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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 19, 1999

Air Date: March 19, 1999


Do Pesticides Alter Hormones?

New studies on children and mice suggest a link between pesticide exposure and hormonal disruption, leading to learning disabilities and changes in aggressive behavior. Steve Curwood talks with Los Angeles Times environment reporter Marla Cone, who has been following the research. (04:40)

The Biggest Biological Tally Yet / Diane Toomey

"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," is a scenario scientists are working hard to avoid in the Great Smoky Mountains. Only 10 percent of the life forms in the national park have been catalogued. Scientists, aided by amateur naturalists, have launched a massive, 15-year effort to inventory and understand every life form on the site. Diane Toomey reports. (10:15)

Another Casualty of the Global Economy - Apples??? / Jane Brox

Commentator Jane Brox's apple orchard has withstood decades of hurricanes and other east coast storms. Now comes the threat that may finally cause her to chop down those trees - the international financial crisis. (03:15)

Listener Letters

Listeners respond to our segments on: the threat to rain forests due to global warming, fur trappers in Connecticut, and our portrayal of the predatory Northern Shrike. (rhymes with "strike") (02:05)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the platypus, a creature both whimsical and fickle enough to be the mascot of early spring. (01:30)

Two Rivers Run Amok / Amy Eddings

In recent decades the General Electric Corporation has polluted both the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts and New York's Hudson River with cancer-causing chemicals. GE is spending millions to deal with PCB pollution in the Housatonic, but has so far been able to resist calls for a similar clean-up of the Hudson. Amy Eddings says the difference has more to do with politics than pollution levels. (06:05)

Possible Ban on Sturgeon Spear Fishing / Wendy Nelson

Wendy Nelson reports that the age-old sport of spearing sturgeon in the Great Lakes may be nearing an end - for good. The numbers of the unique fish are so low that states are severely restricting the annual catch; and if the species doesn't recover quickly, wildlife officials say they'll ban the sport altogether. (04:40)

Coping with Climate Changes

Anthropologist Brian Fagan discusses climate change in a historical context, suggesting that there are things to be learned from our ancestors. (05:55)

Hans Brinker with Brief Case / Bob Carty

Long commute got you down? In Ottawa the solution is a slick one: Don your skates and glide to work. For two and a half months of the year, an old canal in the Canadian capitol becomes one of the world's largest skating rinks, complete with on-ice cafes serving up sizzling, hot beaver tails. Bob Carty manages to stay upright in this reporter's notebook. (06:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diane Toomey, Amy Eddings, Wendy Nelson, Bob Carty
GUESTS: Marla Cone, Brian Fagan

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. For the first time, modern science is making a detailed road map of an entire multi-layered ecosystem, from the smallest to the tallest organisms. Ground Zero for the project is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

PICKERING: It's not just oh, we've got 99,973 species in the Smokies. Big deal. The number isn't interesting. What's interesting is understanding their geographic distribution, how they fit into communities, who eats whom, environmental requirements, and so on. Because with that knowledge, you can then really manage your environment wisely.

CURWOOD: Also, new research suggests that for children, small amounts of pesticide exposure may be linked to aggression and learning disabilities. That and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Do Pesticides Alter Hormones?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A growing body of research on pesticides suggests they may be permanently damaging the developing brains of mammals, including humans. One study, done in Mexico, showed children with high pesticide exposures were more likely to have personality and motor-skill difficulties. Another, more recent study, published in the journal Toxicology and Industrial Health, found that mice fed small doses of insecticide, herbicide, and fertilizer, changed their aggressive behavior and became more violent sometimes and unusually placid at other times. Marla Cone, an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has been following this research.

CONE: Well, these mice were fed a mix of insecticide and herbicide and fertilizer, a very common mix that's found in the drinking water in many farming communities. And what they found is that it altered the thyroid hormones of these young mice, and it also changed their aggressiveness. And they measured that by attacks on other mice. And it suppressed their immune systems.

CURWOOD: Do thyroid hormones affect aggressiveness?

CONE: Yes. The thyroid hormones are what affect a variety of behaviors, because it affects your nervous system.

CURWOOD: Now, how similar are mice and people when it comes to thyroid hormones and aggressiveness? I mean, are researchers suggesting that a similar mechanism could affect children who are exposed to pesticides and herbicides and fertilizer?

CONE: Yes. The endocrine systems, which produce the hormones, are the same in virtually all mammals. So people now speculate that what might affect a young mouse is also affecting a young child.

CURWOOD: Now, there's another study that was published recently, and this one compared 2 groups of children living in Mexico: those living in an agricultural area, where there's heavy pesticide use, versus those living in the nearby foothills. You've looked at that research, haven't you? What did they find?

CONE: Oh, this was a fascinating study and an unprecedented one as far as I could tell. What they found with these children is -- and they tested 4 and 5 year olds -- the differences were just so dramatic. When they asked the 4 and 5 year olds from the farm valley to draw a human being, their figures were a bunch of squiggly lines that didn't even have any body parts, whereas they asked the 4 and 5 year olds living in the area where no pesticides were used, and they had a head and eyes and arms and all kinds of body parts And what scientists believe that is showing is that there is a problem with their fine motor skills. They can see a human being, they know a human being has all these body parts, but their brain cannot command their muscles to actually draw these body parts. In addition to their problems with drawing stick figures, they also had problems catching balls, and they seem to be less social. They played by themselves, and they had more levels of aggression with their family and their siblings.

CURWOOD: Now, there's been some skepticism about this study, hasn't there? Can you tell us a bit about that?

CONE: Yes. There are some toxicologists, and certainly the manufacturers of pesticides, that really doubt that you can find these types of neurological effects in children at the everyday levels of pesticides that we're seeing today. They're skeptical of the Mexico study. And I think a lot of scientists would be, because they're asking these children to draw pictures and to throw a ball, and they're watching their social behavior. This is a very subjective form of science.

CURWOOD: What about here in the United States? Are there studies showing that children here in the US are being affected by pesticide use?

CONE: Yes. There have been studies in many areas, especially in the Midwest, that link pesticide use with birth defects. And what they find is that birth defects in an area of rural Minnesota go up when these babies are conceived in the spring season, when pesticides are used the most.

CURWOOD: Are there also changes in aggression in US kids who have been exposed to pesticides?

CONE: Well, there are some thoughts that there might be that happening. There hasn't been that much research. The study out of Mexico was pretty much a landmark study.

CURWOOD: Marla, right now the EPA tests chemicals, pesticides, one at a time. But the effects you're talking about come in combinations. Is there any way to test the more common pesticide combinations? Should the EPA be doing that?

CONE: Well, the scientist who did this study with these young mice believes that the EPA should be testing some commonly-found mixes of pesticides at the very least, because he believes the EPA tests as they are now generate a great deal of false confidence in the public in the safety of pesticides.

CURWOOD: Marla Cone covers the environment for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks, Marla.

CONE: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: a mission that some scientists say is as ambitious as the effort to land the first human on the moon. A full counting and mapping of every living thing in the Great Smoky Mountains. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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The Biggest Biological Tally Yet

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, is rich with life. This half-million-acre site has more tree species than the whole of Europe, and more different types of salamanders than anyplace else in the world. All told, the Smokies are one of the most biologically diverse places outside of the tropics, and it's all about to be catalogued. At least that's the hope of researchers who plan to identify and map every form of life in the Smokies, from the biggest bear to the smallest bacterium. The complete biodiversity inventory is expected to take hundreds of scientists and volunteers 10 to 15 years to finish. From member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey reports.

(A door shuts)

TOOMEY: The metal cabinets and wooden drawers that fill Don Defoe's workplace look unremarkable, but pull open a drawer and the contents might seem a bit gruesome.

(A drawer opens)

DEFOE: These are mammals that have been trapped, probably. In addition to the skins, the skulls are saved.

TOOMEY: Defoe holds out a large tray covered with the dried hollowed-out skins of about a dozen mice. Their tiny skulls lie on cotton balls in nearby glass vials. Defoe oversees the Smokies' archive collection: a basement room filled with cabinets full of beetles on stick pins, snakes in formaldehyde jars, and thousands of other species.

DEFOE: This might seem like a lot, but it's a very small percentage of what actually exists. Just for the fun of it let me show you --

(Footfalls, clanking)

DEFOE: The insects wrap around here.

TOOMEY: If this archive were to house a sample of everything found in the Smokies, Don Defoe would need more than a basement. It's estimated that 100,000 species grow, crawl, fly, slither, or swim in the park, and that's not counting the bacteria. But park managers and scientists simply don't know the full cast of characters here, or in any other wilderness region for that matter. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to figure out the consequences of a wilderness management decision, or the effects of a non-native species. The knowledge gap is especially wide in the Smokies, an area that packs 60 different habitat types into its half million acres.

(Flowing water, bird calls)

TOOMEY: From lowland pine forests to hardwood coves, to, at its highest elevation, spruce forests that resemble southern Canada. Keith Langdon has the momentous task of overseeing inventory and monitoring here. Sitting on a rock not far from a creek, 100-foot white ash and sycamore trees arching into the sky above him, Langdon says they've only documented about 10% of the life here.

LANGDON: We have a mandate here to protect this area and the species and the natural processes that are going on here. But there's just no information. It's seat of the pants management. We have to guess about what the impacts will be. We have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find rare species when we're going to reroute a trail in the backcountry or put in a new parking area.

TOOMEY: The situation is especially urgent in the Smokies. While as a national park these mountains are fully protected, they are threatened by notorious levels of air pollution and a host of non-native species, including an insect that has all but wiped out its fir trees. While park officials do research ways to fight those threats, they're handicapped.

LANGDON: What we find when we dig in to find those answers is that the basic research on the natural history, if you will, to use an old-fashioned term, of those species really isn't there. We also find that other species, which are very poorly known, impinge on our factors in the recovery of species we're trying to protect.

TOOMEY: Park officials have done piecemeal inventories here, but at the rate they were going, they estimated it would have taken about 2 centuries to complete. The new 15-year plan calls for dividing the park into 100 meter by 100 meter hectare plots, spread out across representative habitats. There will be 20 hectare sites this first year. That number will eventually grow to 3,000. Scientists will be able to hunt down their creature of choice in the plots, as well as set up all manner of traps. The inventory is the brainchild of John Pickering, a University of Georgia entomologist.

(Footfalls in brush)

TOOMEY: Dr. Pickering makes his way up a steep hill to check one of his wasp traps, an innocuous-looking mesh tent that leads insects straight into a bottle of alcohol. The Smokies, he says, are chock full of parasitic wasps.

PICKERING: This one species that we've been fascinated by, it's basically a miniature bear. Black all over to absorb heat. And it's incredibly hairy, so you've got this black, hairy wasp that flies around in December, keeping warm. This is great.

TOOMEY: Before Pickering set up these winter traps, researchers didn't know that wasps flew around here in the colder months. Dr. Pickering says it's these little guys -- the mites, the spiders, the fungi -- that make up almost all of what's unknown in the Smokies. For instance, recent research here yielded almost 40 species of spiders new to science. There has been one previous attempt to do an inventory of this scale, in the national parks of Costa Rica. But that effort failed because of squabbling between park officials there over the distribution of research funds. In this study everyone will be expected to share. So in Dr. Pickering's case, after plucking out his parasitic wasps, he'll divvy up the remaining bugs.

PICKERING: The flies will go the dipterous group of people who work with flies. The beetles would go to the coleoptris group and so on. And so, basically the idea is that we'll have a series of general sorting centers, which will take this material, and then that material, they will distribute it to the specialist centers.

TOOMEY: Most of the work will be done by unpaid scientists, and it seems that a number are interested. A project meeting a few months ago drew about 100 researchers who want to get in on the ground floor, Pickering says, of the biological equivalent of sending a man to the moon. Each specimen will be assigned its own bar code, and each species will have its own Web page. It's this database, Dr. Pickering says, that makes the inventory more than just a simple checklist of names.

PICKERING: It's not just oh, we've got 99,973 species in the Smokies. Big deal. The number isn't interesting. What's interesting is understanding their geographic distribution, how they fit into communities, who eats whom, environmental requirements, and so on. Because with that knowledge, you can then really manage your environment wisely.

TOOMEY: But keeping track of the project's data may prove easier than keeping track of the army of amateur naturalists needed to get the inventory done. Jody Fleming will coordinate these volunteers. He sits next to his computer, which he's using these days to communicate to the 1,000 or so people who've registered at the project's Web site. They include teachers, entire Brownie troops, and one FBI agent. Since there simply aren't enough scientists to go around, a great deal, if not the majority of the specimen collecting and initial sorting, will have to be done by these amateurs. To help them out, Jody Fleming says a series of questions particular to each type of creature will be posted on a page of the project's Web site.

FLEMING: We'll have an interactive key, and what you can do is you can come into the Web site and click on some of the most prominent features of the creature that you have found. And through a kind of a process of elimination, eventually you'll be able to find out what species you have, just by clicking on, like, say, it's got a certain color and its wings have a different structure that's obviously different from other types.

TOOMEY: But there are some gaps in scientific training that can't be made up with a game of 21 Questions. That's apparent in the dark and dank world of cave invertebrates, where Will Reeves, dressed in military fatigues and armed with a multitude of flashlights, feels very much at home.

REEVES: This is a remnant of the millipede, the exoskeleton, it's got some fungal growth on it.

TOOMEY: As small bats clutch the ceiling above him, Reeves points his headlamp at the floor of this cave, one of a number in the Smokies he frequents to study, as he puts it, “creepy-crawly things.” The Clemson University graduate student hit the jackpot here recently, when he discovered a new species of millipede. As he gently pushes debris around with a pair of tweezers, he spots it again today.

REEVES: Oh, cool. Here's an adult. They're about 2 centimeters, centimeter and a half. You can actually see their guts, they've got so little color that they've got the black stripe where the food is running down the body. (Rummaging) What I'm going to do is I'm going to collect 2 or 3 of them alive, so that we can see if they have the gut fungus in it.

TOOMEY: When Reeves believed he discovered a species unknown to science, he had to confirm that by sending it off to a taxonomist, a biologist who specializes in identifying and classifying creatures.

(Echoing footfalls)

TOOMEY: But over the past few decades, the popularity of this field has sharply declined. For instance, right now there's only 3 millipede taxonomists in the world.

REEVES: It is a problem, in a lot of fields, in that many of these organisms are very hard to tell apart, and it takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of, you know, experience. And a lot of the groups are completely devoid of anyone. We have no one to do centipedes because there really is no one in the United States just working with them.

TOOMEY: Reeves and others in the Discover Life project see the inventory as a training ground for non-PhDs to develop this expertise. Once this inventory is complete, officials expect it will be used as a blueprint for surveys at other national parks. Their hope is that wilderness areas like these will increasingly be seen not just as natural wonders to be protected, but as active centers of innovative science and research. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

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Another Casualty of the Global Economy - Apples???

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator and farmer Jane Brox has been preparing for the first spring planting. But this year she's got a dilemma: what to do about her apple orchard. The apples, it seems, are not only vulnerable to pests and disease, but to the forces of global markets as well.

BROX: Small New England orchards are having a tough time of it these days. In the 20s, back when there had been a million apple trees growing on the hills of our county, Red Delicious, along with Mcintosh, Baldwin, and Wealthy, had been one of the prime Massachusetts apples. When my father planted his Red Delicious trees in the 50s, the variety was still a strong seller. Since then, demand has gradually fallen off over the years, in part because of the inundation of larger, shinier, and I say far less tasty Red Delicious apples from Washington State.

Every year I talk with our farm manager Dave about taking the chainsaw to the 45-year-old trees and planting new varieties in their place. We talk, too, about getting out of the apple business altogether, as most growers here have done. But every once in a while we find some hope to keep us from giving up on the Red Delicious altogether. Several years ago, Dave found a Latino market in the nearby city of Lawrence would take all the Red Delicious he could deliver. His customers like a sweet apple, the store owner had said. And they'd like our small apples, since they're a good size for kids. With more newcomers arriving in Lawrence from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico all the time, this felt like a market to be counted on for years to come.

That is, until the bottom fell out of the Russian and Asian markets. With their devastated economies, imported food has become too expensive for the citizens of those countries, so our local markets have been flooded with the fruit the larger, western growers couldn't unload overseas.

Recently, when Dave called to arrange a delivery to the Lawrence market, the storekeeper told him he'd only pay the same $5 a bushel price he pays for Washington State apples. Five dollars a bushel. That's about 12 and a half cents a pound. It isn't worth the labor it takes to grade and pack them, so we've turned the local juice factory. Ungraded tons of apples carted off in a borrowed dump truck weighed and sold for 3 or 4 cents a pound, mixed with all the other unsold local apples, processed into juice, and, I imagine, shipped throughout the world.

Apple trees, which take years to produce a salable crop, are such a long-term investment that they ask for certainty. But there never has been any certainty in the apple economy, and there's even less in a global market. Now that China is becoming a dominant apple-producing country, it has begun to flood the juice market with concentrate. Our local juice factory, the last resort, no longer feels secure. And I fear that our Red Delicious apple trees, which have withstood over 40 years of winter gales and hurricane winds, may finally succumb to modern economic forces.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Brox is author of 5,000 Days Like This One: An American Family History.

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CURWOOD: And now, comments from our listeners.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Craig Federhen, who hears us on New Hampshire Public Radio, appreciated our interview with Geoffrey Jenkins, a British scientists who predicts that in the next 50 years global warming will bring massive rainforest die-backs. But he questions Mr. Jenkins' time frame, and invites the scientist to visit his 50-acre woodlot in southeastern New Hampshire, which happens to be one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation. Mr. Federhen writes, "I'd be happy to point out the scores of sick, dead, and dying pines, spruces, butternuts, dogwoods, maples, elms, and cedars. Middle of the next century? The die-back is here, now."

Our story on fur trappers and animal-rights activists in Connecticut drew a number of responses. Most took the position of Leisha Eastergard, who hears us on WLTR in Columbia, South Carolina. Responding to the argument that trapping is acceptable because it has a long tradition, Ms. Eastergard writes, "It wasn't too long ago that tradition was a defense for keeping slaves." Ms. Eastergard was also amused by the trappers' claim to love the animals they kill. She writes, "I hope these men don't love women as much as they do animals."

Finally, commentator Sy Montgomery's thoughts on the Northern Shrike prompted a call from Elizabeth Ur, who listens to WNCW out of Spindale, North Carolina. Ms. Ur was troubled by our commentator's portrayal of the bird's eating habits, which include impaling its prey on sharp objects the way we use a knife and fork.

UR: Why do we have to put human traits onto animals? I think it gets them into a lot of trouble. It's very sensationalist. And I don't think it served the public to really be informed about this bird's very interesting habit, for sure, but not gruesome.

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CURWOOD: We welcome your comments on our program. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for reporting on 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.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: Just ahead: a tale of 2 rivers and the problem of persistent pollution. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Johnny's Selected Seeds, supporting organic gardening since 1973. For a free catalogue, 207-437-4301, or www.johnnyseeds.com.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: March 21st, aah, the first day of spring. So the promise is for warm days, with a bit of sleet and snow on the side sometimes if we live far enough north. The season is in constant flux, and if it had a mascot it might just be the platypus. This contradictory character, aptly named "the wingless wonder," is as whimsical as the first days of spring. The platypus lays eggs, but it suckles its young; has the bill of a duck but doesn't fly; walks like a reptile, swims like a fish, and has poison glands on its legs like some amphibians. Its classification took more than 85 years, as scientists fought to solve the mystery of its evolution. Some even dismissed the descriptions of the animal as a hoax. But the furry creature does indeed live. Its home is the freshwater of Australia, where it spends most of its life underwater hunting for food. The platypus uses its bill as a microphone to pick up the heartbeat of its prey. Today, scientists study the platypus in efforts to understand evolution, but Mother Nature has already given us the answer with springtime. Sometimes, she's just plain fickle. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Two Rivers Run Amok

CURWOOD: The Housatonic River in western Massachusetts and the Hudson River in New York don't seem, at first glance, to have a lot in common. The Housatonic is about 50 feet from bank to bank in some sections, while the Hudson can be miles across. The Housatonic is a freshwater river, while the Hudson is an estuary with tides pulling saltwater from the Atlantic upriver for 50 miles. But the 2 rivers do share a tainted fate. Both are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenols, or PCBs, from the same company, General Electric. And while the Housatonic is getting cleaned up, the Hudson River isn't. From member station WNYC in New York City, Amy Eddings explains why.

EDDINGS: A generation ago fishermen were able to make a living off of the Hudson. But that was before New York State officials found dangerously high levels of PCBs in the river's fish and closed the Hudson to commercial fishing in 1976. Cara Lee of Scenic Hudson, a river advocacy group, now gives slide shows to educate people about the way it was.

LEE: Shad fishermen in New York City probably about 1930. I love that photograph. The notion that we could have a harbor that was clean enough for commercial fishing is what this is about.

EDDINGS: Two hundred miles of the Hudson River were designated a Superfund site in 1984. While General Electric has spent over $165 million cleaning up PCBs on old factory sites and floodplains, Federal officials have not ordered the company to scoop any PCBs out of the Hudson, where EPA says GE dumped about a million pounds.

LEE: I'm convinced that if General Electric weren't opposed to dredging in the Hudson River, we would have had the problem cleaned up more than a decade ago.

EDDINGS: The most contaminated area of the Hudson is 40 miles long and 500 feet wide. Environmental advocates say GE doesn't want to dredge because it could cost billions of dollars. General Electric says it opposes dredging, because the Hudson River is recovering on its own. The company points to a recent New York State study that showed declining PCB levels in striped bass in the lower reaches of the river. And GE adds dredging will stir up PCBs and ruin the Hudson's ecosystem. EPA's Region 2 office, which oversees the Hudson, reached a similar conclusion back in 1984. So why is dredging a good idea on the Housatonic River in Pittsfield Massachusetts? GE Vice President Steven Ramsey.

RAMSEY: The piece we are going to do on the Housatonic is only a half-mile long, closest to our plant site, and will have the least impact in terms of harm to the ecosystem, cutting down of trees, scraping up all the life that's on the bottom and what have you.

EDDINGS: GE will also help clean up another mile and a half of the Housatonic. EPA will do the work and will pick up part of the tab. But the small clean-up area wasn't the only thing that encouraged GE to reach this agreement last fall with the EPA.

(Traffic sounds)

EDDINGS: Tim Gray, director of the Housatonic River Initiative, stands on the Lyman Street Bridge in Pittsfield and points at the riverbank. The old GE electrical-transformer plant looms in the distance.

GRAY: Both sides of the river, from here for the next 2 miles down, have back yards abutting right up to the river. So it's really a matter of public health and the fact that kids who live in those houses have grown up playing on the banks of the river with the PCBs in the back yard.

EDDINGS: PCBs cause cancer in animals, and EPA officials say they probably cause cancer in humans, too. They also may lead to neurological and immune system problems, especially in children. GE says PCBs break down naturally, and that it's unlikely that PCBs would act as a carcinogen in humans exposed to the levels existing in the environment today. But EPA's John DeVillars, director of Region 1 in New England, says he didn't want to take any chances.

DeVILLARS: One of the things that we made clear from the beginning of our negotiations and stuck with throughout the negotiations was that we were not going to use Pittsfield and the Housatonic River as a test case for that science. Nothing short of aggressive removal and effort was appropriate.

EDDINGS: GE compromised as a result of political pressure, and agreed to dredge a section of the Housatonic, while DeVillars agreed that EPA would pay for some of the cleanup. That doesn't sit well with environmental advocates, but for the most part they credit DeVillars with the settlement. They say his aggressiveness is a key reason why the Housatonic is getting cleaned up and the Hudson is not. Judith Enck of New York Public Interest Research Group says EPA officials in the New York region have been locked in “analysis paralysis” since 1990, when they decided to review their data on the Hudson.

ENCK: I believe that if EPA officials in Region 2 don't know what the best thing is at this point, in terms of protecting the public from PCB exposure, they should just get another job. Because this has been studied for decades. The science is pretty clear.

EDDINGS: She points out that EPA has pushed back its own deadline for a Hudson River cleanup plan many times in order to conduct more research. But Richard Caspe , who heads EPA's research on the Hudson for Region 2, says he'd prefer to get the science right, and get the best cleanup possible, rather than rush ahead.

CASPE: If I dredge certain areas, will it make a difference? Will the difference be better or worse? How will I do it? Would it be nice if I could wave a magic wand and say, “Here it is, and I know all the answers, I'm all knowing, and this is what we're going to do,”? That would be wonderful. Unfortunately, we don't have those answers.

EDDINGS: The Environmental Protection Agency's New York office expects to publish its final report on the Hudson cleanup in 2001, 5 years past its original deadline. Environmental advocates aren't holding their breaths. They will, however, be watching with interest, and a little envy, when General Electric starts dredging polluted sediments from the Housatonic in the spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

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Possible Ban on Sturgeon Spear Fishing

CURWOOD: Spear fishing for sturgeon is an old tradition in the icy waters of the Great Lakes. By this time of year the season is over, and if the numbers of this ancient species do not improve, the hunt may be over for good. Wisconsin shut down its season after only 3 days this year, and Michigan is considering its own set of restrictions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has our report.

NELSON: Each winter thousands of ice anglers flock to Black Lake. They come to this remote site in northern Michigan because it's one of the few places left where they can practice the age-old sport of sturgeon spearing.

(A motor runs)

NELSON: It's not exactly what you'd call action-packed.

RUSSELL: I'm basically just watching for the sturgeon.

NELSON: Like his fellow anglers, Jim Russell has shelled out about $50 a day to rent a 4 by 10-foot hole in the ice surrounded by a heated shanty. He also gets a long, heavy spear and a chair on which to sit and wait.

RUSSELL: You wait and you wait and you wait, and you don't see anything, and when you finally see it, it's just an incredible experience. It's basically like when you're deer hunting in the woods, and the excitement you get when you see deer, when you see that big buck.

NELSON: But sturgeon aren't anywhere near as plentiful as deer, and it's not unusual for anglers to come to Black Lake year after year and not even see a sturgeon, let alone spear one. Still, they come because sturgeon are unlike any other fish you'll find around here. They're ancient bottom feeders that look like sharks. They can grow to 7 feet and can weigh up to 200 pounds. And they can live 100 years or more. There was a time when schools of sturgeon swam thick in the region's rivers and inland lakes, but commercial fishermen considered them a nuisance. Todd Grischke is a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

GRISCHKE: Sturgeon were these big, obnoxious things that got tangled up in their nets, ruined their nets, and they discarded them on shore or on board or speared them and left them to die. That's where the bulk of the damage was done.

NELSON: Habitat loss compounded the problem. Rivers were dammed to generate electricity, and logging and other industry further degraded the sturgeon spawning grounds. Today lake sturgeon are considered threatened or endangered in many of the Great Lakes states. In Michigan, Department of Natural Resources officials say there are only about 10,000 sturgeon left, down from about a million they believe inhabited the state in the 1850s. Tom Coon is an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. He likes to compare sturgeon fishing today to managing a bank account. We've stopped harvesting the interest, he says, and are digging into the principal.

COON: Usually when you see an increase in the size of fish caught, it's an indication that there are no small fish coming into the population and growing up to the larger sizes. So all we're doing is harvesting off the older, larger fish, the key reproducers, and if we take them away then we have no means of generating new fish down the road.

NELSON: Starting next year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will impose new restrictions on sturgeon spearing. The plan practically eliminates the sport in Michigan. Black Lake will be the only place where spearing will be allowed. But the season will be cut in half, the total harvest limited to 5 fish. And only 25 anglers a day, picked by lottery, will be allowed to spear. State wildlife officials hope the new rules will be enough to rehabilitate the sturgeon population while still maintaining some spearing. But fisheries biologist Todd Grischke admits no one really knows if the plan will work, because sturgeon are so different from all the other fish the Agency manages.

GRISCHKE: Most fish species, their life span is certainly within our lifetimes. Sturgeon live to be very old. They can live up to 100 years old or more, and they do not mature until 30 or 40 years old. So, we cannot expect to see results in 5 or 10 years. This is going to be something that's going to take many, many years to see the results of.

NELSON: Grischke adds there will be ongoing monitoring of sturgeon populations in the state. And if their numbers continue to decline, sturgeon spearing in Michigan will be terminated. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Cheboygan, Michigan.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: quick, before it's spring in the far north, give those skates one last try for commuting. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Coping with Climate Changes

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Spanish colonists in Peru 4 centuries ago were the first to write about El Nino. They called the weather phenomenon anos de abundancia, years of plenty and heavy rainfall. Only recently have modern social scientists and historians begun to appreciate how climatic events like El Nino have shaped the fate of many civilizations. Brian Fagan, an anthropologist, has written a new book: Floods, Famines, and Emperors. By using advanced scientific data and ancient writings, he says, a much clearer picture of the history of climate change is beginning to emerge.

FAGAN: The results are extraordinary. We can see, for example, that the very sharp, sharp, thousand-year cold snap about 11,000 years ago had radical effects on people in the Near East, and probably was one of the triggers of the first agriculture in the world. We're beginning to see these patterns for what they are, immensely important driving forces in history.

CURWOOD: In your book, you look at a number of ancient civilizations, and you say things change and not for the better, often, not because of an opposing army, not because of a plague, but because the climate changes. Could you tell us a bit about these ancient civilizations and what your research shows about the effect that comes from climate change?

FAGAN: I think there's one very important point to make right at the beginning. And that is that weather doesn't cause civilizations to collapse. It is one of many factors which can lead to social change, changes in which people live, the power of one civilization as opposed to another. It is a factor that we've tended to underestimate. But having said that, it was a very powerful factor indeed. For example, the Moje, a civilization which developed in the first millennium AD in a desert river valley on the plains, coastal plains of Peru, and this desert plain is one of the driest places on Earth. And these rivers are fueled by runoff from the Andes. And in this valley, the Moje developed an elaborate civilization, but there was a spoiler in this. Periodically, there were extremely strong El Nino events. These El Nino events brought exceptionally heavy rainfall, catastrophic floods, and literally could wipe out, in the course of a few days, the irrigation systems of centuries. And the result of all this was that they were hit with a serious whammy on one occasion, in about I think the fifth century. Then, when that happened, they moved right upstream to where the mountain river debauches into the plain, set up new irrigation systems, and about a century later they were hit with another big El Nino and the whole thing fell apart.

CURWOOD: Is this like rebuilding there along the coast of California?

FAGAN: Yes, to some degree. We are exceptionally vulnerable. We persist on building beach houses right on the waterfront. Regularly these get wiped out. We have much better flood control measures than we did even 20 years ago. The big difference between previous El Ninos and the one we just went through was that it was so well forecasted that a great deal of money was spent clearing flood channels, preparing people, getting caches of sandbags. And there's no question that the damage that we had, certainly in Southern California, was much less than it could have been.

CURWOOD: Humans are very adaptable, but how can we adapt when there's not very much land and an awful lot of people?

FAGAN: That's one of the interesting things I learned from doing this book. The most adaptable and flexible people in the world are foragers, people who live from hunting and from gathering plant foods. In Africa, among farmers, for example, you find subsistence farmers don't have all their land in one place. They have a mosaic of different types of land. And they also have powerful kin ties which link them with people in other areas. So they can send cattle there to avoid cattle disease. They can receive seed in bad years from neighbors and so on. So there is, are strategies of risk reduction. Ours is a very different society. We are sedentary. We're crammed into dense cities and towns. Relatively few of us live in the country. And we are fed by sophisticated distribution systems. This is a very, very vulnerable situation, at least in theory, because we are all in the same basket, and we do not have the ability to move, we do not have the ties of kin and so on, which helped us before. The rules have changed. At the same time, there are many more people, so it's going to be very much harder to deal with an absolutely catastrophic change like serious global warming.

CURWOOD: Is it too pessimistic for me to draw or infer from your book that we're in a lot of trouble?

FAGAN: You are being pessimistic. I would also agree; we are potentially in trouble. The warning signs are there. I think the big issue for the next 50 years is, are we going to have a longer-term enough vision to think about these issues and act on them, disregarding the petty interests of nations? Because if we don't, we really are going to be in trouble. Oddly enough, I'm optimistic that in fact we will, because society is becoming more global, and I think one of the benefits of this will in fact be a much more universal look at environmental problems. I mean, conferences like the Kyoto conference of recent years are immensely important. They don't produce much yet. But I think future generations of them may well do so.

CURWOOD: Brian Fagan is the author of Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations. Thank you for joining us.

FAGAN: Thank you.

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Hans Brinker with Brief Case

CURWOOD: Several weeks ago we reported on how ice skating can be harmful to your health. Not the act of skating itself, but the health risks of inhaling toxic fumes inside ice arenas. While arenas are working on the problem, you don't have to wait to get in a good healthy skate. In some places where spring hasn't sprung yet, it's even an eco-friendly way to get to work. Bob Carty has this reporter's notebook from his hometown, the Canadian capital of Ottawa.

(Traffic sounds. Radio announcer: "Ottawa." Music up and under. Second announcer: "Currently in Ottawa it's around16 degrees, the winds are from the west at 9, humidity...")

CARTY: Rush hour in Ottawa on a cold March morning. So cold you have to scrape the frost off the inside of the car windows. So cold your tires have frozen flat on the bottom, and until they warm up you get a bumpy ride, what Canadians call having square tires. And then there's the slippery streets, the snow banks, and the slush.

(Third radio announcer: "And another accident, we're up to 6 now...")

CARTY: In Ottawa, where winter is a 5-month affair, there is at least an alternative to the morning madness of rush hour. Instead of the expressway, you can take the skateway.

(A phone rings. A recorded voice answers: "Rideau Canal conditions at 8:30 AM. The ice surface conditions are good from the National Arts Center to Patterson Creek, very good from Fifth Avenue to Bronson Street, very good at Hadwell Loft..." Fade to the sound of skates on ice.)

MAN 1: Early in the morning, when the sun comes up, and there's hardly anybody on the canal and you can just hear your skates, it's about the only thing you can hear. It's wonderful.

(Skating continues)

WOMAN 1: I haven't skated for years. I skated when I was a kid, and it's great to be able to skate again, and it's just so much fun skating to work. I just think it's incredible. This frozen Rideau Canal is like a wonder of the world.

(Skating continues)

CARTY: For two and a half months, from late December to the usual mid-March thaw, an old canal running through Ottawa becomes the world's largest skating rink. It's 15 yards wide in most places. On one side students head south toward the University. On the other side, some neighbors and I are heading downtown with backpacks and briefcases. It's a three and a half mile commute for me, a 20-minute skate on a good day.

MAN 2: There's a few little bumps, but otherwise it's just really smooth and clear. The best part would be just at the beginning here, when you're sort of on the ice, just between the 2 walls of the canal.

(Skating continues)

WOMAN 2: What's interesting for me, being able to look at the sides of the canal, is that my ancestors were Irish stone masons who were brought over to work on the canal. The canal was built by Colonel By in 1832, and it was to give Canadians a route so they could avoid being ambushed by Americans on the St. Lawrence River. It's an amazing engineering feat.

CARTY: And there's another engineering feat just in keeping the skateway in operation every day. It takes 40 full-time employees, and a fleet of snow blowers, plows, and tractor-mounted sweepers, to clean off the snow and the ice shavings. Then, every other night, workers drill holes through the ice to pump up water to flood the surface. It's the equivalent of flooding 125 end-to-end hockey rinks. It takes 8 hours. The result is a clean, smooth surface. Almost. You do have to watch out for the occasional rut. And the choice of skates is critical.

WOMAN 3: This took me a long time to get it straight about what kind of skates. I tried the new plastic molded skates that have velcro snaps, and they're supposed to be really quick to put on. But I hated the feel of them. Then I tried the traditional women's fancy skates with the picks. Didn't like them, and so I now am the proud owner of my first pair of men's hockey skates, and they're great.

(Skating sounds)

CARTY: Hockey skates are my choice, too. Though the new fad on the skateway are speed skates, the ones with long 14-inch blades, worn by men and women in spandex outfits who torque by you as you're struggling against the headwind. (Gasps) Did I mention the wind? It can turn a pleasant, just below freezing temperature into a wind chill that feels like 15 degrees below zero. Doesn't seem to bother some skateway commuters, though I have a personal rule of thumb: If your nostril hair freezes in the first minute, maybe it's too cold to skate today, even if you do have the appropriate apparel, such as some or all of the following.

WOMAN 4: Scarves and a tuc, mits, long underwear.

MAN 3: Fairly light shell jacket and a sweater. Shirt and tie. And the trick is not to get too sweaty on the way to work.

WOMAN 5: I, for one, need knee pads. (Laughs with others) As you can see, I got on a really ugly hat that keeps me warm. And you need Kleenex in your pocket.

WOMAN 6: You need to have Kleenex in your pocket for 2 reasons. One, you need to be able to blow your nose, because it gets cold and then you go into the warmth. The second reason is to wipe off your skate blades when you're finished.

(Children talking, music, skating sounds)

CARTY: After the morning rush hour, the skateway is taken over by others: children and their teachers on a school outing, pairs of mothers, on skates, pushing strollers, reckless teenagers bobbing in between tentative tourists who are trying not to break any bones.

(A whoosh of skates)

CARTY: Although the skateway costs $300,000 a year to operate, it pays off by attracting almost a million tourists every winter.

WOMAN 7: The amazing thing is, on a beautiful Saturday or Sunday, to see thousands and thousands of people on this canal walking, pushing their kids in these little sleighs. And you see people who are new to Canada, who are valiantly trying to skate and kind of staggering along, and it's great.

(Skating sounds)

CARTY: At the end of the day, the commuters reappear on the skateway, a bit rubbery in the legs. Which sometimes requires a brief stop for rest and refreshment at one of the outdoor eateries on the canal.

MAN 4: How are you? What can I get for you?

MAN 5: One orange juice, one hot chocolate, and a famous beaver tail.

CARTY: Yes, you heard it right. He ordered a beaver tail. What exactly is a beaver tail?

WOMAN 8: It's really a flat, long dough-like pastry thing, and this one has garlic butter and cheese on it, so it's almost like a mini-pizza. But you can get just plain cinnamon and sugar, and even if you want some jams on top, you can do that, too.

(Skating sounds)

CARTY: Recharged and refreshed, the final mile home is like skating downhill. The wind is gone. The stars are coming out. Skateway commuters can give you sound ecological arguments for doing this: it saves fossil fuels, it reduces pollution, it lessens the risk of climate change. But frankly, the real reason is that it just feels good. As one 7-year-old put it, you don't have to go around in circles. It's fun to skate straight. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty skating straight on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada.

(Skating sounds, fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: remembering Three Mile Island 20 years later. America's worst nuclear power accident spewed out a cloud of radioactive gas near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Company officials say no one was hurt, but area residents blame the release for some cases of cancer.

WOMAN: The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and our State government and Federal government got away with murder here. You know, that's the simple truth.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alexandra Davidson, Aly Constine, and Chris Berdik. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Joyce Hackel is the senior editor, and the senior producer is Chris Ballman. Michael Aharon composed the theme. 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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