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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

August 15, 1997

Air Date: August 15, 1997

SEGMENTS

PARKINSON'S: AN INDUSTRIAL AGE DISEASE / Dan Grossman

The first literature mentioning the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's Disease are James Parkinson's own writings in the year 1817. Dan Grossman examines the connections between a disease which came to light with the advent of the industrial revolution to possible metal and chemical manufacturing causes, and the current research. (13:35)

A LIFE OF STUFF / Brenda Tremblay

The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York is taking a look at our consumerist culture and finding that American attitudes about nature are changing, but our habits aren't. Brenda Tremblay reports. (06:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... the Panama Canal. (01:15)

DISTURBING THE PEACE / Neal Rauch

Car alarms daily rouse hundreds of sleep-deprived New Yorkers from their needed rest. Some egg-toting vigilantes are giving car owners a piece of their yolk, while others are working to have car alarms banned altogether. Neal Rauch reports from New York City on this sticky controversy (06:40)

ADDRESS & QUERY

(00:40)

WILLIAM MCDONOUGH: PORTRAIT OF A GREEN DESIGNER / Sandy Tolan

Architect Bill McDonough is Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He is profiled by host Steve Curwood and producer Sandy Tolan. (17:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Keith Seinfeld, Steve Frenkel, Daniel Hinerfeld,
Daniel Grossman, Brenda Tremblay, Neal Rauch, Steve Curwood

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Parkinson's Disease is a brain disorder that cripples hundreds of thousands of Americans. No one knows for sure what causes it, but some researchers are now looking at synthetic chemicals as possible culprits.

TANNER: People who had worked in settings where they had exposure to chemicals had a higher risk of getting Parkinson's Disease than people who did not, and it was about, between a 2- and 3-fold increase.

CURWOOD: Also, a museum in upstate New York has an innovative exhibit to help explain the consequences of our throwaway society.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: By looking at object life cycles, we think people can begin to re-establish those connections between themselves, the things they consume, and where those objects came from.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. But first, this round up of the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The Federal Government has added steelhead trout to the Endangered Species List across portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. The listing and others that may follow could impact fishermen, farmers, and loggers. From KPLU in Seattle, Keith Seinfeld reports.

SEINFELD: A half dozen other salmon species are expected to join the steelhead on the Endangered list by the end of next year. In Washington that would mean new restrictions on wheat and potato farmers who use irrigation water, on loggers near streams, and on all urban development in one of the country's fastest growing states. But the Clinton Administration wants to minimize the economic impacts. In announcing the steelhead listing, Commerce Department officials offered to go easy on enforcement if states craft their own recovery plans. That approach drew scorn from conservation groups who say state governments already had plenty of time to act. They're disappointed the Clinton Administration is not imposing any firm deadlines for recovering the migratory fish. Steelhead trout once lived in rivers and lakes from Baja, California, all the way to Alaska. Many of those runs have been wiped out. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.

MULLINS: The Environmental Protection Agency wants to put more information about environmental practices of industrial plants on the Internet. It's compiling a database of environmental records of oil refineries, auto assembly plants, metals plants, and paper mills. The database will also describe populations living near each facility. Most of this information is already public, but it's hard to find. In putting it on the Internet, the EPA hopes communities will learn more about their industrial neighbors. Industry groups and state officials are concerned about the data's accuracy. The Agency has agreed to let facilities review the information before it goes on the Web.

Tap water in hundreds of Midwestern communities is tainted with dangerous levels of toxic agricultural chemicals. That's according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. Steve Frenkel of Great Lakes Radio Consortium has more.

FRENKEL: The report claims that Midwesterners are at risk because there's too much of the weed killer atrazine and other dangerous toxins in local water supplies. Rainfall carries these potentially cancer-causing chemicals from farm fields into nearby rivers. Doctor L.D. McMullen operates the waterworks in Des Moines, Iowa. He's trying to prevent the pollution by asking farmers to use less harmful weed killers. But he says that isn't easy.

MC MULLEN: Just in our raccoon watershed, which is just one of our rivers, has 10,000 farmers in it. So it's an enormous education effort with a population that we in the water utility business don't normally communicate with.

FRENKEL: The Environmental Working Group is calling for a ban on atrazine and similar chemicals. Environmental Protection Agency officials say they may restrict atrazine use in 1999, when a new food quality law goes into effect. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel in Chicago.

MULLINS: This summer Americans have used more gasoline than any previous summer, according to the Energy Information Administration. Gas is cheap and inefficient trucks and sport utility vehicles are gaining popularity, and the Environmental Protection Agency says auto makers haven't improved the fuel economy of regular cars since 1985. People are also driving more than before. The Surface Transportation Policy Project reports a 3-fold increase in trip miles since the 1970s. They say the trend shows people are more dependent on their cars, and that means more air pollution.

The chair of southern California's Clean Air Agency has been unseated, and environmentalists say the change will destabilize the agency. From Los Angeles, Daniel Hinerfeld reports.

HINERFELD: John Mikels had only 4 months left of his term as chair of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. He lost in a divided vote to William Burke, President of the LA Marathon. Burke is given low marks by environmentalists. The Agency was rocked earlier this summer when a divided board refused to extend the contract of its long-time executive officer James Lance. Lance is a key figure in the success of southern California's clean air campaign. Environmentalists say the votes against Lance and Mikels were both organized by outgoing board member Cody Cluff in an effort to throw the Agency off course. Cluff has denied the charge. The Agency has made great strides to clean southern California's air over the last 10 years, but it's under legal attack by environmentalists who say it's backsliding. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Hinerfeld in Los Angeles.

MULLINS: Solar power isn't just for cars and buildings. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association has designed an ice cream cart for retailers Bend and Jerry's. The cart uses energy from the sun to run a freezer. The designer says that the car works best on hot days because that's when there's the most solar power and the greatest demand for ice cream.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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PARKINSON'S: AN INDUSTRIAL AGE DISEASE

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood with an encore edition of Living on Earth.

Parkinson's Disease is a progressive disorder of the brain that causes violent tremors and the loss of the ability to control one's limbs. Its debilitating effects are suffered by nearly a half million Americans. Boxer Mohammad Ali and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno are two of the more well-known sufferers. Today, we meet one Boston-area man who is dealing with the disease and trying to figure out why he got it. His doctors can't tell him for certain what causes his or anyone else's Parkinson's. But as Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports, there is a growing consensus in the medical community that at least some of the blame lies with industrial age chemicals.

(Footfalls, water from a shower)

BELLIVEAU: As you can see I have one of these special showers.

GROSSMAN: Fred Belliveau is a sick man. But thinking back he has much to be thankful for. As an editor and author of medical books, he was well paid and respected, and he raised a family. But sitting in a darkened room overlooking Boston's Charles River, he says fate played tricks on him.

BELLIVEAU: I had a perfect kind of life, a good job, a nice family, and a house in the country, very nice house. So everything was kind of going my way. And then bam, right in the middle of everything, comes the shocking news.

GROSSMAN: He had Parkinson's Disease, an incurable brain disorder his doctor said would slowly but surely deny him control over his own body. Many sufferers walk with a shuffling gait, lose the ability to make facial expressions, or move their limbs with the jerky motions of a wind-up toy. Today, 17 years after he was diagnosed, Mr. Belliveau keeps his symptoms in check with medication. But even so, during this interview, his hands were in constant motion. His balding head rolled from side to side. He says at other times the illness becomes nearly unbearable.

BELLIVEAU: I get dis-kinetic, which means I start shaking and -- more than tremor. I can't pick up a book, for example. It would just -- I would shake violently and the book would go flying out of my hand. Of course you can figure the ramifications of that if you wanted to have dinner. You can't pick up a dish and have it go flying and your food go flying. That has happened to me.

GROSSMAN: About half a million mostly elderly Americans suffer from Parkinson's, including about one of every 50 people over the age of 60. Around the globe, millions are afflicted in a process well understood by medical researchers.

STANDAERT: Parkinson's is a disease where a very specific population of neurons have been lost.

GROSSMAN: Dr. David Standaert is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

STANDAERT: These are neurons which make dopamine. But only those in the particular part of the brain which is involved in the control of movement are affected. These are in an area called the substantia nigra pars compacta, pars compacta meaning tightly packed. And what's tightly packed there are a cluster of cells which make dopamine and send projections up into the part of the brain known as the neostriatum, which has a very critical role in the regulation of movement.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Standaert says once scientists realized how the illness works they came up with drugs to help the brain overcome the loss of dopamine, the most effective being L-dopa. But science has been less helpful explaining why the brain cells die in the first place. That's left Fred Belliveau and others like him groping for answers.

BELLIVEAU: It's -- it's tough going. It is tough going. As much as you want to be upbeat and you can't always do it, you simply can't -- and then I think all of us have a tendency to say why me?

GROSSMAN: Mr. Belliveau's doctors have told him what doesn't cause the disease. It's not a viral or bacterial infection and it doesn't generally run in families. So far they're less certain what does cause it. But Dr. William Langston, President of California's Parkinson's Institute, says he thinks the culprit may be a synthetic chemical. A conjecture supported, he says, by the great works of literature.

LANGSTON: Now, with many neurological diseases such as seizures and stroke, you can find writings in the very early literature, Biblical writings, the Greeks, where clearly that disease existed centuries if not much longer ago than that. With Parkinson's the first clear-cut, unequivocal description of that disease is actually James Parkinson's description in 1817, and it raises the very interesting question, because that's around the time of the Industrial Revolution: could it be a true manmade disease? A disease that was the result of something we introduced into our environment?

GROSSMAN: The Industrial Revolution was fueled by coal, which releases innumerable toxic byproducts when burned. Dr. Langston says this and other staples of the machine age, like the neurotoxic metals lead and mercury, are all suspect. The toxic compound theory got a major boost in 1983 when Dr. Langston solved a bizarre medical mystery. It began when a handful of young heroin addicts with unusual symptoms appeared in California hospitals.

LANGSTON: And when they came into the emergency rooms here in northern California, they looked for all the world like they had developed instant Parkinson's Disease, yet they weren't old and this had come on rapidly.

GROSSMAN: A team of scientists led by Dr. Langston discovered the drug users had all injected a designer drug made by underground chemists intended to mimic the properties of heroin.

LANGSTON: And it turned out by accident instead of making a heroin-like compound, they made probably one of the most selective brain toxins ever, ever known.

GROSSMAN: The toxin was called MPTP, a particularly nasty member of the common pyridine class of industrial chemicals. Further research confirmed the compound not only brought on the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease but struck the same area of the brain. Today more than a decade later, these addicts still suffer from the symptoms of Parkinson's. Dr. Langston says it was a tragedy for the drug users but a boon for medicine.

LANGSTON: And the immediate question everyone asked was my gosh, if a simple chemical in this heroin can cause Parkinson's, could there be something in the environment that also causes Parkinson's?

GROSSMAN: Researchers began searching for a previously undetected source of exposure to the chemical or a close relative. They found 2 that were in common use: the pesticides rotenone and paraquat. But neither could be linked to Parkinson's. Still, pesticides in general remain a source of concern. Many are neurotoxic by design, and exposure to them is widespread. Parkinson's sufferer Fred Belliveau used to spray pesticides on a small orchard at his country home.

BELLIVEAU: I'm sure that it was not good to do this, but I was not knowledgeable enough to protect myself accordingly, and I frequently would wear shorts and no shirt. And I would get up there with my little tank and I would spray around on these trees. So I'd get this solution on me and I did that many, many years, and of course I don't know what effect that could possibly have had.

GROSSMAN: But he does wonder if it played a role in his illness. Researchers have tested scores of pesticides and other chemicals, so far to no avail. Dr. Langston of the Parkinson's Institute now believes he knows why the search has proved fruitless. He thinks the disease may be caused by 2 or more separate factors operating together; for instance, a toxic agent might only strike individuals with the genetic inability to protect themselves. To overcome all these complexities, researchers are turning to epidemiology, the branch of science that tries to determine the cause of a disease from who it strikes.

(Woman: "Okay. Sit in the chair here." Scraping sounds.)

GROSSMAN: Kathy Taylor, a researcher at Boston University, sits across a table from Stanley Wirthheimer, a tan, muscular man. He's one of nearly 300 volunteers involved in an epidemiology study at BU's Department of Neurology. Half of them suffer from Parkinson's Disease. At 61, he's been living with the illness for about a decade.

TAYLOR: So as I explained to you over the phone what this is about is, it's a study designed to look at what might be causing Parkinson's Disease.

WIRTHHEIMER: Yes.

GROSSMAN: For more than hour, Kathy Taylor carefully notes down the most minute details of the subject's medical history and that of his family. She also asks him to list everywhere he's ever lived and worked.

WIRTHHEIMER: I started working when I was 13, for my uncle, oh, 10, 15 hours a week. We made what are called solder rings.

GROSSMAN: Later this year a statistician will electronically shuffle the thousands of facts Ms. Taylor has collected from Stanley Wirthheimer and the other subjects.

WIRTHHEIMER: I made many millions of these.

TAYLOR: Mm hm.

WIRTHHEIMER: That's lead.

TAYLOR: And what -- lead, okay.

WIRTHHEIMER: Lead and tin.

GROSSMAN: Many other epidemiological studies have already drawn relationships between Parkinson's Disease and exposure to industrial or agricultural chemicals. For instance, research in the US and Canada has uncovered 2 intriguing correlations. People who live in agricultural regions where pesticides are used, or who drink water from shallow wells which are often polluted with chemical runoff, are more likely to be afflicted with the illness than city dwellers and customers of cleaner public water supplies. Studies abroad like one in China by Dr. Carolyn Tanner of the Parkinson's Institute also link the disease to exposure to synthetic chemicals.

TANNER: People who had worked in settings where they had exposure to chemicals, working in chemical plants or in industrial settings, had a higher risk of getting Parkinson's Disease than people who did not. And it was about, between a 2- and 3-fold increase.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Tanner says the evidence that some environmental toxin or toxins play a role in causing Parkinson's is nearly unassailable. It's a conclusion that doesn't surprise University of Missouri biologist Fred Vom Saal. He's recently been involved in some groundbreaking research studying the effects of chemicals on other parts of the body and the brain.

VOM SAAL: We already know that there are environmental chemicals that can damage brain development and lead to permanent changes in the functioning of the brain systems that in fact are involved in certain types of human diseases.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Vom Saal is referring to hormone disrupters. Synthetic chemicals like dioxin and PCBs that can upset the development and growth of humans and animals. Recent research including a study of the children of women who consumed contaminated fish from the Great Lakes show these chemicals can cause behavioral abnormalities like reduced intelligence and increased aggression. Dr. Vom Saal wonders if the same poisons might cause Parkinson's Disease as well.

VOM SAAL: The interesting thing we know about these chemicals is that they can interfere with thyroid hormone, which is a major regulator of brain development. And one of the consequences of this is you also have abnormal dopamine levels. Which is exactly what you see later on in life in Parkinson's Disease.

GROSSMAN: Disrupting the thyroid is only one of many ways these chemicals might be implicated in Parkinson's. Researchers at New York State's Department of Public Health recently discovered that rats fed certain PCBs exhibit dramatic dopamine reductions in the same part of the brain, the substantia nigra, as people with Parkinson's. And Dr. Richard Segal, who directed the research, says recent other new findings make him wonder if the effect is multiplied if more than one chemical is involved. That may explain why researchers who have been testing compounds one at a time have been stymied for so long.

(Pills spilling)

BELLIVEAU: Lots of pills in this business.

GROSSMAN: Like most people, Fred Belliveau was exposed to many synthetic chemicals in his life. Experts estimate about 70,000 different synthetic compounds are sold in the US. Sitting in his Boston apartment holding a handful of tablets, he says he doubts he'll live to learn which if any chemicals caused his ailment.

BELLIVEAU: I've been asked in the past on various surveys, were you ever exposed to or around insecticides? Another question that was asked is, did your drinking water come from a dug well, and ours did. I mean there are so many exposures that one has in life, whether those 2 things or other things played a part I simply don't know. I don't know.

GROSSMAN: No matter what the answer, it's too late to make a difference for Fred Belliveau. So he focuses on how to cope with his situation, not on what caused it. But if the research underway in search of a specific pollutant or pollutants is successful, if the quest for the cause of Parkinson's bears fruit, ways could be found to prevent others from being stricken with this crippling illness. For Living on Earth I'm Daniel Grossman.

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CURWOOD: Special thanks to Emma Hayes for research that led to Dan's report.

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CURWOOD: What happens to that ball-point pen after you toss it into the trash? The secret life of stuff is just ahead on Living on Earth.

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A LIFE OF STUFF

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When we think of environmental issues, we often think of huge public problems. Disposal of hazardous waste. Acid rain, or the presence of hormone-disrupting chemicals throughout our food supply. But an exhibit at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, makes an environmental issue out of how and why we use everyday objects. The exhibit is called "Unearthing the Secret Life of Stuff." And in an age where consumerism is at an all-time high, it questions some assumptions about just how much stuff is enough. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester has our report.

(Children playing. "Wait, somebody gets to play the drums!" Drumming on household objects. Woman: "Okay, now, Tye it's your turn. Okay, you guys sit down." Child: "Cool.")

TREMBLAY: A dozen third graders in matching pink T-shirts are getting excited about garbage, or at least by the prospect of banging on a 14-foot-high monstrosity of egg cartons, toilet plungers and plastic and metal cans called a "garbaphone."

(Woman: "Now, all of you together, get up and play the garbaphone!" Children laugh and make lots of noise)

TREMBLAY: The garbaphone greets visitors who enter an innovative museum exhibit that explores the relationship between Americans and their environment through everyday objects. About 2 years ago, Christopher Clarke-Hazlett, a senior curator at Rochester's Strong Museum, started making connections between environmental history and modern consumerism.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: We are without a doubt at this point in time a consumer culture, and we tend to make things, use them up and throw them away. And that's one of the most dramatic changes that's occurred in the United States over the last hundred years. And it's one of the changes that we try and document most carefully in our exhibition.

TREMBLAY: To make that point, Hazlett and his colleagues divided the exhibit into 2 parts. The first examines how American attitudes towards the environment have changed over the past 150 years. In the 19th century, for example, people wanted to control and harvest nature. Their efforts are symbolized by a painting on a child's plate from the 1880s showing hunters matter of factly clubbing seals. A generation later, people still wanted to control nature, but they had also grown to revere it. This conflicting impulse is represented by a 1931 inkwell made out of a rhinoceros hoof. Today we eat Rainforest Crunch cereal and toss away the package. Things haven't changed much since the 1930s according to Mary Corbin-Sies. She teaches American Studies at the University of Maryland and acted as a consultant on the exhibit.

CORBIN-SIES: Many of us have very contradictory attitudes toward nature. On the one hand, we love it, we embrace it as something that we like to include in our lives in terms of recreation. But at the same time we hold a real commitment to a very high consumption lifestyle. We like our automobiles. We like our various gadgets. We like our home entertainment centers. We like our computers.

(Echoing, metallic sliding sounds)

TREMBLAY: The second half of the exhibit uses the computer to examine the consequences of the consumer lifestyle. Visitors sit down at computer terminals and click their way through the life cycle of a washing machine, noting how its manufacture, use, and disposal affect the environment. A few feet away, 20-foot-tall towers of trash loom over a cave of plastic containers strung together with stiff wire. Inside the cave, a group of third graders is learning how to recycle.

(Many children's voices. Woman: "Now, we have a little game here. I need everybody just to back up a little bit. Where would you recycle this?" Child: "Um, right here." Woman: "Okay, why don't you do that?"
Child: "It's actually tin." Child: "Yeah, but tin is a kind of metal." Woman: "Now...")

TREMBLAY: Curators say the purpose here is to prod people to think about their habits as individual consumers, then imagine the scale and scope of our collective consumption. The lesson is not lost on 8-year-old Tom Guyler. He concluded that despite his efforts, not everything he uses is actually recycled.

GUYLER: Usually, if it's like wood, I would think that it would go to a lumber factory where they could cut it down to use it to build houses and floors.

TREMBLAY: So you'd like to think that a lot of things are reused.

GUYLER: Yeah. But it's sad to say that a lot of it is just thrown out into the middle of nowhere.

TREMBLAY: The key idea running through the exhibit is that everyday objects have a past, a present, and a future. For example, the exhibit documents the life cycle of a standard Number 2 pencil, from the mine where the graphite is extracted for the pencil's lead to the landfill where the pencil stub might end up stuffed in a plastic trash bag. Curator Christopher Clarke-Hazlett says that we seldom think about anything but an object's present when we pick it off the shelf.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: Most of us don't live in a place that seems much like nature any more. Most of us don't do work that gives us any indication that the things that we consume come from the environment. And most of the meanings that we attach to the objects that we consume every day have more to do with advertising and more to do with what we think a certain product says about us than they do about where the object came from or how it's made. And so, by looking at object life cycles, we think people can begin to re-establish those connections between themselves, the things they consume, and where those objects came from.

TREMBLAY: Hazlett is not sure where those connections might lead. To preserve a livable environment, he says, individuals may have to settle for a less comfortable standard of living. But the exhibit does not explain how that might happen. Hazlett says it's difficult to address the subject with a public audience. He'd rather present the facts and let visitors make up their own minds.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: We don't want to send people away thinking oh my Lord, there's nothing I can do about this great environmental problem. You know, I'm a sinner and I'll never be redeemed. On the other hand, we don't want to send people away thinking that if they only, you know, buy the biodegradable product at the store, that that's going to solve the problem, too.

TREMBLAY: Christopher Clarke-Hazlett is the curator of "Unearthing the Secret Life of Stuff," about the relationship between Americans and the environment. The exhibit continues through 1997 at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program or any suggestions you might have. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. Or write us 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Sleepless in the noisy city? Some New Yorkers are getting honking mad and fighting for their zzz's. That story is coming up on Living on Earth.

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SECOND HALF HOUR

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Remember: only you can prevent forest fires. Smokey the Bear has been delivering that message since August 9, 1944, the first time he appeared on a Forest Service poster. Smokey's origin goes back to World War II, when the war effort diverted resources away from fighting fires, making prevention more crucial. The Forest Service sought to rally the public behind a mascot and their first choice was the fawn Bambi. But after heated debate, officials opted for a more rugged symbol, and Smokey was their bear. Although his image is fictional, there was a real Smokey. As a cub he was rescued from a New Mexico fire. Badly burned and motherless, Smokey was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he became America's official wildfire prevention spokesbear. Today, Smokey is recognized throughout North America and even in Australia, a country which has no native bears but plenty of fires. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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DISTURBING THE PEACE

CURWOOD: Modern life is full of nasty noises, especially in the city. Sirens can shatter serenity at any moment, and jackhammers, loud music, and loud exhaust can all send us over the edge. For many people in New York City, there's one form of sonic pollution at the top of the list. They're calling for its banning, even though some nervous New Yorkers savor the sound for security reasons. And as Neal Rauch reports, even as the controversy prompts loud debate, some aren't waiting for laws to be passed.

(Crickets, fading to dreamy music)

RAUCH: It's late. You're tired. Finally, after an exhausting day, you're ready to surrender to the world of dreams. Your head sinks into your pillow.

(A harp glissando)

RAUCH: Then...

(A car alarm goes off)

EVANS: After being awakened at night many times, with that awful feeling, you know, you've just gotten to sleep and then the alarm goes off.

(Alarm continues throughout)

RAUCH: Each night hundreds of people like Judy Evans, a scenic designer and artist who lives in Brooklyn, are jolted out of their sleep by the nagging wail of a car alarm.

EVANS: You just wait it out, but you don't know if that's going to happen again. You don't know when you're going to be reawakened for a second or third time, even.

RAUCH: Often she is, and sometimes a defective alarm will go on for hours.

EVANS: If one person were standing on the corner with a horn making that kind of noise, they would be arrested. They would be disturbing the peace.

(Car alarm still continues...)

EGG MAN: It slowly gets under your skin and eventually drives you nuts.
(Laughs)

(Original music plays)

RAUCH: A music producer and composer, this resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side got fed up with car alarms disturbing his sleep and his work. He got together with some similarly frazzled neighbors and formed a posse of sorts.

EGG MAN: We start off with a note saying fix your car alarm, it disturbed hundreds of people last night. If that doesn't help, we quite often use some minor retaliatory step like breaking an egg on their windshield or on the front hood, which doesn't hurt anything but it's a little bit of a mess to clean up.

RAUCH: The Egg Man, who prefers to remain anonymous, says some vigilantes take even more drastic action, like smearing axle grease on door handles.

EGG MAN: Another classic is to smear Vaseline all over the windshield, which is incredibly hard to get off. (Laughs) So I think in other neighborhoods there might be even broken windshields and things like that.

RAUCH: Lucille DiMaggio was a target of vigilante retribution. It happened one night when unbeknownst to her, the car alarm malfunctioned.

DiMAGGIO: I noticed something on the passenger front door. There were a lot of dent marks. It appeared to me that it looked like the heel of someone's shoe, as if someone had kicked my innocent car because the alarm had even been going off all night.

RAUCH: The repairs cost her a couple of hundred dollars.

(Alarm goes off again)

RAUCH: To test the theory, Lucille DiMaggio set off her alarm for me in a restaurant parking lot. Not a single person bothered to see if a car was being broken into. Which begs the question: are car alarms really effective? Judy Evans says absolutely not. Not even when she's called the police.

EVANS: One night there was a real incredible racket, and a little MG wasbeing mutilated to death. The alarm was going off. So I called 911. Well, about 40 minutes later the police drove up.

RAUCH: Little remained of the car by then. Ms. Evans, who's taken to sleeping with earplugs and the windows closed, says car alarms should be banned in densely populated and already noisy neighborhoods.

(Car engines, horns)

ABATE: The streets are much noisier than they were 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

RAUCH: New York State Senator Katharine Abate represents Manhattan.

ABATE: The noise affects not only their ability to sleep at night, but for most part their ability to work during the day. And even parents have come to me and said what is the impact on children? And there are more and more studies that show that young people in particular that are exposed to a sustained amount of loud noise have hearing loss. So it's a health issue, it's a quality of life issue.

RAUCH: Senator Abate has worked on bills dealing with noise pollution but doesn't favor banning car alarms outright. Despite the anecdotal evidence, she says they do prevent some thefts. And she adds there are already stringent penalties imposed for those with wayward alarms.

ABATE: The first infraction is $210. It's $315 for the second offense. When someone buys a car alarm, should their discounts on their insurance policies be reduced, should people receive points on their licenses so their insurance premiums would go up? I'm not sure that alone will create a difference. I want to look at education and compliance, because I think that's really where the remedy will lie in the future.

RAUCH: Enforcement of existing laws along with new regulations may be cutting down noise in some neighborhoods. It's now illegal for alarms to run for more than 3 minutes. After that, police can break into a car to disable the alarm, or even tow away a wailing vehicle. It's hoped these actions will motivate car owners to adjust their alarms, making them less sensitive, so vibrations from passing trucks and the like don't set them off.

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RAUCH: Even the Egg Man admits the car alarm situation has improved. At least in his neighborhood.

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RAUCH: By the way, the Egg Man has a sidekick: his wife.

EGG MAN: When something happens outside, she'll say, "Do you think that's egg-worthy?" (Laughs) And I say, "That sounds like an egg candidate to me."

RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

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ADDRESS & QUERY

CURWOOD: If you have a question or a comment, call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again that's LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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CURWOOD: Can technology and ecology mix? In the mind of designer William McDonough, it's a necessary formula for a green future. His story is next on Living on Earth.

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WILLIAM MCDONOUGH: PORTRAIT OF A GREEN DESIGNER

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

McDONOUGH: In personal life, the whole idea of taking on guilt as an operating method is not necessarily productive, because we find ourselves saying I'm guilty, I'm guilty, and then we keep doing the same thing.

CURWOOD: If this sounds like a group guilt therapy session, well perhaps it is. But the man speaking is a university dean, an architect, and someone who believes we can solve the global environmental crisis by simply drawing up and implementing some new designs.

McDONOUGH: We're not saying feel guilty. We're saying feel excited. We're asking people to get up, get going, and fix it.

CURWOOD: His name is William McDonough. He's dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia, and one of the architects of the so-called Green Design Movement. Today on Living on Earth we take a long look at the man and the ideas he's expounding to change the very ways society and industry work. The man major corporations often call when they want to go green.

(Cellular Phone dialing)

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is in constant movement, a blur streaking through a slow-motion world. He's the green dean, flamboyant in his bow tie, cape, and Armani suits. He's at once an intellectual and a businessman, a professor who believes his own green ideas can change the world, an entrepreneur who says his own success will teach global corporations there's money in going green. His admirers call him an eco-visionary, a man helping to draw up the map for the way out of the global environmental crisis. Others worry his strategy of embracing the Monsantos and Walmarts of the world is naive, and may only help perpetuate the crisis. But Bill McDonough says he doesn't worry too much about his critics. He moves forward, fully occupied with his mission of redesign, head filled with ideas.

McDONOUGH: (speaking aside) No, I'm going to a meeting with the president of the university, so I'll be out of pocket...

CURWOOD: Whether it's a brainstorm for implementing green design in corporate America --

McDONOUGH: Over here is the Gap corporate campus, and it's an office building that is designed to be housing in the future. So we're designing a building to be recycled...

CURWOOD: -- or a new washing machine that saves on water --

McDONOUGH: A stainless steel drum, all right, that's hexagonal inside, an octagonal drum. Uses one fifth of the water of a regular American washing machine...

CURWOOD: -- or reviewing the new design for a factory that uses hardly any outlet pipes because it generates hardly any waste.

McDONOUGH: The industrial filters of the future will be in our heads and not at the ends of pipes, or smokestacks. In the future we could have industries where their effluent is cleaner than their influent. That means you can cap your pipe. That means you're no longer regulated.

(Ambient voices; gulls)

CURWOOD: Or building a new generation of green designers, as he glides toward his first lecture of the semester in his custom designed rain cape.

McDONOUGH: Good afternoon. Today we start on this -- this notion of making environmental choices. I'd like to begin by saying that design, I see here, as the first signal of human intention.

CURWOOD: He's 45 but looks younger. He has a youthful, impish smile, suggesting that so far he's managed to avoid life's tragedies. Colleagues say McDonough possesses the enthusiasm and optimism of a child, but with the mind of an architect. Standing at the podium in the old lecture hall, Bill McDonough makes a central point: society has a design problem.

McDONOUGH: Would you design an industrial system that produces billions of pounds of highly hazardous material and puts it in your soil, your air, and your water every year? Could you design a system that measures prosperity by how much of the earth's natural capital you can dig up, cut down, deplete, bury, otherwise burn, while 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the world's resources? Could you make up a few things that are so highly toxic and dangerous that they'll require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror? Is that an ethical assignment?

CURWOOD: But it is not enough, Bill McDonough tells his students, to bemoan the legacy of bad design.

McDONOUGH: So let's think of a new design assignment, and that would be the design assignment of this course. Let's design systems which produce no hazardous material and put it in the soil, the air and the water every year. Let's measure progress by how many buildings have no pipes.

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is not just blueprints and brainstorms from the ivory tower. His message of green design is starting to move into corporate boardrooms and even onto factory floors. In designing a furniture company's fabric, he sought out the chemical giant Ciba-Geigy to produce chemical dyes with no known toxins, no heavy metals, no carcinogens. The result: a safe, biodegradable fabric. For a carpet maker, he introduced a leasing program where carpet tiles are replaced and recycled with a goal of zero waste, zero toxic emissions. He's worked with the city of Chattanooga to design a zero-emission zone, where one factory's waste could become another's fuel. These are examples, says Bill McDonough, of the next industrial revolution, a green design poles apart from the legacy of trash and pollution of the first industrial revolution.

McDONOUGH: Emerson in 1831 goes over to Europe in a sailboat, and he returns in a steamship. He's going over in a solar powered recyclable vehicle operated by craftspersons practicing ancient arts in the open air, and returning in a steel rust bucket putting oil on the water, smoke into the sky, operated by people working in the darkness shoveling fossil fuels into the mouth of a boiler. These are both designed objects. We are still designing steamships. For me, the question really is, what does the next ship look like?

CURWOOD: The key in the design of the next ship, Mr. McDonough says, is to think of life as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Like reincarnation, everything is used again. As he says...

McDONOUGH: Waste equals food.

CURWOOD: And...

McDONOUGH: There is no such thing as away any more. Away went away.

CURWOOD: There is no away any more. Waste equals food. These are the central ideas of what Bill McDonough believes is the next revolution for manufacturing and construction. Sitting in a Colonial living room off the long lawn at the University of Virginia campus, a place so carefully designed by Thomas Jefferson, Mr. McDonough describes a redesigned world where most products would return naturally to the earth. Furniture, fabrics, soda cans, packaging, would simply decompose, destined not for the recycling bin but for the compost pile. Then there would be durables like old TVs or refrigerators. They would not be sold but licensed to consumers and eventually return to become technical nutrients to be sent for reprocessing at the factory.

McDONOUGH: The television set that's broken, that gets thrown out the back of a pickup truck into a dumpster, essentially has no value at this point in history. It's got a negative value because we're going to have to deal with it environmentally. Under the new protocol, that -- that very thing would be very valuable to Sony, because it would be the technical nutrient of that industry.

CURWOOD: Factories without pipes. Fabrics that get tossed onto the compost pile. TV sets that never see the dump. Soda cans from material you can grow and then toss out like an apple core. Ashes to ashes, refrigerators to refrigerators. Mr. McDonough says these ideas represent a dramatic shift going well beyond things like curbside recycling. But this notion of useful trash, where one factory's waste would become another's fuel, is not all that new. Barry Commoner, biologist, environmentalist, and former presidential candidate, was writing about this in his seminal book The Closing Circle back in 1971.

COMMONER: Basically I said that the engineers had darn well better do something about changing the technologies of production. So I think it was my writing, particularly in The Closing Circle, that laid out the argument for a green industry.

CURWOOD: It is true that some of the ideas Bill McDonough expounds have been circulating for a while. Yet a fellow green architect, Peter Calthorpe, says it really doesn't matter whose ideas belong to whom. He credits his colleague for reinterpreting many old ideas and putting them into practice.

CALTHORPE: I think that he's done, you know, an incredible job of articulating for people principles like interdependence and then kind of reinterpreting these older ideas. The Scandinavian countries have been using cogeneration in terms of their power and using the waste heat from electrical generation for a very long time. So he's not, you know, profoundly new, but restating it and bringing it into today's context is terribly important.

CURWOOD: Today's context belongs to the global marketplace, where corporations increasingly dictate the way we live. The market economy constantly pushes for more growth, more consumption, more consumer demand. It is here, McDonough believes, that the real work needs to be done.

(Many ambient voices. McDonough?: "I'd like the granita and some tea, please. A cappuchino with milk.")

CURWOOD: And so we find Bill McDonough and his partner, the German environmental chemist Michael Braungart, breaking bread in a chic Italian restaurant in Washington, DC, with Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of the Monsanto Corporation.

BRAUNGART: But you'd better design a better product.

McDONOUGH: And that's why what's happening in China is so interesting, because really, you know, we talk about globalization of companies.

CURWOOD: This is the first encounter between the 2 green designers and the head of the huge multinational. Before real change can come to global corporations, McDonough and Braungart believe face to face conversations have to take place.

SHAPIRO: It's exciting stuff. You guys have been worried about this set of issues for a long time. How do you keep from despairing?

McDONOUGH: For me I think it's really, once you start to talk about these things you realize that it's not just about despair, it's also about hope. And that we have the capacity to rethink what we're doing and enjoy that creative prospect. That's why I think it is important that we take these issues and get it into commerce.

SHAPIRO: I think we're at a point now where you can start to hope that that's going to happen at a scale that makes a difference.

CURWOOD: At the table, Mr. McDonough envisions a world where environmental regulations are no longer necessary. He praises the speed of commerce. Some worry when they see environmentalists supping with a corporate giant such as Monsanto, long one of the world's biggest producers of toxic chemical emissions. Monsanto's CEO Bob Shapiro says his company has decided it's time to go green.

SHAPIRO: I think about sustainability because it's easier to think about it than not to think about it. It is here, it's the elephant sitting on the table. Let's figure out some ways to do something useful. Let's find out how to have sustainable economies. That means reinventing just about everything we do. It's no longer how am I going to minimize how much damage I do so I'll feel less guilty. It's how can I really help? That's exciting.

CURWOOD: To some, this talk sounds convincing. A Corporation searching its soul for a way to be useful while being profitable. Bill McDonough, the son of a Seagram's executive who spent many of his early years in Hong Kong, seems comfortable in the world of the international marketplace. And so he's invited in, in this case to consult with Monsanto's new products design team. But some worry that in working with such global corporations, Bill McDonough may be doing more harm than good. By teaming up with Monsanto, is he giving undeserved credibility to a chemical and genetic engineering giant? In dealing with Ciba-Geigy, is he helping the company adopt a softer, greener public face? And in helping design an eco-friendly Walmart, is he helping to perpetuate the consumer culture that generates so much of the waste in the first place?

KORTEN: You've got a whole corporate decision making structure which is driven by the demands of the financial system, which says, you know, sell whatever is profitable. Keep unions weak and wages low, dump your waste wherever it's cheapest, lobby for tax breaks and subsidies, and buy the politicians so you can rewrite the rules in ways that allow you to externalize as much of your cost as possible.

CURWOOD: David Korten is author of When Corporations Rule the World.

KORTEN: Most talk of greening the corporation from within neglects a very basic reality: that the corporation is not a benevolent institution. There's a hope there, almost a blind faith, that somehow the most environmentally responsible technology is going to be the most profitable, but I think these are very definitely the exception. If they weren't the exceptions, our corporations would already be far greener and we would have phased out a lot of useless and environmentally destructive products.

CURWOOD: Bill, I'm wondering if you're worried about being used by industry, that they bring you in on their team to show that aha, they're a green company. But maybe they're not really such a green company after all.

McDONOUGH: We can't expect that a company, just because we're there, is a green company all of a sudden. One of the problems, I think, that a lot of people have is that they won't understand why I would work with a Walmart, for example. Aren't they part of another system that's trying to pave the planet? You know, aren't they part of the consumption machine? But you see, I look at it as a designer. I look at that and say well, if you don't work with them, it's like Thoreau and Emerson. When Thoreau was in jail for civil disobedience and Emerson came to see him and said, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" his response was, "Ralph, what are you doing out there?" You know, and in a way somebody coming to me and saying, "Why are you working with Monsanto? I thought you were an environmentalist." And I'm saying, "I am. Why aren't you working with Monsanto?" If we don't all work together ecumenically we're never going to get there. This is not about fighting. This is about redesigning. If we don't work with these companies, we're all dead.

CURWOOD: Some environmentalists believe the market economy cannot possibly provide solutions to the global environmental crisis. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no competing economic model. And Bill McDonough insists that the solution is simply a matter of redesign.

McDONOUGH: It is a revolution of the market economy and capitalism. It is pure market economy. It is pure capitalism, it's also a pure sense of social equity and a pure sense of ecological intelligence. It's really a balancing. The difference is that a socialist revolution often ignores economic effect and central market economies have been a disaster. Socialism is not good for the environment. Pure capitalism is not good for the environment, either.

CURWOOD: Real change, Bill McDonough insists, will come as corporations engage in enlightened self interest, as companies come to understand that doing the right thing is profitable. And that will come by the examples corporations understand best: generating wealth. Bill McDonough says he plans to get really rich to prove to the rest of the corporate world how profitable his green ideas are.

McDONOUGH: If I have to be a billionaire in order for people to copy what I'm doing, that's what I'll do.

CURWOOD: Do you want to be a billionaire?

McDONOUGH: I don't need to be a billionaire. I'm very happy. But I think -- I think the idea is attractive in terms of its inspiration for
other people.

CURWOOD: So that if Bill McDonough becomes a billionaire with these ideas, that's the way to get the world's attention.

McDONOUGH: I think, yeah, I think it's an important way to get the word out. So if I have to go out and get supremely wealthy so that other people go "That looks like a good idea," well then so be it. I'll suffer through that if I have to. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: He says it with laughter, but you get the feeling he's serious. With his bow ties and capes, youthful good looks, and a brain packed with innovation, Bill McDonough feels comfortable mentioning himself in the same breath as Jefferson and Thoreau. Others wonder about the comparison but agree on this: William McDonough is a true believer in the power of ideas to change the world. And the important thing is, he is doing something about it. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, Bill McDonough says, there's an opening, a possibility that didn't exist in the years of the first Earth Day. There's a chance, he says, to implement completely different thinking.

McDONOUGH: What I'm talking about is a positive agenda that allows us to get up in the morning and say I'm only 60% sustainable, I'd like to be more sustainable. It's a positive view of the world, which gives assistance in what we should do. It's not a question of just what we shouldn't do. To spend our lives being told what not to do in the end is a world that is focusing on waking up in the morning and feeling terrible and then trying to be better by being less bad, with a goal of zero. Which doesn't sound very exciting. I think it's much better to wake up in the morning feeling that one has to become highly creative and start to imagine what perfect might look like.

CURWOOD: William McDonough: architect, green designer, dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia.

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CURWOOD: Next week we'll take a broader look at the green design idea, examining how business and science are beginning to mimic natural systems to get us out of our environmental mess.

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CURWOOD: Our profile of William McDonough was written and produced by Sandy Tolan, and edited by Dan Grossman and Peter Thomson.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes Liz Lempert, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Jesse Wegman, Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, Dan Grossman, and George Homsy. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. We had help from Jill Hecht, Tom Kuo, and Emma Hayes. Our engineer is Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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