• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 30, 1998

Air Date: January 30, 1998

SEGMENTS

Herb Abuse! / Andrea deLeon

For those times when a head cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But some say the new-found popularity of old fashioned medicinal plants also poses a serious threat to some scarce wild species. As Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports, some herbalists are saying the government should now control the picking of rare medicinal herbs. (05:00)

Squid Blitz / Anthony Fest

Diners call them calamari. Biologists call them “Loligo Opalescens”(low-LEE-go opal-ESS-enz).The owners of California fishing boats simply call them “market squid” and to the market they are going in ever greater numbers. In recent years squid has led California's fisheries in both tonnage and cash value, surpassing better-known catches like salmon and abalone. Concern is mounting that the squid haul is rapidly depleting the stocks and that regulators should step in and impose some limits. Anthony Fest reports from Monterey, California. (06:20)

Garden Spot on Winter Seed Starting

It's the dead of winter in the Northern climes, and Living On Earth's resident gardening expert Michael Weishan (weiss-HAN) says this is the time to think about fresh flowers and vegetables by getting seeds going right now. And, he adds, it's easier than you might think with his tips on starting your own plants from seed. (06:09)

Killing Animals at Home / Daniel Grossman

Some recent home repairs lead Living On Earth’s Daniel Grossman to question why people use toxic materials in their houses. He sent us this reporter’s notebook. (02:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about...the recently ratified Madrid Protocol to protect Antarctica as a wilderness preserve and ban all mining and drilling on the continent for the next fifty years. (01:15)

Athens 2004 Olympics: A Return to Origins With A Massive Cleanup / Alexa Dvorson

The 1998 winter Olympics are about to kick off in Nagano, Japan. But in Athens, Greece, all eyes are on 2004. Athenian planners promise the games will be a success. But the noxious pollution cloud known as NEFOS (NEFF-os) might get in the way. This blanket of smog that hangs over Athens much of the year is at its worst in summer, when the games are to be held. And it's just one of several environmental problems the Greeks face as they prepare to turn Athens into the “city of the century.” Alexa Dvorson reports. (09:00)

Surviving Downstream

Author and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber's recently published book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, is a journal of her personal search for the causes of cancer. The book places the blame for most cancers on the widespread use of certain synthetic chemicals, including pesticides and petroleum products and it's drawn her into a controversy with the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine which published a negative review, by a reviewer with a now admitted conflict of interest. She has also drawn praise from cancer activists for her focus on the human rights aspect of the disease. Steve Curwood speaks with Ms. Steingraber. (10:41)

Vermont Machismo: Ice Fishing / Steve Delaney

Winter visitors to Vermont often head to the slopes for skiing and snow shoeing. But rugged locals enjoy a different kind of winter sport. Vermont transplant Steve Delaney decided to see if he might be up to the challenge of ice fishing. Steve Delaney lives near the shore of Lake Champlain, in Milton, Vermont. (05:04)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Andrea deLeon, Anthony Fest, Daniel Grossman,
Alexa Dvorson, Steve Delaney
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Sandra Steingraber

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The growing popularity of herbal remedies is threatening the long-term survival of some plant species. Now, some are saying the government should control the picking of rare medicinal herbs.

FOSTER: We should treat it exactly the same way that we treat the taking of animals. People should have a license to dig goldenseal. There should be a very specific season, limited to a couple of weeks of the year.

CURWOOD: Also, California squid may be getting fished out. Plus, what you can do about your garden right now in the depths of winter.

WEISHAN: It's actually a terrific time to start thinking about the next year. And if you're interested at all in planting seeds and growing your own, now's the time to start.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this round-up of the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Herb Abuse!

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In these times, when a cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But they say the newfound popularity of old- fashioned medicinal plants also poses a grave threat to some scarce wild species. Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports.

(Man's voice-over: "Ginsana's all natural. No sugar, no caffeine."
Another man's voice: "The key word here is natural." First man's voice: "Ginsana has over 25 years of research." Third man: "Twenty-five years?
That's as long as I've been playing cello." Traffic, honking sounds.
First man: "If you want more energy, try Ginsana for a few weeks and watch your energy level. Feel the difference or your money back.
Guaranteed." Several voices saying, "Ginsana," sequentially.)

deLEON: Herbal remedies are everywhere these days. Radio talk shows hawk everything from saw palmetto to garlic and ginseng. Even drug store chains and discount retailers devote significant shelf space to meet Americans' sudden and seemingly insatiable need for herbal products. Dr. James Lavalle is a naturopathic physician who spends his time training pharmacists and touting the benefits of herbs on behalf of the giant discount chain Rite-Aid and its Vitamin Institute.

LAVALLE: People wanted a safer first line of defense for health care.
Like, I want to try something that's side effect-free if possible. I want to take a natural approach whenever possible.

deLEON: Three years ago Federal rules governing the marketing of herbal products were liberalized. Aggressive ad campaigns catapulted homeopathic and herbal remedies from the hippie fringe to the front page of Newsweek and spurred an industry that does billions of dollars in sales a year now. The problem is that many popular herbs are difficult to cultivate and must be picked in the wild. The increased demand has resulted in heavy harvesting of some species with little regard for the plants' long-term preservation. That's according to Stephen Foster, a botanist who edits a number of journals on medicinal herbs.

FOSTER: Plants don't have soft brown fur and cute little brown eyes, so we simply don't pay attention to plants.

deLEON: Foster cites the case of goldenseal, a plant widely used to boost immune system function. When a European company announced plans to market the herb last year, goldenseal shot from $20 to $100 a pound.

FOSTER: This created 2 situations, one a market shortage because of supply and demand, and two, interest in non-traditional harvesters going out and digging the plant because the price was so high.

(Bottles clinking together)

deLEON: Herbalist Deb Soule has watched the tidal wave of interest in herbs at her business, Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine. She sells herbs through a catalogue and small retailers. Soule cultivates as many herbs as she can, but she can't meet the demand for some of the most popular products. If she loses her source of cultivated goldenseal and other endangered herbs, she says she'll stop stocking them, even though dropping the popular products would hurt her business.

SOULE: If I can't find a source for it from an organic grower, then probably I will be without that plant for a few years. And as a business owner, that kind of puts me at risk, because then other people say well you don't have that plant, I'll go someplace else. And it's just a personal choice that I've made. I won't sleep well, feeling like I have contributed to the loss of a plant.

deLEON: Clearly, users of herbs could play a role in protecting the plants. But if you buy your herbs at a major chain, you're not likely to find the information you need to make an informed choice. Rite-Aid spokesman Dr. James Lavalle says the drug store tests herbal products for effectiveness and quality, but none of the labels on products at the Rite-Aid store in Gray, Maine, say whether the product is cultivated or harvested in the wild. The chain itself couldn't answer questions about the origin of the herbs its stocks. Many labels even omit naming the species, so you can't tell whether you're treating your cold with an at-risk species of Echinacea or one that grows like a weed. Stephen Foster says medicinal plants need more protection.

FOSTER: We should treat it exactly the same way that we treat the taking of animals. People should have a license to dig goldenseal. There should be a very specific season, limited to a couple of weeks of the year.

deLEON: Foster recommends that the total harvest should be monitored by a government agency to determine how much wild harvesting the species can sustain without harm. But such a system is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. In the meantime, if you are concerned about plants that may be at risk, state and Federal governments keep lists of threatened species. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea deLeon in Portland, Maine.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "Scarborough Fair")

Squid Blitz

CURWOOD: Diners call them calamari. Biologists call them “Loligo Opalescens”. The owners of California fishing boats simply call them market squid. And to the market they are going in ever greater numbers.
In recent years, squid has led California's fisheries in both tonnage and cash value, surpassing better-known catches including salmon and abalone.
The 1996 squid catch was valued at over $31 million. But some are concerned that the squid haul is rapidly depleting the stocks and say that regulators should step in and impose some limits. Anthony Fest reports from Monterey, California.

(A boat motor runs)

FEST: On a foggy California evening, Mike McHenry steers his boat across Monterey Bay for a night of squid fishing. The 60-foot “Merva-W” can carry up to 50 tons of squid. At the stern of the vessel, fishing nets are wrapped around a huge drum like thread on a spool. Up on the bridge Mr. McHenry keeps an eye on the instruments that help him locate a catch.
Schools of fish appear as red or yellow patches on the bright blue sonar screen. Mr. McHenry can identify species of fish by their patterns on the screen.

(Sound grows louder)

McHENRY: Okay, that's a school of fish right now, I'll turn the boat.
That probably will be, you know, 10 or 15 tons of anchovy right there.

FEST: You know that's what they are?

McHENRY: I think they're anchovy. It looks like anchovy and mixed sardines.

FEST: With this pinpoint technology, Mr. McHenry says, fishermen can locate almost anything in the water, and this is enabling them to catch too many squid. Unlike most other commercial fisheries, squid fishing is largely unregulated. There no official seasons, no limits on the size of catches, and no rules about who may fish. Mr. McHenry says the State Department of Fish and Game needs to change course and impose some limitations to protect the squid population.

McHENRY: The Fish and Game feels that there is no problem with the resources, it's unlimited. And when you ask them, they admit that they have made no studies on it in 25 years. What's happened is so many boats have gotten into the fishery now that it's -- it's splitting the pie up smaller and smaller and smaller; the resources just have been about been exploited.
They're pretty vulnerable. That's why we need to have some kind of regulation on them.

FEST: That could be on the horizon. Last summer the California legislature ordered the Department to conduct a biological study of squid and develop a fishery management plan. Bob Leos, a biologist with the Fish and Game Department, says the knowledge gained from the study could help ward off future problems. But he says there's no evidence of a crisis yet.

LEOS: We feel that with the current level of fishing, with the amount that's being brought in, that it's not going to hurt the fishery. And of course, a number of industry people have not agreed with us on that whole issue. However, of course, looking at it, any time a fishery is doing well and more and more boats come in and that pressure increases, ultimately yes, we're going to reach a point where it probably will have a profound effect, a profound negative effect. We don't feel that we've reached that point right now.

FEST: Mr. Leos says there's evidence that squid spawning areas are more extensive than was previously believed. He says it's likely that many of the animals reproduce in rocky areas or deep water, where fishermen can't catch them. But the study could take up to 3 years to finish, and environmental organizations say it would be a serious mistake to wait that long before taking action. Wendy Pulling, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says California fishery managers could learn a lot from their counterparts in South Africa and the Falkland Islands, two of the world's other major squid fisheries.

PULLING: They're not waiting to find every single answer to every single scientific question. They are actively managing the squid fishery now.
Some of the things that they're doing, both in South Africa and the Falkland Islands, include limiting fleet size. Taking steps to limit the catch size. They have certain areas that are off-limits to squid fishing at all, that are really set aside for squid to reproduce in.

FEST: Ms. Pulling says the fate of the California squid population is important not only to fishermen and seafood lovers.

PULLING: It's an important part of the marine food web. Salmon, for example, a number of marine mammals including sea lions, birds like the brown pelican, all these creatures eat squid. And for some of these creatures, squid is actually quite a significant part of their diet. We need to ensure that there are enough squid in the marine ecosystem so that other animals that prey on it have enough to eat.

(Boat motor)

McHENRY: Headin' home. No squid.

FEST: Mike McHenry and his crew have spent the night combing the ocean for squid. But when morning comes they're returning to port with nothing to show for their efforts.

McHENRY: We probably covered 40, 55 miles of coastline now without seeing one squid so far.

FEST: It could have been bad luck or El Niño, whose warm waters cause squid to go elsewhere to spawn. But Mr. McHenry says the squid population simply isn't very large. And the trend of rising catches gives him a sense of deja vu.

McHENRY: I've been involved in a lot of fisheries in California and watched nearly every one of them decline. And I just see the same thing happening here. All over the world, every fishery has been exploited to the extent now that we're doing the squid have gone into rapid decline.
We've got enough knowledge to draw on that we shouldn't make the same mistake again.

FEST: For Living on Earth, this is Anthony Fest aboard the Merva-W on Monterey Bay, California.

Back to top

(Motors fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: It is the dead of winter here in the northern climes where we produce this program, so our gardener says it's time to think about fresh flowers and vegetables by getting some seeds started. It's easier than you might think. That's ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Garden Spot on Winter Seed Starting

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's practically the dead of winter, and yes, it is time to talk about gardening. So with me is Michael Weishan, editor of Traditional Gardening and Living on Earth's gardening expert. Hi, Michael.

WEISHAN: Hi, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Now this week, we're going to do something different, Michael.
Instead of spending the afternoon tromping outside your beautiful place here, we're inside your greenhouse. And I've got to say that when I came out here today, that someone remarked, "Hey, what do you think about gardening this time of year?"

WEISHAN: Well it's actually a terrific time to start thinking about the next year. And if you're interested at all in planting seeds and growing your own, now's the time to start.

CURWOOD: Why start seeds indoors? I mean, isn't it easier to just go to the store and get them already grown? You know they're there, they're big and tall and strong and (makes popping sound) just pop them in the ground?

WEISHAN: Well, it's easier, but it's also much more expensive, and you get a much smaller selection of material to grow. Here's one, for instance, I started already. It's called milk thistle.

CURWOOD: It looks like a bit of abstract art, the way it has these big, broad, white veins on it.

WEISHAN: Yeah, it's amazing. And of course it also flowers later in the year, appropriately thistle-like flower, and it makes a terrific addition to the garden. Now, you'll never find this at your standard nursery.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you need to do this?

WEISHAN: Not a lot. Essentially, you need some type of container, and here we're using a tray, it's about 2 inches deep. But you could really use anything. It's somewhat important that the container be initially somewhat sterile. Not antiseptically clean, but not home to fungus or other potential diseases.

CURWOOD: What do you put in this?

WEISHAN: Inside here we have what looks like soil, but it's actually called soilless mix. Essentially, it's a mixture of vermiculite and peat moss or sometimes, even sphagnum. Anything that does not have a lot of soil bacteria in it. If you start seeds in regular sort of garden soil, chances are they might rot or get some diseases like dampening off, for instance, which kills the seeds. (Containers clank) Of course, here in the greenhouse we have rather large containers of it (huffs amidst moving objects), and we'll -- oop! - - trying not to pull down all the pots here. All right. So we're going to bring this over, and essentially you're just going to reach in and here, probably take a scooper here and just sort of fill that up.

(Scooping sounds)

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: Now, what you want to do, now, is sort of press this down so that the mix is somewhat compacted.

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

WEISHAN: So that there's not a lot of air in it. And it's really important to soak these things down well. Most people, and I certainly started this way as well, would plant the seeds and then water. And what happens is you float half the seeds to the surface or down into the crevices or other places where you don't want them to be. So what we're going to do, we're going to take this right over to the water here, or --

(Splashing sounds)

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: Now, the next step is generally to take either your hand or a piece of an old potsherd or piece of wood, and sort of just smush it down there. So that everything is compacted once again to make sure we have a fairly flat planting surface.

(Patting, compacting sounds)

WEISHAN: Of course, we wait until the water has fully drained out of this, so that it's not, you know, terribly squishy still. We're going to plant a flat of parsley and get it started for the next year, because now's the time to do that.

CURWOOD: All right.

WEISHAN: Now, the general rule for seed planting is, you want to bury the seed about half again as deep as its diameter. In other words, if you have a large seed, say, half a centimeter, you want to plant it just a quarter centimeter deep. A little seed like that, which is like the size of the top of a pin, essentially can be scattered on the soil and very lightly covered.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

WEISHAN: That's why we pre-water this. The base is now wet, and we can scatter the seeds on the surface.

(Seeds being scattered)

CURWOOD: It's rather like putting a little seasoning on something.

WEISHAN: Yes, it looks exactly like that. As I said, the key here is going to be to very lightly cover this thing. I'm just shaking the soil (shaking sounds) on top of our already watered base. And as you can see, we've covered this just minimally. Now we're going to just pat that down, and that's it. What I like to do is cover this so that it doesn't dry out right away, that's the other great reason people fail. And we use simple plastic covers that come made for the flats. You don't have to water much or do anything.

CURWOOD: Now, this is all very handy, Michael, if you have a greenhouse like the kind we're standing in. But what if you, you know, live in an apartment or a regular house?

WEISHAN: Well, for instance, if you wanted just to grow a few of your own herbs, it would be very easy to do it just this way in a smaller container or pot, or just in a flower pot and cover it with a bit of Saran Wrap. Some plants do much better with what's called bottom heat.

CURWOOD: Mm hm.

WEISHAN: Parsley happens to be one of these. And we use actually a fairly elaborate system that keeps the seed bed at 70 degrees. But the average homeowner can use just a simple heating coil that they sell in most nurseries, and it's an inexpensive purchase. And you'll find that if you've tried growing seeds without bottom heat and it failed, that's probably the answer. It really is the key to success.

CURWOOD: And what about light? Do they need special light?

WEISHAN: No, not really, no special light. Sunlight will be fine. And if you don't have a sunny windowsill, fluorescent lights work just great.

CURWOOD: What's the timing for this? Here we are in New England. It's very cold, it's January. When should I be starting my seeds?

WEISHAN: It depends on your frost-free date, and everything works backward from that. So, if for instance you want to start tomatoes and the packets say start 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date, in New England we would start around March, figuring our frost free date's about May 15 or so. Obviously in the South, that occurs much sooner.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time to talk with us today.

WEISHAN: It's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: In addition to being Living on Earth's gardening expert, Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. And if you have a question for Michael, you can reach him via our web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Killing Animals at Home

CURWOOD: Some recent home repairs led Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman to question why people use toxic materials in their homes. Here is his reporter's notebook.

GROSSMAN: Okay, so my beat as a journalist isn't all that glamorous. I've been to a chemical weapons depot, nuclear waste dumps, and hazardous waste sites. At least when I get home I can forget about lethal doses and parts per million. So I thought until snakes began appearing dead on my own front steps, and clean-up crews in my basement.

(A loud ripping sound)

GROSSMAN: That's the sound of duct tape being used for a toxic clean-up in my cellar.

(Ripping continues)

GROSSMAN: Ever since my wife and I bought an old fixer-upper, I found almost as many hazards at home as in the field.

(Ripping continues)

GROSSMAN: The former owners coated the walls inside and out with layers of lead paint. We found asbestos in our floors and asbestos in the insulation covering our pipes. Last summer I had a contractor look at the insulation and he said it had to go.

CONTRACTOR: This material, it's old, it's damaged, and it's lived its useful life. And it's about time to get rid of it.

GROSSMAN: He and his crew line the floors and walls with plastic. It took about seven rolls of heavy-duty polyethylene, a half a case of extra-wide duct tape, and countless staples. Then, dressed in white suits and face masks and wielding knives and scrapers, they cleaned off the pipes and carted off the debris.

(Crinkling sounds from large rolls of plastic)

GROSSMAN: I often curse our predecessors for the money and peace of mind they've cost us. But sometimes I wonder, am I any better? After all, before moving in, my wife and I asked the sellers to spray for termites, even though the evidence of insect activity was skimpy. It seemed like the right thing to do. Everyone told us we had to protect our investment, that we had to spray to be certain of being pest-free.
Wisdom we didn't question until the next spring, when 2 dead snakes, limp and a little shriveled, appeared on the walk. Had they inhaled poison wintering in our stone foundation? Were we being poisoned, too? I'll never know for sure, but I did learn a lesson. We like technology because it can be simple to use and effective. But when a chemical poison, or even something as apparently benign as paint, is used with too little regard for the possible downsides, it may just come back and bite you. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

Back to top

(Music up and under: guitar and man singing: "You say your world is gone to pieces, things just fell apart. You want to put things back together but you don't know where to start. Well, I got your solution, the stuff you need to use. It's a thing called duct tape, there ain't nuthin' it can't do. I say the world is goin' to pieces. What's a poor boy s'posed to do? I'm just holdin' things together here, singin' the duct tape blues...")

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1- 800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: In the year 2004, the Summer Olympics return to its original host, Athens, Greece. And the city is getting ready by mounting a massive clean- up. That story is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Fifty years is a blink of an eye in the life of the planet, but it's a significant stretch for the 26 countries who signed up to protect Antarctica as a wilderness preserve. Known as the Madrid Protocol, the agreement went into effect recently when Japan ratified it. This protocol aims to protect one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, and also one of the biggest. Antarctica makes up 10% of the land mass on Earth and holds 70% of the world's freshwater reserves. The protocol bans all mining and drilling on the continent, which is believed to be rich with minerals and oil. Waste is another target. All scientific outposts in Antarctica must now clean up their trash.
Hundreds of thousands of barrels have already been shipped off the ice.
And the scientists aren't alone; 10,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this year, the most ever. Many arrive on cruise ships that will no longer be allowed to dump raw sewage into the southern ocean.
But the protocol doesn't just pick on the big offenders, it also bans dogs. Ever since explorers have brought them over to pull sleds, they've had a naughty habit of eating penguins. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Athens 2004 Olympics: A Return to Origins With A Massive Cleanup

CURWOOD: The 1998 Winter Olympics are about to kick off in Nagano, Japan.
But in Athens, Greece, all eyes are on the year 2004. Athenian planners promise the Games will be a success, but the noxious pollution cloud known as Nefos might get in the way. This blanket of smog that hangs over Athens much of the year is at its worse in the summer, when the Games are to be held. And it's just one of several environmental problems the Greeks face as they prepare to turn Athens into the City of the Century.
Alexa Dvorson reports.

(Greek music, clapping and shouting)

DVORSON: It's easy to get caught up in the Greek spirit of celebrating life, liberty, and the pursuit of a parking place in Athens. This land prides itself as the birthplace of democracy and the Olympic Games. So Athenians had a lot of celebrating to do when the International Olympic Committee chose their city over Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Rome, and Stockholm, to host the Games in 2004. Of all these cities, Athens could easily win a gold medal for the worst traffic jams, dirtiest air, and most littered streets. But the way my guide Effie Tsiotsu describes it, that was the last thing on Athenians' minds when the decision was announced.

TSIOTSU: Until six o'clock in the morning people were dancing and kissing each other. They had lighted up the whole town. They were eating and they were drinking wine and beer. It was incredible.

DVORSON: So when the party was over, did people wake up with a hangover the next day and say Ugh, we have a lot to do in the city. It's the dirtiest capitol in Europe. It's the noisiest. We have a terrible pollution problem. The metro isn't even finished yet.

TSIOTSU: Mm hm. Listen, I think the public is not worried about that.
(Laughs) Only the government is, to tell you the truth.

DVORSON: But so is the Citizens' Initiative Against the Olympics in Athens, a group concerned with the city's urban curses. An unfinished metro project that's been in the works since 1959. An undersized airport. And insufficient lodging for more than 200,000 people expected to attend the games. In a report undermining Athens as a candidate city, the Citizens' Initiative predicts that thousands of visitors will have to stay in accommodations 60 to 100 miles outside the city. But the biggest concern for Gerasimos Sklavanos, one of the authors of the report, is the green factor.

SKLAVANOS: [Speaks in Greek] TRANSLATOR: The installations for the Games will replace the few green spaces we have, which I find upsetting. Athens has less green area than any other city in Europe. And secondly, although Athens is on the water, it was built in such a way that it's almost completely cut off from the sea. There is only one access point to the water, and it's there that all the buildings for the Olympics will be constructed. So that means the city will be totally cut off from the sea with all the settlements.

(Woman's voice, through speaker, amidst traffic and ambient conversation: "This is a normal weekday, but the traffic hasn't started yet. We are entering now Singros Avenue, the avenue that connects Athens with the sea directly. Right in front of us, where our boat today is going to be docked, is Faliron, F-A-L-I-R-O-N, Faliron. It was the harbor of ancient Athens after the sixth century BC. But Faliron is a big open wide...")

DVORSON: The Faliron coastal zone is where nearly half of the Olympic events will take place. More than 70% of the sports facilities have already been built. But to accommodate rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events, about 625 acres of 2 coastal wetland areas of Attica, the provincial region surrounding Athens, will be flooded. Local residents of these areas are not pleased, not least because migrating bird populations will be affected. Panagiotis Latsoudis of the Hellenic Ornithological Society is disappointed that the planners of the Games present an ecological vision of the Olympics that doesn't hold up.

LATSOUDIS: There is attention in many subjects but not totally. If they are going to build this accommodation area in Athens, they could build it in another place and not in the most important coastal wetland in Attica.
It is not very easy to accept that, because in order to have a good proposal, they'd say that they have already asked the environmental organization in Greece about their plans, and that was a lie. A big lie.

DVORSON: But Emilia Yerulano, municipal counselor to the Mayor of Athens, pays no attention to the critics.

YERULANO: First of all, these people are a very, very, very small majority. Minority I mean (laughs). That is 96% of Greeks are for the Olympic Games.

DVORSON: Even outside Athens.

YERULANO: Everywhere.

(Traffic sounds and music, a voice-over)

DVORSON: And everywhere you look are taxis. Athens has an estimated 17,000 of them, plus over a million private cars. Over 40% of the entire Greek population lives in the capitol. Even though the number of cars allowed on any given day is split between odd and even numbered license plates to reduce congestion, traffic jams are still among Europe's worst.
So it's hard to imagine there'd be much more room for 200,000 Olympic visitors and 15,000 athletes to get around.

(Woman's voice over on loudspeaker amidst traffic and ambient voices: "I'm sorry for the excavations you see right here to your left, and the excavations that go all over the city of Athens. These have to do with the subway, with the underground. We have...")

DVORSON: Part of the 2004 environmental vision is the extinction of Athens' traffic jams with an expanded metro system to be completed in 2 years' time, along with a planned ring road to connect all the Olympic facilities. But will the improvements help clear the streets. George Vakoyiannis is an engineer for the Athens metro project.

VAKOYIANNIS: The main problem is the private cars, not only the taxis, and most of the cars have only one person inside, the driver. And we are not using the public transports.

DVORSON: If people use it and it does contribute to a decline in the use of cars in this very congested city, what will happen to Nefos?

VAKOYIANNIS: Nefos will disappear. At least 80%.

DVORSON: It's true that Nefos, the toxic smog cloud that hangs over Athens, is less severe than it used to be, but people are still hospitalized for cardiac and respiratory problems on Nefos's bad days, usually in summer. If one of those bad days occurs during the Olympics, the athletes will be in for a rude surprise.

(Construction noises)

DVORSON: On a clear day it's all the more apparent that city planning in Athens is an oxymoron. A highly respected travel guide refers to this 4,000- year-old city as a jungle of concrete. From the air, the sprawl of buildings looks like a spilled box of Lego toys. According to The Insight Guide to Athens, the Greek capitol doesn't cater to tourists and doesn't pretend to exist for anyone other than Athenians. But Dmitris Tziotis, a strategist for the 2004 Committee, believes in the vision of a greener, quieter Athens, that will make the Games a success.

TZIOTIS: There are some significant changes that are taking place in this country and this city. And I believe through the great projects that will be ready by 2001, Athens will be the city that we all dream of.

(Women shouting: "Yee-hoo!" Wind instruments and drums play amidst clapping)

DVORSON: It's unclear whether the dream of the 2004 Olympic Committee will be realized under deadline pressure. Optimists say the countdown to complete the new airport, the metro system, the Olympic Village, and the ring road are just the kind of impetus Greece needs to make good on longstanding unfinished development projects. But sports writer Philipos Sirigos of the Eleftherotypia newspaper, disagrees.

SIRIGOS: [Speaks in Greek] TRANSLATOR: This is a ridiculous claim, because it's like the Greek state cannot do something for its citizens. They need a big thing like the Olympics to get them moving. If this is considered legitimate, it's like recognizing that Greece is a country of the Third World.

(Waves and surf)

DVORSON: It's still difficult to assess what impact the 2004 Olympic Games may ultimately have on Athens' environment. But one hint might be found in a quote from the Insight Travel Guide. In somewhat mocking admiration of Greece's improvisational way of life, the Guide notes, "In Athens, nothing is certain, except that the future promises to be as disorganized as the present."

(Celebratory music continues)

DVORSON: For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Athens.

Back to top

(Celebratory music continues with singing and clapping)

CURWOOD: A cancer survivor uses the power of her poetry and scientific training to trace the links between cancer and the environment. That's just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Surviving Downstream

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Sandra Steingraber battled cancer as a college student. She went on to write a book of poetry and to earn a doctorate in plant science. She recently published Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment: a journal of her personal search for the causes of cancer. The book places the blame for most cancers on the widespread use of certain synthetic chemicals, including pesticides and petroleum products, and it's drawn a strong response. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a negative review, saying that she failed to prove her case.
But later the Journal admitted it was a conflict of interest for the medical director of the chemical giant W.R. Grace to write the review.
Dr. Steingraber has also drawn praise from cancer activists for her focus on the human rights aspect of the disease. I recently spoke with her and asked her to start our discussion by reading a passage from her book.

STEINGRABER: I had bladder cancer as a young adult. If I tell people this fact, they usually shake their heads. If I go on to mention that cancer runs in my family, they usually start to nod. "She is from one of those cancer families," I can almost hear them thinking. Sometimes I'll just leave it at that. But if I am up for blank stares, I'll add, "I'm adopted." And go on to describe a study of cancer among adoptees that found correlations within their adoptive families but not within their biological ones. To quote, "Deaths of adoptive parents from cancer before the age of 50 increased the rate of mortality from cancer 5-fold among the adoptees. Deaths of biological parents from cancer had no detectable effect on the rate of mortality from cancer among the adoptees."

At this point most people become very quiet. These silences remind me how unfamiliar many of us are with the notion that families share environments as well as chromosomes. Or with the concept that our genes work in communion with substances streaming in from the larger ecological world. What runs in families does not necessarily run in blood. And our genes are less an inherited set of teacups enclosed in a cellular china cabinet than they are plates used in a busy diner. Cracks, chips, and scrapes accumulate. Accidents happen.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber, your book leads us on, well, sort of a journey through your childhood in Illinois and your life as an adult, the struggle with cancer. The death from cancer of your friend Jeannie. It teaches is about cancer registries, air pollution, and epidemiology, those sorts of things. And then you conclude that we're in the midst of a cancer epidemic caused by synthetic chemicals. Can you tell me a little bit why you came to this conclusion?

STEINGRABER: Because I was diagnosed with cancer at such a young age, and because that cancer was considered one of the classic environmental cancers, namely bladder cancer, I used my own life experience to begin a search as a biologist for the environmental root causes of the disease.
And I spent 3 years looking at the data, ranging from studies of cancer in wildlife, rising rates of cancer among various communities, as well as the actual genetic data in which scientists can actually see which carcinogens modify which genes, placing cells on the pathway to tumor formation. The National Cancer Institute publishes maps in which mortality rates of different cancers are displayed in graph form, and it's clear that certain kinds of cancers tend to cluster around heavily industrialized areas. So for example, in the United States, you would light up in red the Eastern seaboard from Maine down to about Washington, DC, for cancers like colon cancer, breast cancer, and bladder cancer, as well as the Great Lakes Basin, which are also high in these cancers. And these 2 regions of course represent the most industrialized areas of our country. By contrast, other synthetic chemicals are used more in agriculture than they are in industry. So if you're interested, for example, in non-Hodgkins lymphoma and you look at the map of that cancer, you would light up in red the Midwestern and Great Plains states, which is where pesticide use is most intense in agriculture. Now, I don't argue that these correlations alone constitute absolute proof. But what I do argue is that they give us grounds for further inquiry. And when you look further and deeper, the evidence starts getting stronger and stronger.

CURWOOD: Every day we hear about yet another gene that makes people more susceptible to cancer, somebody. I mean, is it fair to blame cancer on chemicals?

STEINGRABER: Well, our genes do not work in isolation. They work in intimate contact with things streaming in from the larger environmental world. So all cancer is genetic, insofar that a gene has to go awry before a cell becomes a tumor. The question is, how does the gene go awry? And we believe that the inheritance of defective genes plays a role in a very tiny percent of cancers. Five to maybe at most 10% of all cancers. Which means that the majority of us, 90 to 95% percent of us, are born with a perfectly healthy set of genes to which something bad happens some time during our lives. So what I wanted to do was focus on that process for the majority of us. What goes wrong? What intervenes with a gene at various points in our life? Is it contact with carcinogens like on drycleaning fluids and our drinking water? That was what I discovered when I went back to my own home town as a kind of environmental detective. Is it exposure to pesticide residues on food?
Is it formaldehyde coming off of things like synthetic chemicals in carpeting in our homes? Each one of those exposures, however trace and tiny they are and seemingly insignificant, they're like the straws on the camel's back. You can't quantify our answer, which is the straw that broke the camel's back? But they're all contributing and the damage is cumulative. So we need to really be looking at the whole changing kaleidoscope of chemical exposures that we experience, without our consent very often, from prenatal life up to old age.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber, you recommend in your book Living Downstream, that the public and regulators should be more skeptical about synthetic chemicals. And you suggest that regulators adopt some new principles to protect us from chemical risks, including what you called cautionary principle: that indication of harm, not proof of harm, should be the trigger for action. And also the reverse onus principle: that chemicals should be proven safe before they can be used, rather than letting them go into commerce until proven harmful. Now, this certainly seems to make sense, but wouldn't this be very difficult, almost impossible to do in practice? I mean, we'd pretty much have to stop using most of the products that have come out of the synthetic chemical plants in this half of the century. I'm thinking of plastics, pesticides, petrochemical fuels, the list goes on.

STEINGRABER: The beauty of the precautionary principle actually is its practicality. If we don't know if something causes harm, then it's morally wrong to expose us, to use people as living test tubes, and too often chemicals are rushed onto marketplace without any advance testing of how they might interfere with our hormones, or our enzyme systems, or interact with our DNA in some sort of harmful way. Happily, everywhere I looked when I found some kind of process, whether it's an industrial one or an agricultural one, depended on the use of some cancer-causing substance, I also found somebody somewhere who had figured out a way to do it differently. And herein, I think, lies our hope.

CURWOOD: One things statistics would tell us is that just about everybody listening to us talk right now has lost a person close to them to the disease of cancer. And listening to this conversation, they might say, "Well, what can we do?" What do you suggest that they might do?

STEINGRABER: Well, I hope Living Downstream is an important blueprint for that. Because I do think of this as a very hopeful book and a very hopeful project. But this is not a matter of going out, for example, and buying one product over another. I think maybe the only exception to that might be organic agriculture. What I think needs to be done is to recognize that we're not going to be able to shop our way out of this crisis, and my best example, I think, of this is drinking water. A lot of people feel that if they drink bottled water or filtered water, they're going to save themselves from contaminants in drinking water, and therefore they can make a lifestyle switch to save them from an environmental exposure. But it turns out most of our exposure to contaminants in drinking water doesn't even come from drinking. It comes from bathing and showering. So that a half an hour, ten-minute shower, or a half an hour bath, is the exposure equivalent of drinking a half gallon of tap water. So, what is the answer going to be? I think it's going to be getting together with people in your community, finding out what the threats to your watershed are, and then taking action as a community to protect that water source, recognizing that this is a sacred, important resource that should not be contaminated.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber, at the end of your book, you say that we should adopt a human rights stance with respect to the relationship between chemical contamination and the environment. What do you mean by that?

STEINGRABER: Well, I mean that cancer-causing chemicals in the environment eventually seep into our own bodies without our consent. And this is a phenomenon a lot of us are talking about as toxic trespass.
Not only have we not consented to that, nobody knows the accumulated harm of all of these chemicals inside of our bodies. Moreover, someone is making a profit off of doing this while we're asked, without our consent, to bear the risks. My hope is that the Environmental Health movement, like the Civil Rights movement, like the Suffrage movement, like the Labor movement, will be a new manifestation of people seizing their rights to be safe, their rights to be alive, and their right to live in an environment free of anxiety about exposures that others have subjected them to.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks so much for taking this time with us.

STEINGRABER: Well, you're welcome. It was my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber is author of Living Downstream. Ms. Magazine named her as one of 10 Women of the Year for 1997.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Vermont Machismo: Ice Fishing

CURWOOD: Winter visitors to Vermont often head to the slopes for skiing and snowshoeing. But rugged locals enjoy a different kind of winter sport. Vermont transplant Steve Delaney decided to see if he might be up to the challenge.

(Footfalls on snow; slipping sounds. A man's voice: "Whoop!")

DELANEY: I'm walking on the roof of Lake Champlain, getting ready for the first scene in an irrational act.

(Scraping sounds)

DELANEY: I have to scrape the snow off the ice so I can drill it.

(Scraping continues)

DELANEY: Okay, now I've got room for the auger.

(Long scraping sound)

DELANEY: This is a sort of a giant corkscrew that (sniffles) spins up nice little shavings of ice as it digs a hole in the ice. But (sniffles) ice resists this thing. It takes a long time to drill a hole through about 18 inches of ice.

(Scraping continues, stops, metal hitting ice. Scraping resumes. Sound of plunging into water.)

DELANEY: Well, I've got a column through about 18 inches of ice; I thought it was closer to 24. Big enough to stuff a football into or pull a fish out of. See, that's the idea. This is ice fishing. It's a cultural thing in the northern states. I'm about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, and the Canadian wind has me zeroed in (sniffles).
Actually, it's below zero with the wind blowing. But that's okay, because it perfects the experience I"m having. You're not supposed to be warm when you're ice fishing.

Now, what you do is, you sit on an upside-down 5-gallon plastic bucket, and you drop a line down into the water. And on the end of the line, hiding the hook, is a make-believe fish eye, a glob of colored plastic.
Now, real Vermonters say perch go crazy over that plastic fish eye and jump on the hook. Okay, down there, I'm ready. (Pause) Um, there seems to be a pause in the excitement here. So, I've got time to think.
(Sniffles) To think thoughts like: what am I doing here? Well, I'm laying the groundwork for my remote descendants to claim Real Vermonterhood. You see, I can't be a Real Vermonter because I wasn't born here. And the kids can't, either; same reason. It's like running for President; you have to be born here to qualify. Except in Vermont it's worse, because your parents have to be born here, at a minimum.
Come on, fish.

So, my grandchildren can't be real Vermonters, either. But my great- grandchildren will quality, unless they change the rules again. Seventh- generation Vermonters get to do that, but maybe they won't. (Sniffles) Okay, so I'm sitting 100 yards off the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, and my feet have just divorced the rest of me. And my lips don't work any more. And the fish don't like globs of colored plastic today. But really, all this is worthwhile. You see, the lore and the legend have to be in place, so some child two generations unborn will be able to say in the middle of the next century, "Yes, my great-grandfather the flatlander, he used to fish right out there!" That's what we are, un-Vermonters, we're flatlanders. You see, I'm doing this for posterity.
I'm backing up credentials against the time when there will be a test of Real Vermonterhood. And when I've done it, and thawed out doesn't matter whether I catch a fish or not, but the doing of it is important.
When I've thought out, there will be another test. This year, I will be permitted to slog through melting snow and freezing mud to carry heavy buckets of maple sap, so that some Real Vermonter can boil it into maple syrup. That happens in March. The sap can hardly wait.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Steve Delaney lives near the shore of Lake Champlain in Milton, Vermont.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: If you have a comment or a question about our show, please call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. The e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $15.

And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, and Daniel Grossman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvila, and Peter Shaw. We had help from Dana Campbell, Miriam Landman, and Jeremy Jurgens, and from WGLT in Normal, Illinois. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. And the senior producer is Chris Ballman. Our director this week was Liz Lempert. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity; www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.