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

March 26, 2004

Air Date: March 26, 2004



Ancient Biowarfare / Adrienne Mayor

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Most historians will tell you the earliest evidence of biological and chemical weapons dates back to World War I and the use of mustard gas. But one historian has amassed a significant amount of earlier accounts that prove otherwise. Adrienne Mayor unearths histories of toxic honey, red-hot sand and stench weapons used throughout antiquity. She talks about these and other modes of ancient biowarfare in her new book, "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World." (12:45)

Security Risks Abound at U.S. Chemical Plants / Carl Prine

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Forget biological stockpiles and nuclear arsenals. Take a look at the nation’s chemical industry, and you may find that the more than 2,000 manufacturing plants across the country could be the most vulnerable targets for terrorist attack. Reporter Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigated dozens of plants in four major cities, and found numerous security flaws and little government regulation for facilities housing potentially dangerous and toxic chemicals. (16:20)

Emerging Science Note/Toxin Dangers / Cynthia Graber

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that when two common pesticides were taken out of home use, infant birth weight increased. (01:20)

The Top Banana / Bob Carty

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The banana is the perfect fruit. It’s sweet, it’s good for you, it isn’t messy, and you can tell when it’s ripe. But the banana’s history is far less sound; it’s been the cause of rebellions, and military coups, and, of course, a lot of bad jokes. And now, it seems, the banana as we know it could disappear. Bob Carty tells us all we want to know about this fruit, including the fact that it’s actually an herb. (15:20)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Adrienne Mayor, Carl PrineREPORTER: Bob CartyNOTE: Cynthia Graber


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. If you think biological warfare began with the threat of anthrax, think again. Ancient warriors who defied the Roman Empire often conscripted nature to help fight their battles.

MAYOR: They went out with terracotta pots and very carefully gathered stinging scorpions, whose sting can be fatal. And then they took them back to their fortress and they waited for the Roman siege.

CURWOOD: This week – a look at the biological and chemical weapons of the past and present. In the hands of an enemy, industrial chemicals, such as chlorine, could wreak mass destruction. And investigators say security at U.S. plants is lax.

PRINE: It got to the point where I was simply walking into plants, saying hello to workers on the way, even asking them, I mean, where are your most dangerous chemicals? And they would take me to them.

CURWOOD: The nation at chemical risk – coming up on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Ancient Biowarfare

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Biowarfare is commonly regarded as a recent phenomenon. Smallpox martyrs, dirty-bombs and anthrax attacks are often assumed to be products of modern science. But new research reveals that our impulse to "weaponize nature" can be traced back more than 3,000 years. Some of these weapon systems were crude - others complex. And, from the very outset, the moral ambivalence over their use has mirrored today’s debate over deploying weapons of mass destruction.

Adrienne Mayor is a classical folklorist who has stockpiled a surprising amount of evidence of infectious and toxic warfare in antiquity. She's put it all in her book: "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World." Welcome to Living on Earth.

MAYOR: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Where did you get the idea to write such a book?

MAYOR: Well, you know, after 9-11 and the attacks with anthrax, I read all these editorials talking about the beginning of biological and chemical warfare. And every historian and every editorialist traced it to 1346, the Mongol invasion or siege of Kaffa in which plague-ridden bodies were catapulted over the walls. That’s a very famous incident. But I knew that the idea and the impulse for winning by unfair means and weaponizing nature must go back much further, and I just began to delve into my own files. And I keep files on marginal topics in classics – strange ways to die, diabolical weapons, things like that – and I was staggered by the amount of material I actually found.

CURWOOD: How do you do your research? Do you start with myths, or do you go to the historical record?

MAYOR: I started with myth in this case because I remembered the myth of Hercules and his labors. His second labor was to kill the Hydra monster, and “hydra” means water snake, poisonous water snake in Greek. But this Hydra was a monster, of course, fit for a hero to kill. And I remembered that he dipped his arrows in the venom of that monster after he killed the Hydra serpent. And therefore he had invented the first biological weapons. It was right there in ancient myth and no one had noticed the relevance to modern biological weaponry. Then I moved into historical literature, reading ancient historians and travel writers and geographers to find actual, real-life incidents of biological and chemical warfare.

CURWOOD: Help me get an idea of the kinds of bio-chemical weaponry that existed in antiquity. Could you perhaps start by explaining the title of your book? I mean, what’s “Greek fire,” what are “scorpion bombs”?

MAYOR: And not to mention poison arrows (laughs). Poison arrows were, in fact, invented by Hercules so I’ll start with those, actually. There were real-life warriors in antiquity that were encountered by the Greeks and other cultures. They were the Scythians. They lived in central Asia and they actually did dip their arrows in the venom of poisonous snakes and, thereby, creating a weapon that was a definite biological armament. And it meant that bravery against such weapons didn’t really count. The guy didn’t even have to be a good marksman; he could just nick you with an arrow dipped in snake venom and you’d die a gruesome death.

CURWOOD: And, indeed, wasn’t Greek Fire considered really horrific, that if you ran into this stuff in a naval battle that that was it, you’d be done?

MAYOR: The reaction in antiquity to Greek Fire has been compared to our reaction to the atom bomb. It was the most devastating, most feared and dreaded weapon of antiquity. It’s a combination of a weapon system and a devastating ammunition that was based on petroleum products. So it was made with naphtha, quick lime, and sulfur in a recipe that has been lost. But its effects were much like napalm. So it was a chemical weapon of mass destruction used in naval battles in the seventh century A.D.

Scorpion bombs, one of my favorite dastardly weapons of antiquity, were used against the Roman legionnaires in what is now Iraq, at the fortress of Hatra. The Romans were advancing on this fortified city -- they wanted to take it over because it controlled the caravan routes -- but the citizens of Hatra were ready. They went out with terracotta pots and very carefully gathered stinging scorpions whose sting can be fatal, and they probably threw in a lot of assassin bugs, as well. And then they took them back to their fortress and they waited for the Roman siege. And when the Romans began to scale the walls, they hurled the scorpion bombs down on the legionnaires. And this is one of the first times in Roman history that the Romans actually gave up a siege. They usually won a siege, even if it took a year. But, in this case, they withdrew.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s see. The ancient bio-chemical weapons you have come across – now, I’d say, what, fall into a few broad categories. We’ve got poisons and projectiles, incendiaries, contagions, even the drafting of animals and insects for war.

MAYOR: That’s right.

CURWOOD: What are some of the lesser known examples?

MAYOR: One of my favorites, a chemical incendiary, as red-hot sand that was used against Alexander the Great’s troops at Tyre in the fourth century B.C. The people of Tyre heated sand, and silicon actually has a very low melting point and can retain the heat. So they heated sand in shields over fires, and then catapulted a rain of red-hot sand down on Alexander’s troops. And this is a precursor to thermite bombs which explode tiny particles of metal and would have exactly the same effect. And that’s a sort of forerunner of an incendiary bomb.

CURWOOD: I want you to talk a bit about the “poisoner poisoned” theme that’s in your book. I’m thinking of those war elephants that trampled their own handlers sometimes during battle, or if you were an archer and you had a poison arrow and you nicked yourself.

MAYOR: The problems of what is now called “blowback” or “friendly fire” or “collateral damage” was envisioned as early as the Greek myths. Hercules died by his own weapons, many of his friends were wounded by poison arrows. There were problems with people using dangerous animals in warfare -- war elephants could suddenly run amok and trample their own side. People who used naphtha, which is a very volatile incendiary, certainly suffered a lot of blowback problems if the wind changed. And that would serve also for chemical weapons in the form of noxious clouds of smoke. So the problems of self-injury with biological weapons was recognized at the very earliest conception of such tactics.

CURWOOD: How acceptable was the use of biological weapons in ancient times?

MAYOR: There were always moral qualms about using biological weapons and chemical weapons, and taking unfair advantage. And people have, since antiquity, also had an idea about rules of war, proper rules of war.

The ancient Greeks, for instance, thought that projectile weapons were taking an unfair advantage. They thought that an archer would be – you could admire an archer for his marksmanship and skill, and yet they were not a model of bravery and courage, for instance. Because they shot from afar, never really putting themselves in danger. They were able to avoid face-to-face battle. There were certain rules of war in each society.

The other problem is that biological weapons are difficult to control, difficult to aim, difficult to avoid collateral damage and friendly fire. Therefore, that means that if you poison the well of a besieged city, for instance, you’re not just killing the combatants, you’re not just killing soldiers. You’re, in fact, killing the entire population of that city – that’s the women and children. So it becomes a weapon of mass destruction in very quick order.

CURWOOD: I’m just wondering if you could define bio-warfare for us. Most people seem to equate that with weapons of mass destruction, but I’m not sure that you do.

MAYOR: What all these modern weapons that we’ve been talking about and their ancient precursors have in common is that they allow the creator to weaponize nature, according to the best understanding of the day. And so, therefore, I am using a rather more expanded definition of biological and chemical warfare in my book. Not all of the ancient examples fit the strict definition of biological and chemical weapons that we use today. But they represent the earliest evidence of the principles and the practices that would evolve into modern biological and chemical warfare.

CURWOOD: What kind of research for war devices is going on now that really draws its inspiration from some of these weapons of antiquity?

MAYOR: In recent years, the Pentagon has wired rats to deliver explosives. They’ve used sea lions as sentinels, or even as assassins in the Gulf Wars. The Pentagon has enlisted bees and wasps as agents of war. The Pentagon has also unveiled some, what they call, “psychologically toxic armaments” which are designed by their bio-engineers. And these are devised to assault the senses of the enemy with intolerable odors and smells and sound waves that actually incapacitate people.

And yet, more than 2,000 years ago, armies in Asia had created a kind of poison arrow who’s smell was so intolerable and noxious that it was injurious to someone if it just whizzed by your face. The armies in Germany were able to create blaring noises using their shields as amplifiers to overwhelm the foe. So even stench weapons and acoustic weapons developed by the Pentagon have analogues in antiquity.

CURWOOD: You write that chemical weapons can have a shelf life of--what?-- a hundred thousand years? How do you put them out of harms way for generations of people who don’t want to use them?

MAYOR: The problem of how to destroy biological or chemical weapons once you’ve created them was actually contemplated in ancient Greek myth. Hercules, when he was struggling with the Hydra monster, had to keep in mind that the central head of this many-headed creature was immortal, could not be destroyed. So once he actually was able to kill the creature he had to do something with that head. And he hit on a geological solution. He buried it deep in the earth and put a gigantic boulder on top of it.

And if you just think for a moment about how we try to deal with the nuclear and chemical and biological weapons that we’ve created, once we don’t want to use them any more, once we want to destroy them, it’s very difficult. And we, too, have hit on a geological solution. We bury them deep under the ground and we hope that no one will ever dig them up. It’s a difficult dilemma. I think that once again here, the Hydra monster serves as a perfect symbol for the difficulties of dealing with the proliferating problems of biological warfare.

CURWOOD: Adrienne Mayor is a classical folklorist who specializes in the early history of science. She’s the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.” Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

MAYOR: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Coming up, a look at lax security in our nation’s chemical plants. An investigative reporter tells all about vulnerable facilities where dangerous chemicals are kept. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Terry Riley “Sun Rings” performed by Kronos Quartet LIVE RECORDING OF WORLD PREMIERE --2002]

Related links:
- Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World
- The Overlook Press

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Security Risks Abound at U.S. Chemical Plants

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

Making chemicals in the U.S. is big business. There are more than 2,000 manufacturing plants nation-wide, and the chemicals brewed in these factories are used in everything from plastics to pesticides. These facilities have been operating for years with little in the way of security regulations. And since September 11th, some people worry that stockpiles at these plants could be turned into weapons for terrorists.

Carl Prine is a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who tested the security of these chemical plants first-hand. Along with a camera crew from 60 Minutes, Mr. Prine took stock of dozens of chemical plants in four major U.S. cities. He reported his findings in a multi-part series for his newspaper. Carl Prine, welcome to Living on Earth.

PRINE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what kind of chemicals, what kind of industrial chemicals do we have here in America, just briefly?

PRINE: Well, there are hundreds of very toxic chemicals that EPA regulates. The ones that are particularly dangerous are chlorine gas, phosgene, methylisocyanide – chemicals that actually have been used in the past as weapons in warfare.

CURWOOD: Now, how could one weaponize chemicals out of America’s industrialized plants?

PRINE: Well, sometimes it’s as simple as blowing a hole in the containment vessel. If you do that you’ll release a weapon of mass destruction.

CURWOOD: And what else might someone do?

PRINE: Well, there are other ways you could do it. You could try different reactive chemicals to set up a reactive process that will blow a containment vessel. Or you can mix certain chemicals in such a way as to create a particularly lethal gas.

Of course, in the past, people worried about terrorists stealing chemicals and then turning them into a weapon -- kind of combining them into a gaseous form and then releasing them. We thought we saw that in Om Shinrikyo’s attacks in Tokyo. But more recently, people believe that Al Queda, particularly -- since it has an interest in sowing mass destruction in a very limited area -- that probably a chemical plant itself would do the trick.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, given the devastating affect that chemicals could have in an area, you and some other investigators decided to see just how easy or hard it might be for somebody who had, say, ill intent to get into a chemical plant with dangerous chemicals. What were some of the plants that you investigated?

PRINE: It ran the gamut. I mean, there were very small manufacturers and storage facilities that nevertheless stored catastrophic amounts of chemicals. And there were also major manufacturers, members of the American Chemistry Council, who have always said that their plants were the safest and that their security was the tightest.

Some of them were large ones, like the Ashland plant here in Pittsburgh, Neville Chemical, which is the one we did with 60 Minutes. But also ones people have probably never heard, like the KIK plant in Houston, which is actually a very small facility but they have enough chlorine on site to affect three million people. And when I say affect, I mean kill, injure, or displace.

The Sony plant near Pittsburgh stores large amounts of chlorine gas, enough to kill, injure or displace more than 100,000 people in the suburban stretch of southern Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: Three million people?

PRINE: Yes, and those figures are actually created by the industry itself. The idea is that they report to the EPA numbers that they think are likely in a worst case scenario. The idea is to prevent accidents.

CURWOOD: What plan of action did you have in approaching each of these sites? I mean, did you sort of have a universal security test?

Open doors to warehouses allowed the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter access to dozens of containers storing large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, a dangerous substance that doubles as a coolant, fertilizer and explosive. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

PRINE: Well, actually [LAUGHS], at first I would case out the place. I would tell myself “think like a terrorist, what would a terrorist do,” and I’d try to find ways in. Toward the end of it, after we went to four cities -- that was Pittsburgh, Chicago, Houston, and Baltimore -- it got to the point where I was simply walking into plants, saying hello to workers on the way, even asking them, I mean, “where are your most dangerous chemicals?” And they would take me to them.

There was a Sysco plant in Chicago where one of the guards was asleep and I simply walked by. The Patapsco Wastewater Facility in Baltimore was the same way, where they actually had paid for a guard but the guard was sleeping. In fact, at the Chicago plant I actually woke the guard up on my way out and said “goodbye!” And he said “goodbye.’”

CURWOOD: Tell me what you saw when you investigated one of these plants. Walk us into, say, Neville Island -- that’s a facility right in your town there of Pittsburgh that you investigated.

PRINE: What we did is you simply walk along a rail line, it’s an unpoliced rail line. And you open a gate, or you walk through one of the many open gates, and you’re in. And it’s a very short walk from there to the boron trifluoride.

CURWOOD: To the boron trifluoride?

PRINE: Boron trifluoride – they use it in a reactive chemical process to make resins, plastic resins and things like that. It’s also been used in the past as an insecticide. So when it kills, it kills people much like it would an insect.

CURWOOD: And how toxic is it?

PRINE: It’s very toxic. That’s why it’s regulated by EPA. It would act like a gigantic roach motel if you were ever to get near it.

In the Chicago stockyards, dilapidated or broken fences allowed easy access to a number of major refrigeration complexes in the heart of the city. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: So, what are the regulations that the chemical industry is obligated to follow here, in terms of tightening plant security?

PRINE: There are none. There’s absolutely none – which is the point of a great deal of federal legislation that is going forward from both the Republican and the Democratic sides, to try to shore up shoddy security, years of bad security at chemical plants.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, if I wanted to have a million gallons of highly poisonous chlorine gas compressed at my industrial plant, that’s just fine? I don’t have to worry about any regulations as long as it’s in an industrial zone someplace?

PRINE: Exactly. And some cities have no zoning. Go to Houston and you’ll find a major petrochemical plant sitting right next to a suburban housing unit. I mean, it’s just the way of life there. Houston was one of the ones we targeted, and that was very scary, where you could simply walk up to a plant and realize that the school next door would be in the pathway of the toxic chemicals if they were released.

CURWOOD: So Carl, somebody listening to this, and certainly me – I’m thinking, alright, these plants really sound vulnerable. What evidence has there been that chemical plants could, in fact, be likely terrorist targets?

PRINE: Well, first of all, they have been terrorist targets in the past. There were a couple of white supremacist groups in California and Texas that tried to unleash toxic chemicals. One was propane and the other one, I believe, was chlorine gas.

In the war in Croatia in the mid-90s, the Serbs actually targeted with their artillery Croatian chemical plants in an attempt to release it. Most recently in Israel, Israeli authorities are investigating an attack at a port facility there where they believe the suicide bombers were detonating so close to chemical tanks in an effort to release toxic chemicals.

And the crazy thing is, we also know that Al Qaeda was targeting chemical plants. We know that Mohammed Atta had looked at a plant in Tennessee. And in the bunkers in Tora Bora and some other parts of Afghanistan, when they were overrun by U.S. troops, they discovered chemical industry plans that the terrorists had been looking at.

Airgas Specialty Gases in Houston was one of ten plants penetrated by the Tribune in Houston. Airgas stores large amounts of methyl chloride, a highly flammable, explosive gas that, when kindled, produces highly toxic phosgene and hydrogen chloride fumes. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

CURWOOD: You’re really scaring me here, Carl. I mean, it sounds like these places are so easy to break into, that I’m just puzzled why we haven’t had more reports of terrorists trying to take advantage of this situation.

PRINE: Well, that’s something that’s interesting. There have been a couple of alerts that have been put out by Homeland Security about chemical plants being targeted, and also rail lines. Rail carries the bulk of America’s chemicals, and there have been a number of alerts about rail shipments of chemicals. In fact, when the war in Afghanistan began two years ago, there was actually a two-day moratorium on shipments of chlorine gas.

CURWOOD: So, what you’re saying is that terrorists could target a freight train loaded with chlorine gas that might pass right through some major urban area?

PRINE: Yeah, this is a big issue right now in Washington D.C. There’s an ordinance before the city council there where they’re debating whether they should move tankers of chlorine gas and other chemical around the city. They certainly do it whenever there’s a major sporting event, or the president is doing something that draws a great deal of people. This is something that the government doesn’t often tell the public.

CURWOOD: How much chlorine, let’s say, gas, might be on a freight train going through a city?

PRINE: It depends on what they’re carrying on their manifest. But a lot of times you’ll see – let’s say you go to a plant. We went to one plant in Houston, in Green Bayou which is right next to a major population center in Houston. And on paper, what they report to the EPA for their worst-case scenario, is just one tanker, which is all they’re required to report. And in their plant they might have three or four giant tankers – maybe 400,000 pounds. But they have a rail line with about 20 of these tankers waiting to go in to be used in the reactive process to make insecticide or a number of other chemical products that they make there.

So you have to ask yourself, why would a terrorist even bomb the chemical plant itself, when they can simply blow up the whole rail line with 20 tanker cars? I mean, we’re talking about millions of pounds of chlorine.

CURWOOD: And that would affect how many people?

PRINE: What they report is about a million people, but in reality it would probably be far, far worse because the sheer quantity of it. It’d be very hard to dissipate it. There was a chlorine tanker that ruptured in Ontario, Mississauga Ontario, in the 1980s, and it caused the evacuation of the city of a quarter of a million people – for over a week.

CURWOOD: What information is given to people who live near these plants?

PRINE: That was something very interesting that we found as we went from plant to plant, was the fact that most people had no idea what they were living next to. And that was the same in Houston or Pittsburgh. It was always that big plant next door that made stuff. They had no idea really what it was, or what they stored. There are no guidelines right now for telling people. They report to local emergency planning commissions, they report to the state, they report to EPA. But no one tells the people. And, in fact, government’s making it harder for the people to find out.

CURWOOD: What kind of information has been kept under wraps since 9-11 regarding chemical plants?

PRINE: Well, it’s a long list. First of all, there had been a movement under the Clinton administration to put a lot of these risk management plans from the EPA online so that people could see what are the vulnerabilities in their community. They could say, gosh, I lived next to this chemical plant, I had no idea that it had these chemicals in it. I had no idea that it could do this to me and my family. Those are all gone now. Those went immediately after 9-11. A great many county agencies which are supposed to disseminate information about chemical plants have simply shut down when it comes to giving the public any information at all about chemical plants in their area.

CURWOOD: Wait a second…

PRINE: Here in Pennsylvania, the state emergency command center in Harrisburg refuses to hand out any of this information, even though we haven’t seen any reason why they shouldn’t do it under our public records laws. So there has been a chilling effect from 9-11 when it comes to chemical safety issues.

CURWOOD: What action can residents take to find out what’s in their neighborhood?

PRINE: Industry, under the American Chemistry Council’s responsible care plan, does require companies have citizen action programs, where they actually will go out and meet with the communities and they’ll talk to people in the neighborhood. However, ACC manufacturers are only about seven percent of all the chemical plants across the United States.

So, probably, if someone really wanted to know, they should probably knock on the door and say, “hey, what’s going on here?” And see if they get a straight answer. If they don’t, then they should talk to their local emergency planning commissions -- that’s a quasi-governmental agency that’s supposed to alert the public and plan for disasters. And if they don’t get a response there then they should call EPA and set up an appointment to go to a reading room and find out the information for themselves.

Or, let’s hope that there are some intrepid reporters out there who go out and inform the public about this. Certainly there’s been great work done in Louisville, and Baltimore, and Portland, and other places where they said, you know what, we think the public has a right to know.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that talking about this would give information to terrorists. Oh, here’s an opportunity to really make life absolutely miserable in the United States, and these journalists are giving us the blueprint for it.

PRINE: Unfortunately, the blueprint has been in Al Qaeda’s hands for a long time. We know that they’ve been targeting, or looking at, chemical plants. So the science has been out there for a long time, Al Qaeda’s targeting has been known for a long time. It seems the only people who don’t know this are the people who live next to these plants.

CURWOOD: Some place along the line, Carl, one of these companies, one of the federal officials you’ve dealt with, said, “Carl, I’m really glad you’re doing this. This stuff really scares the behiggies out of me and no one’s paying attention.” Have you had that conversation with anyone?

PRINE: Oh yeah, I have that conversation all the time, strangely enough coming mostly from chemical plant security managers who have been trying to get money for their programs for years. Often times, these guys are the former chiefs of police in their community or they’re former members of FBI or the selective service, and they’re used to a little bit better budget than they get when they go to work for the plant. They’re paid better but the number of guards they hire, the practices they want to employ to deter intruders, is simply not there.

CURWOOD: Without getting somebody fired, tell me the story of somebody who said that to you.

PRINE: Well, I’ll tell you, there’s a really good guy out there, his name’s Saul DePasquale. He used to work for Georgia Pacific. Georgia Pacific owns a great many chemical plants. Some of these file risk management plans. And he realized after 9-11 that the industry as a whole had done very little to protect itself, that they were terrorist targets, and that they could not rely on FBI or CIA to give them the information in advance. In a sense they would have to protect themselves, form their own little castles in case they were ever attacked. And he came away very disenchanted with what industry was doing.

It should be noted, however, that with a lack of federal and state benchmark standards for security, the only group that’s doing anything to secure chemistry facilities are members of the chemical industry themselves – the American Chemistry Council and SOCMA, the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturing Association. These are the only two that really have binding rules on their members that say, listen, if you don’t improve security, you’re no longer a member.

CURWOOD: And how effective has that been, do you think?

PRINE: I hate to say it. In some of our tests – and our tests have not been scientific in any way, we simply walk in and walk out – we have found that the ACC and SOCMA members have been no different than the other companies. But at least they’re trying. And I will say that when you inform them about what you did, they are very quick to make changes. And we have worked with them to re-orient cameras or string up new barbed wire, or reposition guards, because certainly we do not want anybody to attack a plant that we’ve written about.

Now, of course, there are environmentalists out there who will say, listen, this is all a red herring. We shouldn’t be talking about adding barbed wire and posting more guards. What we really should be doing is getting these chemicals out of major metropolitan areas to begin with. Many of these technologies are outmoded. They could have gone to safer chemicals a long time ago, but it’s just cheaper to use the bulk dangerous stuff. I take no position on this whatsoever, but I think it’s an interesting policy debate that’s been forming in Washington, D.C. about how best to shore up security.

CURWOOD: Carl, before we go, tell me what kind of facilities are in your own neighborhood?

PRINE: Oh, there’s a great many. Pittsburgh is a major chemical manufacturing and distribution center. We have rail lines and waterways that connect us to the rest of the continental United States. So there are millions and millions and millions of pounds of chemicals stored in and around Pittsburgh. You can’t swing a dead cat around here and not hit a chemical plant. It’s not that unusual; it’s very similar to what you would see in Houston, or Louisiana or New Jersey.

CURWOOD: Carl Prine is a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Thanks for speaking with me today.

PRINE: Well, thank you.

[MUSIC: Massive Attack “Safe from Harm” BLUE LINES (Virgin Records – 1991)]

Related links:
- American Chemistry Council
- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Chemical Sites Still Vulnerable

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Emerging Science Note/Toxin Dangers

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Yes, we have no bananas – but we do have a story about how this fruit became the world’s most successful crop, and efforts underway to keep it from going extinct. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: For decades, the pesticides chlorpyrifos and diazinon were sprayed inside homes, primarily to kill roaches. But they proved dangerous to human health and a few years ago, the EPA phased out home use. Now, scientists at Columbia University say the insecticides lead to lower birth weight and smaller newborns.

In 1998, the researchers began following a group of 314 pregnant women in New York City to gauge the effects of toxins on infants. They tested the blood levels of the newborns and found that a third of these babies had extremely high levels of both chemicals in their bodies. Those babies were on average six and a half ounces lighter and a third of an inch shorter than babies with no measurable levels of the chemicals.

The EPA banned these pesticides for home use while the study was already underway. After the chemicals were fully phased out of New York homes, almost all babies were born larger and heavier. Scientists say they’ll follow these children to see if the pesticides affect their development. They also caution that these chemicals are still being used extensively on farms, and children born to farm workers may be affected.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Cynthia Graber.

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

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[MUSIC: Ale Moller “Sprakfale (The Frisky Steed) THE HORSE AND THE CRANE (Northside Records – 1999)]

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The Top Banana

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The banana is the world’s most commercially successful fruit. In just over a century, this native of the tropics has become a huge agricultural, transportation and marketing miracle. But the banana, as North Americans know it, is in trouble. Some are even whispering the “E” word – extinction – and fear that the bananas we eat could disappear in five to ten years time. How could it have come to this? We asked producer Bob Carty to pull back the peel of the banana’s story, past and present, to help us understand the magnitude of the threat, and the search for solutions. Here’s his story. Will the banana - split?


CARTY: In the Central American country of Honduras, the markets are full of bananas. And two things strike you right away. One is that the bananas on sale here are not the uniform and unblemished bananas we get in our supermarkets. Here, old men and young girls are selling bananas in all kinds of shapes and sizes.



CARTY TO A YOUNG CHILD: So, this is a plantain? What do you call these tiny, little, these bananas? They’re about a finger long.


CARTY: How many can you eat?

CHILD: Five.

CARTY: And that’s the other thing you notice here. People eat a lot of bananas. Some shoppers are carrying off half a stalk – 60 or 70 ripe bananas. North Americans eat about 28 pounds of bananas a year. People here and in Africa eat as much as 500 pounds.

Randy Ploetz is a professor of plant pathology at the University of Miami. He explains that 90 percent of all bananas are never exported; they’re eaten locally. They are the world’s fourth most important crop.

PLOETZ: Three to four hundred million people in the world depend upon it as their primary source of carbohydrates. And international commerce in bananas is worth about $5 billion a year.

CARTY: Which means a lot of people, a lot of nations, depend upon the banana tree.

PLOETZ: It’s actually an herb – it’s not a tree.

CARTY: You’re kidding – an herb?

PLOETZ: Yes. In fact, there are bananas up to 15-20 feet – they are the world’s largest herbs. It’s really an ancient crop, 8 – 9,000 years old.

CARTY: Now, what’s also interesting is that the banana, which we usually associate with South America, is actually Asian. Muslim traders brought the banana from Asia to Africa. And then slave traders brought them to the Caribbean and Central America to feed their slaves. But according to Virginia Scott Jenkins, the author of “Bananas – An American History,” the fruit only became big business in the 1880s with the development of refrigerated steam ships.

JENKINS: Then it was possible to transport bananas from the Caribbean to North American ports. So, U.S. fruit companies went into Central America, they purchased millions of acres of land and cut down the rainforest and planted thousands of acres of bananas.


CARTY: And so, the sounds of the rainforest were replaced by …


CARTY: …the sound of banana stems being trundled from field to packing plant on overhead networks of cables. That’s how some of the most diverse ecologies on earth disappeared.

Growing bananas on an industrial scale was one thing. Next, firms like the United Fruit Company had to get northern consumers to buy them. Remember, that in the1880s most people didn’t even know what a banana looked like. And then there was that little cultural problem – the suggestive shape of the banana.

JENKINS: Well, the shape of the banana is a little difficult for some people, particularly in the Victorian era. Bananas were not considered very genteel. One of the interesting things I found was early instructions for how to eat a banana – etiquette books, what to do when you find a banana in front of you at a dinner party.

CARTY: Indeed – what to do? Well, readers of the 1888 edition of “The Correct Thing In Good Society” learned that the last thing you did was pick up a banana, pull back the skin and bite off a piece – especially if you were a woman. No, the proper way to face the fruit, if you had to at all, was with a silver fruit knife and fork. The banana companies were able to overcome these cultural impediments, and they did it with aggressive marketing, extolling the virtues of the fruit, and pricing it right.

JENKINS: They sold them as the cheapest fruit on the market, and that was a deliberate decision by the fruit companies to undersell local fruit. And the marketing of bananas is absolutely amazing. The United Fruit Company marketed bananas with many health claims – for people trying to gain weight, people trying to lose weight, people who had tuberculosis, female complaints, asthma, all kinds of things.


CARTY: The marketing campaigns worked. By the early 1900s bananas were everywhere, even showing up in popular culture, especially in songs. Some of them, uh, rather sexual.


CARTY: And some of them just kind of silly.


CARTY: Back in Central America, the banana business brought jobs and economic growth, but also a number of political problems. There was the predictable corruption that takes root when a foreign company buys up a big chunk of your nation. Then there were the company towns, the union-busting, the refusal by banana companies to pay taxes. All of which aroused a certain amount of local anger and protest, which in turn was met with American gunboat diplomacy.


CARTY: In the early decades of the twentieth century, U.S. Marines occupied Honduras five times, Panama four times, Nicaragua twice, to say nothing of other kinds of interventions in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Guatemala. And decade after decade, banana production kept rising.

But another problem was developing. Diseases kept killing banana plants. Randy Ploetz says the problem was the kind of banana they were growing.

PLOETZ: Big Mike - Gros Michel. A really excellent banana, produced very large bunches and very large fingers. You could chop the entire bunch down and throw it into a railroad car and take it off to a ship, so it didn’t require any special handling. It’s a really good banana.


CARTY: Oh, of course, how could I forget that! In that song he’s talking about the Michel Gros. That was the banana that made the Jamaican trade so successful.

PLOETZ: Big Mike has all these really great attributes that I mentioned earlier, but its Achilles heel is that it’s very susceptible to race one Panama disease. It’s a disease caused by a soil-borne fungus. It kills the plant outright.

CARTY: And not only that, Panama disease couldn’t be controlled with fungicides. The only way the banana companies could keep ahead of Panama disease was by moving their plantations, cutting down more virgin rainforest to use soil that wasn’t diseased. But by the 1950s, they were running out of new rainforest to cut down. The “Big Mike” export banana was being wiped out.


CARTY: But then we got lucky. And for this part of the story, meet another banana aficionado.

MARTINEZ: To me, if the world didn’t have bananas it would be a very boring place. [LAUGHTER]

CARTY: This is Adolfo Martinez, the director-general of the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research. Adolfo explains that just as the Big Mike was withering away on the stem, they discovered the Cavendish banana, a banana that tasted almost as good as the Big Mike -- but was also resistant to Panama disease. It was, however, a delicate fruit. It had to be shipped in protective boxes and plastic and, as Adolfo Martinez points out, it was very susceptible to another kind of banana disease called black sigatoka. And there’s only one way to fight that.

MARTINEZ: You have to use pesticides, fungicides with Cavendish – up to 50 times a year – that’s about weekly.

CARTY: And the cost of that is?

MARTINEZ: The cost varies between $500 and $800 a year per hectare.

CARTY: That means that a quarter of the price we pay for a bunch of bananas goes to drenching them in pesticides. Food inspectors say they don’t usually detect any pesticide residues in the fruit. The real impact of pesticides is on the health of banana workers and on the environment.

Back now to banana history, where along came, you guessed it, another problem. Yet a new disease appeared, just a couple of years ago. It’s a mutant of the old disease, called tropical race four Panama disease. It’s now present in Indonesia, Taiwan, and Pakistan, perhaps elsewhere. And with global trade and travel, experts say it will inevitably get to this hemisphere.

MARTINEZ: It will be a disaster. And it will wipe out, completely, the Cavendish production that we have today.


CARTY: What can be done about this looming disaster? Banana companies could try to develop a fungicide that works on this disease. Experts say that would be costly and it would mean using a lot of fungicide, which wouldn’t make consumers or banana workers or the environment very happy. Other experts are promoting a high-tech solution – genetically engineering the banana for resistance to diseases. Professor Randy Ploetz says there are institutes and companies actually working on this – trying to decode the banana’s DNA.

PLOETZ: Genetic engineering offers the glimmer of hope that you would be able to produce a banana like Cavendish that has only one thing changed – disease resistance.


PLOETZ: But then what happens when you get that banana? I know people in Europe are really strongly opposed to that product. So you would lose a major market if you had that type of banana.

CARTY: Then there’s the possibility of creating a new banana by traditional breeding methods. Mating one kind of banana with another kind to get disease resistance, plus good taste. The problem here has to do with sex, or more precisely, the lack of it.

MARTINEZ: Bananas can produce fruit without pollination. In bananas, the banana plant produces male and female flowers at different times. That’s one of the reasons you don’t find hardly any seeds in banana plants. The other reason is that bananas are sterile per se.

CARTY: They’re sterile?

MARTINEZ: Yes, sterile.

CARTY: They’ve got it all mixed up.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, they do. Bananas don’t have a lot of sex.

CARTY: Yes, for all its phallic appearance, the commercial banana is sexually decrepit. They’ve been selected over thousands of years precisely because they don’t have seeds. Commercial bananas are propagated by taking shoots from the mother plant. And that lack of sex means that plantation bananas are genetically identical, and uniformly susceptible to disease. So, how do you get some genetic diversity into commercial bananas? At the Honduran Agricultural Research Institute, Adolfo Martinez likes to show off rows and rows of banana plants that are all different.

MARTINEZ: This is our future, we think. Some are big, some are tall, they all have different properties, they have different resistance to disease, different flavors.

CARTY: Adolfo has 368 varieties of bananas here, out of about 1,000 species that are known around the world. For four decades Adolfo’s institute has been trying to get different varieties to mate with each other. And Adolfo gives them a helping hand. Literally.

His workers put ladders up into banana plants and scrape the pollen off the male flowers of some varieties. Then, walk over to a field with a different variety of banana, and, by hand, pollinate the female flowers. A few months later they harvest the fruit. They peel and squish the bananas and then go through that mush to look for seeds. And they find a few – not many – maybe just three seeds in every 100 bananas. But those are the seeds of brand new banana varieties. Like the one that Adolfo shows off with the pride of a new daddy.

MARTINEZ: This is the best. It has a huge bunch. It is a plant that is practically immune to sigatoka, immune to disease, very resistant. They have slightly different flavor from than the Cavendish, and that is why the company has not accepted it yet. But even if Panama disease comes here, we have some alternatives right now.

CARTY: Aldofo believes his breeding program will save the banana, and also help the small farmers of the world who would never be able to afford a patented, genetically modified banana anyway. Adolfo’s new breed is already being used in more than 50 countries. Cuba is growing them because they don’t need pesticides.


CARTY: But are North American consumers ready for a new banana? The banana companies have spent so much money promoting just one kind of banana that they’re loathe to tackle the huge job of changing public attitudes about what a banana looks and tastes like. So instead of six kinds of apples, five kinds of pears – we’re offered, usually, just one kind of banana. Would shoppers eat a banana that might look a little different, taste a bit different, maybe even taste a little better?

FEMALE 1: By all means, I’d try a variety of bananas.

MALE: I would, I’ve seen other different kinds.

FEMALE 2: Sure, if it was sweet and I could use it for the same reasons – smoothies!

CARTY: So, it turns out that one of the most likely solutions to the looming banana crisis is giving consumers more banana choice. And that could be – dare I say it? -- appealing. For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty.


CARTY: Oh, by the way – Chiquita Banana’s line about bananas being from the equator, so don’t put them in the refrigerator – it’s a fabulous rhyme. But it’s not true. Bananas are refrigerated, of course, on the way to market. But the fruit companies wanted people to throw out overripe bananas and buy new ones. The fact is, if you put them in the refrigerator the skin does turn black. But the fruit inside stays at the stage of ripeness you prefer.


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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – The U.S. Department of Energy says it can safely store nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But some workers there say Yucca Mountain is already unsafe, at least for them. After years of work drilling tunnels, they’ve learned that they’ve been exposed to particles that could cause cancers.

GRIEGO: I’m thinking, I’m a dead man. DOE and its contractors intentionally exposed us to these carcinogenic substances just to meet their milestones. And, of course, collect their hefty bonuses.

CURWOOD: An old-fashioned health hazard at the new Yucca Mountain facility – next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


CURWOOD: Before we go – one more stop in the land where the banana grows.


CURWOOD: Andrew Roth recorded this rainforest symphony along the canals of Tortuguero in Costa Rica.

[EARTHEAR – “Rainforest” NATURAL SOUNDS OF COSTA RICA (Zona Tropical, 2001)]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Ingrid Lobet and Jeff Young. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Nal Terro engineered this program with help from Paul Wabrek and Stephen Belter. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Oak Foundation, for coverage of marine issues.

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