the danger from pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency had been faced with banning pesticide use on raw produce in order to carry out the zero tolerance bans on processed foods. The full House is expected to pass the bill.

The League of Conservation Voters has announced the names of 5 Congressmen it will actively campaign against in the fall. From Washington, Linda Killian has details.

KILLIAN: This was just the first volley in a national campaign dubbed The Dirty Dozen by the League of Conservation Voters to defeat representatives they consider to be anti-environment. The second volley will come in late September, when the group announces the other 7 targeted members. The League has pledged to spend one and a half million dollars on advertising, direct mail, and grassroots efforts in the districts of these members in an effort to defeat them. League president Deb Callahan.

CALLAHAN: Politicians who attempt to take away the public's environmental protections do so at their own peril. Because politicians will be held accountable for their environmental voting records come election day.

KILLIAN: The first 5 entries on the Dirty Dozen list include 4 Republican freshmen: Helen Chenowith of Idaho, Michael Flanagan of Chicago, Frank Riggs of northern California, and Steve Stockman of Texas. Rounding out the list is 4-term Democrat Gary Condit of California. Although the LCV admits his Republican opponent might not be any better, Callahan said Condit was included because he's considered to be the number one anti-environmental Democrat. For Living on Earth, this is Linda Killian in Washington.

KAUFMAN: Norwegian scientists tracking the migration roots of wild salmon were excited to pick up a radio signal from one fish that they'd given up for lost. Then scientists made another chilling discovery: the signal was traced to a home freezer in the city of Stovenger, where the wayward salmon was destined for a fisherman's dinner plate. The fish was one of 33 wild salmon caught last summer in a Norway fjord and outfitted with tiny radio transmitters. Fishermen are supposed to release marked fish or return the transmitter if the salmon is injured when caught. Scientists didn't say why the fisherman froze the transmitter along with the fish.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jill Kaufman.

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(Theme music up and under)

The West Texas Drought: Praying for Rain

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. There's an old saying in parts of southwest Texas: during Noah's 40 days and 40 nights we got half an inch. But in the last 3 years it's been even worse than usual. The southwestern US and northern Mexico are suffering through the worst drought in 40 years. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan recently traveled to the border region along the Rio Grande where the drought has wrecked a lot of dreams for farmers and ranchers, threatened water supplies in some towns, and is helping turn once productive farm land into a desert. Here's his report.

(A water sprinkler and birdsong)

TOLAN: Del Rio, Texas. Outside the International Boundary Water Commission, a State Department office, the lawns are slick and green. You wouldn't know this part of the border is in the midst of one of the worst droughts of the century.

(Sprinkler continues. Metal clanks)

TOLAN: But walk through the gate atop the massive Amistad Dam that crosses the Rio Grande. Stand at the midspan beneath the flapping flags of the US and Mexico under a sun fierce and penetrating at just 9 in the morning.

(Metal continues clanking)

TOLAN: And look west, down toward the Amistad Reservoir. This is one of 2 big lakes that hold water for millions of people downstream on both sides of the border. Every day the lake inches down. Now it's 47 feet below normal, down to one fourth its capacity. Richard Peace, manager of the dam, says land long submerged is suddenly reappearing.

PEACE: All that land out there is covered by lake. Little hills, you can see the white lines on them? That was all lake.

TOLAN: And now cross the thin span of concrete and look downstream; below the Rio Grande trickles from the dam.

PEACE: There's really nothing I can do about it. [Laughs] Pray for rain. [Laughs] Certainly worth a try.

TOLAN: Mexican vultures circle above us, a red-tailed hawk glides along at her patrol. Two hundred fifty feet below, the river winds through salt cedar, ocotillo, and purple sage, around the bend, toward worried, thirsty users downstream.

(Water flows)

HOBBS: I'm Jimmy Hobbs. I live in Camaro, Texas. Well, I think it was about 105 yesterday so that's pretty hot. [Laughs]

TOLAN: Forty miles downstream, just north of the river, in a work shirt and baseball cap, Jimmy Hobbs is taking a break from the pounding sun. He leans back in his office chair to catch the breeze from the air conditioner.

HOBBS: I just farmed 300 acres on this one place down here, south of town, and right now I've only got about 50 acres because we've run out of water here because the lake's dry. And I can't even produce enough off of that 50 acres to meet my mortgage pay, much less live and pay my help and everything else.

TOLAN: Hobbs sells hay for a living. His prices are up, demand is high. But this year he's growing only 15% of normal. And it just doesn't add up.

HOBBS: I probably won't be able to start over again. [Laughs] It's too hard to borrow money right now.

TOLAN: You almost sound resigned to be going out of business.

HOBBS: Yeah, that's pretty much it.

TOLAN: This little border farming town was founded in hope by dust bowl refugees back in the 1930's drought. Now the drought of the 90s is putting their grandchildren out of business.

HOBBS: And my wife talks to me every day about it. [Laughs] She's really worried. She's a schoolteacher, maybe she can make enough to buy beans for a while. I try not to think about it. But I know I've got to face reality one of these days.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: Downriver another 20 miles and across to the Mexican state of Coahuila, here the ribs are showing on all the cows and horses. Some lie dead by the side of the road. The grass is brown. There hasn't been a good rain for years. It's so bad Mexican ranchers are using butane torches to burn the stickers off the prickly pear cactus and give the cows something to eat.

AGUIRRE: Normally it's about 25 inches a year, when it's raining. You have 3 inches a year, that's bad.

TOLAN: Sipping ice tea under a canopy near the border town of Piedras Negras, Raimundo Aguirre says his family's ranch outside of town is in real trouble. But that's not his big worry. He's also director of public works for Piedras Negras, and his city relies on the Rio Grande for all its drinking water.

AGUIRRE: If the Rio Grande dries up, if the Amistad Reservoir goes down, I don't know where we're going to get our water from. I don't know. There is not enough water in wells to support the population that we have.

TOLAN: The Mexican government has cut off Rio Grande water for agriculture, directing all of Mexico's share to the border cities. Aguirre is implementing water rationing in Piedras Negras. And like officials all over northern Mexico, he keeps looking anxiously at the maddening, clear blue sky.

AGUIRRE: We have tried everything. Indian dances, communal brain, government support to seed the clouds. We have had everything here. Nature is going to do its work when it's going to do its work. I hope that it rains.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: Downriver again, south and east 200 miles toward the Gulf of Mexico, we're back on the US side near the town of Harlanshin in the Rio Grande valley. Here, where every drop of the river is allocated, Texas officials patrol for people illegally diverting water into Mexico. But in south Texas as in Mexico, the real friction is not only the few so-called guerrilla pumpers. It's between the cities and the farms. Normally, agriculture uses 87% of the US share of the Rio Grande. In years like this the cities get all their water first, and the farmers, accustomed to having all the water they want, say they shouldn't have to give up anything until all the lawns in the cities are brown, the pools are dry, and everyone is on water rations. But you won't save much water in the Rio Grande valley by sticking a brick in your toilet. With farmers still using so much more than the cities, conservation has to come from the fields.

HILL: It is so hot, right now, that the cotton is blooming at night. And this has not been seen since the 1951 drought.

TOLAN: Gordon Hill, irrigation district manager, stands at the edge of a cotton field just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. He says some districts are running out of water.

HILL: This is going to make everybody rethink and sit down and start working on conservation.

TOLAN: Last year some irrigation districts accustomed to overabundance even sold rights to what they thought would be excess water. But Gordon Hill, after a couple of dry years in the late 80s, with the Rio Grande valley growing fast, saw the writing on the wall. He started taking steps to conserve water in his district, installing water meters in special plastic irrigation pipes.

HILL: If we had not started and just stayed just like we were, this district would have been out of water last May, in 1995. We would not have any of these crops here because we would not have had any water.

(Flowing water; fade to footfalls through tall grasses)

TOLAN: Just down the road, near the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, Tommy Schmitt moves through soft leaves of sugarcane.

SCHMITT: This I have not irrigated. I think it's holding up pretty good so far.

TOLAN: Schmitt's planted nearly 500 acres of cane. It cost him $175,000 and a lot of water. Cane is among the thirstiest of crops, too thirsty for a year like this one. This season, Tommy Schmitt may not even have a crop.

SCHMITT: Well I don't have enough water to go around, we're out of water.

TOLAN: Are you worried?

SCHMITT: Well, what good does it do to worry? I found out something a long time ago that there ain't one thing a man can do about the weather. You can cuss it and discuss it all you want [laughs]. When the good Lord decides it's gonna rain, my, it'll rain, you know.

TOLAN: At least Schmitt has crop insurance. But some people think in times like this a crop like sugar cane, which takes 4 feet of water a year, which gets government price supports, shouldn't be growing in the Rio Grande valley. Tommy Schmitt says he's gone too far to turn around. But he's feeling the pressure now from the cities, and he knows only one way to ease that pressure.

SCHMITT: I'll pray every night for rain [laughs].

TOLAN: In the Rio Grande valley, the Texas agricultural powerhouse, water is needed to preserve the abundance. But just south of the sugar cane fields, below the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, small farmers have no water at all, and no insurance. And now, virtually no good topsoil.

ABRAHAMSSON: There has been very, very little rain for last couple of years.

TOLAN: In northern Tamolipa state, about 50 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico, Rolf Abrahamsson, Swede by birth but a Mexican for 36 years now, has brought me to an amazing sight. Dry land farms that haven't seen a good rain in 3 years. Sub-tropical lands, normally moist and fertile, are being transformed into desert.

(The sound of winds)

ABRAHAMSSON: And those big fields now, with this drought, is -- everything is blowing away.

TOLAN: This is really amazing. We're standing on top of what has become in the last couple of years only, a sand dune that looks like pictures of the Sahara Desert or the Rajistan Desert in India. And looking out from the edge of the sand dune, which is beginning to cover up the cactus, you can look out, oh, about a mile across to these fields which, half of which are covered with sand and the other half, there's just the stubble of what someone hoped might be a dry land crop and is amounting to nothing. And looking across there you can actually see the sand blowing across the fields and turning this field, literally as we watch it, into a desert.

ABRAHAMSSON: The desert of Sahara, every year they're getting bigger and bigger, is what's going to happen here. If they didn't do something about it and quick.

(Winds continue)

TOLAN: Standing here you can understand why this agricultural season will be one of the worst in Mexican history. The drought is the main culprit, but over the years human hands have played their part as well. Government programs in the 70s encouraged campesinos to cut down trees for their small farms. But they didn't leave any natural barriers in the fields to help hold down the soil. So far, Mexican efforts to halt the erosion are preliminary or experimental. Meanwhile, in Tamolipas, there's a dust bowl. The drought is forcing people to abandon the countryside, accelerating the migration to the United States. On some days cars and buses heading north have to turn on their lights to see through the topsoil blowing away.

(Winds continue)

J. GONZALEZ: Keep going, straight straight straight straight. And now we be in the shade. Okay, from here we hike.

(Doors open, metal clanks)

TOLAN: It's been so dry for so long that old memories are re-emerging in the blazing sun.

J. GONZALEZ: Nobody has lived here for, since 1953. That used to be the school...

TOLAN: Forty three years ago, when officials started filling Falcon Lake behind one of the 2 big dams on the Rio Grande, they buried the town of Old Guerrero, Mexico, under the waters.

J. GONZALEZ: It's hard to imagine what time will do.

TOLAN: The town square, the schoolhouse, the village church, all went under. Now, the town stands in the sun once again.

J. GONZALEZ: As young kids we used to -- this was the main place over here. The girls came in the evening, they walk around the plaza.

TOLAN: From across the river in Texas, Jaime and Carmen Gonzalez and their friend Joel have come to see the town they remember from long ago, one they're used to visiting by boat.

J. GONZALEZ: When the lake is full, there has been enough water here that I have come with my party boat and we come right through here, circle the plaza, and go back out again. The church, as you can see where the water goes in, we'd go in and fish from inside the church.

TOLAN: Inside the Catholic church on an adobe wall, someone has placed a tiny shrine. Plastic flowers, holy water, candles and tin cans.

J. GONZALEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] This is what they call Altarcito...

JOEL: A mini-altar.

J. GONZALEZ: A mini-altar. And people, this is the Virgin Mary...

TOLAN: The Altarcito was built by the one person who's still here, an old woman on high ground living here 40 years after the town went under. Julia Samora's prayer is for rain. For rain to come again to raise the level of the lake. And drown the church once again.

(Singing in the background)

J. GONZALEZ: Yes. That's exactly what we're praying for. We need the rain back.

(Singers and band continue)

TOLAN: All along the border, down into northern Mexico and up across Texas, the prayer is for rain. From the mariachi masses to the public declarations in the town councils. And some are not just praying for rain. The situation is so bad, many people are now praying for a hurricane.

(Mariachi singers continue)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

(Mariachi singers continue)

NUNLEY: A dilapidated landmark is reborn as a nature center for kids in the middle of Manhattan's Central Park, coming up next on Living on Earth.

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(Music up and under)

Central Park Nature Center

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. In an overgrown corner of Manhattan's Central Park there's what looks like an old medieval castle. The structure was built as an observation tower from which you could survey nearly the entire expanse of the grand park. But over the years it fell into disrepair and many became leery of its dark rooms and stairway. Today, though, the walls reverberate with the sound of children's voices. As Beth Fertig of member station WNYC explains, the tower has found a new life as a nature center for kids.

(Kids milling. Child: "Up here, and you lift it up." Several children at once: "It's a earthworm!" "Oh, that's disgusting." "He's trying to get away.")

FERTIG: Like most 10- or 11-year-old girls, 5th grader Samantha Mata doesn't have many kind words for earthworms. Especially not this one wriggling in a petri dish under the bright light of her microscope. And yet, as she peers closely, the worm is kind of cool.

MATA: And it's a pregnant one.

FERTIG: He's moving around a lot, isn't he?

MATA: Stay still.

FERTIG: It's hard to get a good look at a moving worm, but this one does appear to be pregnant. The bulging stripe that resembles a rubber band gives it away.

MATA: It's the -- there's this little lumpy thing there and it's kind of pinkish. And see? Right there.

FERTIG: Years ago city kids interested in Central Park's wildlife could only roam the trails or dig in the dirt, maybe with the help of a patient schoolteacher. But now there are microscopes, maps of the park, and bird watching kits, all at the new Henry Luce Nature Observatory in Belvedere Castle. Here at its opening reception, Kathleen Keebert Gruen, executive director of public programs for the Central Park Conservancy, says the nature center is part of an evolving focus.

GRUEN: The last 15 years we've really been focusing on restoration of the landscapes. And now as the landscapes have really become restored and beautiful, public programs is our vehicle for teaching the -- teaching New Yorkers about caring for the park and appreciating the park. Teaching them stewardship concepts.

FERTIG: The Conservancy is a private nonprofit that administers Central Park in partnership with the city. It's been operating free, educational programs in fields such as botany and geology since 1984, and now reaches more than 10,000 kids a year. But there was never a centralized location open to the public for drop-in visitors. So with the help of a $1.3 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, named after the founder of Time, Incorporated, the Conservancy renovated Belvedere Castle into a nature center. The gray Victorian castle off 79th Street had been almost vacant for years. It was created in 1872 by Calvert Vaux, one of the park's chief landscape architects, to be just an observatory, a nice place from which to gaze over the park. It's also home to the park's weather station. But by the 1970's the castle, like the rest of Central Park, had become dilapidated and covered with graffiti during the city's fiscal crisis. It was first cleaned up in the 1980s.

(Children laughing. Woman: "Want to do another one?" Child: "Yeah." Woman: "Pick another one.")

FERTIG: Today Belvedere Castle has a whole new look. Windows have been carved into the formerly blank stone walls. Inside there are games, tools, and exhibits to help visitors learn about the park's wildlife. Ellen Wexler, who designed the space with her husband, says it has 3 themes.

WEXLER: We really wanted people to have the experience of being a naturalist. We wanted to really engage them in the kind of thought process and the emotional process of looking at nature. So we've separated the room into identifying, observing, and recording, which are 3 processes and steps that scientists and naturalists use.

FERTIG: So along with microscopes and telescopes, children can play a learning game to classify bugs and worms. In another corner they can draw pictures of animals and write about them. A fish tank filled with creatures from the park's Turtle Pond provides extra inspiration. The entire castle has a whimsical feel. A tree reaches up to the second floor where visitors can listen to birdcalls and explore a chart showing some of the park's 275 migratory guests.

(Bird calls. Recorded voice identifies it as a hummingbird.)

FERTIG: There are also walking tours of the ramble, a wooded area right near by. It's ideal for bird watching as these children from the gritty streets of Washington Heights discovered with glee.

(Child: "I saw the bluejay." "A cardinal." Woman: "There's a woodpecker down there." Child: "Where?" Woman: "It's on the ground...")

FERTIG: On this short walk the children saw cardinals, woodpeckers, and a raccoon sleeping up in a tree hole. Even the pigeons looked more exotic, perched on branches instead of window ledges. Math teacher Sandy Jarmouth was happy to see her students enjoying the new program.

JARMOUTH: I think it gives them a chance to see something they don't usually see, and I think they're fascinated by nature because they live in concrete all the time. And so fresh and -- you know, refreshing.

FERTIG: It's also potentially exhausting. Becoming a naturalist requires a sharp eye and a quick hand with binoculars.

(Woman: "It's like you see it. Can you focus on it?" Child: "Uh huh" Woman: "There's our flicker. See if it has the black on the cheeks.")

FERTIG: But with a little guidance, even city kids like these are soon deciphering the secrets of Central Park's forest and its colorful birds.

(Woman: "Can you see?" Child: "Um, yeah I have the black." Woman: "Yeah? So remember what that means? There it goes." Child: "It's a boy." Woman: "Did you see the flicker of yellow?" Child: "Uh huh. Uh huh.")

FERTIG: For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

(Child: "It's a boy." Woman: "Maybe if we go on this side we can catch him again." Footfalls. Woman: "You hear that noise?" Child: "Yeah." Children laugh. Child: "That was a woodpecker that we just saw.")

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(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

NUNLEY: Chlorine goes with swimming pools like salt goes with the sea, right? Not any more. Concerns about the health effects of chlorine and its cost have some pool owners looking for alternatives and liking what they see. That's coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

NUNLEY: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

NUNLEY: Fifty years ago this week the US government exploded a 20-kiloton nuclear weapon beneath a lagoon in the South Pacific's Bikini atoll. The blast heaved a column of water more than a mile into the sky, and sank a dozen old Navy ships left there as part of the experiment. One aircraft carrier was flung a half-mile through the air. In the days that followed Navy cleanup crews tried to salvage the remaining ships by swabbing away contamination. The sailors wore no protective clothing, just their uniforms, and by the 1970s veterans of the Bikini blast were filing claims for cancer and other illnesses. In 1988 Congress granted many of them disability payments. The 200 residents of Bikini evacuated before the test had been told they could return in a few months, but the tests continued. One hundred residents finally moved back in 1969 after the US government assured them that the island was safe. But the assurance was premature. The returnees were contaminated by eating radioactive coconuts, and in 1978 they were evacuated again. The Bikinians later won millions of dollars in claims against the United States. This fall they plan to begin removing radioactive topsoil from their island to clear the way for their long-awaited return. And for this week that's the Living on Earth almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Swimming in Bleach

NUNLEY: Chlorine is a chemical that in most forms is considered highly caustic and dangerous. It's been linked to an array of health problems. Yet few of us think twice about diving into chlorinated swimming pools or about allowing our children to splash around in them. Many scientists say we're right not to worry, that the small amounts and the type of chlorine used in pools pose no threat to swimmers or the environment. But the concern about chlorine is leading many health advocates and pool owners to search for alternative sanitation systems. From Los Angeles Stephanie O'Neill has our report.

(Splashing and voices calling at a pool)

O'NEILL: The smell of chlorine hangs heavy in the air around southern California swimming pools, but there are few complaints from the swimmers, most of whom consider pools and chlorine as inseparable partners.

(Splashing and voices continue)

O'NEILL: But Paul Schwartz, national campaigns director for the Clean Water Action Foundation, a Washington, DC-based environmental group, disagrees, and says while chlorine played a vital public health role at the turn of the century, we have since learned of its dark side. For instance, he says, some studies associate drinking chlorinated water with bladder and rectal cancer. It's also been linked to disruption of our hormonal and neurological systems. The time has come, Mr. Schwartz says, to consider chlorine alternatives.

SCHWARTZ: There are very inexpensive or relatively inexpensive off the shelf technologies that have been in use around the world and in the United States for decades that we could be employing for our drinking water systems and in our pools.

O'NEILL: Among them, pool and spa sanitation systems that use ultraviolet light, ozone, or bromine as disinfectants. Paul Schwartz cites as anecdotal evidence of chorine's hazards and the safety of alternatives the experience of his colleague Mark Johnston, who is coach for the national championship Brown University swim team.

SCHWARTZ: He made the observation that you could see a sheen of chlorine gas across the top of the water's surface, and that 14 of his swimmers had to use the asthma medicine. That after they switched from chlorination to ozonation, that the number of swimmers who had to do that dropped from 14 to 4.

O'NEILL: An alternative pool sanitation method called the bromotron has proven more effective than chlorine for swimming pool owner Vic Hill of Kissimee, Florida. Mr. Hill says both he and his family liked the bromotron better.

HILL: The water stayed crystal clear all winter, and I literally didn't even look at it. When we had the chlorine pools, their eyes were red; in a month the swimsuits were all faded out. That kind of stuff doesn't happen. We never have a smell. And the water is like, it just -- it doesn't have a chemical feel when you get in like it used to with chlorine.

O'NEILL: The bromotron system uses electrolysis and bromine to disinfect the pool. It costs about $1,500 to install. But its makers say within 2 years it pays itself off through saved chemical costs, as bromine, a less volatile element than chlorine, stays in the water.

HILL: You test your pool once a week. You basically have the system running, as long as your electricity doesn't go off you're sanitizing your pool.

O'NEILL: Mike Robinson is CEO and president of Orlando-based Bromotron Water Systems.

ROBINSON: The great thing about bromine is it doesn't gas off. So you recycle the bromine over and over again.

O'NEILL: And according to Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action, bromine does have another advantage over chlorine.

SCHWARTZ: Chlorine, although it's a great disinfectant for a lot of the microbes or bugs that are in the water supply, doesn't kill some of the new emerging deadly viruses and parasites like the parasite cryptosporidium.

O'NEILL: In Milwaukee in 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the drinking water supply caused 100 deaths and tens of thousands of others to become ill with severe diarrhea and dehydration. One of the first known outbreaks happened in the 1980s, in a public swimming pool in Los Angeles. Pools are considered a major transmitter of the parasite.

KEBAJIAN: Had a 100,000-gallon pool, and there was one fecal accident.

O'NEILL: Richard Kebajian is head of the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services' Recreational Heath Program.

KEBAJIAN: There was about 70 people that came down with it, severe diarrhea, and it was all attributed to that one case. So it is possible to get quite a few people sick from one fecal accident.

O'NEILL: Mr. Kebajian says reported cases of cryptosporidium are on the rise. However, he's quick to add that while cryptosporidium is generally resistant to chlorine, it can be controlled by closing the contaminated pool and shocking it with high doses of chlorine. Further, he says, much of the concern about chlorine is overblown.

KEBAJIAN: I think at this time the best economic, safe, and effective method of taking care of pools, of disinfecting pools, would be using chlorine. And I don't really see any problem with chlorine if it's used properly, if it's used in a proper manner.

O'NEILL: Mr. Kebajian remains skeptical that any substitute, any bromine, will take chlorine's place. But Paul Schwartz of the Clean Water Action Foundation says ultimately the decision belongs to consumers, whom he says shouldn't panic but should become educated about chlorine.

SCHWARTZ: I really would encourage folks to consider the alternatives and to take a careful look at what we've been doing, and know that there are other means and mechanisms to take care of the potential problems of infectious diseases being spread in our pools.

(Pool splashes and voices calling)

O'NEILL: For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

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(Splashes and voices continue)

Beating the Heat

NUNLEY: The swimming pool, if you're fortunate enough to be able to lounge around one, may be one of the few places in a neighborhood where you'll still find a group of people on a hot summer day. In years past sultry summer afternoons were occasions for neighbors and friends to gather together and try to find ways to beat the heat. But commentator Julia King says that these days in her neighborhood, when the sun is hot there's barely a soul stirring.

KING: I spent the day with my feet firmly planted on the bottom of my daughter's blow-up jungle pool. It was one of those days that all you wanted to do was talk about how darn hot it was. The mailman and I exchanged limp waves and miserable, knowing looks at around noon. I called the time and temperature number about 32 times just to check. "Now it's 97 degrees," I wailed up to my husband as he sat sweltering in front of the computer in our upstairs bedroom. If I had a front stoop on my house I would have been out there with a paper fan and a cool cloth on my brow, soliciting sympathy from passers-by.

The thing is, hardly anyone passes by in 97-degree weather. I caught a brief glimpse of my neighbor's panty-hosed leg as she dashed from her little blue Toyota into her house. So much for sharing sweat stories with her. Another neighbor smiled at me from behind the window of his truck. Then he pulled into his driveway next door and disappeared behind his automatic garage door. He didn't even look hot. Come to think of it, no one looked hot. We were the only hot people in our neighborhood. I turned up the fan.

At dusk we climbed onto our bikes, ready for a little of that summer community. Nothing like a good heat wave to bond a neighborhood, just like that movie I saw the other night, where everyone came out of their houses and daubed their foreheads together, and sighed. That's what I wanted: communal suffering.

We pedaled slowly past the Yoders' driveway and inspired a head lift from the dog. We rode down past our friends, the Grabermillers, and got a quick wave through the sealed front window. That was okay, but not quite what we had in mind. There were supposed to be barbecues and lemonade stands and porch swings squeaking under the weight of too many people. Instead it was just us and the empty, quiet streets.

I think that movie was old. This is the 90's after all. You got your gangs, your drugs, your lack of religion and role models. People can't just come hang out in the front yard for God's sake. But wait. I live in Goshen, Indiana. The Heartland. Everyone goes to church, no one does drugs, and the gangs mostly go home if their moms call. So where did my community go? It was the 60s, they say. It was civil rights. It was feminism. But I know the truth. It was air conditioning.

NUNLEY: Commentator Julia King lives in Goshen, Indiana, and comes to us via the Great Lakes Consortium.

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NUNLEY: Coming up: how much is too much? When it comes to waste facilities and minority neighborhoods a new civil rights lawsuit may provide an answer. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Lawsuit by Chester, Pennsylvania

NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. The NIMBY syndrome has become part of the social fabric of America. Local residents banding together to oppose a factory or a trash facility proposed for their neighborhood. But for residents of low income and minority communities, the cry of "Not in my back yard" has a special resonance, because they feel that the facilities that no one else wants often end up in their back yards. In recent years poor and minority communities have used a variety of innovative legal strategies to fight against polluting industries, landfills, incinerators, and the like. Now a group in a small city just outside Philadelphia has come up with a new approach which could have nationwide impact. Paul Conlow of member station WHYY in Philadelphia explains.

(Loud radio sounds and voice calling)

CONLOW: Residents of the west end neighborhood of Chester, Pennsylvania, sit outside on a warm evening listening to music and waving to carloads of teenagers passing by.

(Auto horns added to the mix)

CONLOW: Chester is a small city on the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. Once it was a center of shipbuilding, manufacturing, and auto assembling. Today, most of those jobs are gone, and Chester's 42,000 residents, most of them black, endure urban crime, poverty, and municipal bankruptcy. People here say there's another blight on the city, and you need only follow the trucks constantly rumbling though the community to find it.

(Truck sounds)

CONLOW: Many of the trucks are bound for waste treatment facilities clustered along the west end's waterfront. There's an incinerator burning about three quarters of a million tons of trash every year. A sewage treatment plant and sludge processor, numerous recycling facilities, and until recently, a medical waste treatment plant.

(Truck sounds continue)

CONLOW: Some Chester residents say enough is enough. They're taking the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to Federal court, charging the agency with discrimination by granting permits to so many waste treatment facilities in Chester that only a few operate in the surrounding, mostly white Delaware County. Zulene Mayfield heads the Chester Residents Concern for Quality Living. She says it's time for more affluent suburbs to consider where their waste is going.

MAYFIELD: We got the trucks, we have the noise, we have the dust. In the meantime, somebody up on a mainline can put their garbage out and not give a damn where it goes out. We're saying, think. Think about who this is impacting.

CONLOW: The west end is a neighborhood of modest row homes built close to the street, and a group of neighborhood children pause in their play to describe another impact of nearby waste treatment plants.

CHILD: Yeah, it stinks. It stinks. [Laughs]

CONLOW: Complaints like these are common in the nation's low income and minority communities. Since the early 80s activists have been charging environmental racism in the siting of waste treatment facilities in these communities, which often lack the financial resources and the political clout to oppose them. Jerome Balter, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, is representing the Chester residents. Balter says that despite growing attention to so-called environmental justice issues, little progress has been made to correct inequities.

BALDER: It has become like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. I think now we have started to see a way to do something about it.

CONLOW: The Chester group is attacking the problem in a way which Balter says has not been tried before in Federal court. Rather than arguing that the facilities pose health risks, the suit claims that the Pennsylvania DEP has violated Federal civil rights laws and Federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations against discrimination. Since 1987, according to the suit, the state agency has granted permits for 7 waste treatment facilities in Delaware County. Five in Chester, with the capacity of more than 2 million tons a year and only 2 with a 1,400 ton annual capacity in the rest of the county. Chris Novak of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection would not comment directly on the suit, but did say the agency only considers compliance with environmental regulations in reviewing waste facility permits.

NOVAK: We do not look at demographics nor the economics of a community as part of that review.

CONLOW: Balter and the Chester residents want that to change. They're asking the court to order the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to withhold funds allocated to Pennsylvania until the state agency considers racial and economic factors and the concentration of facilities in a community in its review process. The suit could force other states which do not take these factors into account to do the same, and it's being closely watched by social and environmental activists around the country. Carey Moss is director of the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, a national civil rights organization which brought a similar case in a Michigan state court.

MOSS: States routinely take the position that they don't choose where sites go. Industry does or local, you know, zoning bodies make those decisions. So therefore, they have absolutely no responsibility to look at what the effect is of those decisions, the fact that polluting sources may be predominantly in minority communities is of no concern to them as a result. It's our position that in fact the civil rights laws of this country require them to first look at the racial impact of their decisions, and if they don't do that they're violating those laws.

CONLOW: Low income communities like Chester often have concentrations of polluting industries and hazardous waste sites, and often suffer health problems including high cancer ad infant mortality rates. Environmental justice advocates say they can ill afford more waste treatment facilities. And no one knows that better than Chester resident Patricia Patrick.

(Railway horn and bells)

CONLOW: From her neat west end row home, Patrick can watch locomotives lugging tank cars to and from the oil refineries just outside the city. The city's incinerator stands just beyond the tracks. And trucks rumble down her street, bound for the nearby sewage treatment plant. Patrick lost one daughter to cancer. Another has diabetes. And she says her husband suffers from a serious intestinal ailment and she has migraine headaches.

PATRICK: Had all of this not been around me, you know, I think that we would have been all right. But we -- we just can't live healthy. If I open my door right there in my kitchen table, I open my door right in there, you're going to get a certain amount of fumes and dust while you're eating.

CONLOW: There's no court date yet in the residents' suit against Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. If they succeed, the people of Chester may not have to eat more dust or breathe more fumes in the future.

(Trucks roll by)

CONLOW: For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Conlow in Chester, Pennsylvania.

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(Trucks continue. Music up and under)

The "Organic Gardener" Replies to Listeners

NUNLEY: For many of us home gardeners, things are slowing down a bit these days on our little patch of earth. Most of the digging, the soil preparation, planting, weeding, mulching, pruning, that's all behind us. And the big payoff of the late summer and fall harvest is yet to come. It's a good time to sit back, relax just a little, and take time to look into some of the questions we've just been too busy to get to till now. Like, whether some bugs that are causing us fits in our gardens might also be causing problems elsewhere. Or why the tomatoes on the other side of that fence look so much better than ours. To help us answer some of these questions we're joined by Living on Earth's very own organic gardener, Evelyn Tully Costa of Brooklyn. How are you doing, Evelyn?

TULLY COSTA: Hello, Jan. So, I hear the grass is greener in your neighbor's yard and you're wondering why.

NUNLEY: Ah, but the crabgrass is greener in mine.

TULLY COSTA: Ah, don't worry about it. But I understand that some listeners and Living on Earth staff have burning questions of their own today.

NUNLEY: They certainly do. Our first question is from one of our listeners, Marianne Reynolds of Skillman, New Jersey. She wants to know how to get rid of carpenter ants. It seems she lives in the woods along with the ants who are sort of hanging out in her compost heap and some of the railroad ties and in her herb garden.

TULLY COSTA: Hmm. If Mary Ann has carpenter ants in her garden, that's okay. But she's got to be careful to keep them from nesting inside the house. Now these ants love to live in soggy, rotting wood, which you wouldn't want to find out is one of your support beams. So to avoid infiltration she can ring her house with boric acid or diatomaceous earth, and she should keep firewood elevated, with breaks contact with the soil, and this promotes air circulation. If she has any rotting window or doorframes she should replace those immediately. Now, how do you know you have carpenter ants in the house? Some signs are slit-like holes in the wood and they have droppings that look like sawdust. And even sometimes you can hear them kind of crackling away inside their burrows. Carpenter ants have wings and they leave their nests to search for food, so you can trace them back to their nests. You can drill holes, once you find the problem area you can drill holes around the infestation and blow diatomaceous earth or boric acid into the nest.

NUNLEY: All right. Dan Grossman, who's one of our freelancers here at Living on Earth, wants to know about lead in the soil. He's heard it's okay to eat fruit but not roots out of tainted soil. Now is that true?

TULLY COSTA: Well, that's such a really common question these days, I'm sorry to say. And it's also one of the first ones that most of my clients ask when they're considering their garden's edible future. Now flower gardens aren't really an issue unless you've got young children digging around in the dirt and you're worried about them eating it. With vegetables and fruits, though, that's another story, and I wouldn't take any chances. So the first thing to do is to get your soil tested by your local agricultural extension service or the Health Department. Now, read their guidelines carefully. But beyond that, if you suspect that there's any construction or dumping that took place in your lot, or the test shows the soil's only marginally safe, I would spend the time and effort excavating that bad stuff out of there. Then you can build up your own organic soil and you know it's back there. Meanwhile, I wouldn't eat the fruit or the roots if I suspected lead in the back yard. Now, if the soil tests fine but you live near a roadway and you're worried about lead and other pollutants, you know, blowing onto your food, this is what I think you should do. You can wash off your fruit and your vegetables with a little vinegar, two and a half tablespoons to one gallon of water, or half that amount dishwashing liquid. The other thing you might think about is planting a solid hedge of privet or even a quince to keep out some of the fumes. Now just remember that lead is a toxin, so I wouldn't take any chances with it.

NUNLEY: Mm, not me. One of our listeners, Marlene Tosig, is waging what she calls a losing battle with horsetail at her home on Lake Winepesaukee in New Hampshire. What can she do to get rid of that?

TULLY COSTA: Well, the good news is horsetail, bottle brush, scouring rush, shavebrush, Devil's guts, or joint grass, just to name a few, can be used for polishing silver, brass, wood, or as a re-mineralizing tincture. This plant is really interesting because it's been used successfully to treat kidney, skin, and internal disorders since Roman times. Now the bad news is that this living bit of prehistoric flora is almost impossible to get rid of once it's gotten into your garden, and you know, to be honest about this, what we're fighting here is the plant equivalent of a dinosaur. Actually, horsetail predates dinosaurs by a hundred million years and it survived them. So we're looking at one of the toughest living things on this planet. This grows in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere on the entire planet where drainage is poor and swampy and that's key to locating your garden. Now the only cure is to dig this stuff up, but even that's not a guarantee because the extensive root system is a weedy success story. The roots are slender, dark brown, hairy, creeping, and branching.

NUNLEY: Ooohh...

TULLY COSTA: Now this stuff has got to be dug out to at least an exasperating depth of 3 feet.

NUNLEY: Ow, I'm hurting already.

TULLY COSTA: Yeah, it's a back-breaking proposition. And on top of this endless underground root network, horsetail also produces fertile stems. Now you've got to cut those off the minute they come up in the spring, otherwise take advantage of the plant's high silica content, make a scrub brush with it, and use it to wash your dishes.

NUNLEY: [Laughs] Oh, my. Now that sounds most unpleasant. Have you got any resources on problem plants like horsetail that you would recommend before we close?

TULLY COSTA: Yeah, actually a really wonderful book that I came across that your listeners might want to get a copy of is Just Weeds: History, Myths, and Uses. It's put out by Chapters Publishing and of course there's always Rodale, who puts out Organic Gardening and lots of books on organic problem solving in your back yard.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, keep those questions coming to the Green Garden Spot, care of Living on Earth, PO Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Till next time, Evelyn.

TULLY COSTA: Bye bye, Jan.

NUNLEY: Living on Earth's organic gardening commentator, Evelyn Tully Costa, runs Garden Services in Brooklyn, New York.

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Lovely Earthworms!

NUNLEY: Whatever problems you have with your garden, let's hope you do have earthworms. Commentator Sy Montgomery has been considering the lowly creatures. She says that given everything they do for us it's not quite fair that the early bird always gets top billing over the worm.

MONTGOMERY: No less an expert than Darwin championed these humble creatures. He wrote a whole book about them and claimed, "It may be doubted whether there are any other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world." It's true. Without worms' tunnels to oxygenate the soil and their castings to enrich it, the planet would be cold, hard and sterile. But besides this, worms have many other amiable qualities which few of us suspect. For one, they're discriminating beasts. They're not just mush inside. They do have brains, and hearts with valves, and blood, and many of the organs we do. They also have organs we don't, including thousands of tiny chemical receptors all over their bodies.

Worms spend their days literally eating through the organic matter in the soil, but their meals aren't random. They avoid their own castings, and occasionally something special catches their fancy. They may drag fallen leaves, for instance, into their burrows for later snacking. Sometimes you'll even find a feather down there.

Worms are amazingly strong. Grab a hold of a fleeing worm and you'll see. Earthworms use small hairs called setae and 2 different kinds of muscles to move. They move real fast. They line their tunnels with slime and can slip down there like greased lightening. You can hardly keep up with them with a shovel. I know a researcher who hacked away at the earth for half an hour in a titanic race with a Puerto Rican species. The scientist eventually won and captured the 39-inch trophy worm, albeit in 3 pieces.

By the way, it's not true that cutting up a worm makes more worms. Most heads can grow new tails, but the tails can't grow new heads. Konrad Lorenz observed that birds seem to prefer eating the tail end of worms. Here again, the focus was on the wrong animal. Doubtless, this reflects the worm's preference instead. But few of us consider a worm's preference. Few of us consider worms at all. Here's a common animal that everyone knows, but what do we really know about them? Most of us can't even tell the head from the tail. I can fix that for you. the band of swollen tissue on the worm, the clitellum, is more towards the head.

One researcher says there's more than 100 species of American earthworms that nobody has even described. Digging in your garden, you may have had a brush with a creature at the very frontiers of human knowledge, a reminder of the mysteries literally under our feet.

NUNLEY: Sy Montgomery is the author of The Spell of the Tiger. She comes to us from member station WEVO in Concord, New Hampshire.

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(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Living on Earth's production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Heather Kaplan, Jennifer Sinkler, and Paul Masari. The studio engineers are Larry Bouthellier and Jeff Martini at Harvard University, and Frank DeAngelis and Karen Given at WBUR. Deborah Stavro is our director, the senior editor is Peter Thomson, and our senior producer is Chris Ballman. Michael Aharon composed our theme. The executive producer is Steve Curwood. I'm Jan Nunley. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major support from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

This Week's Books

Just Weeds: History, Myths, and Uses
Chapters Publishing


The Spell of the Tiger
Sy Montgomery


 

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