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

January 18, 2002

Air Date: January 18, 2002



Bureau of Land Management / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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The Bush Administration may need Congressional approval to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s already moving to increase oil and gas production in the lower 48 states. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports from Washington. (06:30)


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The Army Corps of Engineers has just released new rules on wetlands protection. The plan is drawing criticism from environmentalists, who say the Department of Interior withheld a crucial review by the Fish and Wildlife Service when finalizing the Corps proposal. Host Steve Curwood talks with Mark Pfeifle, Press Secretary for the Department of Interior. (05:00)

Animal Note: Artificial Spider Silk

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on how scientists are finally catching up with millions of years of spider evolution and manufacturing spider silk. (01:15)

Almanac: Chinook Wind

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This week, facts about a Chinook Wind that swept through a South Dakota town, causing the fastest temperature change in history. (01:30)

Hormones in the Environment

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Steroids and hormones used to treat livestock are passing through the animals and into the environment. Science News senior editor Janet Raloff discusses concerns that they may be damaging the development of fish and other animals. (05:45)

Nova Scotia Compost / Cynthia Graber

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The Canadian province of Nova Scotia has a new program for curbside pick-up of not just yard waste, but food waste as well. Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on this province-wide compost program. (07:10)

News Follow-up

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New developments in stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)

Health Note: Herbal Liver Toxicity

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on claims out of Europe that incidents of liver toxicity might have been caused by herbal supplements containing kava. (01:20)

Mycomedicine / Kim Motylewski

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They’ve been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Now, mushrooms are gaining popularity as over-the-counter supplements here in the U.S. Kim Motylewski reports on what western science knows about these fungi. (09:30)

Plants Against Adversity

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Student essay winner Leah Rabinowitz tells Living on Earth host Steve Curwood how plant donations helped turn her school – located just blocks from Ground Zero – into a friendly and healthier environment. (06:00)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Kim Motylewski
GUESTS: Mark Pfeifle, Janet Raloff, Leah Rabinowitz
UPDATES: Maggie Villiger, Diane Toomey


CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Bush administration is revolutionizing land-use regulations. There are new rules ahead for wetlands protection, and more public land is being opened up for the mining of fossil fuels.

KAARLELA: If we're going to try and meet some of our energy needs in the country, we move right away, because it may be ten or fifteen years before that comes in, and if we have an energy crisis in the interim, we will not be able to bring that energy on board right away.

CURWOOD: But critics say the White House is moving too far, too fast.

CLUSEN: They are expediting and letting things sort of rip, if you will, and giving short shrift to doing these things very thoroughly, and then they are really going into it with their mind made up.

CURWOOD: Also, why indoor plants are getting high marks from students at a school near Ground Zero. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, right after this.


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Bureau of Land Management

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The president's energy bill is one of the most contentious issues before the new session of the 107th Congress. The bill stalled in the Senate last year, primarily over whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. But ANWR isn't the only public land that's being eyed by the Bush Administration for its energy potential. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what's at stake in the Lower 48.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some elements of the president's energy plan, like opening ANWR, require the blessing of Congress, but most need no legislative action, and that includes the president's call for increased oil and gas production on public lands. In the Lower 48 most of this energy is in the West, most of it is natural gas, and most is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM manages more land, 264 million acres to be precise, than any other federal agency. About 10% of those acres are currently leased for energy production. Pete Culp is the BLM's assistant director for Minerals, Realty and Resource Protection.

CULP: Public lands provide 5% of the domestic supply of oil, and 11% of our domestic supply of natural gas, so they are significant, and restrictions that affect the availability of those resources are, therefore, significant and a worthwhile issue to address.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: One recent study by the Energy Department found that access to natural gas on public lands is more restricted than previously thought. The study surveyed the Greater Green River Basin of Wyoming, in Colorado, and found that almost 70% of the area's natural gas is either off-limits or significantly restricted. The administration is compiling similar data on all public lands. It's in the final stages of creating an inventory to show not only how much energy is out there, but how much of it is restricted and to what extent. Pete Culp says he hopes that study will result in a definitive map so the administration can develop land where appropriate.

CULP: We need to be precise in terms of what is realistic for industry. If seasonal wildlife restrictions are in place, for example, for nine months of the year, is it practical for industry to develop an area or not? And all that is part of what we need to look at in the study.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But the BLM isn't waiting for the final results to start moving on the energy front. The agency estimates three-quarters of its land management plans are out-of-date, and it's trying to expedite these plans in areas where energy potential is greatest. It's working with the White House to sort out some of the bureaucratic snags holding up specific energy projects across the West, and it's looking at ways to make the entire lease and permit process more efficient. How, for example, to cut redundant work when two agencies share jurisdiction over the same project? The BLM is trying to undo the kind of red tape that's frustrated industry for years.
Mark Murphy owns Strata Production Company, an oil and gas business in Roswell, New Mexico.

MURPHY: I guess I can best liken it to going down and buying a car. It would be very much like getting an oil and gas lease, and the dealer or, in this case, the Federal government, will take your money and they'll sell you the car. But when you go out and you want to get in and drive the car, they say "I'm sorry, I can't give you the keys." So, you're really not able to enjoy the benefits of ownership.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Murphy says he knows the Bush Administration wants to make it easier for companies like his to have real and profitable access to federal lands, but he says that won't happen until the message from Washington reaches land managers at local BLM offices. Right now, Murphy says, those offices are dominated by an anti-development mood left over from the Clinton era.

MURPHY: So, it's not a question of policy. I think it's more a question of culture.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Environmental activists see it differently. They say the Bush Administration is already taking short-cuts in its quest to produce more energy on public lands. Chuck Clusen, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the administration is targeting habitat that's crucial for a diverse range of animals and plants.

CLUSEN: Red Rock, country of Utah, many areas which actually are proposed for wilderness by various members of Congress--the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming, the Red Desert, also in Wyoming, the whole northern part of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, which has been referred to as the crown of the continent's ecosystem.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The NRDC has sued the BLM over 12 leases the agency recently approved in southern Utah alone. More broadly, environmental groups warn the administration will undermine wilderness designations and the Endangered Species Act, as it opens more land to development. Chuck Clusen says the public needs to realize the president's energy plan isn't waiting for Congressional approval. It's already under way.

CLUSEN: They are already resulting in actions which are harming or degrading the environmental, and in particular special places that many people care about. And they are expediting and letting things sort of rip, if you will, and giving short shrift to doing these things very thoroughly, and then, they are really--they're going into it with their mind made up.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The BLM says it's not compromising on environmental protection as it seeks to develop more acres. And agency officials are quick to point out, in addition to fossil fuels, they are also looking to increase production of renewable energy on public lands. In either case, they say, turning leases into actual kilowatts takes time, all the more reason the nation must move quickly. Eric Kaarlela heads up the BLM's National Energy office.

KAARLELA: It's very important that, if we're going to try and meet some of our energy needs in the country, we move right away rather than waiting for several years, because it may be 10 or 15 years before that comes in. And if we have an energy crisis in the interim, we will not be able to bring that energy on board right away.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Kaarlela says the agency is aggressively encouraging local land managers to feel comfortable making exceptions to restrictions on energy development. Last month, his office sent out a memo directing field staff to report back on any management decision that may adversely impact energy development in the area. And, in the coming year, the BLM expects to process almost twice the number of applications for drilling permits as it did in 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.

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CURWOOD: There are new and controversial rules today governing the nation's wetlands. The measures allow mining companies and developers to dump and dredge in certain wetland areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says aquatic ecosystems will be protected, but some Federal agencies disagree. The EPA has filed objections, and the Fish and Wildlife Service says the plan contains some scientific flaws. But the Interior Department signed off on the new rules anyway.

Now, advocacy groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, are charging that the Interior Department buried the scientific criticism to advance a pro-development agenda. Here to respond is Interior Department Press Secretary Mark Pfeifle. Mr. Pfeifle, welcome.

PFEIFLE: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mr. Pfeifle, why weren't the criticisms from the Fish and Wildlife Service taken into account by the Army Corps before the Corps drafted its final proposal?

PFEIFLE: We found out that this was on a fast track basis and that the Army Corps wanted the information, with about 48 hours notice, in the middle of December. Unfortunately, that was not enough time to get the process completed and to have a thoroughly researched and reviewed document to the Army Corps. What we did instead was we sent a detailed draft preamble language document over to the Army Corps, which gave the major points that the Fish and Wildlife Service made, which was that wetlands must be protected. Also, we gave the majority of the information from the Office of Surface Mining. Their concern was that mining is done in an environmentally sensitive and responsible way, and that the permit be allowed to continue.

CURWOOD: Can you explain to me why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not able to wait to release its final proposal until you and the Interior were able to have a more thorough review of the Fish and Wildlife Service response and your mining department's response?

PFEIFLE: They set the timetables, we don't. We attempt to comply with them, and we made a good effort to do so. Unfortunately, it was kind of late in the fourth quarter, and unfortunately, the clock ran out.

CURWOOD: The Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concerns about permits for coal mining. In particular, I think, quoting from one portion of the report, the service said that these coal mining practices destroy aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and that the Army Corps had no scientific basis to assert that the permit will cause only minimal, individual, and cumulative impacts on the environment. And, at the same time, the only official response from the overall Department of Interior on the Corps proposal was in support of those coal mining rules. So, how do you reconcile the consensus building and this pretty strongly worded dissent from Fish and Wildlife Service about their view of the impact to some of these mining practices?

PFEIFLE: That's what we do as a department, Steve, is that we take different viewpoints and we try and turn them into one overall, department-wide consensus. Whenever you have bureaus or departments or divisions within a company, within a family, within a government agency, you're going to have some conflict. But it's our responsibility at the department to try and work through those conflicts and find a department-wide viewpoint.

CURWOOD: The former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, under the democratic Clinton Administration, has been highly critical of the events we've been discussing here. There's a quote from her saying: "For Interior to stop Fish and Wildlife from commenting on something of this magnitude and importance, that's really unbelievable." And the environmental advocacy groups that are complaining that the Department of Interior has an agenda in its lack of response to Fish and Wildlife Service criticisms. How does your department respond to these claims?

PFEIFLE: Absolutely, patently false. One thing that the person who you mentioned is, is that she was confirmed by the Senate. She had the opportunity, in the previous administration, to do her job. One of the problems we have with the Interior Department, Steve, is that we don't have at, this point, our Senate-confirmed people to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Surface Mining. If we would have had those people on board, there's a possibility that we would have had this completed.

But let me make one point very, very strongly, and that's that this administration and this department and this secretary is strongly supportive of wetlands recovery, at enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and in protecting our natural resources, our wildlife refugees, our national parks and other things.

CURWOOD: Mark Pfeifle is press secretary for the Department of Interior. Mr. Pfeifle, thanks for speaking with us today.

PFEIFLE: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Norman Blake, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."]

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Animal Note: Artificial Spider Silk

CURWOOD: Coming up, an entire province in Canada goes green--with garbage, that is. Meet the composting Nova Scotians. First, this page from the Animal Notebook, with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: For years, spider silk has been the Holy Grail of material scientists. Spider silk is said to be at least five times stronger than steel, and it's lightweight and flexible, too. Setting up arachnid assembly lines to spin out silk for industrial uses, however, is far from feasible. But there is a way to manufacture vast quantities of this strong stuff. The first hurdle is making enough of the spider silk protein. Researchers are doing this by inserting the spider gene for making the silk protein into cow and hamster cells. These cells then secrete the building blocks of spider silk. And now, for the first time, scientists have devised a way to spin these raw silk materials into longer strands. They push the watery protein solution through a tiny opening analogous to the spinneret through which the spiders secrete their silk. Water is squeezed out of the mixture and the protein molecules join together, forming long liquid crystal filaments. The researchers have also inserted the spider genes into living goats and are waiting for them to mature. Eventually, they hope to harvest mass quantities of silk proteins from the goats' milk. The goal is to turn the silk into everything from very fine sutures for eye or nerve surgery to bullet- proof vests to biodegradable fishing line. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.


CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[CUTAWAY 1 MUSIC- Tangerine Dream, "Antique Dream"]

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Almanac: Chinook Wind

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Residents of the town of Spearfish, South Dakota, woke up to a thermal surprise on the morning of January 22nd, 1943. That's the day the temperature in Spearfish rocketed up 49 degrees in just two minutes. At seven-thirty in the morning it was a bitterly cold minus four degrees, but by 7:32 it had jumped to a relatively balmy 45. The phenomenon is still in the weather record books as the fastest temperature change ever recorded.

The cause of this fast warm-up was something called the Chinook Wind. "Chinook" means "snow eater" in the language of some Native Americans, and the warm, dry wind certainly does eat up snow cover. Chinooks happen when warm air pours down a mountainside, and in Spearfish, the dramatic Chinook came up over the Black Hills. Unique air currents caused wind from one side of the hills to heat up drastically as it descended into the cold air mass on the other side of the hill. Despite respite from the cold, Chinook winds can create problems, though. The hot, dry air has been known to start wild fires, and damage plants. Similar winds in the Alps have caused deadly avalanches. And the Chinooks can be cruelly unpredictable.

In Spearfish in 1943, the pleasant weather lasted only an hour, before the temperature dropped back to minus five degrees in less than 30 minutes. Car windshields cracked, and cattle and people alike were stunned, as the season seemed to change from winter to spring and back again, all before lunch. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Chet Atkins, "Windy and Warm" (acoustic)]

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Hormones in the Environment

CURWOOD: For decades, the North American livestock industry has used growth- promoting hormones and steroids to increase meat production. Concerns have centered primarily around whether enough residues remained in the meat to be harmful to humans. But, until recently, no one has examined how much of these chemicals pass through the animal and get into the environment. Now, scientists and regulators are becoming concerned that what the animals excrete may have a significant impact on the ecosystem.
Here to talk about this is Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News. Hi, Janet.

RALOFF: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Janet, tell me, what's the problem with the hormones used to treat livestock animals?

Photo: T. Thrift, Univ. of Fla.(Photo: T. Thrift, Univ. of Fla.)

RALOFF: Well, from the farmers' point of view, there aren't a lot of problems. They are actually quite good. These are reproductive hormones that essentially re-program beef cattle, for example, into taking more of the energy than their food and turning it into muscle or meat, than into other activities, such as making babies. From an environmental perspective, however, you've got to remember that these hormones are very potent chemicals. Biologically, hormones are probably the most potent agents known. Now, ordinarily when the body produces them, it produces them at a certain time to produce a certain function--maybe to put you to sleep or to tell a developing embryo to grow a certain way and become a male versus a female.

But when these things end up littering the environment, they can be exposing critters throughout the environment, at any time, sort of willy-nilly, and causing them to turn on or off certain biological activities inappropriately.

CURWOOD: Janet, how compelling is the evidence that the use of hormones in livestock does create a problem this way, being excreted into the environment?

RALOFF: Well, there's no longer any doubt that animals do excrete large amounts--at least 10% of what they're administered. There also have been some very recent studies, both in the laboratory, but even more in some environmental studies downstream, of livestock operations in Nebraska that show that fish exposed to these compounds, basically their development can be derailed. Some of the males end up looking a little bit feminized, some of the females are ending up with masculine features. Sometimes the young fish in some of these studies have ended up producing egg yolk protein, first stage in egg production, long before they were ever supposed to do it. It would be sort of the equivalent, in human terms, of a toddler producing eggs.

So, they clearly can have an effect. The question is how broadly they're polluting the environment right now, and nobody has done those pervasive studies to find out.

CURWOOD: I have to ask you, why has it taken so long for science to become concerned about this?

RALOFF: Good question, and I think that was probably because the initial concern about them was safety, both to livestock and to people who might eat meat from treated animals. And in fact, I would suspect that if they found this stuff getting into the environment, back 20 or 30 years ago, the big concern was that farmers would be ending up paying for a drug that they didn't use, not that it was going to be harmful to the environment.

Now, there have been a few sort of insightful researchers even 30 years ago that started worrying about this, but their concerns became sort of overshadowed as this whole laundry list of new chemicals with hormone like properties--some of them pesticides or drugs or plasticizers--came under the horizon and people recognized that they had these endocrine disruption or hormone like properties.

Ironically, these livestock steroids are not hormone-like agents. They're the real thing, and they're sometimes 100 to 1,000 times more potent than the endocrine interrupters people have been worried about.

CURWOOD: So, where is all this headed? What needs to change here, to respond to this concern?

RALOFF: Well, in the past, livestock wastes have not been taken probably as seriously as human wastes. When you get a big community of people, you wouldn't let all of their urine and feces enter the environment untouched; you actually put them through waste treatment plants. The same isn't being done for livestock, even though you can have huge communities, large herds of animals producing huge amounts of wastes, and this stuff is allowed to pretty much enter the environment as is. I think that in the future that's going to have to change.

CURWOOD: How is animal waste treated now?

RALOFF: For the most part, cattle waste would be held in large filtration ponds, basically, lagoons of waste, and they'll just be left there for the solids to settle out and the liquids will slowly filter through the soil and into ground water or surface water. What you'd like to do is potentially even compost them. New USDA studies, done for an entirely different reason, were looking at what happens when you compost chicken waste, for example, and it turns out that all livestock naturally produce estrogens and testosterone and other steroids in their waste. They thought, is there some way you can naturally encourage the degradation? So, they put them in compost heaps and after four months, the hormones in those wastes were down to almost negligible levels. It's reasonable to think that you might be able to do the same thing on a regular basis with feedlot wastes as well.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff's article on animal waste appeared this month in Science News. Thanks, Janet.

RALOFF: My pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: "Who Let 'Dem Cows Out?" Weird Al Yankovich]

Related link:

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Nova Scotia Compost

CURWOOD: Compost is good for more than just dealing with animal waste. Nearly a third of all household garbage is yard and food waste--organic matter that could be conveniently and cheaply recycled by nature in a compost heap. That's what residents of Nova Scotia found out when they wanted to cut down on their garbage. They put together a program to pick up and compost organic waste from nearly every home in the Canadian province. Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports.

GRABER: It's morning at the Caribou Lodge Bed and Breakfast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The sun peers in through the huge glass windows of the dining room. Owner Anna Ellis tells me to scrape my kiwi peels, tea bag and leftover cranberry scone into the small green bin sitting next to the garbage can.

ELLIS: Basically, anything that's organic goes into the kitchen compost bin 'till it's filled. And then it's taken outdoors to the larger compost bin, which goes out to the street.

GRABER: Every two weeks, Ellis tells me, a trash hauler comes by and takes the contents to a regional composting center. She says this new system took some getting used to.

ELLIS: It was a nuisance to me in the beginning. So, over time, you know, I succumbed to it all (laughs). And now I wonder why I found it a nuisance, because it's the right thing to do. It's good for the environment. It's good for the household. It just is good.

GRABER: More than two years ago the government of Nova Scotia took an unusual step to deal with their growing trash problems. They asked residents to separate out yard waste and food waste. The goal is to cut down on the waste stream and keep organics out of the landfill. There's no oxygen in landfills. So, when bacteria eat away at organic matter, the result is methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Also, as food decomposes, it mixes in with other landfill trash and creates a toxic soup called leachate that can run off and pollute nearby soil and water. Brian Smith, Director of Solid Waste Resources in Halifax, says the old, crowded city landfill was beset with other problems, too.

SMITH: The history of the landfill had been very dark. It had been plagued by seagulls, flocks of seagulls, by odor problems, by problems with the community generally. And it was very difficult to go back to the communities around Halifax and say we'd like you to take another landfill of that kind.

GRABER: So the Province began a new recycling and composting program, and it made it the law. It's now illegal to toss that apple core or the ends of your sandwich into a Nova Scotia trash can. Instead, here in Halifax, it all goes into a green bin that gets picked up curbside and taken to one of the city's two composting facilities.

[Sound of machinery]

GRABER: This huge warehouse is the drop-off point for incoming waste.

WORT: We're now on the 10th floor where the whole process starts.

GRABER: Andrew Wort manages the New Era Farms composting facility. He's standing in front of a towering, wet, slightly rank pile of organic garbage. Wort says it contains a mix of food and yard waste, cereal and detergent boxes, food-stained paper-- just about anything that will decompose.

WORT: Things like half grapefruits, a lot of food waste, some leaf and yard waste, Christmas trees, the orange peels. Over here, there's a lot of animal waste, green apples.

GRABER: Wort points to a conveyor belt that runs above our heads. The garbage mix goes up this belt to the other side of the warehouse to workers at a sorting line.

WORT: We are pulling the contaminants off the best we can, and then the material is shredded, and we're ready to put it into the containers.

GRABER: While composting is theoretically easy, contamination makes it more difficult on an industrial scale. Barry Freisin is the province's solid waste resource manager. He reaches into the pile and pulls out one example.

FREISIN: What I'm holding here is an automatic dishwasher detergent box. It has a metal spout on it which is sharp, dangerous if you want to buy compost. Hopefully, they can pick it out on the metal sorting line.

GRABER: Workers pick out the occasional tin can or once in awhile even a bowling ball. Then everything gets shredded up. It'll spend one to two weeks in large, warm, humid containers where the composting process gets a jump-start. Then the piles are moved to another building where bacteria work on them for another eight to ten weeks.

WORT: Let's go to the back end now and take a look at the final thing.

GRABER: Wort leads me through the door of another huge warehouse. He walks over to a pile and picks up a handful of rich, brown material that smells like damp earth.

WORT: It's got paper in it, it's got pieces of wood, but generally, it's basically leaf-like material. This will spend another three or four months before it actually gets used in a soil blending. So it'll break down substantially more than what it is right now.

GRABER: In the first two years, this facility processed 40,000 tons of compost. Wort says the market for the finished product is primarily golf courses and landscapers. Nova Scotia hopes its investment in a new landfill and recycling facility will, in the long run, save the province money, too. The old landfill still costs three million dollars a year just to treat toxic leachate and greenhouse gases.

But the program has its challenges. It's been tough to get apartment buildings on board, and there have been problems with people throwing all kinds of junk into their compost bins. The province says the answer is public education, like the table set up here at a festival in downtown Halifax.

WOMAN: They break when you drop them, what's that? But, so we've got glass, metal, plastic, cigarettes. Never go in the green bin. Excellent.

GRABER: From patrons of the neighborhood tavern to the cabby who drove me home one night, many people here are surprisingly knowledgeable about the new recycling and composting program, even down to the nuances of how to deal with those annoying fruit flies.

Back at the bed and breakfast, my host Anna Ellis tells me how she deals with the teeny pests. One, empty the small kitchen compost bin frequently, she says, especially in the summer. And two:

ELLIS: If you roll anything organic, food scraps and the like, in newspaper first, and then put it into the compost bin, this helps to cut down, as well.

GRABER: Sure, it takes some extra effort. But for most Nova Scotians, composting is becoming just another daily routine. They know what happens to their trash and they know what they're doing makes a difference. And now, when they go to other cities or other countries, many folks here tell me they're uncomfortable throwing an apple core into the garbage can. For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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News Follow-up

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.


CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately.

Last week, we reported on a growing dispute at the Environmental Protection Agency over questions of conflict of interest involving Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. Part of the row includes a controversial decision by Ms. Whitman to transfer the agency's ombudsman to the Office of Inspector General. She also froze the records of the ombudsman's probe of a matter financially linked to her husband.

Now, a federal judge has issued an injunction that temporarily halts the move. But EPA spokesman Joe Martyak says he's confident the court will find the claims of Ombudsman Robert Martin unfounded.

MARTYAK: We deny his claim that he will be adversely affected by this move and we deny his allegations of retaliation and continue to believe that he will function not only fully, but better under the Office of the Inspector General.

CURWOOD: A full hearing is scheduled for February 26th.


CURWOOD: You may recall our interview with John Walsh of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. He talked about the sorry state of the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, and Marjan, the old, one-eyed lion who languishes there.
Well, now John Walsh is part of the first team of animal experts on the ground in Afghanistan and he sends back daily updates to his colleagues as they prepare to join him. One of them is David Jones, who directs the North Carolina Zoological Park.

JONES: We're the first agency to have provided back pay for the keepers, the only civil servants, in fact, that have been given back-pay in Kabul. And so, all the keepers, of course, are amazed by this and everybody is working very well with John to try to make life a bit more comfortable, particularly for the lion and the bear, right now.

CURWOOD: After the situation at the zoo has stabilized, the team plans to work with the stray dog population in the city and domestic farm animals in the Afghan countryside.

CURWOOD: Public health officials in New York are launching several studies to try to determine long-term health effects stemming from the World Trade Center collapse. Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine is heading up one study on pregnant women who were in Lower Manhattan on September 11th.

LANDRIGAN: Really, the best kind of study to assess the effects of environmental exposures is this kind of study, where you sign up moms during the pregnancy, get information on exposures at that time, and then, follow the babies forward in time.

CURWOOD: Other studies will focus on clean-up workers.


And finally, a sanitation worker in Japan was arrested recently for threatening a bar owner with a knife. Apparently, the bar owner wasn't separating his trash from recyclables well enough for the collector, whom the Japanese have dubbed "God of Garbage."

And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living On Earth.


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Health Note: Herbal Liver Toxicity

CURWOOD: Just ahead, modern science takes a look at ancient mushroom medicine of Asia and finds encouraging news for some cancer patients. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey:


TOOMEY: A few weeks ago, Living on Earth reported on the resurgence of kava in Hawaii. On the islands, the root of the fresh herb is made into a traditional drink that produces a calming effect. Kava is also widely available in manufactured supplements. But recent developments in Europe have called into question the safety of the supplements.

Regulators in Germany have reported more than two dozen incidents in which people taking kava supplements developed liver disease. Germany is now considering rescinding these products' over the counter status or banning them entirely. It hasn't been proven yet that kava is the cause of liver disease.

For one thing, a majority of these patients were also taking pharmaceutical drugs with known liver toxicity effects. In the U.S., the FDA is looking into 26 reports of liver damage linked to kava. Advocates of the traditional use of kava maintain the herb is safe, and point to possible dangers in the modern processing methods that may be the cause of the toxicity.

While this issue is being researched, the American Botanical Council advises people with liver problems or those who are taking any kind of drug or alcohol to avoid kava. That's this week's Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.


CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC - Aimee Mann "Nothing is Good Enough" "Magnolia" soundtrack]

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CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you look at Chinese art from the 15th century, chances are you may see a picture of an old man holding a mushroom. Together they symbolize longevity and good health. The mushroom has been a part of herbal medicine in China for more than 2,000 years. Now it looks like the ancients may have been onto something. Modern cancer doctors across Asia routinely prescribe mushroom medicines, and in the U.S. mushroom-based supplements are available in health food stores. American scientists have begun to investigate the potential and possible risks of myco-medicines. Kim Motylewski reports:

MOTYLEWSKI: Reishi, good omen plant, miraculous chi. These are a few traditional names for the mushroom known to science as ganoderma lucidum.

ZHANG: And another name for it is Ling Zhi.

MOTYLEWSKI: Ling Zhi is what Chinese doctors, such as Vivian Zhang, call this mushroom. She's an acupuncturist and herbalist who manages the pharmacy at the New England School of Acupuncture.


MOTYLEWSKI: She opens one of 200 gallon size jars that fill the pharmacy shelves, and pulls out some Ling Zhi.

ZHANG: So, it's growing like this. And the stems grow up and then down. We have a little bit shelf or a little bit hat of the Ling Zhi. So, like a cloud around here.

MOTYLEWSKI: Ling Zhi belongs to a group called the polypores. Instead of having gills on the underside, polypores have smooth skin on both sides, full of tiny holes. Ling Zhi has a lovely red varnish on a kidney-shaped cap. These Ling Zhi are dehydrated and feel as light as cork.

ZHANG: And if you bite it, if you chew it, it will taste bitter. And in Chinese medicine we say it has bland flavor, based on its function.

MOTYLEWSKI: That function is to tonify, or strengthen, a variety of bodily functions. Ling Zhi is sometimes called the "panacea polypore." Listen to Vivian Zhang and you can understand why.

ZHANG: It is good for increasing the memory and for anybody who has fatigue or has the hair loss problem, or even has the digestion problem and feel very stressful. And then, this might be able to calm down spirit and even the gray hair may sometimes grow in where it much more slower than before.

MOTYLEWSKI: The Ling Zhi mushroom is commonly used for these problems at low doses: one or two grams per day. Cook the mushroom in water for about three hours, add a bit of honey, and drink. But Vivian Zhang says Ling Zhi has a dual nature. Given at 10 or 15 grams a day, it's powerful medicine. In China she would give it to cancer patients who were also getting chemotherapy and radiation.

ZHANG: The person if take Ling Zhi and the Ling Zhi could promote the immune system. Then the person also could have a relatively better appetite than before. So they have a better chance to survive from cancer.

MOTYLEWSKI: In fact, several studies have shown that certain mushroom compounds do enhance immune function and some can actually kill cancer cells in test tubes and in animals. Several human studies also show these extracts can improve survival rates and reduce the recurrence of cancer. In Japan, an extract of shiitake mushrooms, called lentinen, and a compound called PSK, from the Turkey Tail species, are part of standard cancer therapy. So why haven't we heard about these treatments in the U.S.?

Well, almost all of the research on mushrooms has been done in Asia. Some say there's a bias in the U.S. against foreign science. And in fact, some of the mushroom work is not up to western standards. But now, public interest in integrative medicine has drawn attention to mushroom remedies.


STAMETS: What happened to the concept that you are what you eat?

MOTYLEWSKI: Meet Paul Stamets, founder of Fungi Perfecti, a mail order company that grows and sells mushrooms for your pantry and your medicine cabinet.

STAMETS: I mean, who in the world brought up the concept of the immune system as a disconnect from food? That's preposterous. Do you have to go to the drugstore in order to buy a drug, in order to affect you immune system? No. It's a lifestyle.

MOTYLEWSKI: Paul Stamets is working a table at the annual Seattle Mushroom Show. Across the room, a crowd watches as a chef sautés wild mushrooms for a quiche. The aromas that waft our way are mouth-watering.


MOTYLEWSKI: Stamets is bringing medicinal mushrooms to the masses. Fungi Perfecti sells a line of mushroom capsules, teas, and tinctures that he says promote a healthy immune system.

Paul Stamets has studied fungi for 30 years. He's an expert grower and a conserver of fungal bio-diversity. But he is not a doctor. His products, he says, are based on the best available science. He knows that science is incomplete, but he says that we already understand enough to help ourselves.

STAMETS: If I'm wrong I'd love to know why, and I want to build from that. But I'm definitely inspired by the influx of data, I eat data, you know, as brain food. I have to have more data or I won't survive.

MOTYLEWSKI: He also swallows his own multi-mushroom capsules every day. They contain Ling Zhi and several other species, such as griphola frondosa or Maitake. In nature, this one blooms like a giant carnation, often a foot or more in diameter. There's trametes versicolor, or Turkey Tail, which grows in fan-like shelves, each covered with velvety fuzz, and hericium erinaceous. It looks like a shaggy white wig, its round cap draped in long, hair-like strands. Some call it Lion's Mane or Monkey's Head.

Stamets says one big reason the medical potential of these and other mushrooms has lain untapped for so long here in the U.S. is cultural prejudice.

STAMETS: We have had a very biologically provincial view towards fungi, and it is a form of biological racism, what I call "mycological myopia."

MOTYLEWSKI: Many Americans, he says, associate mushrooms with infection and decay, not with strength or cure. Stamets traces the view to the English and Irish who first settled here.

STAMETS: They call mushrooms toad stools. Nobody else in the world calls them toad stools. Only these people who fear fungi call them toad stools.

MOTYLEWSKI: But Stamets points out, people across cultures and across time have identified certain mushrooms as great medicine. From the first century Greek physician Diascorites, who called the Agarikon mushroom a cure for consumption, to Himalayan sherpas who drink reishi tea to prevent altitude sickness, to Fungi Perfecti's own customers.

STAMETS: There is a Cedar fever, a real common allergenic reaction in Texas, for instance. We have a whole group of people down there who swear now by our reishi extracts because these symptoms have been totally alleviated.

PLOTNIKOFF: I worry about people indiscriminately seeking immune enhancement.

MOTYLEWSKI: Dr. Gregg Plotnikoff is one of a few American researchers who are now studying these compounds. He's an associate professor of Clinical Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. He calls three decades of Asian mushroom science "very exciting," but says we need studies of our own.

PLOTNIKOFF: In the United States what the scientific and academic community demands are randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled, multi-centered U.S. trials in order for something to become the standard of care.

MOTYLEWSKI: And this is beginning to happen. Dr. Plotnikoff is testing a number of mushroom extracts for their effects on cancer cells in the laboratory. Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is looking at Maitake and breast cancer, both in the lab and in people. And Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina is screening 10,000 fungi species for anti-cancer agents.

Dr. Plotnikoff suspects some mushrooms do have drug potential, but he says we don't have the whole picture, even on time-tested species such as Ling Zhi--what he calls reishi. It's not clear just how Ling Zhi works in the immune system, and he worries about the possible downside.

PLOTNIKOFF: We know that it increases pro-inflammatory forces-- we call them interlueken one, six, eight; tumor necrosis factor alpha. These are nice things to have around with infections and with tumors.

MOTYLEWSKI: But they also tend to promote heart disease, osteoporosis, and may increase the risk for diabetes.

PLOTNIKOFF: Does that mean that the reishi or other mushroom extracts do this, as well? We don't know. The studies haven't been done. They're waiting to be done; they're waiting to be funded.

MOTYLEWSKI: Meanwhile, is it safe to take mushroom supplements for overall health? So far, studies of Ling Zhi have confirmed that traditional uses at low doses are safe. Still, Vivian Zhang at the New England School of Acupuncture warns people with any particular health problem to consult a qualified herbalist.

Greg Plotnikoff is even more cautious. He's concerned that self-prescribers could unwittingly tip their immune systems out of balance.

PLOTNIKOFF: My worry is that people are going to hear about the exciting potential in mushrooms, and rush out and make it like the next St. John's Wort: "More is better." Well, actually right at this point, more data is better.

MOTYLEWSKI: It's not clear when the whole story of mushrooms and immune function will emerge, but results from the cancer research are expected in a few years. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

[MUSIC - Erhu "Mountain Song" Chinese Instrumentals]

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Plants Against Adversity

CURWOOD: Stuyvesant High is located just a few blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. In the wake of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, tests inside the school found contaminated dust and poor air quality. After a one million dollar clean-up and extensive testing, the school re-opened in mid-October. But students soon complained of odors and of rashes, headaches, and respiratory problems.

Then, Stuyvesant officials heard of NASA research which showed that certain plants, such as the Peace Lily and rubber plants, could clean indoor air. The plants absorb pollutants into their leaves and transmit toxins to their roots, where microbes transform them into nutrients for the plant.

Responding to a call for help, a group of Florida nursery growers sent about a thousand plants to Stuyvesant High. The results: students started feeling better. And the plants became a daily reminder, not only of the nation's support but, of the cycle of life.

Photo: Courtesy of Plants at WorkFourteen Florida nurseries donated about
1,000 plants to Stuyvesant H.S.
(Photo: Courtesy of Plants at Work)

The group, Plants at Work, held an essay contest so Stuyvesant students could voice how the plants had helped them. Eleventh grader Leah Rabinowitz won the competition and she joins us now.

CURWOOD: Welcome, Leah, and congratulations.

RABINOWITZ: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Well, first off, let's go back to October, a month after the 9-11 attack. What was it like to go back to Stuyvesant after being displaced to another school?

RABINOWITZ: It was certainly difficult. I mean, there were a lot of fears, not only about air quality. Just about being so close to a scene that was so emotional to a lot of people. Just going back there and seeing some of those things so changed was very difficult. But eventually we, you know, settled in, and it just became part of the daily routine again, of just going to school and just partially-- you know, some of the time you don't even realize where you are. You just think, "Well, I'm in school." And then you kind of look out the window and you realize where you are, and it's just a very-- a very emotional thing when you finally make that realization every once in awhile.

CURWOOD: How did you find out about the plant donations?

RABINOWITZ: I walked into school one day, and I saw about 100 plants or so, sitting on a big table. And I was, like, "What's up? What's going on?" And then they told us that every homeroom is going to get a nice, bushy plant to go put on the radiator, and to just make the room a little bit livelier, and I thought it was just a really great donation to our school and to our community.

CURWOOD: Leah, in your essay, which you entitled "A Greener Stuyvesant"-- it's an awfully wonderful writing job, I must say--

RABINOWITZ: Well, thank you.

CURWOOD: -- and I'm wondering if you would mind reading it for us now?

RABINOWITZ: Oh sure, no problem.

"A Greener Stuyvesant."

For the past few weeks, my fellow classmates and I have received several generous donations: from banners of support, to personalized letters, to free notebooks. But the most impacting gift, both physically and symbolically, has been the addition of lively green plants to every homeroom. They have had an impact far larger than I ever could have envisioned.

The plants hold a great deal of symbolism in their outreaching leaves and limbs.
Although we have been back at Stuyvesant for over two months, things have never felt the same. I realize that we can never go back to the way things used to be, that we simply have to learn to adapt to the ever-changing world around us. The plants represent the new lives that we have embarked on, encouraging us to press onward. In addition, they denote a sense of security that we all lost in one way or another on September 11th. Ever since we returned, questions have been raised about the air quality, both in and surrounding the school. The plants help to comfort some of my fears. They stand for a sense of safety, reminding us that life can still flourish, even under these extremely trying conditions.

In addition to symbolic effects, the plants have had a physical effect on my daily life.
For a little over a week before the plants arrived, my throat was hurting so badly that I could barely speak, and I had been getting frequent headaches. But two days after the arrival of the plants, the pain in my throat went away and the intensity of my headaches subsided significantly. The plants, as we were told they would, increased the oxygen level throughout the school, helping to make the air cleaner. In doing so, they also ridded me of my ailment.

Photo: Courtesy of Plants at WorkPlant Parents at Stuyvesant H.S. care and feed the plants.
(Photo: Courtesy of Plants at Work)

Additionally, my classmates and I have developed a symbiotic relationship of sorts with the plants. I have often helped my friend Cindy water the plants in our homeroom. Although the job entailed taking on additional responsibilities, I felt that it was the least I could do. After all, they had done so much for me. I am proud to see them thriving, making the building seem a little less like a school, not to mention a school in the middle of a virtual war zone.

Every time our academic community received another generous contribution, I felt a sense of gratitude. But when I walked into Stuyvesant a few weeks ago and saw the rows upon rows of plants sitting on a table, waiting to be distributed, I was deeply touched. Words cannot begin to describe my profound appreciation for your kindness. Thank you for your sympathy. Thank you for making the days pass just a little bit faster. Thank you for making every day at Stuyvesant just a little bit brighter and a little bit greener. Thank you so much.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER - Natalie Merchant "Thank You" Ophelia]

CURWOOD: Leah Rabinowitz is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and winner of "The Plants Against Adversity" essay contest. And by the way, Living on Earth has compiled a list of ten house plants that can help you clean your air. To find them, log onto our website at www.loe.org.


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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week...


CURWOOD: How the painstaking work of one researcher reveals, for the very first time, what male birds are really telling females with their intricate communication.

MAN: I'm better than the other males. I'm better than my neighbor. I'm stronger. I'm healthier. I have better genes for you to pass to your offspring. I'm strong, I'm sexy. Come mate with me.

CURWOOD: Lusting love birds next week on Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the voices of school children from the other side of the world. It's dawn at Besa Village on Lake McIllwaine in Zimbabwe. And recordist David Dunn caught these moments of laughter and song as children gather and wait for their lessons to begin.

[David Dunn "Besa Village Children Singing Why Do Whales and Children Sing? - EarthEar 2001]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Jessica Penny and Rachel Girshick. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear.

Our technical director is Dennis Foley, and today we welcome our new western editor, Ingrid Lobet, who is setting up shop in Los Angeles. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth expanded Internet service, the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, for reporting on western issues, and the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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