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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 22, 1999

Air Date: January 22, 1999

SEGMENTS

EPA Air Pollution Study Put on Hold

An air pollution study by the Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that at least 8 airborne chemicals exist at dangerous levels nationwide. But the EPA has decided to withhold the results of the study after objections by the U-S Conference of Mayors. Host Steve Curwood gets details from Boston Globe environment reporter Scott Allen. (04:45)

Pesticide Pamphlet Controversy / Steve Curwood

Under Congressional mandate, the EPA was supposed to produce a straight-talking pamphlet telling consumers about the hazards of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. But health activists aren’t happy with the final product, saying the agency caved in to pressure from the agribusiness lobby. (05:27)

Pakistani Iodine / Richard Galpin

Iodine deficiencies haven't been a problem for Americans in decades. But in Pakistan, this age-old curse is returning with a vengeance, causing problems including mental retardation. Deforestation and flooding wash the iodine out of the soil and don't allow it to work up through the food chain. Government warnings aren't reaching the right people, and there are rumors that it is actually a plot to cut population growth. (09:58)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... a massive 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California. (01:30)

Green Cars I: The Detroit Auto Show / Emilia Askari

Emilia Askari takes Living On Earth on a tour of this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where she finds that auto makers seem to be taking eco-friendliness much more seriously. (06:06)

Green Cars II: A Higher Octane / Bill George

Two Florida entrepreneurs spread the gospel of renewable energy as they travel across the country in their 1986 Winnebago, which runs on the used vegetable oil they collect from fast-food restaurants. (04:36)

Deep, Deep Under the Sea

Scientist Bob Vrijenhoek (VRY-en-hook) speaks to host Steve Curwood from the deck of the research vessel Atlantis, where he and other scientists are traveling more than a mile beneath the ocean to study organisms which live in the most extreme environments known. (04:35)

Biodiversity in the Big Apple / Richard Schiffman

In this reporter’s notebook, Richard Schiffman considers the evolving role of museums and his own attachment to them. (08:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Steve Curwood, Richard Galpin, Amelia Escari, Bill George,
Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Scott Allen, Bob Vrienhoeck

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says no matter where you live in the continental US, you run the risk of getting cancer by simply breathing the air. That news from the early results of a new EPA research program.

ALLEN: We are moving to a whole different level of talking about air pollution and no longer just saying, "Here's the tons of stuff that went up into the air." Instead, we're going to start translating it to, "How much is going into your lungs?"

CURWOOD: Also, controversy over a new EPA brochure about pesticides. Critics say buyers should beware of government sugar-coating.

KENNEY: This is the first time that the Environmental Protection Agency has been required to communicate with consumers about risk in the food supply from pesticides. And in our view, this Administration blew it.

CURWOOD: And a new threat from an ancient problem: iodine depletion. This week on Living on Earth, but first the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

EPA Air Pollution Study Put on Hold

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The results of a groundbreaking new Federal study of air pollution might have been available at the click of a button. But they're not, because of objections from the nation's mayors. The Environmental Protection Agency's Cumulative Exposure Project is looking at airborne toxic chemicals. So far it has found that at least 8 of these chemicals are present at dangerous levels in every neighborhood in the continental US. The EPA was ready to post the city-by- city results on their Web site last month, but it decided not to, after the Conference of Mayors questioned the findings, saying they were based on untested models and old data. Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe. He says the report's conclusions are disturbing.

ALLEN: If you are living anywhere in the United States and taking a breath as we speak, you're getting at least an 8 in a million lifetime cancer risk of exposure from what you're breathing. That may not sound like a whole lot, but when you multiply it over a city's population, a couple million people living in a city or 5 million people in a state, it adds up to hundreds and thousands of cancers spread across a lot of people. And you have to also consider that there are some places, in fact about 10% of the United States, has got a significantly higher risk of cancer from the toxic chemicals in the air. Their risk is at least one in 10,000. And that means in any small town on America, practically, 1 or 2 people are getting cancer from breathing the air. Not any special pollution, but just the regular everyday air.

CURWOOD: So, the EPA really looked at this on a neighborhood-by- neighborhood level. But they won't tell us about this data, now.

ALLEN: Well, initially, the EPA had completed their study and they were ready in December to release the census track data, which would mean that you or I or anybody who's listening to this program could punch up on the Internet the EPA's home page and find out what is the contamination level in your neighborhood? The US Conference of Mayors in particular found out about this just before it was supposed to go public, and it made them nervous in the extreme. They said The Clinton Administration is pushing urban development. You are trying to redevelop contaminated places and bring jobs back to urban areas. And now you're about to release reams of data that suggests urban areas in particular are contaminated. This could be very damaging to efforts to redevelop downtown communities. And they also said this information is not trustworthy. It's the first time you've done this kind of detailed assessment, and you're using 1990 data, which was the most recent material available for the whole nation when they started. They said given the possible terrible effects on economic development, don't put this out in the world. Wait until you've got more up-to-date data and refine your model, so that you can feel confident that it is in fact accurate, down to the neighborhood level.

CURWOOD: Is it good data or not, do you think?

ALLEN: That's the $64,000 question. There has been reduction in air pollution since the early 1990s, no question about it. The fact is, though, that much of the focus of the war on air pollution has been smog, acid rain, and a few very well-known pollutants. Those have been our major targets that we've been trying to reduce. The focus in this project was scores of chemicals, some of which I can't even pronounce let alone tell you what they're used for. But they are not monitored across this country. They have not been the target of big clean-up efforts. And I think you can probably make a pretty good case that those chemicals haven't improved at all.

CURWOOD: So now, what's going to happen to all this data that the EPA has compiled?

ALLEN: Well, you know, to the EPA's credit, they are not hiding this data from the world. They have downgraded their opinion of it. They now say it's just a test of their system, that it was not meant to be used to make local decisions. However, if you want a copy of the data, write to the EPA and say, "I would like the census track data on air pollution from the Cumulative Exposure Project," and they will send it to you in due time; they have not set a date yet. They also say that eventually it may be put onto the Web, where you can access it more easily than that. But they're still, quote, their words, "massaging the data." So they're not ready to put it out into the world yet, and they've not set a date on that. But this is the beginning of something. It's not the end. And we're moving to a whole different level of talking about air pollution and no longer saying, "Here's the tons of stuff that went up into the air." Instead, we're going to start translating it to, "How much is going into your lungs?" And that is the future of the air pollution debate.

CURWOOD: Well, Scott Allen, I want to thank you for taking this time.

ALLEN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

CURWOOD: Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe.

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(Music up and under)

Pesticide Pamphlet Controversy

CURWOOD: It's not just by breathing dirty air that you take toxic chemicals into your body. Government researchers report that many fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residues, including more than half of all apples. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the amounts are too small to pose a risk, but many health experts disagree. On a recent visit to a Nature's Heartland grocery story in suburban Boston, we found some customers who are uneasy about what's in their food, and they are hoping that good kitchen practices will help keep them safe.

(Milling and beeping sounds inside a supermarket)

WOMAN: I wash all my produce before I eat it, so I hope that it's -- what's on there comes off in water.

WOMAN 2: I basically just try to wash everything well, because I don't really have a good sense of what I'm getting when I, you know, buy something at the store. Whether or not it's got stuff on it or not.

WOMAN 3: Since I wash everything off, I guess I'm not too worried about getting sick. We've never had any problems. Yet. (Laughs) Yet.

(Voice on market PA; other ambient sounds)

CURWOOD: Congress told the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996 to help consumers with a straight-talking brochure about pesticides: their health effects and how to reduce exposure. The job is now done and soon the Agency will ship 4 million copies of the colorful pamphlet to thousands of stores coast to coast.

KENNEY: This is the first time that the Environmental Protection Agency has been required to communicate with consumers about risk in the food supply from pesticides.

CURWOOD: Janine Kenney is an analyst for the Consumers Union, the group that publishes Consumer Reports Magazine.

KENNEY: And in our view, this Administration blew it.

CURWOOD: Ms. Kenney says a version of the pamphlet, which the Agency circulated for comment a year ago, has been revised and condensed so much that much of the information it had has been wrung out of it. Simple, direct language has been watered down. The section called, quote, "Tips to Reduce Pesticides on Food," became, quote, "Healthy, Sensible Food Practices."

KENNEY: The original brochure that EPA proposed told consumers that pesticides are hazardous, and that they can produce effects such as cancer, immune system problems, and so forth.

CURWOOD: Here's the initial version:

BADER: "Often, many of the same substances that make pesticides useful in protecting food from pests could make them harmful to people. Some pesticides have been shown to cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other toxic effects in laboratory animals. In addition, infants and children may be more vulnerable to pesticides because their bodies are not fully mature.

CURWOOD: Here's the same part of the final brochure:

BADER: Pesticides are used to protect food from pests, such as insects, rodents, weeds, mold, and bacteria. While pesticides have important uses, studies show that some pesticides cause health problems at certain levels of exposure.

KENNEY: That tells consumers far less about what these substances are that are on their food. We urged EPA to very clearly and very plainly state to consumers that pesticides are poisons.

CURWOOD: And then there's the treatment of organic food. Washing vegetables removes some pesticides, but others just don't rub off. And even peeling won't help when chemicals are absorbed into the flesh of a fruit or vegetable. People who want to reduce their exposure to pesticides must eat products grown with fewer or no such chemicals. The draft brochure recommended they consider buying organic.

(Ambient supermarket sounds)

CURWOOD: That's what many customers at this store are doing.

MAN 2: I'm just getting some apples and some oranges, and usually organic if I can find it.

WOMAN 4: I basically shop for anything that's organic. I had cancer a couple of years ago and I think that it's environmentally-caused. So now I buy whatever I can organic.

(Supermarket sounds continue)

CURWOOD: But Janine Kenney of the Consumers Union believes the final version of the EPA brochure tends to discourage consumers from considering the benefits of buying organic.

KENNEY: Now, unfortunately, the brochure merely informs consumers that there is food that is grown using organic or integrated pest management practices, but suggests that because there are no national standards the buyer should beware. Well, it's true that national standards are not yet complete, and we certainly hope they will be complete at some point in the near future. There are state standards, and there are certainly certified organic food available to consumers.

CURWOOD: Janine Kenney accuses the EPA of caving to pressure from the agribusiness lobby: a charge both the Agency and industry deny. Chris Closs of the American Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide makers, says the draft was simply too wordy. He says the final version is better for busy shoppers.

CLOSS: As you go through the check-out line, there's a lot of information, and people go for the headline information. So if the brochure is accurate, it talks about pesticides, why they're used, it talks about the residues and what people can do to further reduce residues if they choose, that's terrific.

CURWOOD: The battles over the brochure and the release of information about neighborhoods that are most affected by toxic air may be taken by some as signs that the EPA is going too slow. But others say the Agency is moving, and that ultimately these moves add up. In the meantime, the EPA is currently developing new standards that consider the cumulative exposures of pesticides from food, air, and water. The first batch of new rules, covering about half of pesticides in use. Is due out this summer. And time will tell if the critics of this move will be industry representatives, or public health advocates.

Our story on the EPA's pesticide pamphlet was produced by Daniel Grossman. Ken Bader was the voice of the EPA brochure.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: a distressing consequence of soil degradation, mental disabilities. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Pakistani Iodine

CURWOOD: It's to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The government of Pakistan is appealing to the international community for help in tackling an acute health problem: a lack of iodine in its population's diet. In most of the world iodine occurs naturally in the soil and then works its way into the food chain. But because of massive deforestation in Pakistan, the vital nutrient is literally being washed away as the soil erodes. As a result, millions of Pakistanis are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders, including goiter, and mental disabilities, along with stillbirths and high rates of infant mortality. Richard Galpin has our story.

GALPIN: A shortage of naturally occurring iodine in the soil has been a problem in many parts of the world, in both developing and developed countries. While in many of these its been tackled successfully, in Pakistan this has not been the case. Steve Omemato represents the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, in Pakistan.

OMEMATO: It's a very serious problem. Our estimates range from 40% upward of the population being vulnerable to iodine deficiency. And as you know, iodine deficiency is the largest contributor to mental retardation in the world, and this of course applies to Pakistan as well. So, we are talking, literally, about millions of children who are at risk of iodine deficiency, mental retardation, extreme cases of cretinism.

(Motors, honking, traffic sounds)

GALPIN: And it's here, in the north of the country, that the worst effects of the iodine shortage can be found. This is the main market in the northern town of Chitral, high up in the Hindu Kush mountains that straddle the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In front of me, many severely mentally and physically disabled people are begging on street corners. There's no support network for them here provided by the state, and a handicapped person is a huge burden to a family in this impoverished area. Steve Omemato of UNICEF says their fate is sealed.

OMEMATO: I assume that some of these children that we've seen abandoned, the ones you saw in Chitral, have in fact been thrown out of the family, and they survive as best they can and some of them don't survive very well or very long.

(A man sings)

GALPIN: In the picturesque villages further north of the Chitral valley, yet more evidence of the devastating impacts of the lack of iodine. This is Lal, who's now in his 80s. He sits singing old folk songs with his family.

(Lal sings)

GALPIN: He, like many of the people of this remote and beautiful region, suffers from goiter. The thyroid gland in his neck has swollen to the size of a football, a direct result of iodine deficiency. He's also deaf and severely mentally disabled, and it's a problem that spread to the younger generation. His daughter can neither hear nor speak. Dr. Sada Ulmuk, who's from Chitral, has dedicated his life to trying to combat iodine deficiency. He more than anyone knows that this is not just a problem affecting the old generation in the area.

ULMUK: It's affecting the health of the growing children; a large percent of schoolchildren still have goiter, up to 20%.. And many mothers lose their babies before time. And a large number of infants die prematurely. In the other periods of growing, it's an important cause of infertility, miscarriages, and poor health of the adult.

GALPIN: While iodine deficiency is a natural phenomenon in mountain regions across the world, the tragedy in Pakistan is that the problem has spread to other, low-lying, southern parts of the country, in part it seems because of damage to the environment. Dr. Attiv Sadi of the World Conservation Union in Pakistan explains how deforestation, frequent flooding of the largest river, the Indus, and iodine deficiency, are all linked.

SADI: Because of increased deforestation in the watershed area of Indus, the water overflows to lands where it has never flown, and it removes iodine from the soil.

(Music with voice-over)

GALPIN: And yet, despite the enormity of the problem, there is a cheap, simple, and extremely effective solution for iodine deficiency.

(Music continues; a man sings; a woman's voice-over)

GALPIN: This is one of many television advertisements promoting the use of table salt with iodine added to it. The government, the United Nations, and several aid agencies have all been working hard in recent years to try and convince the population to buy iodized salt, as well as persuading the manufacturers to make it.

(Ambient voices)

GALPIN: And it is gradually becoming available across the country, even in remote areas such as Chitral. This is one of several shops in the main market in Chitral town selling iodized salt. By using this regularly, a family can ensure sufficient iodine intake to compensate for what they should get naturally from their food. While the consumption across Pakistan has increased dramatically since the campaign began in the mid-1990s, there are many problems.

(A horn beeps amidst the market)

GALPIN: Not least is a suspicion amongst the population, particularly in the north, about the side effects of eating iodized salt.

MAN: [Speaks in Pakistani]

GALPIN: This man said he'd never buy it because he believed it made you weak and infertile. As the government and international aid agencies have tried to promote the sale of iodized salt, a rumor has spread rapidly amongst the population that it's in fact a form of family planning being imposed secretly by Western organizations. Imrim Said of the aid agency Social Marketing Pakistan says this is having a disastrous effect on the campaign to increase consumption.

SAID: The rumor that iodized salt is linked with family planning and causes infertility and impotence is primarily what's holding the project back. And, you know, the targets we have of achieving 100% iodization by the year 2000, end 2000, we won't be able to reach that unless we can properly address this rumor.

GALPIN: At present, it's estimated only around a third of all families in Pakistan are using iodized salt. And the government's already been forced to revise its target of 100% iodization to the year 2003. While Steve Omemato of UNICEF says efforts are being made to combat the rumor, he admits that the whole approach to the promotion campaign needs to be changed.

OMEMATO: I think some of the early communications campaigns focused much too much on the conventional, modern media. Newspapers, radio, and television. The people who you saw in Chitral, and the people I've seen in other areas of Pakistan who are most in need, are very poor families. They do not watch television. They may not even have a radio. And they are not literate and therefore they cannot benefit from the media. So, in our current phase, we are moving far beyond the conventional media and trying to reach, by word of mouth, into remote communities and into the poorest households of all communities, through health workers, through schoolteachers, through community leaders, and even through religious leaders.

GALPIN: But there are other obstacles, too.

(Clanking sounds, engines)

GALPIN: This is one of the many salt processors in Pakistan. In fact, there are hundreds of small companies scattered throughout the country. The task of encouraging them all to install the necessary equipment so they can produce iodized salt is therefore much more difficult.

MAN: [Speaks in Pakistani]

GALPIN: Salt processors such as this man in Rawalpindi confirm this, and say consumer demand for iodized salt is being held back, both by the rumor about the link with family planning, and by the fact that it's more expensive than ordinary salt. Faced with all these difficulties, Dr. Mushtak Khan, a government nutrition specialist, says Pakistan needs more financial assistance from abroad if iodine deficiency is to be tackled successfully.

KHAN: Unless we have resources from the international community, whether it's multinational, international, or bilateral, it will be a very difficult task to meet these targets from the domestic resources.

GALPIN: But it's not just a question of money. Other specialists argue that the government itself could do much more. For example, by passing legislation at the national level, to force all salt processors to produce iodized salt.

(Children; a man calling out)

GALPIN: Whichever's the best way forward, in the final analysis this is a race against time for children such as these at school in Chitral. At present the mental and physical development of much of the young generation in Pakistan is being held back due to the lack of a simple nutrient in the diet.

(Man continues calling, speaking)

CURWOOD: That report on iodine deficiency in Pakistan was produced by Richard Galpin.

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(Music up and under: sitar)

CURWOOD: It's 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 National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: we head over to Long John Silver's and Burger King to fill up the car. Fuel from fast food is next on 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. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, makers of pure, all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 800-PROCOWS.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Thirty years ago an oil well blew up off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Black crude owned by Union Oil spewed for a week, and before it was plugged 3 million gallons escaped. The resulting oil slick covered 800 square miles of ocean and beaches and killed thousands of marine animals, mostly seals and birds. Images of the disaster were broadcast into millions of homes and served as a catalyst for eco-activism. The calamity helped spur passage of landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act. The incident also sparked the formation of a group called Get Oil Out, otherwise known as GOO. The Santa Barbara spill was the largest in California history, until last year when another spill by the same company, now called Unocal, dumped more than 8 and a half million gallons of oil on beaches near Guadalupe. The US record still belongs to Exxon. Eleven million gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez flowed into Alaska's Prince William Sound 10 years ago. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Green Cars I: The Detroit Auto Show

CURWOOD: Now, if you happen to be in the market for a new car and you're concerned about the environment, you're living in frustrating times. You've heard about vehicles that run on alternative, cleaner-burning fuels, but unless you live in select areas of the country you can't find them. And even if you do locate eco-friendly cars, you may also find sticker prices well above your budget. But all that may be about to change. That's what reporter Amelia Escari discovered at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

(People milling about)

ESCARI: At previous auto shows it seemed like electric batteries would win the race to power clean-fuel cars of the future. General Motors' electric car, the EV-1, was first to reach the market 2 years ago. But the company has leased less than 600 of the vehicles. Consumers are not interested because they are expensive, have limited range, and require a long time to recharge. But those technical drawbacks have been overcome in a new kind of hybrid car that has both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. Soon they'll be in showrooms nationwide, and they're already drawing attention here at the auto show.

BOYD: This is Honda's gas-electric hybrid vehicle, code-named the VV, that's going to be out this fall.

ESCARI: Andy Boyd is with the Honda American Motor Company. He opens the door to a small car with an eye-catching, almost repulsive lime color --

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: -- and beckons me in.

(To Boyd) Well, the front seat is pretty roomy, but there's no back seat there, huh?

BOYD: Well that's right. The whole concept is a sporty 2-seater vehicle, so that although it's all new technologically, it's also a fun car to drive.

ESCARI: What takes up all that room in the back of the car, where there should be a back seat or a trunk or something?

BOYD: A lot of that room is taken up by the electronics of the system and the battery pack. Let's look under the hood and I'll show you what makes this car different.

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: Well, what do we have here?

BOYD: Well, it's a small motor, and it's a 1-liter engine, which is significantly smaller than most vehicles on the road today, which would be 2 liters or greater. But it's very efficient. It burns gasoline much cleaner, more efficiently, than most engines do. And it's got an electric motor attached to it. What that does is it acts kind of like an electric turbo-charger. That is, it provides additional boost to the engine when you're passing or pulling out from a light or climbing a steep hill.

(Door shuts)

ESCARI: How far can it go on one tank of gas?

BOYD: Well, this car is going to have more than twice the fuel economy of the most efficient car on the road today in the United States. On the highway it's going to do better than 80 miles per gallon, and so your highway cruising range would be in excess of 700, possibly 800 miles.

ESCARI: How many of these can you expect to sell in the near future, given that gas prices are so low?

BOYD: Well, that's one of the challenges, really. I mean, gasoline here in Michigan, for instance, is under a dollar a gallon, cheaper than bottled water. But that's certainly going to change.

ESCARI: The Honda hybrid's fall debut will be followed closely by Toyota's hybrid, the Priess. So far, domestic auto makers don't have anything comparable to offer. But they're working on it. John Wallace, Ford's Director of Alternative Fuel Vehicles, stands in front of a design of a Ford hybrid that's a few years down the road. He isn't concerned that the Japanese are first to market.

WALLACE: I think that it's a little early to count us out of the market. As you may have noticed, Honda said that they were hoping they might get somewhat under 5,000 vehicles a year. That's not exactly going to increase their share very much. This is just a first round of a long fight.

ESCARI: But it's a fight auto industry critics say domestic car makers may lose if they don't move fast enough. Lana Pollack is president of the Michigan Environmental Council. She worries that the Japanese companies will take the lead as they did introducing small cars during the 1970s energy crisis. And she thinks that Honda and Toyota understand the need for environmentally friendly vehicles, given growing concerns about climate change.

POLLACK: The Japanese get it. They are already building cars that are practical and have the alternative fuel. When they start capturing market share, the American companies are going to have to hustle.

ESCARI: For many in the auto business, however, the reality is that right now 51% of their sales and most of their profits come from big, brawny sport utility vehicles and light trucks.

COLE: I think the auto industry in a way is kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

ESCARI: David Cole heads the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. He says that despite the gas guzzlers' popularity at auto shows like this one, the industry has its eye on a very different future.

COLE: I think what they recognize is that they're at the threshold, right now, of potentially obsoleting the products that they have in the marketplace. They see the possibility for this technology to become economic, commercial, and able to literally redefine the modern passenger vehicle. But at the same time, they're going to sell trucks and sport utility vehicles because that is, frankly, where they're going to generate the capital to invest in this advanced technology that is so promising.

ESCARI: Meanwhile, auto makers are making some effort to produce traditional cars that better for the environment. They're improving fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions and increasing the use of recycled materials. But that doesn't mean that regulators are going easy on the auto industry. Next month the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to announce new regulations that will require auto makers to reduce tailpipe emissions dramatically by 2004. Government officials are also talking about giving consumers tax breaks for buying alternative fuel cars. The University of Michigan's David Cole says that kind of incentive, coupled with technological breakthroughs that make hybrids cheaper, will significantly change auto-buying habits.

COLE: When those economics begin to come together, I think we'll see just one of the most gigantic revolutions in automotive technology that we have ever seen since the history of this vehicle. And personally I don't think we're that far away from it. I think it really kicks off in the middle part of the next decade.

ESCARI: Auto makers here say they're investing in environmentally-clean technology now because it's going to be profitable down the line. That means alternative-fueled cars may be common by the end of the next decade. For Living on Earth, I'm Amelia Escari at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

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(Milling continues)

Green Cars II: A Higher Octane

CURWOOD: There's one alternatively-powered vehicle that you won't find even at the huge Detroit auto show.

WOMAN: Hello, welcome to Long John Silver's. Is this going to be for here or to go?

K. TIKEL: It's going to be to go. We're with the Veggie Van outside...

CURWOOD: When Kaya and Joshua Tikel want a fill-up, they just drive to a fast food window and have it their way. Oh, they give the burgers and fries a miss, and instead ask for an extra helping of used vegetable oil. That's right. The couple take old cooking oil from fast food outlets and turn it into clean-burning fuel to power what they call their Veggie Van. The Veggie Van has taken the Tikels all over the country on an education project to promote the use of renewable energy. Producer Bill George caught up with the duo in Sarasota, Florida.

(An engine starts up)

K. TIKEL: We were really amazed when we started researching this fuel. One thing that we learned is that the original diesel engine was designed by Rudolf Diesel over 100 years ago to run on vegetable oil. His engine was later modified to run on a dirty byproduct of petroleum, which was called diesel fuel, and the idea of running an engine on vegetable oil sort of got lost. So we wanted to take this idea back and help people know this unknown bit of information.

J. TIKEL: We spent a lot of time in the laboratory and in the engine compartment of different vehicles learning about this fuel and making it work, and that became basically our obsession, our passion.

(Engine runs)

K. TIKEL (through bullhorn): This is the Veggie Van, the vegetable oil-powered van that has traveled all around the country, powered by vegetable oil from fast food restaurants...

(To George) We bought the Veggie Van but we didn't want to put any strange fuel into the engine right away before we knew it would actually work. So we got a small Volkswagen, a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine, and we experimented with various mixtures of this fryer grease fuel in that car, until we felt confident enough that it worked.

(Door shuts)

J. TIKEL: Well, here we are inside the Veggie Van. This is our little mobile house; it's kind of like a spaceship. It's got everything we need to stay alive.

(Fluid runs)

K. TIKEL: Everything electrical runs on solar power, so we've got the little refrigerator, a little TV, a couple fans. And you can see the charge controller over there on the wall, pretty much produces enough electricity for us to use anything we want. And even if it's cloudy for a week, we still have enough electricity because we have batteries under that seat over there, which store the energy. We've got the solar panels mounted on the roof, about 150 watts right now. At different times we'll have jugs of fuel in here, up to 100 gallons of fuel in jugs, in here. The fuel is not flammable at all. You can throw a match on it and it won't catch on fire, and it's not toxic.

J. TIKEL: It smells like the inside of a fast food restaurant. It really does.

(Fluid runs)

J. TIKEL: What we do to make the diesel engine run on vegetable oil is we modify the vegetable oil. We make it light and viscous, just like diesel fuel is. And we do that by a very simple chemical process.

(Buzzing sounds)

J. TIKEL: We mix methanol, which is alcohol, and lye, which is a white powdery drain cleaner, with the vegetable oil.

(A mixer runs)

K. TIKEL: It's actually a very empowering experience to make your own fuel, even if you just make a liter of fuel in a blender. The feeling that you can actually make something, to create your own power and not have to be dependent on the oil companies or the gas station to still get from one place to another. And also the environmental benefits are just fantastic. This fuel is 75% cleaner than diesel fuel. So you really feel like you're making an impact.

J. TIKEL: We get 25 miles to the gallon.

(Loud pumping sounds)

J. TIKEL: We're just filling up the Veggie Van with some bio-diesel, which we made. And I've just got a little 12-volt pump here that I hook up to the engine, and just sucks it right out of the jugs and right into the fuel tank.

(Pump shuts down; engine starts)

K. TIKEL: Sometimes we are running low on fuel and we just have to look in the phone book under restaurants and call up whoever is closest. And we have gotten grease everywhere from the Long John Silver's, Kentucky Fried Chicken chains, to the mom and pop burger spot, you know --

J. TIKEL: Truck stops.

K. TIKEL: Truck stops. All over the place. And you'd think that, you know, we would get turned down once in a while, but actually we've never been turned down.

(A horn beeps)

CURWOOD: Bill George produced our sound portrait of Kaya and Joshua Tikel and their Veggie Van.

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(Engine runs; a horn beeps; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. Coming up: life forms so strange they could be from another planet. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Deep, Deep Under the Sea

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the bottom of the ocean floor, a mile and a half below the Earth's surface, there's a place where no natural light penetrates. Where the temperature can rise above 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Where oxygen is scarce and the water pressure pushes 4,000 pounds per square inch. It is a place where conditions are extreme. In one such setting along hydrothermal vents off the Pacific coast of Chile, scientists in a small submarine are studying life thriving in this harsh environment. We used a satellite phone to reach the expedition's vessel, the Atlantis, and its chief scientist, Bob Vrienhoeck. He described for us the landscape at the bottom of the world.

VRIENHOECK: We're looking specifically at deep sea hydrothermal springs that, if you could imagine, are very, very much like Yellowstone geysers and springs, but on the bottom of the ocean. And instead of spewing geysers hundreds of feet into the air, they spew superheated water and steam right into the sea water. And it's that interface between superheated water at high pressures, basically a pressure-cooker, and cold surrounding sea water, that creates all of the interesting phenomena that geologists, chemists, and biologists are so interested in studying.

CURWOOD: How hot is hot? You say it's superheated.

VRIENHOECK: We measured temperatures in excess of 407 degrees Centigrade. Now 100 degrees Centigrade is boiling point for water, so (laughs) this was extremely hot water that would instantly broil just about anything that came into contact with it.

CURWOOD: So how does anything survive?

VRIENHOECK: Well, the organisms don't live in that superheated water. They might live, we find organisms such as some of the small worms, that may live in water close to 100 degrees Centigrade. And how they survive in that is still a mystery to us.

CURWOOD: Now, how do you get down there, Bob?

VRIENHOECK: We use a manned submersible called Alvin. It holds 3 people. It's a titanium ball about 6 and a half feet in diameter, and you're in there with 2 other people, a pilot and another scientist, and a lot of computer and navigation equipment and life support systems.

CURWOOD: I guess you really have to like each other, huh?

VRIENHOECK: You would certainly hope so (laughs) because you're going to spend 9 hours on the bottom of the ocean together (laughs). The ball is surrounded by a superstructure that contains a lot of ballast material (laughs) so you can come back up. That is the desire, to come back up. It's easy to sink. Coming back up is the difficult part. And that's when our work really begins, on the surface of the ship. There are 24 scientists who may spend the rest of the evening, if not all night, basically processing these biological materials for subsequent work.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly are you looking for and these 24 guys?

VRIENHOECK: We're interested in everything from bacteria to clams and mussels. The common mussel that you eat, for instance, you buy at the supermarket, the blue mussel, is typically one and a half to 2 or 3 inches in length. These mussels can be a foot long and weigh a couple of pounds. The clams that we see in the vicinity are bigger than your shoe in most cases, and in fact bigger than a number 12 shoe (laughs) if that's what you wear.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that you're sponsored in part by the National Cancer Institute. What do you suspect might help in the fight against cancer from any of these organisms?

VRIENHOECK: The bacteria and animals live in a bath of chemicals from hydrogen sulfide to many salt-containing toxic metals, that would be extremely toxic to us. Yet they flourish. They thrive on it and they eat it for a living. So our interests, of course, are how in the world do they get away with this without these compounds being toxic to them? How do they convert toxic substances into food? And if they can do that, how can we learn from them to perhaps modify our own approach to toxic compounds in the environment?

CURWOOD: Being here on the east coast of the United States where there's a relative shortage of seafood compared to the population demand, just what do those giant clams and mussels taste like?

VRIENHOECK: I don't think you'd want to try (laughs).

CURWOOD: I see.

VRIENHOECK: If you've ever smelled rotten eggs (laughs) you know the first thing that passes your mind when you cut one of these open. Every time one of the ship's crew walks into the lab on board the ship, their first response is to go, "Whoo! What is that?" (laughs)

CURWOOD: Bob Vrienhoeck is the chief scientist aboard the research vessel Atlantis. Thanks for joining us today, Bob.

VRIENHOECK: Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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Biodiversity in the Big Apple

CURWOOD: You don't have to travel to the bottom of the ocean to experience life's extremes. In the heart of New York City, you'll find a unique shrine to the natural world. Richard Schiffman takes us there in this reporter's notebook.

(A horn honks; ambient people and traffic sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: In the self-important bustle of the Big Apple, all else fades to the periphery including the natural world.

(Hip hop music plays)

SCHIFFMAN: From this vantage point at the center of Times Square, I can see nothing that the hands of human beings have not made. But when I grow weary of glass and steel and neon, there's a whole other world available for the price of a subway token.

(Sounds of the NYC subway; fade to museum echoes)

SCHIFFMAN: I've been coming here for as long as I can remember, under the vast bony arch of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and into the cavernous hall of African mammals, the heart of the American Museum of Natural History. It's like entering a shrine, a solemn cathedral of the natural world. And I, a pilgrim, gazing in wonder. Lions crouching against a painted savannah. Crocodiles basking on the shores of the Upper Nile. Baby zebras huddled under the watchful gaze of an eternally doting mother.

CHILD: It looked like -- the faces look like cows.

SCHIFFMAN: A flock of young schoolgirls passes through the hall as lightly as butterflies.

GIRL: Oh, look at that little -- zebras!

GIRL 2: Oh, I love zebras!

GIRL 3: Oh, they're so cute!

GIRL 4: Oh, look at the babies.

GIRL 5: Oh cute...

GIRL 6: Oh wow.

GIRL 7: Don't fall in...

SCHIFFMAN: I'm struck by what one of the girls just said: Don't fall in. These dioramas are so realistic, standing in front of them we feel vertigo as if we're about to fall. And not just into the frozen tableau before us, but into the whole untamed world of nature. But of course we never do fall in. We stand outside the glass, as modern humans have always stood outside and gazed wistfully in at the natural world.

QUINN: Even today, in this age of multi-media extravaganzas, these dioramas, these exhibits engage and affect people in ways that our other exhibits don't.

SCHIFFMAN: My guide is Steve Quinn. He supervises the construction of dioramas like these. Steve first entered this hall at the age of 4, and was wonder-struck by the towering herd of elephants at the center.

(Voices and echoes in the background)

QUINN: I can remember that experience like it was yesterday. It was during that visit that my parents said that I turned and I said, "Some day I want to work here."

SCHIFFMAN: Like Steve Quinn, I can also remember standing rapt in front of these very display cases as a child, each one a vision of Eden, a pure and untouched world. I've returned to these scenes in every year of my life.

(Grunting sounds. A woman's voice-over: "Ears forward, noses straining for the scent, a pack of African wild dogs peers across the Serengeti Plain...")

SCHIFFMAN: Today I wonder what it is that draws me to these slightly menacing scenes of wild power and heartbreaking beauty that both fascinates and repels. The glass of the display case is both a window and a wall of protection. And unlike the world of the streets, this is a realm where nothing ever changes. The lioness leaps upon the springbok eternally, or so it seems.

(Snorts and pounding sounds amidst bird calls. A woman's voice-over: "This is one of the most famous dioramas in the American Museum. Just to the right of center, a large male pounds his chest...")

SCHIFFMAN: We're looking at a family of gorillas foraging in a mountain clearing. Steve Quinn tells me that if we return to the spot in central Africa that the display is based on, it would appear very different today. Instead of trackless jungle and smoking volcanos, we would see a patchwork of terraced farm land climbing ever higher up the flanks of the Burunga Mountains.

(Woman's voice-over: "In countries where viable gorilla habitat remains, local governments are making efforts to protect the species. But in many cases, gorilla survival often takes a back seat to more pressing human concerns.")

SCHIFFMAN: The world changes, but some things never seem to change. A museum display case. A photographic image. A memory of childhood. Anthropologists like to speculate about what it is that sets human beings apart from other creatures. Is it our ability to make and use tools? Our capacity for abstract thought, for love and caring? I doubt that any of these are uniquely human. Perhaps what truly sets us apart is that we alone make museums. We alone create repositories for memory: museums, graveyards, libraries. Only humans can gaze back in imagination at a world that has vanished, as a museum-goer peers into a diorama. And only we can reflect on all we've lost.

GIRL: We are in the midst of the sixth extinction. Read this! Right now, we are in the mist --

GIRL 2: (Reading) Right now we are in the midst of the sixth extinction. This time crawls slowly by...

SCHIFFMAN: Nowhere is the poignancy and the fragility of life more apparent than in the Museum of Natural History's new Hall of Biodiversity.

(Many children speaking and yelling in the background)

BOY: Look at that! Asiatic striped palm squirrel. Fur seal. Howler monkey.

BOYS 1 and 2 TOGETHER: Expended [word?] and gray kangaroo.

BOY 1: Expanded armadillo, duck-billed platypus, ocelot

BOY 2: Go back to duck-billed platypus.

BOY 1: A (laughs) North African striped weasel. Those things are so neat.

(Animal call in background)

SCHIFFMAN: Being here is like stumbling upon some latter-day Noah's Ark. Overhead a giant squid, a 20-foot-long jellyfish, spoonbills in flight, a hammerhead shark. The walls are festooned with sprays of exotic insects, birds, and snakes. And in the center, a scale model of an African rainforest.

GRIFFO: We wanted people to come into this hall and say, "Whoa, this is biodiversity." Look at it all, look at the wonder of it, look at the beauty of it.

SCHIFFMAN: Francesca Griffo is the director of the museum's Center for Biodiversity.

GRIFFO: Most of us now today and into the future as we know will be living in increasingly urban environments. And so we don't get to see this stuff. And we really can't expect people to make an emotional connection or even an intellectual connection to something that they've never seen, never understood how dramatically beautiful they are.

SCHIFFMAN: In the old museum there was nothing that you can touch, but in the new exhibits there are a lot of things you can touch. There's less glass between you and the exhibit. It's a whole different style, isn't it?

GRIFFO: It really is. I mean, what we want is for the individuals to be able to be closer to nature. To really relate to it, not as something that is this bizarre example tucked away in a dusty museum. The large natural history museums evolved in basically Victorian times where people came to look at oddities and curiosities and things that were very distant from their lives. And of course our philosophy now is quite different.

SCHIFFMAN: For the new breed of curator, like Francesca Griffo, the museum is not just a mausoleum of the past. And it's no longer a place where we gaze in on the world of nature from the outside, like tourists in a foreign land. From computer terminals here, you can learn more about the incredible diversity of life, and e-mail the information back to your home computer. Displays on environmental legislation show you how to contact lawmakers. The new museum is a place to make connections to the natural world, to life, and to the future.

CHILD: Come here! Come here! See something!

WOMAN: You found this! The millipede and the assassin bugs!

(A siren sounds)

CHILD: Yeah!

SCHIFFMAN: Museums change, and so, alas, have I. But I still come here to dream about the world of nature, and now to reflect on how to safe it as well. As you exit the Biodiversity Hall, a sign reads, "Treat the world well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children."

WOMAN (calling): Alison Eff, Lauren, Tim. Where's Tim? Okay, you are finding out what biodiversity is. Who can tell me what it is?

CHILD: Ooh, I know.

WOMAN: What is it?

CHILD: It is the sum of all species living on earth.

WOMAN: Okay. What's the next question that we have to figure out?

SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

WOMAN: Okay, well let's go to the video screens and see. Are these ecosystems?

CHILD: Yeah.

WOMAN: Are they? Well, what's an ecosystem? Let's see if we can find that out.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Kohn. Our interns are Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindike, and Ally Constine. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director, Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. 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.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Surdna Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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

 

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