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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

February 13, 1998

Air Date: February 13, 1998

SEGMENTS

California Women Water Health Concern

Researchers suggest that Californians should boil or filter tap water, or use reliable bottled water. Based on a study of 5,000 pregnant women there just published in the journal Epidemiology, pregnant women who drink a lot of tap water could be at increased risk for miscarriage if the water contained high levels of chlorine by-products called tri-halo-methanes. Dr. Shanna (Shawn-ah) Swan co-authored the study. From her office at the California Department of Health Services in Emeryville, California she spoke with Steve Curwood. Swan says women who consume more than 5 -eight ounce glasses of tap water a day had the highest risk of miscarriage. (04:00)

Fighter Plane Chaff May Get Scrapped / Willie Albright

To a U.S. combat pilot, chaff is a good friend. Chaff is a jumble of tiny metallic and silica fibers that can be ejected to confuse an enemy's radar-directed weapons. A lot of chaff gets used during training missions in the Western U.S., and now there are concerns about what happens when all this chaff hits the ground. Some people say the fibers may pose a health risk to humans and animals. So, auditors at the General Accounting Office are checking it out. And if the GAO decides that chaff is hazardous, the military may have to change the way it trains combat pilots. From Reno, Nevada, Willie Albright reports. (07:00)

Cannabis, O Canada

It will soon be legal to grow hemp once again in Canada. Next month, the federal government in Ottawa is expected to approve a type of the cannabis plant to be cultivated for its fiber only. Hemp has been outlawed in Canada since the 1930's because of fears that its cultivation would encourage use of the hallucinogen marijuana. But, as Judith Ritter reports, those fears have been allayed. (03:25)

Tobaggan Delight / Bob Carty

For turning the chills of winter into the thrills of sliding, some folks head to their local toboggan hill where the action is. And that's where producer Bob Carty went, to a little run near his home in Ottawa, Canada. There he found that while the means of going from top to bottom have changed, the fun and fear have not. He sent us this sound portrait. (04:55)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, fact about....introduced species disasters. (01:15)

New Threat to Bald Eagles

The bald eagle was headed for extinction in the 1960s de to DDT, that caused eagles to lay eggs with thin shells. Since then the ban of DDT in 1972, eagle populations have slowly rebounded. Now, there is a new threat. In 1994, fishermen found an eagle carcass on Degray Lake near Little Rock. So far, wildlife officials say, at least, 55 eagles have died from unknown causes there and at two nearby lakes. The duck-like water fowl the American Coot, is also affected. Dr. Kimberli Miller, a veterinarian at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, is helping coordinate research on the die-off. She told Steve Curwood that before they perish, the birds develop a mysterious illness. (04:25)

Southern Chip Mill Boom / James Jones

Efforts to protect the spotted owl and preserve old growth forests have sharply reduced timber cutting on public lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the world-wide demand for paper, particle board and other products made from wood chips is still soaring. So, to help meet this demand, the wood chipping business has shifted to the southeastern United States. This move is transforming the region's timber industry and attitudes towards it. James Jones reports from North Carolina. (08:15)

The Joy of Paper / Tatiana Schreiber

In the U.S. we cut lots of trees and recycle some paper to make more paper. But, in Mexico, at least one business makes paper out of ordinary household trash. Tatiana Schreiber made the discovery during a recent visit to Chiapas, and it got her thinking about both technology and work. (03:20)

Cold Frame Garden Spot

Tips on how Cold Frames can warm up the garden even in winter. The tricks of acclimating seedlings and plants are revealed by Living On Earth's resident gardening expert Michael Weishan (weiss-HAN). (05:25)

Valdez Oil Spill: Slimy Souvenirs for Sale / Nancy Lord

An update on an old story that just won't go away. It seems that the cleanup from the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is not over yet. The state of Alaska still owns 2,000 samples of oil taken by scientists as evidence in various lawsuits. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has a plan to dispose of the samples: by selling them as souvenirs. Commentator Nancy Lord is not impressed. Lord is author of "Fishcamp: Life on the Alaskan Shore" and she comes to us from member station K-B-B-I in Homer. Alaska. (03:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Willie Albright, Judith Ritter, Bob Carty, James Jones, Tatiana Schreiber GUESTS: Shanna Swan, Dr. Kimberli Miller, Michael Weishan
COMMENTATOR: Nancy Lord

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Disturbing news from California health officials: Pregnant women run an increased risk of miscarriage if there are too many chlorine-related contaminants in tap water.

SWAN: Chlorine is in there for a very good reason. However, we're not sure that the amount that's allowed in there now is absolutely necessary for health.

CURWOOD: Researchers suggest that consumers boil or filter tap water, or use reliable bottled water. Also, concerns are mounting about the widespread dumping of chaff used in training missions for combat aircraft. And turning the chills of winter into the thrills of sliding.

WOMAN: There's nothing like cuddling up on the back of a toboggan with your kid in front of you. (A child shouts; a toboggan whooshes through snow. Children yell and laugh.)

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

California Women Water Health Concern

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Know your local water supply. That seems to be the message from some new research in California. A study of 5,000 pregnant women there, just published in the journal Epidemiology, found that pregnant women who drink a lot of tap water could be at increased risk for miscarriage. Dr. Shanna Swan coauthored the study. We spoke to her in her office at the California Department of Health Services in Emeryville, California. She says women who consume more than 5 8-ounce glasses of tap water a day had the highest risk of miscarriage if the water contained high levels of chlorine byproducts called trihalomethanes.

SWAN: It was increased from 9 and a half percent to about 16%. That's an 80% increase.

CURWOOD: That's getting on the scale of almost twice as many.

SWAN: That's close to twice as many. Right.

CURWOOD: Why do you suspect the trihalomethanes?

SWAN: Well, there have been a number of studies suggesting that trihalomethanes affect reproductive risk. These studies were conducted both in humans and in animals. There have been studies on increased risks of miscarriage; a small study of birth defects, particularly neural tube defects; low birth weight; and prematurity. So, it was a natural question to ask.

CURWOOD: Now, the reason people put chlorine in municipal drinking water supplies is to try to get rid of contaminants, particularly bacterial contaminants. And if water utilities were to cut their use of chlorine, wouldn't there be an increased risk of contamination making it into people's drinking water?

SWAN: Yes, that is an important concern. And I think the overriding message that people should remember is that chlorine is in there for a very good reason. And it has prevented a great deal of disease and death, possibly. However, we're not sure that the amount that's allowed in there now is absolutely necessary for health. And that's the kind of deliberation that EPA is undergoing now, with their consideration of down-regulating trihalomethanes.

CURWOOD: What levels do you consider to be too high of trihalomethanes?

SWAN: In our study, the cutoff for a high was 75 micrograms per liter. That is lower than either the current standard or the proposed standard.

CURWOOD: Which is the regulation? One hundred micrograms per liter.

SWAN: Right, current regulation.

CURWOOD: And what is the proposed level of notification?

SWAN: The proposed level is 80, but it's also based on an annual average as well as a system-wide average.

CURWOOD: And where would you put the level at right now, based on the research that you've seen?

SWAN: I don't think that based on one study alone, you know, we can recommend changing the levels.

CURWOOD: How can one find out if one has high exposure to these chemicals?

SWAN: You can ask your utility. They will tell you, and for many utilities it will be on your bill or on your annual statement.

CURWOOD: And if you do have high exposure to these, is there anything that someone at home can do?

SWAN: Well, there are 4 options which they might consider. The first thing to remember, though, is that it's important for pregnant women to drink lots of water. So whatever you do, don't stop drinking water. The 4 options are to let the water stand in the refrigerator, although this is somewhat controversial; to boil the water before drinking it for one minute, but that's kind of cumbersome; to use an activated carbon filter, being sure to use an approved filter and service it regularly; or you could drink bottled water, remembering that bottled water is not guaranteed to be safer than tap water, and will vary from area to area.

CURWOOD: Shanna Swan is chief of the Reproductive Epidemiology Section of the California Department of Health Services. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

SWAN: Thank you, Steve.

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(Music up and under)

Fighter Plane Chaff May Get Scrapped

CURWOOD: To a US combat pilot, chaff is a good friend. Chaff is a jumble of tiny metallic and silica fibers that can be ejected to confuse an enemy's radar-directed weapons. A lot of chaff gets used during training missions in the west, and now there are concerns about what happens when all this chaff hits the ground. Some people say the fibers may pose a health risk to humans and animals. So, auditors at the General Accounting Office are checking it out. And if the GAO decides that chaff is hazardous, the military may have to change the way it trains combat pilots. From Reno, Nevada, Willie Albright reports.

(Plane engines)

ALBRIGHT: On most days it's not unusual to find Navy or Air Force jets engaged in mock combat in the skies over Nevada. Nevada is home to the largest fighter training ranges in the United States, and over 80% of the state is subject to some sort of military overflight. Most combat training involves the use of chaff for self defense. When air crews detect a weapons lock, they eject a chaff canister that creates a large cloud of reflective material, which resembles the aircraft on radar. Hopefully, the attacker will fire at the chaff instead of the aircraft. Air Force Colonel Fred Pease is Chief of the Airspace and Range Division at the Pentagon. During Operation Desert Storm, Pease flew 33 combat missions. He says he used chaff every time.

PEASE: I certainly would not want to be in a combat situation without chaff. And also trained on how to use it, too, because it's not just dropping it, you know, I mean, it's difficult to use very, extremely well. It takes a lot of practice.

ALBRIGHT: Colonel Pease says this is because the tracking radar looks for speed, but chaff decelerates rapidly when it's deployed. Pilots have to be able to simultaneously fire the chaff and maneuver at the last moment, and that takes practice. Chaff is made of tiny fibers of silica impregnated with aluminum. These fibers are so small that they could fall under Federal standards for particulates, which the Environmental Protection Agency regulates as a health hazard. A single canister contains half a million of these fibers. Ten trillion chaff fibers have been dropped on Nevada over the last 20 years. Clumps of chaff can be found throughout rural Nevada.

POTORTI: Well, it looks like angel hair.

ALBRIGHT: Grace Potorti of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, a military watchdog group, has a baggie of chaff collected in the Nevada desert.

POTORTI: It breaks down. At the bottom of the bag you can see where the fibers have broken into very minute small particles that sort of crumble. It just looks really nasty.

ALBRIGHT: Ms. Potorti has forged an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, miners, ranchers, and state officials, who are calling for studies into the possible health risks associated with chaff.

POTORTI: Chaff is an abuse because it's being dropped on rural people without their knowledge, first of all, and it's a potential health risk. There are no human health studies on what happens if you inhale or ingest a particle of chaff.

ALBRIGHT: Silica and aluminum are not considered toxic, but the small size of chaff fibers raises concerns that they can act as asbestos does when inhaled, causing cancer. Silica concentrations in water are also linked to gastrointestinal cancer.

(Plane engines running)

ALBRIGHT: The Federal Bureau of Land Management is also getting into the controversy because a large amount of chaff falls on public lands. David Loomis is an environmental planner with the BLM and an expert on military land use in Nevada. Standing outside an air base, Loomis says existing studies on the effects of chaff are sorely inadequate.

LOOMIS: The most widely quoted study was done by the Canadian Air Force back in 1972, and they fed some chaff mixed with molasses to 6 cows for 2 weeks. And the cows didn't die, so they concluded that there was no adverse effects of chaff on livestock. And that same study has been used to say that there's really no effects on any other kind of livestock, either, or on the wildlife, for that matter.

ALBRIGHT: Other studies have been equally limited in scope and duration. However, two 14-day studies of the Chesapeake Bay in 1977 revealed toxic effects to oysters. At a recent workshop of western region BLM officials, it was concluded that there is inadequate information about the effects of chaff, and that dropping chaff on public lands constitutes littering and should not be authorized because of its potential health hazards. Mr. Loomis says the existing chaff needs to be cleaned up, and that the military should develop a biodegradable chaff.

LOOMIS: The bottom line is that we need to make sure that this stuff is safe for the environment and safe for our own employees, and people who use these areas for recreation and for people who live in areas where chaff is being dropped. And without further study, we simply don't have enough information to reach that conclusion.

ALBRIGHT: In response to these concerns, US Senator Harry Reid of Nevada has directed the General Accounting Office to conduct its own investigation into how chaff is employed, and how well its effects on the environment have been studied by the military. Senator Reid says an independent investigation will if nothing else put the public's minds at ease.

REID: Even if they're right, it doesn't look right for them to be their own judge and jury. If we're ever going to get this resolved, we're going to have to have somebody other than the military do it, because they could run ten studies, all coming out negative and nobody would believe it.

ALBRIGHT: Senator Reid says he is awaiting the results of the GAO study before taking further action. If it is found to be a health hazard there may be a call to switch to a biodegradable chaff currently under development, but Senator Reid says this may be too expensive, and Colonel Pease says it will still contain silica and aluminum and pose the same risks if any. Other options might be to limit training with chaff, or to rely more on computer- simulated combat, but Colonel Pease says that would be no substitute for the real thing.

(Planes taking off)

ALBRIGHT: For Living on Earth, I'm Willy Albright in Reno, Nevada.

Back to top

(Plane engines; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: When heading downhill feels like reaching for the sky. Some thrills to match the chills of winter, coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Cannabis, O Canada

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It will soon be legal to grow hemp once again in Canada. Next month the federal government in Ottawa is expected to approve a type of cannabis plant to be cultivated for its fiber only. Hemp has been outlawed in Canada since the 1930s because of fears that its cultivation would encourage the use of the hallucinogen, marijuana. But as Judith Ritter reports, those fears have apparently been allayed.

RITTER: Canadian farmers and manufacturers eager to cash in on the hemp market began the push to legalize the crop years ago. So in 1994, Canada's Health Department began studying European commercial hemp growing. They reviewed scientific evidence, conducted their own agricultural research, and concluded that under controlled conditions industrial hemp posed no drug threat to Canada. Dr. Gordon Scheifele worked for three years with the Ontario Minister of Agriculture on the Hemp Research Project. He believes now that the drug issue is resolved, a commercial hemp industry may help preserve forests and provide income for Canadian farmers limited by the severe climate.

SCHEIFELE: We are looking at seriously finding alternative sources of fiber for supplementing, as well as replacing, our wood fiber, which is a natural resource that is being depleted very rapidly and has major concern to us as an environmental issue.

RITTER: Saving trees is just one of the environmental reasons behind the push to change Canada's hemp law. Hemp is also soil-friendly. That's been the experience in European countries where hemp is a legal and flourishing industry. Poland is one such place, and Dr. Ryszard Kozlowski is the Director General of the nation's Institute of Natural Fibers.

KOZLOWSKI: We don't use herbicide for growing hemp. We don't use so much fertilizing, chemical fertilizing system. And another very important thing which we discover is that hemp extracts some heavy metals, especially cadmium, from the polluted land.

RITTER: In the United States, growing hemp is illegal. But in several states, including Kentucky, Colorado, and Vermont, farmers are lobbying state officials for the right to do so. Donald Danforth, a consultant to the US paper industry, says Canada's decision to allow hemp production could spur action across the border.

DANFORTH: The fact that Canada will shortly deregulate the growing of hemp should have a very positive effect on the situation in the United States, because this will mean that the United States is the only country that has this prohibition against the growing of hemp, and that seems to me grossly unfair to the farmers who could profit from it. And also the grange in the United States, which I understand is something like 4 million members, has unanimously endorsed the growing of hemp. So there's a great deal of interest.

RITTER: Next month, the Canadian government will accept applications from farmers for hemp growing licenses. But as virtuous as hemp is environmentally, there's no guarantee it will be a commercial success. Hemp seed oil can be used for food products. And hemp fiber can be made into fiberboard and paper. But as yet there's no real demand for these products. Still, farmers are enthusiastic about the possibilities. And when the ice melts this spring, they'll be sowing hemp seeds in Canadian soil for the first time in a half a century. For Living on Earth, I'm Judith Ritter in Montreal.

Back to top

 

Tobaggan Delight

CURWOOD: For folks in the chilly climes, winter can be more than slippery sidewalks, cranky cars, and runny noses. With enough snow the neighborhood toboggan hill is ready for action. And that's where producer Bob Carty went: to a little run near his home in Ottawa, where he found that while the means of going from top to bottom have changed, the fun and fear have not. He sent us this sound portrait.

(Children yelling and screaming, whooshing down snow.)

MAN: (Laughing) Tobogganing is one of the many entertainments we have in Canada to get through the winter and have fun with this cold, white stuff that we have to slog through most days of the week.

(Children, breathless.)

CHILD: Push me! Push me!

WOMAN: You're going to go by yourself?

CHILD: Yes.

WOMAN: Ready?

CHILD: Yes.

WOMAN: Here you go! Whoo!

(Children and adults shout)

CHILD 1: The hardest part, like the top of the hill, there's like --

CHILD 2: Icy.

CHILD 1: Icy. So that's the hardest part.

WOMAN: Most of the kids are into the GTs. It's 3 skis and it's got a steering wheel. They start at $30 and they run up to $80. Personally I wouldn't try this. (Laughs) Too fast. For me.

(Children screaming and yelling)

MAN: My favorite was the sleigh with the runners, and the preferable posture for running this thing was head first. And it was great because when you're head first you're (laughs) a lot closer to the action, that's for sure. Even when you tumble, even when you overturn, as long as you're not hurt, the snow is very forgiving. (Laughs)

CHILD 1: It's best when you wipe out, I find.

CHILD 2: I don't think so. I don't find wiping out is very fun. What's fun for me is going as far as I can, going over jumps. Sometimes you aim for the bumps, sometimes they just come right out of the blue and you hit them.

(Children screaming. A knock)

WOMAN: That's your plastic. Plastic toboggans, which are fairly inexpensive. Plastic goes over anything. once they crack, though, they're gone.

(More yelling. A child yells, "Major wipe out!" Another yells, "Nice one!")

CHILD: Best ride I ever had was on this really big hill. Because we went down this hill and we went into that, to the water over there, like where there is ice. It was really fun.

(More yelling. A child yells, "Oh my God!")

MAN: As a kid you're always looking for a good tobogganing hill. Good judgment wasn't exercised in choosing the hills, so there were often trees or brick walls at the bottom of them or something like that. The idea is to miss the trees, but we weren't all that successful in doing that. Toboggans seem to have homing devices in them that aim for the nearest trees.

(More yelling. One child is crying. Another says, "Told you." A man says, "Hold on, hold on." More crying and screaming. Man: "It's okay, it's my fault." Woman: "You're okay.")

MAN: I think parents want safety and kids want excitement, right? So there's a constant tension between those 2 factors.

MAN 2: Tuck in your feet, put on your tooks, here we go! Oh yeah! I feel the need, the need for speed! (Whooshing through snow)

MAN 3: To this day my buddies and I still will get dressed up late at night, drag our stuff out to the hill. At this point in life we can drive to the hill. And we'll go tobogganing down the hill hooting like we were 6 years old. So yeah, it's still a rush for me.

MAN 4: Whoo! (Laughs) Party line!

MAN 5: We're alive! (Laughs maniacally)

WOMAN: Crazy carpets, they slide very quickly. You can throw them in the back of your trunk with no problem. Two-forty-nine to $3. Then you're going into your steel toboggans (bangs on steel), and finally we have our wooden toboggans that come in various sizes. They do still buy them but they're very expensive compared to your plastic. It's $28.99 up to $45.That's what I had when I -- that's all they had when I was young.(Laughs) Just the wooden toboggans. They didn't have the plastic like they have today. When I see wooden toboggans I think it's winter. There's nothing like cuddling up on a back of a toboggan with your kid in front of you. (A child yells; whooshing through snow; children yelling and laughing)

(Music up and under: the theme from the Olympics)

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait of winter fun was produced by Bob Carty.

Back to top

(Olympics theme continues up and under)

CURWOOD: You can reach Living on Earth by calling our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. The e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $15.

It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Olympics theme continues 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; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Jennifer and Ted Stanley.

(Olympics theme continues up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: There's a new threat to the bald eagle and right now scientists don't know how to stop it. That story is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund, and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

(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: Sixty-three years ago, more than 100 cane toads were shipped from Hawaii to Queensland, Australia. They were supposed to rid the continent of the troublesome sugar cane grub. But like so many introduced species, the toads soon turned the tables. Today, they are the pests, running rampant all over Australia, a result of prolific breeding. Introduced species, or exotics, often wreak havoc on unprepared ecosystems. The Indian mongoose was introduced to Hawaii to cut the rat population there, but ended up eating just about everything else, including several endangered bird species. Islands tend to be most vulnerable to exotics, but even the mainland isn't immune. In the continental US, a third of the animals on the Endangered Species List landed there because of exotics. Sometimes exotics take over so quickly they seem to be natives. In 1877 the Russian thistle was introduced in South Dakota and soon spread throughout the west. Today we know it as the tumbleweed. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

New Threat to Bald Eagles

CURWOOD: Chosen in 1782 as our national emblem, the majestic bald eagle was headed for extinction in the 1960s. The turning point came with the 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT that had caused eagles to lay eggs with thin shells. Since then, eagle populations have rebounded. Now, there appears to be a new threat. In 1994 fishermen found an eagle carcass on Degray Lake near Little Rock, Arkansas, Then they found another, and then another. So far, wildlife officials say, at least 55 bald eagles have died from unknown causes there and at 2 nearby lakes. The American coot, which looks like a duck or a goose, is also affected. Dr. Kimberli Miller, a veterinarian at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, is helping coordinate research on the die-off. She told me that before they perish, the birds develop a mysterious illness.

MILLER: Sick birds in the field have been observed flying into rock walls, flying into trees, flying very wobbly. The coots have been described as looking like they're drunk, almost. They will walk along the ground, putting their wings out for balance. Some birds have been observed on their backs in the water with their feet in the air, trying to swim. They end up swimming in circles.

CURWOOD: Now, eagles are birds of prey, although they're also rather scavenger-like, aren't they, in the wildlife?

MILLER: Yes, that's true. They will feed on anything that's available, and certainly carcasses along the road or on the shore are very easy prey to catch. And they also will eat fish and ducks, coots.

CURWOOD: So if eagles eat water fowl like coot, do you think that the eagles are getting this illness from the coot? Or is there some other reason why both birds, and only those two birds, are being affected?

MILLER: That certainly is one possibility that the eagles are becoming affected by eating affected coots. Or, it could be that the coots and the eagles are coming in contact with the same disease agent independently of each other.

CURWOOD: Is there anything that you've learned so far about what's causing this problem?

MILLER: We really feel that what we're dealing with here is some type of toxin. When you look at the birds, they're in good body condition. They have good fat stores. They look like they should be healthy birds. But the only consistent finding in the eagles and in the coots is a small, microscopic change in the brains and the spinal cords of these birds. And this lesion, this change that we're seeing, there's only some very specific things that are known in the literature to cause that type of change.

CURWOOD: If there's a toxin in the environment that's causing this, what could it be? What kind of toxins cause these changes in the brain, these lesions that you say are there?

MILLER: Well, the things that are known of in the literature to cause this, it's a pretty short list. There's a rodenticide that has been associated with this. There are toxic plants in South Africa and Australia that have been associated with this. Some human medications for tuberculosis or copper deficiency.

CURWOOD: Are there any signs of toxins in the bodies of these birds?

MILLER: No, not really, in terms of toxins showing up in the tissues that we've examined. We're really not finding anything significant that will point us toward the answer as to what's going on here. Actually, one thing I should point out is that this year, we found coots on a lake in North Carolina and a lake in Georgia that have the same neurologic lesion.

CURWOOD: So, this is quite a mystery. Somehow, something is happening, you think it's likely a toxin and yet you can't find the toxin.

MILLER: It's certainly possible that whatever it is may only be present in the body for a short time. And so, perhaps, you know, we're seeing the manifestations of the problem, but perhaps the compound can no longer be detected. Or perhaps we're not using the right analytical method to pinpoint what that compound might be. There are a lot of questions, and you're right, it is a mystery as to just what it is that is causing the microscopic change that we're seeing in these birds. And that's something that we're working very hard at trying to determine, so that we aren't continually faced every fall and winter with mortality in eagles at these sites.

CURWOOD: Kimberli Miller is a veterinarian and wildlife disease specialist at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Thank you so much, Dr. Miller, for taking this time with us.

MILLER: Thank you, Steve.

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(Music up and under: "Everybody Look What's Going Down")

Southern Chip Mill Boom

CURWOOD: Efforts to protect the spotted owl and preserve old growth forests have sharply reduced timber cutting on public lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the worldwide demand for paper, particleboard, and other products made from wood chips is still soaring. So, to help meet this demand, the wood chipping business has shifted to the southeastern United States. This move is transforming the region's timber industry and attitudes toward it. James Jones reports.

(Construction engines)

JONES: Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on Willamette Industry's wood chipping mill at Union Mills in western North Carolina.

(Crunching metal sounds)

JONES: Company officials say it will grind up 300,000 tons of wood per year when it opens this spring. It's one of over 100 chip mills that have been built across the south in the last decade. When residents of Union Mills found out Willamette was coming to town, they tried to stop it.

FULTRACO: We just saw this little, tiny article in our local newspaper.

JONES: Lynn Fultraco of Union Mills is with the group Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County.

FULTRACO: About 6 or 10 of us decided that we needed to find out what this industry was all about, and how it was going to affect our community. And the more we found out about it, the less we liked about it.

JONES: The group worries the mill will destroy the beauty and the tranquility of their forested valley. So, Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County, a group without a single experienced activist among them, locked horns with an industry giant.

FULTRACO: Not only was it going to impact us locally, just within our immediate range area, it was going to impact people all over the state, particularly in western North Carolina, and then it just kind of started to spread to other parts of the state into other parts of the southeast region.

JONES: The activists lost the fight, but their battle reverberated far beyond Union Mills. A citizen's group in Stokes County, North Carolina, recently blocked a planned chip mill. Another group succeeded in denying Weyerhauser a permit to build a chipping facility in Arkansas. Until recently, this kind of environmental activism was rare in the south. It's grown with the chipping craze, which began in the late 80s and early 90s. Federal lands in the Northwest were getting locked up in lawsuits. Big paper and particleboard companies began expanding paper mills in the south, and chip mills sprang up to supply them.

(Mill sounds: motors, banging)

JONES: The Bristol Industries chip mill near Marion, North Carolina, is typical. Trees roll around in a huge drum, which strips the bark. The logs slide into the chipper and the machine spits out stamp-sized chips into a waiting rail car.

(Chips being discharged)

JONES: Analysts estimate that from the Carolinas to east Texas, chip mills now consume a million acres of southern woodlands each year. In 1985 there were 32 chip mills in the South; today, there are 140. And the newer, larger mills have a much bigger appetite for trees. That has locals worried about the future of southern forests. Danna Smith is with the Dogwood Alliance, a new coalition working on the issue.

SMITH: Our forests are being over-cut at the expense of our water quality, wildlife habitat, threatened and endangered species, and also our local economies. And if this level of cutting continues, our forests in the Southeast are going to be gone.

JONES: The timber companies typically replant clear-cut areas in fast-growing pine. But these single-species forests don't provide the rich animal habitat of a natural mixed forest. Activists also contend that the industry doesn't always use the best methods for protecting streams from soil runoff. But university foresters insist for now, the overall growth rate still exceeds timber cutting in the south. And Willamette's Shannon Buckley says the locals who oppose his mill exaggerate the risk to the forest.

BUCKLEY: If you look at the overall wood picture in this area, saw mills and everything else, the wood that they’ll take to log this mill will be about a 5% increase over current logging. So it's not a huge increase, and it's not a panic situation for these people. There's been a lot of things blown out of proportion.

JONES: Mr. Buckley says Willamette built at Union Mills precisely because timber growth in the area, particularly growth in hardwoods, is exceeding harvest. But a number of practices make chipping different from the traditional timber business of the region.

(Loud highway sounds)

JONES: Industry officials say loggers deliver trees to chip mills from up to 100 miles away. The mills feed on younger trees, and usually they leave bare and clear-cut areas in their wake. These practices have shocked a lot of small-town Southerners who are accustomed to saw mills that draw mostly on local timber. Harvard Ayres, Chairman of the group Appalachian Voices, says Southerners never had a problem with that kind of operation.

AYRES: And those saw mills have been around there forever. But except for that frenzy of cutting, which occurred in the early part of this century, they've managed to live in balance, pretty much, with what's growing there, and managed to maintain a reasonable level of habitat protection for critters. And now, with these new voracious appetite chip mills coming along, they cannot exist on just a little bit. They can't eat just one.

(Mill cutting sounds)

JONES: Even owners of saw mills, like this one cutting hardwood timber into boards, are joining environmental activists in questioning the wisdom of chipping southern woodlands. Mark Barford is with the industry group The Appalachian Hardwood Council.

BARFORD: The obvious harvesting of trees before they grow to a large size is obviously directly incompatible with what we want. We want to see a forest grow to maturity.

JONES: Mr. Barford says small saw mills and furniture makers thrive on large, older trees that are selectively cut, a method that is more likely to protect watersheds and animal habitat and preserve the beauty of southern Appalachia. He says his industry and activists face a serious challenge. Ninety percent of forest land in the South is private, and when it comes to logging on those lands activists can't appeal to regulators or the courts. The only real hope, Mr. Barford says, is a campaign to discourage land owners from selling to chippers for quick cash.

BARFORD: So, it's a real easy equation to put down to a landowner and say yeah, you can get x-amount now, but you can get so much more by growing that to a more mature forest. And the beauty of that, of course, from the standpoint, and this is where we agree so much with our environmentalist friends, is that along the way you're also adding a forest, an environment.

JONES: It's an argument activists say could work in the south. Almost 1 in 5 people living in the Southeast today weren't there 15 years ago. Many came for jobs, but a lot of others came for the beauty of the Southern woodlands. A recent survey showed that a majority of land owners now favor animal habitat and aesthetics over logging as the most important values of their forests. That sentiment may not be slowing down timber sales, but the furor that started in Union Mills has been heard at the state capitol. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Protection plans to study the chipping industry. Deputy Director Henry Lancaster.

LANCASTER: We've decided that we need to take a look at it and make a determination: if there is going to be a growth trend in this facilities, then we need to understand them better so that if there is a need for us to play a stronger regulatory role, we can do that more responsibly.

JONES: The North Carolina study will gauge the impact of this industry on the forests, waterways, roads, and local economies. And North Carolina isn't alone. Missouri officials have proposed a new clean water permit that will require tougher review of chip mills. One US EPA regional office temporarily stopped a permit for a mill, citing the impact of clear-cuts. And newspaper editorials across the South have urged state and federal officials to make sure chip mills don't spread further without careful study. Despite this new scrutiny, timber companies continue to build the mills. But now they know a lot of people are watching. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Union Mills, North Carolina.

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The Joy of Paper

CURWOOD: In the US, we cut lots of trees and recycle some paper to make more paper. But in Mexico, at least one business makes paper out of ordinary household trash. Tatiana Schreiber made the discovery during a recent visit to Chiapas, and it got her thinking about technology and work.

(Ambient voices, flowing water)

SCHREIBER: I'm in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, and I've wandered into the sunny courtyard of Taller Leñateros. It's a worker-owned company making handmade paper. They also produce cards, posters, books, and a literary magazine. Ambar Pazt, who started the business, shows me around.

PAZT: There's big piles of flower stems that we get from the churches. There are dried banana stalks from banana trees, which are usually burned after they produce their bananas. There's (splashing water) huge buckets and bins...

MONTOYA: (Speaks in Spanish about gladiolas)

SCHREIBER: Dona Rosalia Montoya is one of about 20 workers in the shop. She explains how she mixes up pulp from plant fibers in a big tank of water and then scoops some onto a screen mold to make the paper. Then she lays out the wet sheets on metal trays to dry in the sun. The process is simple. The result is beautiful. And Ambar says the materials are practically free.

PAZT: You know, these gladiola stems are, they've been in the church for a week and they are thrown in the garbage. So, it's a great satisfaction to feel that you're making something out of nothing. (Crunching sounds)

(Radio music in the background)

SCHREIBER: Paper making here isn't exactly efficient. But in its very inefficiency, some of the best designs emerge and new production techniques are born. In fact, they recently switched to a bicycle-powered machine to beat pulp, because it makes a higher-quality paper than the industrial electric blender they used before.

(Metallic sounds)

PAZT: As you can see here, it has a bicycle chain. It has a bicycle sprocket wheel...

SCHREIBER: It strikes me that Taller Leñateros stands in opposition to the digital age, where all our time is spent communing with computer screens.

(Splashing water)

SCHREIBER: The courtyard is blooming with gladiolas, carnations, pansies, and other plants used in the paper. I'm reluctant to leave this place full of color and scents, like eucalyptus and calendula. On the way out, Ambar shows me the storeroom shelves piled high with paper in every imaginable shade.

PAZT: This is made out of old Mayan skirts, which eventually become threadbare. And they're dyed with indigo and we buy them and cut them in little pieces and grind them up...

SCHREIBER: Here, work celebrates things of substance and texture made by human hands. The shop's logo is an ink print of a hand, one of the oldest images found in rock art. Ambar says one of Taller Leñateros's goals is to recycle disappearing Mayan art, language, and stories. As the world plummets into the electronic age, it might be wise to think about what other treasured parts of life and work we can reclaim before they disappear.

PAZT: This is made out of migueta, look at...

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber.

PAZT: ... and it has a few flowers in it; I really like it...

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: How cold frames can warm up the garden even in winter. That trick is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Cold Frame Garden Spot

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

(Loud sound, sliding door opening?)

WEISHAN: Okay, Steve, let's go outside.

(Door slides; footfalls and bird calls)

WEISHAN: Careful on the ice here; it's treacherous footing.

CURWOOD: Okay.

(More footfalls)

CURWOOD: So, Michael, it looks like you've gotten some of the freezing rain that has bedeviled the northeast this winter.

WEISHAN: Ah, yeah.

CURWOOD: Your power lines aren't down, thank heavens. But still, we have a smooth, hard, and slippery crust here in your back yard. Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's gardening expert. And Michael, you've brought us outside of your nice, warm greenhouse to look at your cold frames. Now, how does this work? How does this thing, which is outside here in the cold, manage to get the garden going earlier than it might otherwise go?

WEISHAN: Well, it's actually pretty ingenious. It's essentially a miniature solar greenhouse. And it's not only for aggressive gardening types. It's for anybody who's interested in growing crops either earlier or later in the season than they would normally do so. And especially in the northern, colder parts of the country, this is almost a necessity for getting things going and started.

CURWOOD: Okay, now, let's describe what the cold frame is here.

WEISHAN: Yes, it's essentially a box built of timbers with glass or, in this particular case, plastic windows on top that raise and lower. For the average home owner, even for the rooftop gardener, you can buy a kit for about $100 from most of the gardening supply houses that is ready to go and you just put it on the ground. I've seen people use hay bales as the walls, side walls, and an old window as the top. Anything that will essentially give you a square structure that you can put some type of glass or hard surface on top of.

CURWOOD: And which side should it face? Down to the south, is that the way we're looking?

WEISHAN: This one faces to the south, and that's by far the best location. Because you're trying to capture solar heat.

CURWOOD: Now, what months can you use a cold frame to grow plants?

WEISHAN: Well, it's both ends of the growing season. So here we are, standing out in late winter, and we're about to do some planting. So essentially as soon as you can get out to the cold frame, and it's not covered with snow, you can actually start working. We also use it actually at the end of the summer for growing melons and sweet potatoes, which are too long season for this climate. So as soon as the plants are out, then we plant a whole nother crop that will grow here through the summer and way into the fall, which we generally harvest in November, long after the first frost.

CURWOOD: What are the plants you're going to put in here?

WEISHAN: Well, we're going to plant today I've just chosen some of my favorites red leaf lettuce; a little arugula, because that really spices up an early spring or late winter salad; and some romaine, which is another one of my favorites. But you could easily grow radishes, and that's a great project for the kids because they come up very quickly and you can see the plants and eat the product within about 30 days. Spinach is another cold weather crop. Anything that you have room for, quite frankly, depending on the size of your cold frame.

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: Okay, so let's go. I'm just going to -- I'm going to hand you the seeds, Steve, and I'm going to hand you a tool here. And I'm going to open the frame.

(Loud sounds; ice falling)

WEISHAN: All right.

CURWOOD: I'm going to say it's pretty amazing to be knocking the ice off of this cold frame and planting at the same time. (Laughs)

WEISHAN: It is amazing. What's even more amazing is to come out in the middle of a snow storm or late in the season just before Christmas and knock the snow off the glass and raise it up and find a perfectly healthy crop of fresh organic vegetables. What more can you ask? It's really a terrific ancient technology.

CURWOOD: Why wouldn't it work all the way around the calendar?

WEISHAN: There are several considerations. One is that the base temperatures, at least in Boston, it's a little too cold. If you lived in the Southern parts of the country, you could probably do it. The other issue is that light is a great factor in plant growth; and quite frankly, in the middle of winter there's just not enough light to get the plants growing. They'll sit there, almost dormant, for most of the winter, until the spring sunlight arrives.

CURWOOD: Okay, let's go.

WEISHAN: Okay. Let's try a red leaf lettuce here first. You like red leaf lettuce?

CURWOOD: Oh, I do.

WEISHAN: All right. Just pour some into your hand like that.

CURWOOD: Okay.

WEISHAN: And then take your fingers like you're taking a pinch of salt. You get much better control. Go right down the line there.

(Finger rubbing sounds)

WEISHAN: All right, there's our completed row.

CURWOOD: So, what do I do next, here?

WEISHAN: What you're going to do next is water, and this is a crucial element in a cold frame. Because it's outside, everyone, myself included (laughs), seems to forget to water it. Because you think well, it's outside, it's raining, you know, it doesn't need water. But as you can see here, where the snow melt hasn't actually dripped through the frame, the soil is quite dry. So, we're going to actually water this heavily and then let it go. And we'll want to check it periodically to make sure that there is sufficient moisture for the seeds to sprout.

(Splashing water)

CURWOOD: That's an important tool you've got there in the back corner. What... let me

WEISHAN: (Laughs) That's a hops harvest. That's my father's souvenir beer can. He actually built these cold frames for me a number of years ago. That was his much well-deserved reward at the end of a very hard day. It was 90 degrees one summer. But it reminds me of him so I"ve left it there over the years as sort of a tribute.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Michael, thanks for helping us get the garden started.

WEISHAN: My pleasure. Thanks for coming. Once again, this free labor's always appreciated.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. And if you would like to ask him a question about cold frames or anything else about gardening, check out our Web site at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Click on the picture of the watering can.

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(Music up and under)

Valdez Oil Spill: Slimy Souvenirs for Sale

CURWOOD: And finally, this week, an update on an old story that just won't go away. It seems that the clean-up from the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is not over yet. The State of Alaska still owns 2,000 samples of oil taken by scientists as evidence in various lawsuits. And the State Department of Environmental Conservation has a plan to dispose of the samples: sell them as souvenirs. Commentator Nancy Lord is not impressed.

LORD: Here's the deal. Each sample, ranging from 40 milliliters to 1 liter, and containing some mix of crude oil, sea water, rock, and other debris, is in its original container and will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. For $5 plus a $5 shipping fee, you can have your very own piece of filthy legal evidence collected at the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.

The problem I have with this fundraising scheme is simple. Say you order your authentic oil spill sample. Then what? You display it on your living room mantle or coffee table? You shake it up and look at the way oil and water don't mix? After a while, after you've suitably impressed your friends and neighbors, the bottle ends up on a back shelf next to your pet rock, then down in the basement, then where? If it wasn't bad enough that the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude into pristine waters, eventually spreading over 10,000 square miles of ocean and fouling more than 1,200 miles of shoreline, now we have a chance to extend its pollution even further. After its novelty has warn off, my guess is that most samples will get thrown into the trash to go to neighborhood landfills, or poured down the drain and end up in another body of water. With enough irresponsibility, we can extend that one horrendous oil spill all the way around the world.

Let's not forget the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But let's memorialize it another way. Let's insist that oil wastes be disposed of properly, and that spill prevention measures be adopted and enforced everywhere.

I'd like to applaud the creativity of employees at Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation. But their plan for getting rid of 2,000 samples of crude oil and oily debris is a bit too creative for me.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is author of Fishcamp: Life on the Alaskan Shore. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We had help from Dana Campbell, Miriam Landman, Jeremy Jurgens, and Vanessa Melendez. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau and Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Production team includes Liz Lempert, George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, and Daniel Grossman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, and Peter Shaw. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. 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.

 

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