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

April 4, 2003

Air Date: April 4, 2003



War & Environment Advocates

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What happens to coverage of the environment during wartime, and how do environmentalists respond? Host Steve Curwood talks with media experts at two national environmental groups about the delicate balance of getting attention without getting criticized. (11:00)

Emerging Science Note/Cell Abnormalities & Plasticizers / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a lab accident that proved to be a valuable clue in the study of chromosome mutations. (02:00)

Almanac/Refuge Centennial

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This week, we have facts about the first National Wildlife Refuge. President Teddy Roosevelt granted legal protection for Pelican Island one hundred years ago, daring anyone to stop him. (02:00)

SARS Update

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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has spread to more than a dozen countries throughout the world. One of the hardest hit places is Hong Kong. The World Health Organization has issued an alert for that region, advising against all but essential travel. Host Steve Curwood talks with Hong Kong based Wall Street Journal reporter Matt Pottinger, who has been ordered by his editor to work from home. (06:15)

Precious Wonder / Tom Lopez

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Producer Tom Lopez offers an ode to the magic and music of the singing frogs of South America’s Pantanel region. (04:00)

California Drinking / Tamara Keith

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Water agencies in western states are hard-pressed to pay for removing arsenic from tap water to meet new federal standards. But California towns may soon have to meet an even stricter standard. Tamara Keith reports. (03:00)

Environmental Health Note/Networked Health Workers / Diane Toomey

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a Department of Health and Human Services experiment that’s testing doctors’ PDAs as a way to alert them to possible bio-terrorist attacks. (01:15)

Iraq’s Water Economy

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The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have defined Middle Eastern civilizations ever since ancient Mesopotamian times. Today, the rivers are divided by the politics and thirst of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The present crisis in Iraq is threatening the water system there, and could create widespread health problems. Host Steve Curwood speaks with King’s College professor Tony Allan and Oxfam International’s Paul Sherlock about the past, present and future of the Iraqi water supply. (08:20)

Reach Out and Cyber-touch / Rachel Gotbaum

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Computer scientists are studying how the sense of touch can be achieved in the virtual world. Recently, scientists at MIT actually achieved the first trans-atlantic touch – through computers. Rachel Gotbaum reports from Cambridge, Massachusetts. (07:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Scott Stoermer, Allen Mattison, Matt Pottinger, Tony Allan, Paul SherlockREPORTERS: Tom Lopez, Tamara Keith, Rachel GotbaumNOTES: Jennifer Chu, Diane Toomey


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. As the SARS outbreak spreads around the globe, it could affect more than people's health. Fear is spreading, too. And some analysts warn that the virus could make the economy sick.

POTTINGER: It's hurting trade. It's hurting finance. It's slowing down the rate that companies can find capital and supply retail chain.

CURWOOD: Also, move over sight and sound. Coming soon to a computer near you, virtual touch.

GOTBAUM: And I feel it, oh god, yes. And we're lifting, oh, woo. Oh gosh, that was spiritual.

CURWOOD: Now my computer can see me, feel me, and touch me, too. And how frogs can teach us wisdom beyond the conventions of science.

LOPEZ: Drop your knowledge. Knowledge is worthless. Wonder is precious.

CURWOOD: The singing frogs of the vast Pantanal and more, this week on Living on Earth, right after this.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and heritageafrica.com

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War & Environment Advocates


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's no secret that there's less media coverage of the environment during wartime. But the environment doesn't go away and neither do the groups who seek to protect it. So, what do they do during a war? How does their role change, and should it change?

Joining me to talk about the politics and perils of environmental activism in a time of war are Scott Stoermer, communications director with the League of Conservation Voters, and Allen Mattison, who directs media relations for the Sierra Club. Scott Stoermer, let's start with the basics. What's the first thing you thought about, or the first change you made, when the fighting in Iraq began?

STOERMER: We really tried to take an objective look at how the war was going to dominate the news cycle, so to see how we were going to fit into it. So, the first change that we made after that was to really make sure that we stopped a lot of our pro-active communication that was going out, a lot of the releases or a lot of our outreach, our regular outreach to reporters and producers and members of the media about politics and things that were going on on the Hill, simply because there wasn't going to be anybody there to listen.

CURWOOD: For some Americans, anything that's critical of the president right now might appear to be unpatriotic, even if it has nothing to do with the war. So, how do you avoid this without simply yielding on environmental policies you don't agree with? Alan Mattison?

MATTISON: Well, we can't let the Bush administration run roughshod on the environment. And I think that people recognize that parts of the administration, and the president himself, are very, very consumed with the war, and that's as they should be. Other parts, people in the Department of the Interior or the Environmental Protection Agency, are continuing with business as usual and trying to weaken some of the clean air standards we rely on, and trying to continue with their efforts to drill some of America's most beautiful places. And that's where we're focusing our efforts, making sure that when the public is distracted, the administration can't go ahead and do some of the things that they wouldn’t be able to do if the light of day were shone on them.

CURWOOD: What about taking a position on this war? Your two groups have taken different approaches to this question. Scott Stoermer, at the League of Conservation Voters, I understand you've chosen not to issue any sort of statement about the war, and I understand you issued a memo about this to your staff. What was the reason you gave for this?

STOERMER: I believe, and many of my colleagues at LCV believed, that in all cases, the first question we must ask ourselves whenever we engage in a public issue is does it make sense for us and our mission to engage? Does what we have to say add something to the debate, something new, something relevant? And we did not believe that a conflict in Iraq at this point really warranted that kind of activity.

CURWOOD: And Alan Mattison, the Sierra Club has taken a position on the war. Your website says that the Sierra Club is opposed to action without United Nations support. Why is the Sierra Club opposed and why did you decide to make such a statement?

MATTISON: Well, the Sierra Club is a small “d” grassroots democracy and we come up with our positions based on what our members want. So, the position that we took was sort of two-fold. One, disarm Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction using the UN inspectors process; and two, let's really implement a strong policy of energy conservation here in the U.S. through renewable technologies, renewable power, and things like higher fuel efficiency standards. And it's been received very well. Some people thought our position was too strong. Some people thought our position was too weak. Some people thought we shouldn't have taken a position at all. But the overwhelming consensus as we surveyed thousands of our members was, yeah, we need to take a position because this is really important and because of the environmental consequences of war.

STOERMER: It makes a lot of sense for groups like the Sierra Clubs or Friends of the Earth, who are large membership organizations, whereas LCV, we do have a lot of members. You know, our issue, we're focused on the issues that matter come election day, which is quite a long way to go until then. But there are other groups in the environmental community, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, that also haven't taken positions.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering what sort of change we're seeing here in the environmental movement. I mean, historically, environmental groups have been opposed to nuclear weapons, of course, and various chemical weapons and defoliants, for instance. But it's been less common in history for groups like the Sierra Club to announce their opposition to war in its entirety. To what degree do you think this stand marks really a change in the environmental movement?

MATTISON: Well, over the past 30, 40 years there have been a whole bunch of different positions. In fact, I just read earlier today a fascinating editorial that was written in 1940 by the head of the Isaac Walton League, which is a group of hunters and anglers who are also conservationists. And way back in 1940 they were saying that as we go to war, anticipating World War II, there are ways to build our airplanes without chopping down every forest. There are ways to mine the minerals that we need for guns and for ammunition without despoiling all of our streams. There are ways to grow the crops we need for our troops without creating another Dust Bowl, because that was very much on their minds in 1940. So, clearly, going back even before World War II, there were conservation groups speaking out against despoiling the environment in the name of war.

CURWOOD: But, in this case, you have environmental groups speaking against the war itself.

MATTISON: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of a natural progression, perhaps.

STOERMER: And frankly, Steve, I think it's a very patriotic thing. I think Teddy Roosevelt said that the second most important thing that you can do to serve your country's interests, other than putting on a uniform, is to protect the environment. I think that what you're seeing a lot in the environmental community nowadays is a recognition that we live in a global environment; that we can't just focus on the things that happen within our own country because they have global impacts, whether it's from global warming, or whether it's from clean air, whether it's from safe water. So, I think it's an interesting recognition of that.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you this, Alan. Most polls right now show a majority of Americans in support of the war in Iraq. How concerned are you that the Sierra Club will alienate itself by opposing the war?

MATTISON: I don't think that's really a concern. I think that one thing that probably surprised the administration is, as they're also looking at the same numbers you mentioned, Steve, they're holding a whole series of hearings on their plan to allow power plants to pollute more. They held them in places like Dallas and Salt Lake City and Michigan, Albany, New York. And the turnout that the Sierra Club saw at these events was in the hundreds at each one, to say we want clean air and we don't need to sacrifice our clean air because of anything else going on in the world. This is an important value. And both the Sierra Club activists and others from the community who showed up greatly outnumbered those from the power plant industry and the refineries who showed up on behalf of the Bush administration's plans.

STOERMER: But I think what you are seeing, that the real, practical impact of the war is that coverage of those Sierra Club members showing up at those events, coverage of what this administration is continuing to do to undermine our clean air laws and our safe water laws, those kind of things aren't making it into the newspaper. Those kind of things aren't making it into the evening news, if only because the people who would usually cover those issues are now assigned to the first infantry division.

CURWOOD: Scott, the League of Conservation Voters rates lawmakers based on their environmental record. How could you see this war affecting someone's environmental rating?

STOERMER: It all depends on what votes come up on the floor. The National Environmental Scorecard is totally based upon votes in Congress. There is one particular issue that could be related and sort of illustrates the point. The Department of Defense is looking at trying to get exemptions for military training activities that they say are being hampered by having to abide by things like endangered species protection or the Marine Mammals Protection Act. They're using as an argument that it undermines the readiness of American troops in the context of the conflict we are in right now. As Christie Whitman said, there has not been any military training or readiness that has been impacted whatsoever by abiding by these important environmental laws, and I can certainly speak from personal experience. I don't think any of the training I ever engaged in was hampered by it. And that's an issue that could come to the floor of Congress, that could be colored by our conflict in Iraq, and could have serious repercussions on the environment.

CURWOOD: One last question for both of you. And Alan, perhaps you would answer first. Whether the media is covering it or not, environmental policy obviously is still very much in play there on Capitol Hill and at the agencies, the administration. Can you give me a quick rundown of the issues you see as most important right now, issues that aren't getting much coverage in the mainstream press?

MATTISON: Well, and just to qualify that, I think that if you turn to the metro section of the newspaper, the environment is still getting a lot of coverage. It's that national perspective that's missing, and I think nationally the biggest issues are fuel economy standards, clean air protections from power plants, from refineries, protecting our beautiful landscapes such as our National Wildlife Refuges and our National Monuments from oil and gas drilling. And water protections, our clean water protections and whether or not polluters will be allowed to pollute those. And finally, Superfund. Are polluters going to be made to clean up their messes, or are those burdens going to be dumped on taxpayers, as the Bush administration wants to have happen?


STOERMER: I think that the main issue that is not getting covered that should get covered is what the presidential candidates are saying about it. I think that the single best thing that we can do in order to protect the environment is to make sure we elect a pro-environment president in November of 2004. We certainly don't have one right now. And I think all of those issues that Alan talked about, whether it's Superfund, or clean air, or some of the other issues, are ones that are going to be addressed by the presidential candidates, and probably going to end up being what we firmly believe are at the top of the vulnerabilities of President Bush as he runs for re-election.

CURWOOD: Scott Stoermer is communications director with the League of Conservation Voters and Alan Mattison directs media relations for the Sierra Club. Gentlemen, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

STOERMER: Thank you, Steve.

MATTISON: It's my pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: Stella Rambisai Chiweshe “Chigamba” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1991)]

Related links:
- League of Conservation Voters
- Sierra Club

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Emerging Science Note/Cell Abnormalities & Plasticizers

CURWOOD: Coming up, the SARS outbreak threatens the health of the economy as well as the health of people. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

[MUSIC: Science Note Theme]

CHU: Discoveries in the lab are usually the result of months of carefully designed, meticulously controlled experiments. But a recent discovery at Case Western Reserve University was actually the result of a lab accident. Researchers had been studying the causes of chromosome mutations in rats. These mutations happen when too many or too few chromosomes are created during cell division. In humans, these abnormalities have been shown to cause spontaneous miscarriages and birth defects, including Down Syndrome.

In this experiment, scientists were stumped by a sudden eightfold spike in chromosome abnormalities, in what was supposed to be the normal control group of rats. The researchers eventually discovered that a worker had used a harsh alkaline detergent to wipe down the rats' plastic cages. This caused the cage bars to deteriorate and release a chemical in the plastics called bisphenol-a or BPA. The detergent also corroded the spray bottle, which in turn leeched BPA into the water, exposing the rats to even more of the chemical. Researchers thought this might be a clue as to why the normal rats had so many chromosome abnormalities. To find out, they exposed rats to low levels of BPA, and sure enough, that caused similar abnormalities confirming that the contaminant was the culprit in the chromosome mutation spike.

BPA is a chemical used to manufacture some types of plastics. It can be found in plastic resins, flame retardants, nail polish and adhesives, to name just a few uses. The researchers have not studied BPA's effect on human health, but say that mutations caused by such a brief exposure to the chemical are a cause for concern and further study.

That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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

[MUSIC: Stella Rambisai Chiweshe “Chigamba” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1991)]

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Almanac/Refuge Centennial

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

And here is Theodore Roosevelt IV on one of the memorable achievements of his great-grandfather, the 26th president of the United States.

ROOSEVELT IV: Who knows of anything as grand as the National Wildlife Refuge System that began this humbly: a dollop of mud, a few spent shotgun shells and a few feathers.

[MUSIC: Peerless Orchestra “Smokey Mokes” Black Wax Sampler, 1902-1912 tinfoil.com]

CURWOOD: One hundred years ago, birds were killed by the millions to furnish feathers for women's hats. Among the hardest hit were the shorebirds of Florida, including brown pelicans. In 1903, the pelicans had only one remaining rookery on Florida's east coast, the aptly named Pelican Island. Luckily for them, they had a friend in the White House.

In March of that year, President Teddy Roosevelt granted legal protection to a small island and its birds. He declared it the first National Wildlife Refuge.

ROOSEVELT IV: When asked to intercede on behalf of the pelican breeding ground, Roosevelt essentially asked: is there anyone out there who can stop me? Evidently, no one could.

CURWOOD: Those three acres of protected land have grown today to nearly 100 million acres in 535 refuges. Each refuge is diverse and each has its own specialty. From manatees in Florida to bison in Montana to dragonflies in New Mexico.

Unlike most federal lands, refuges exclude logging, grazing, mining and drilling. And while limited hunting does occur in refuges, ecological science has taken a leading role. Conservation work today includes wetland protections, prescribed burning, control of invasive species and the reintroduction of native plants.

And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.


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SARS Update

CURWOOD: Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, first appeared in South China four months ago and public health officials are still trying to contain the outbreak that has spread to more than a dozen countries.

The World Health Organization has issued an alert advising against all but essential travel to the diseased hotspots in Asia. Meanwhile, quarantines are becoming commonplace, as are face masks to lower the risk of exposure to SARS, but many workers are simply staying home. One of them is Matt Pottinger. He is a reporter based in Hong Kong for The Wall Street Journal.

Matt, as I understand it, your boss has told you to keep out of the office. Is that right?

POTTINGER: It's pretty much true. We've--Wall Street Journal is doing what a lot of companies here now are doing--asking staff to work from home if they can, simply as really a preemptive measure in case someone gets sick in the office. If that were to happen at the paper, we're worried that we would be put under some kind of a government-imposed quarantine, and that would make it a lot more difficult for us to actually publish the Asian edition.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, so far more than a dozen people in Hong Kong have died from SARS, and hundreds more have come down with the disease. But as I understand it, more than a third of these cases come from one apartment complex. Can you tell us about the Amoy Gardens and how it came to be the epicenter for Hong Kong for this disease?

POTTINGER: The doctors think now that it probably had something to do with the sewage system. In Hong Kong, most of the water and sewage pipes are actually run down the outsides of buildings. What some of the doctors are speculating now is that one patient who is very ill then infected the sewage system. So it's possible that there was a leak running down some of these pipes and that droplets were actually blown into the windows and homes of people running down that one side of the building.

CURWOOD: Now, how are the Hong Kong authorities dealing with these people, and how would you characterize the cooperation that they're getting?

POTTINGER: Well, it's been tough. On the day a quarantine or an isolation order was delivered to that building, people already knew it was coming, and a lot of people scattered. So the police had quite a job trying to track down those people. But they have since moved most of the residents in that block to a couple of camps, really sort of holiday resorts around the city where there is less of a risk of infection from the environment.

CURWOOD: What territory-wide measures has the government there taken to attempt to halt the spread of this disease?

POTTINGER: The government has had guidelines on hygiene--above all, asking people, even above wearing masks, they've really suggested washing hands religiously--using liquid soap, not touching your face. Because this virus that is believed to be causing it, the corona virus, is actually related to a virus that causes the common cold. And what we know is that the common cold is spread, probably just as often by hand to hand contact and then touching our faces, as it is through actually breathing in the virus.

CURWOOD: In your Wall Street Journal articles you write that many people in Hong Kong are wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from SARS. How difficult is it to get one right now?

POTTINGER: Well, Hong Kong made its name as a trade port, so there are a lot of savvy businessmen here who have been pretty quick. There were shortages in the initial days but now I'm seeing--I'm seeing plenty of masks on the street and in stores.

CURWOOD: Now tell me about these designer masks that have hit the streets there.

POTTINGER: Yeah, exactly. We're seeing--at first it was sort of these cheap paper surgical masks. Now, it sort of runs the gamut from heavy-duty N95 hospital masks to ones that have all kinds of colors and logos on them. Parents have been buying ones with teddy bears and Bambi.

CURWOOD: You can tell us the masks that you're wearing, Matt.

POTTINGER: [laughs] I've managed to score an N95, which, if worn tightly, is supposed to block out even particles the size of a virus. So I've gotten used to wearing it. I've learned the hard way that you should never be around places where they're preparing food when you're wearing it because the smell of the cooking permeates the mask and sort of stays there. It's pretty gross. It's kind of like breathing out of a McDonald's takeout bag for hours on end.

CURWOOD: The business of Hong Kong is business. I'm wondering what kind of toll this outbreak has taken on the economy there.

POTTINGER: It's taking a hard hit. People aren't going to restaurants. You don't see as many people out shopping. All kinds of events have been cancelled, sports events. The Rolling Stones had to cancel their concert. So, it's definitely hurting. The hotel rates are down, the airlines are bringing far fewer people in and are canceling flights. But that said, it's not just a phenomenon that's affecting Hong Kong at this point. Morgan Stanley's chief economist is actually going to advise clients that SARS may create a world recession. It's hurting trade, it's hurting finance, slowing down the rate that companies can find capital, and supply retail chain.

CURWOOD: Matt, what other precautions, other than wearing a mask and working from home, are you taking?

POTTINGER: Really just paying extra close attention to washing my hands. If my contact lenses start to dry out I have to resist the urge to reach up and adjust it. I've got to go scrub my hands first. I'm taking taxicabs instead of the subway. And something I've seen a lot of people doing now is avoid shaking hands. People are now sort of nodding their heads kind of in an abbreviated bow as a way of greeting people.

CURWOOD: Matt Pottinger is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong. Thanks for joining us today.

POTTINGER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And if you'd like to hear a longer version of this interview, please go to our website at loe.org. That's loe.org.

[MUSIC: Glen Velez “Bodhran” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1992)]

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Precious Wonder

CURWOOD: Often we learn about rare animals from serious biologists who travel many miles and endure many hardships to research the creatures that fascinate them. But we can also get a keen sense of appreciation and wonder for nature's critters from someone who freely admits he knows next to nothing about science. Someone like producer Tom Lopez. Here is his lesson about the frogs of the Pantanal.


LOPEZ: I recorded these frogs in the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a floodplain, or what I'd call a big swamp. It's mainly in Brazil but extends into Bolivia and Paraguay. They claim it's about 230,000 square kilometers. That's almost five times the size of Costa Rica. There's a lot of wildlife, especially at night, as you can hear. They sound like something from planet Venus. I call them the singing frogs of the Pantanal. I think they're frogs. They could be toads.

Let me play you something else.


LOPEZ: They're what's known as your common garden toad. You'd never expect something with so many warts could sing like this. And listen to the way they all get together into these toad choruses, all twirling away. Reminds me of Moroccan women, the way they twirl.

We also have tree toads. They're tiny little green things about the size of your thumb. Amazing voices these little fellows have. You can tell it's a tree toad because you'll hear them up in the air above your head, twirling in some tree.

Meanwhile, back in the Pantanal -- like I said, I don't know if these are frogs or if they're toads -- but I'll tell you a story. There was a holy man. This is a true story, by the way, and it's a contemporary story. This contemporary holy man enjoyed going for walks in the woods, preferably alone. But living nearby was a university professor who loved to join the holy man on his walks. As they walked along, the professor would name everything. That tree belongs to whatever species. And that plant is such and such. That bush over there is so and so. That bird that just flew by is a whatever. The professor was a very informed man.

So, finally, the holy man said something that the professor never could quite get. The holy man said, "Drop your knowledge, knowledge is worthless. Wonder is precious."


LOPEZ: Isn't this one of the most beautiful things you've ever heard?


LOPEZ: But still, I wonder, is it a frog or is it a toad?


CURWOOD: The singing frogs of the Pantanal was produced by Tom Lopez as part of the Hearing Voices series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[MUSIC: Kevin Volans “White Man Sleeps” Pieces of Africa Elektra (1992)]

CURWOOD: When I went to South Africa, I knew that only Brazil and Indonesia had more biological diversity. Still, it was startling to see lions, rhinos, and hippos on the grasslands, and then in the same country see dolphins in the ocean. One morning, I was walking on a series of sandy beaches tucked below the mountains of the western Cape when I came across maybe a dozen dolphins playing. Four of the dolphins broke away and swam among in the direction I was headed.

Close to shore, in the distance, I saw a big dark rock which kept submerging under the waves. Eventually I realized it was a humpback whale, which the dolphins started to play with. I had never seen a whale so close to shore. I had also never seen a whale being called out to the playground. The whale then followed the dolphins back down along the beach to their pod. They all seemed to have a great time dancing over the waves.

The next morning I read in the paper that a hundred people had left one of the beaches nearby to go and swim with the dolphins. Now, I want to go back so I can swim with them, too.

Thanks to Heritage Africa, you too, perhaps, can frolic with dolphins. Living on Earth is giving away a 15-day trip for two on the ultimate African safari, with visits to several of Africa's most impressive wildlife enclaves, including Kruger, the Serengeti, and the Cape of Good Hope. Please go to our website, loe.org, for more details about how to win this 15-day trip to see some of Africa's most spectacular sights. That's loe.org.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.

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California Drinking

CURWOOD: Communities across the nation are scrambling to remove arsenic from drinking water before a federal deadline in 2006. Arsenic is a naturally-occurring heavy metal known to cause cancer. Now, California is considering an arsenic standard even tougher than the federal rule, leaving many communities there wondering if they can afford this level of protection. Tamara Keith reports.

KEITH: The central California town of Tranquility has never had to treat its drinking water with anything more than an occasional shot of chlorine. The machinery of Tranquility's entire water system fits on a piece of land smaller than most master bedrooms. Sarge Green is the manager of the Tranquility Irrigation District, which supplies water to the town's 800 residents and two local schools.

GREEN: It's got a deep well, electric motor, a back-up generator, and then it goes up into the water tower and is distributed in the pipes to the community.

KEITH: Tranquility's water, like the water in hundreds of small towns across the west, is contaminated with arsenic. The town's two wells don't meet the new federal standards. The water district is preparing to build a small water treatment plant to filter out the arsenic. But it won't be cheap, and Green says if California goes ahead with stricter standards, the town's water bills will be even higher.

GREEN: It could ostensibly go up as high as $60 dollars a month. For a small farm community like this where a lot of the workers are farmworkers, that's a significant investment.

KEITH: Tranquility's residents aren't pleased with the prospect of a rate increase. Many, like Velia Clifton, are spending $20 dollars or more each month buying bottled water. She says it's not worth the expense to remove the arsenic.

CLIFTON: I think they shouldn't even worry about taking it out because nobody drinks the water anyway. Everybody just uses it for irrigating their lawns and washing their dishes and taking a bath, and it would be stupid and senseless.

KEITH: But her neighbor, Mark Satrom, says he's willing to pay for tap water he feels safe drinking.

SATROM: I'd love to be able to just open up the tap and be able to drink it, you know? Should be able to.

KEITH: That's the message being pushed by the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group that lobbied for the new federal arsenic standards and is now advocating for more stringent standards in California. Staff attorney Adrianna Quintero.

QUINTERO: It's definitely worth it, because the costs to public health are extremely high.

KEITH: Arsenic has been linked to bladder cancer, lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and other health problems. The new federal standard for arsenic in drinking water is ten parts per billion. California is considering settings its standard as low as two parts per billion, which is the lowest level at which arsenic can be detected. If it does set it that low, 3,000 water sources across the state would need to be treated. In Los Angeles alone, the bill could be $250 million dollars.

For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith.

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Environmental Health Note/Networked Health Workers

CURWOOD: Coming up, the politics and public health perils of water in Iraq. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

[MUSIC: Health Note Theme]

TOOMEY: In hospitals across the country, PDA's have taken their place next to the stethoscope. More than 700,000 frontline clinicians, including 40 percent of all doctors, use their personal digital assistants to hook into a health information network known as ePocrates. The system offers a drug database and health news bulletins. Now, the Department of Health and Human Services hopes to use this network to alert doctors about possible bio-terrorist attacks.

And towards that end, the agency recently announced the start of a three-month trial. The first test was the announcement itself, sent out to all ePocrates subscribers. The next message will contain information about some of the most threatening biological agents, including anthrax, smallpox, and plague.

Health officials say they recognized the need for better communication during the anthrax scare of 2001. At that time they had trouble spreading the word about effective treatments other than the well-publicized Cipro. If there ever is a bio-terrorism attack, officials admit they probably won't beat the press in terms of getting the initial word out, but they say a PDA-based alert system can quickly communicate technical information such as diagnosis guidelines and drug dosage recommendations.

That's this week's Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.

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

[MUSIC: Glen Velez “Bodhran” The Pulse of Life - Ellipsis Arts (1992)]

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Iraq’s Water Economy

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The lands of Mesopotamia were once rich with resources, thanks largely to the two great rivers that defined its borders. The Tigris to the north and the Euphrates to the south provided water, food and a bridge between societies.

Modern day Iraq is at a particular disadvantage, being downstream from Turkey and Syria, and the last to receive the rivers' waters. Iraq's water supply today is deemed inadequate to fulfill its needs, largely because much of it is polluted due to neglect. That's a problem to be addressed in any rebuilding of the country. Paul Sherlock is lead coordinator of the Water and Sanitation Unit for the United Nations Relief Operation. And he joins me from Amman, Jordan. Also with us is Tony Allan, a professor at King's College and director of the Water Issues Research Group in London.

Professor Allan, let's start with you first. Can you trace the path of the Tigris and Euphrates for us? What's the landscape they pass through before they empty into the Persian Gulf?

ALLAN: Well, the Euphrates rises in Turkey, as does the Tigris. But the Tigris receives significant water from Iran. This area of the Middle East, by the standards of the Middle East, is quite well watered. The total volume of water in that system is about the same as in the Nile, but it's in two rivers in this case.

The problem with the water, or with the landscape, is that in the south, in Mesopotamia where there have been thousands of years of civilization, the land is not very good. It's very saline. And combining water with it does not work the miracles that it does in other parts of the Middle East, such as Egypt.

So, we have a history of many civilizations. And some archaeologists argue that these city-states of the past ran out of resources because they could not manage the land effectively, because it eventually became too saline.

CURWOOD: So, tell me, today, water is really central for Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in this watershed. At what point did political tension start to form over these rivers throughout history?

ALLAN: There was no shortage of water until the late part of the century, let's say until about 1970, mainly because Turkey had not thought to develop its water in the upper part of the basin until the '60s. Plans were made then. Then they built the big dam in the 1970s, another in the '80s, and another in the '90s.

The point at which they built those dams, of course, on the Euphrates, they interfered with the flow of that river. And they will eventually, and have done already, through the filling of the dams, halved, roughly, the flow of the Euphrates as it leaves Turkey. And that means that there's been a dramatic reduction in flow into Syria, which has then to share the water further down with Iraq.

CURWOOD: Paul Sherlock, I want to turn to you now. You're based in Amman, Jordan, and waiting to go into Iraq with humanitarian aid. You were recently able to assess the water quality and systems in the country. Can you describe the water system, the fresh water system for people as it exists today, as well as the irrigation? What kind of shape is it in?

SHERLOCK: I think to look at it today, you've got to look at what it was like 12 years ago. Twelve years ago, this country is not short of water. And because it was an oil-based economy, it developed, 15 or 20 years ago, a fairly sophisticated system. And the statistics 12 years ago was that about over 95 percent of the urban population, and 75 percent of the rural population, had piped treated water into their homes.

Today, because of the war ten years ago, and because of the sanctions, that percentage in the urban side has dropped to about 92 percent, 91 percent, and in the rural areas down to about 40 percent. The quality of that water, despite the fact that in most cases it's gone through a treatment plant, the quality is fairly low.

A water treatment plant, near the northern city of Mosul,
serves rural areas along the Tigris river.
(Photo: ICRC)

So, this is a country which has 218 conventional-type water plants. And it has over 1,200 what they call compact units. Which means that the compact unit, which is a small mini water treatment plant, is actually in most villages. Of course, after 12 years of sanctions, after the Gulf War, there was considerable damage to their power supply. Now this whole system in Iraq totally depends on electrical power. This is not a hand pump or spring type protection water base. This is a sophisticated system based upon electrical power. After the last Gulf War, they were never able to put back the power requirements in place. And for the last 12 years, they've been running about a third deficit on power.

CURWOOD: With things deteriorated in Iraq, we hear that there is now more raw sewage, other forms of pollution in the water, and that, with some of the troops massing along the Tigris River and firing artillery rounds, the military activity can't be helping water quality. What do you hear about how the present war is affecting water quality and infrastructure?

SHERLOCK: Well, I mean, the biggest concern of the things which are actually happening right now, in Basra and in Baghdad, Nasiriyah and other large cities--of course, this supply runs off of power. If the power goes down, then these systems will stop. People will then be forced to go to the rivers to take water for their drinking. And that's when we feel that, health-wise, there's going to be a major, major problem.

CURWOOD: How has water quality affected human health during the sanctions and now during this war?

SHERLOCK: It's very, very difficult to put a figure on it. What we do know is that, from the experience of the world, that water is the key to life. It's also the key to death because water is the transmission mechanism that carries a large proportion of infectious disease.

Therefore, at the moment we do know that the water quality is extremely bad. And if, after this crisis, we don't arrest that situation and get the water back together very quickly, there is a real risk of some very, very serious outbreaks of infectious disease.

CURWOOD: Where are people getting drinking water now?

SHERLOCK: Well, they're getting drinking water still in Baghdad from a system which is still operating. In most of the cities, the systems are still operating. In places like Basra, it's down to about 40 percent. But there, the UN and, to a degree, the ICRC, have partially repaired the systems in Basra.

CURWOOD: Tony Allan, let me turn again to you. To what extent has the need for water played into the shifting alliances among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq?

ALLAN: Well, not easy to predict. But, Turkey has a deep interest in the water. It wants to use more of it. It has made some sort of arrangement with the downstream states, which are contended by those downstream to provide secure water on the Euphrates, much less than it used to be, but secure water.

So, Turkey is in the strong position. It's the upstream state. At this point in history, it is the hegemon in terms of the strongest military forces, as well as the strong geographic position.

So, it is very interesting, just going back to the last Gulf crisis, Turkey was encouraged by international bodies, not international agencies, but certainly by those interested in intimidating Iraq, that they should interfere with the flow of the Euphrates. Which they could have done to some extent, but they were very adamant that they wouldn't.

So, this indicates that Turkey, which has been very bullish in terms of developing the water and reducing the flow, recognizes that there is a long future ahead in which Turkey is going to be relating to whatever political entity to the south. And, Syria and Iraq are certainly going to be amongst them. It's more important to play fair by them than even comply with what the United States would like to happen.

CURWOOD: Tony Allan is a professor at King's College and director of the Water Issues Research Group in London. Thank you, sir.

ALLAN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And Paul Sherlock is lead coordinator of Water and Sanitation for the United Nations Relief Operation, and also works for Oxfam International. Thank you, sir.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Munir Bashar “Taqsim en maquam Hijaz kar kurd” L’art du ud - Ocora (2001)]

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Reach Out and Cyber-touch

CURWOOD: Recently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology achieved the first transatlantic touch through a computer. Actually it took two computers, one in London and one in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Scientists on both sides of the terminals were able to feel each other using new technology called haptic interfacing. In the future, it may mean that your computer screen will no longer be just an audible or visual medium, you'll have virtual touch, as well. From member station WBUR in Boston, Rachel Gotbaum explains.

GOTBAUM: Three decades ago, Mundayam Shriniwasan traveled from India to Yale University to study mechanical engineering. But his work on applied theory left him feeling isolated.

SHRINIWASAN: I wanted to do something real. So I went as a post-doc to Yale Medical School. And, they hired me, I think, so that I could fix all their equipment, and maintain their computer programs, and all that. And I did no such thing.

GOTBAUM: It was during his time at the medical school that Shrini, as he is called, says he first became interested in neuroscience.

SHRINIWASAN: The science of what they were doing fascinated me. And basically, they were studying sense of touch.

GOTBAUM: From that time on, Srini applied his knowledge of mechanical engineering to that cutting edge field. And in 1990, he set up the Touch Lab at MIT to research how the mechanics of touch could be applied to the virtual world.

SHRINIWASAN: You can touch and feel objects that are completely programmed into the computer. They do not exist in the real world. And they exist only in the cyberspace.

GOTBAUM: Sitting at a computer screen in the Touch Lab, graduate student Hyun Kim demonstrates how a computer user can actually feel objects that exist only in the virtual reality.

KIM: Have you tried the Phantom before?

GOTBAUM: I have not tried the Phantom. What is the Phantom?

KIM: So this--

GOTBAUM: The Phantom is the key to making the sense of touch happen. It looks like a small metal desk lamp. Attached to it is a metal pointer that operates like a computer mouse. In this system, moving the pointer manipulates the onscreen cursor. More on how the touch feedback happens in a moment. Right now, on the screen is a simple three-dimensional room. Inside the room are two square boxes and a little yellow ball.

KIM: So, this yellow ball is connected to end of this cursor. And these blocks and these walls are generated with what's inside the computer. And you can actually touch these walls. And then you can actually lift these guys up, push these blocks around. So, try it out. And you'll be able to feel the actual walls and these objects. Hold on to that.

GOTBAUM: When the cursor touches an object in the virtual world, this sends a signal back to the Phantom. Remember, that's the object that looks like a desk lamp. Inside the Phantom, there are tiny motors that, when activated, send force feedback against the pointer in just the way a real object would.

KIM: So, if you pick up two boxes, it's going to be actually twice as heavy. So you can go--

GOTBAUM: Let's try it. And, I can feel them. They're heavy. Oops, I just dropped it off. Okay.

KIM: So, it's lighter when you drop one, right?

GOTBAUM: Yeah, it was definitely lighter when I dropped one.

The Touch Lab is not simply about having fun with computers. Researchers here are developing tools for use in the non-virtual world. Touch Lab Director Shrini says medical students will soon be able to use this technology for training.

SHRINIWASAN: Just like pilots learn by operating flight simulators, we should be able to create virtual reality programs using-- which surgeons can not only see how the organs distort as they touch them, you can also feel those forces.

GOTBAUM: Back at one of the computer screens in the Touch Lab, graduate student Kim displays a 3-D model of human organs. Again, I use the pointer to direct the cursor. But in this instance, the cursor appears on the screen as a surgical scalpel. And instead of lifting boxes, I'm going to touch model human organs.

And now the intestines are deflating a little bit as a touch them. So, is this supposed to be what intestines really feel like?

KIM: Doctors came in, and they squished it, and said this is about right. So, this is close to what it's supposed to feel like in terms of softness and stiffness.

GOTBAUM: I'm pressing on the stomach now. And it's much more pliable than any of the other organs I've touched so far.

KIM: So, all the organs have different stiffnesses.

GOTBAUM: What's that purple thing?

KIM: That's the kidney.

GOTBAUM: There are more real-world applications. Shrini hopes his technology will one day enable surgeons to actually operate on patients via computer. In such a system, robotic sensors would convey tactile information to a surgeon, allowing the physician to literally feel what the robot is touching.

SHRINIVASAN: Suppose that you are doing heart surgery. And, the patient is in the next room. But the robot can be much better than the surgeon because it can have tinier hands. And, maybe it won't have any tremors at all because we can filter the tremors of even the best surgeon. So, doing this, you can overcome the limitations of the human hand somewhat, and essentially augment its performance. So, a surgeon can now become a super surgeon.

GOTBAUM: Recently, the computer scientists here made a breakthrough with their haptic technology. While a colleague sat at his computer in London, Shrini sat at his computer at MIT. Both men viewed the same virtual room on their screens. Inside the room was a cube and two cursors, one controlled from London and one from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each scientist was able to press their cursors against the cube. And together, they lifted it up, inside their virtual room.

Recently, they re-created the historic moment. Shrini calls Jasper Mortensen, a computer scientist at University College in London.

SHRINIVASAN: Hi, Jasper. This is Shrini.


SRINIVASAN: So, are we all set? Let’s see. Can you see my cursor?

SRINIVASAN: Okay. I can see yours. All right. Yeah, I can feel the forces. Okay. The cursor on the right is mine, the white one. The gold cursor, he is pressing the gold cursor on my left side. And then I am pressing on the right. And then we lift it. Ow, it fell down. Okay.

GOTBAUM: Scientists at the MIT Touch Lab say their experiments are still in early stages. They compare the field with television in the 1940s or with the first telephone connections made a hundred years ago. They believe this technology may someday allow blind computer users to feel objects that others can see onscreen, or allow visitors to a museum website to run their virtual fingers over sculpture. And it may even allow for the development of robots with a sense of touch.

But for Shrini, the most beneficial use for virtual touch technology may not yet be realized. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachel Gotbaum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC: Govinda “Organic Beauty” Erotic Rhythms From Earth - Earthtone (2001)]

Related link:
MIT’s Touch Lab

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, the story of two Native American sisters who are locked in a battle with the federal government over what's to become of their tribal grazing lands in Nevada.

DANN: I'm not going to get a grazing permit from the Bureau of Land Management because this is not their land. This is Western Shoshone land. And it's not an overgrazing issue. It's not a horse issue. It's a land issue.

CURWOOD: Roundup and resistance, next week on Living on Earth. And remember that between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to loe.org. And while you're there, you can also get a chance to win a safari for two to Africa. That's loe.org.

[BAT SOUNDS: Earth Ear “Subsonic Sirens” Dreams of Gaia Earth Ear Records (1999)]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week in the dark.


CURWOOD: From caves in Switzerland and France, these are bats, recorded by Michel Barataud for his CD, "The Inaudible World."


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at loe.org. Our staff includes Maggie Villiger, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum and Cynthia Graber, along with Tom Simon, Jessica Penney, Al Avery, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Liz Lempert. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

We had help this week from Katherine Lemcke, Jenny Cutraro, James Curwood, and Nathan Marcy. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental Sound Art courtesy of EarthEar.


CURWOOD: Our technical director is Chris Engles. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. 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 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from The World Media Foundation. Major contributors include: The National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth's expanded internet service. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and The Annenberg Foundation, and Paul and Marcia Ginsburg in support of excellence in public radio.

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