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

December 2, 2005

Air Date: December 2, 2005



In Utero Chemical Exposure Linked to Obesity

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Endocrine disrupting chemicals, the ones that affect the way our bodies circulate hormones, are perhaps the most ubiquitous and the most dangerous of the pollutants we encounter each day. Research shows that even at low levels, these chemicals are affecting the way we develop and store fat. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Pete Myers, head of Environmental Health Sciences, about the latest research. (07:50)

Water Warnings

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A group of engineering students from MIT have come up with a cheap, yet effective, flood warning system. Host Steve Curwood talks with Elizabeth Basha of the Flood Safe Early Warning project about the group’s work in hurricane ravaged Honduras. (04:00)

States Tackle Global Warming

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As talks progress in Montreal on global climate change, Living on Earth takes a look at combating greenhouse gas emissions on a state-by-state level. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, attempted to create an emissions cap for power plants in 9 Northeastern states. But this plan has recently been on the rocks. To find out the latest developments on RGGI, host Steve Curwood talks with Beth Daley, a reporter for the Boston Globe who's been covering the initiative. (04:00)

California Climate Action / Ingrid Lobet

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Next we turn to Living on Earth's Western Bureau Chief, Ingrid Lobet, to find out about what's been happening with greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the country. In California, automakers are bringing a court case to a state court because it has demanded lower greenhouse emissions in vehicles. They are threatening to file suits in all other states which seek to follow California's lead. (05:00)

New Orleans' Waste Woes / Molly Peterson

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Molly Peterson reports on the challenge of properly disposing the hundreds of thousands of cars ruined in the floods of Hurricane Katrina. (06:30)

Bird Business / Katherine Brainard

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Commentator Katharine Brainard ponders the history and significance of the natural nuisance of bird droppings. (03:30)

Emerging Science Note/Here’s Lookin’ At You / Emily Torgrimson

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Living on Earth’s Emily Torgrimson reports on a new study showing that a person’s perception of being fat or thin may be traced to a distortion in a specific part of the brain. (01:30)

Attention Shoppers / Jonathan Mitchell

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When sound artist Jonathan Mitchell returns to his mid-western hometown he often ends up at the mall with family and friends. He offers an audio portrait of today’s American commons. (15:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

O’ to market, at a shopping district in Tokyo.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: John Pete Myers, Elizabeth Basha, Beth Daley
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Molly Peterson, Jonathan Mitchell,
COMMENTATORS: Katharine Brainard
NOTE: Emily Torgrimson


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Two thirds of Americans are overweight, and a third weigh in as obese. Too much food and not enough exercise get the blame, but now science is warning us that exposure to certain chemicals may also be making us fat and setting off diabetes.

MYERS: A contaminant that's present in 95 percent of Americans causes insulin resistance in mice. That's a big signal, and the research community ought to be paying more attention to it.

CURWOOD: Also, the post-Katrina junkyard is going to have to be super-sized to handle all the vehicles that were ruined in the floods.

CARPENTER: Nobody was thinking, cars as a major problem. It’s debris, debris. I’m like, okay, it is debris, but we have to handle it differently. Where do you put 300,000 cars?

CURWOOD: Those stories – and the northeastern states take on climate change - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

In Utero Chemical Exposure Linked to Obesity

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

We are what we eat. Being fat or thin depends on what we eat, how much we eat, how much we exercise, and our genetic makeup, right? Well, scientists now say there may be another factor at work. Tiny amounts of synthetic chemicals found in the environment appear to play havoc with hormones that shape our bodies and behavior by turning genes on and off. These chemicals are called endocrine disrupters, and new research shows a link between them and setting the stage for obesity even before birth. Joining me is John Pete Myers. He's the Chief Scientist and founder of Environmental Health Sciences, and co-author of the book “Our Stolen Future,” which explores the science of endocrine disruption. Hello, sir.

MYERS: Hello, Steve, it’s great to be with you.

CURWOOD: So, how do you reconcile the notion that these disorders are linked to our genes, and yet you’re talking about chemicals in the environment?

MYERS: That’s a really good question, and it basically comes from an old understanding of what it means for a disease to be linked to a gene. For a long time we thought that that meant heredity. You got a gene from your parents, and it was a bad gene, and you got the disease.

But this new science – it’s been unfolding now for 30 years and it’s really, really taken off now – is saying you can have the right gene, but because of the environment it’s behaving in the wrong way. It could be diet that does it. It could be stress that does it. Or it could be an environmental contaminant. And so what we’re learning is turning on its head this whole notion of the separation between environment and genetics.

CURWOOD: Could you give us a “most wanted” list of endocrine-disrupting, that is, hormone-disrupting, chemicals, and where they’re found in our everyday lives?

MYERS: That list, the overall list is long. The “most wanted” list is a lot shorter. They basically fall into two categories. There’re the ones like DDT and PCBs, the polychlorinated biphenyls, that have been around a long time. Industrial chemicals, contaminants. There’s another category which are transient which degrade in the environment fairly rapidly, but because they are present in lots of consumer products, like cosmetics – lipstick, eye shadow, perfume – or, like, certain types of plastics, we’re exposed to them every day. So those are the two categories.

Now I think we’re learning that the perfluorinated compounds, things that are involved in the production of Teflon, are real problems. As are certain compounds used to make flame retardants, called the brominated flame retardants. At the top of the list of the transient compounds are the phthalates and bisphenol A, which is used to make polycarbonate plastic.

CURWOOD: Okay, so as a consumer where would I run into these chemicals?

MYERS: You’re going to run into them when you buy and use a bottle made out of polycarbonate, for example, the rigid, really popular sports bottles that virtually every college kid has. The way those are made guarantees that this compound called bisphenol A will leach into the water. And there’s a whole new generation of science that’s unfolded in the last ten years that has transformed what scientists understand about the risk of that chemical.

CURWOOD: Pete, could you tell us about the range of sicknesses that have been linked to the endocrine disrupters?

MYERS: Well, that list is really quite large. It runs from neurodevelopmental disorders, things like ADHD, attention hyperactivity disorder syndrome. Autism. Obesity. And a variety of problems having to do with weight regulation, what scientists call weight homeostasis. Diabetes. Problems of aging, what happens to people as they’re getting old. Definitely problems in infertility. And malfunctions in the immune system so that people wind up either with immune systems that are hyperactive and are involved in causing auto-immune disorders, or the opposite, immune systems that aren’t strong enough to help us resist the diseases that we normally would be able to resist.

CURWOOD: So, what’s the link now between the hormone disrupting chemicals that science is finding and this question of obesity? I figure that, you know, I’m kind of big around the middle because I don’t exercise enough and I probably eat too much.

MYERS: There’s no doubt, Steve, that those are problems. What our weight is clearly is affected by how much we eat and how much exercise we get. But think about it: we all know people who are tall and thin and eat like a horse and don’t put weight on, period. Or we know other people who, no matter how hard they try to limit their intake, they can’t lose weight. It turns out that in addition to the simple in and out, what you eat and how much you exercise, there are feedback systems at work in the body that balance weight. What this new science is telling us is there are things that can happen, especially in development in the womb, that appear to be having an effect on obesity.

CURWOOD: How much research has been done on this link between endocrine or hormone disrupters and obesity tendencies?

MYERS: Not a lot.

CURWOOD: Not a lot.

MYERS: Not nearly enough. We’ve got a small number of studies that are raising big questions, and because obesity is such a huge issue, this is a huge public health problem. And we’re getting some signals from the animal research that conditions in the womb can affect obesity.

Probably the most dramatic study of all of these has just been published within the last two months by a laboratory in Spain, and they looked at the effect of bisphenol A, this compound that comes out of polycarbonate plastic. They looked at it, and they created an experiment, they ran an experiment where they exposed adult mice to bisphenol A at a level that you can find in a lot of people, a lot of Americans. And what they found is that within four days those adult mice developed insulin resistance. They were no longer responding, their cells were no longer responding, properly to insulin.

Well, when insulin resistance develops in people, 25 percent of the people that get it go on to develop type 2 diabetes. It is the central piece of metabolic syndrome. So here you’ve got this animal result saying a contaminant that’s present in 95 percent of Americans at levels at which the experiments were run causes insulin resistance in mice. That’s a big signal, and the research community ought to be paying more attention to it.

CURWOOD: So, Dr. Myers, can you tell us some good news?

MYERS: Well, yes, Steve, I’m glad you asked that. Because at first encounter, this information is depressing, because it’s telling us that there are some contaminants in the environment that are interfering with gene expression at low levels, and that the science is suggesting it’s linked to a number of human health problems, serious problems. But at the same time, think of it this way: as these signals become sharper, clearer, we’re going to be in a position to reduce exposures. We’re going to be in a position to prevent diseases that until ten or 15 years ago many people wouldn’t have imagined were preventable. I think that’s really good news.

CURWOOD: John Peterson Myers is a biologist who’s the head of Environmental Health Sciences which publishes the Environmental Health News Service. Thanks so much for taking this time.

MYERS: Steve, it’s been a pleasure.

Related links:
- Environmental Health News
- Insulin resistance and environmental contaminants

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[MUSIC: Joanna Newsom “The Book of Right-On” from ‘Milk-Eyed Mender’ (Caroline – 2004)]

Water Warnings

CURWOOD: As this record setting hurricane season demonstrated, high winds can be destructive, but it is massive flooding that often proves to be the most deadly. So warning people that waters are rising has become an acute priority. Nowhere is this need for this more acute than in Honduras, where thousands of people perished in flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch back in 1998. The Honduran government has begun installing a flood warning system but a group of MIT engineering students who’ve been volunteering in the region says it uses expensive technology that’s prone to human error. So they’ve come up with something cheaper and simpler. Elizabeth Basha is a graduate student of electrical engineering and computer science and head of the MIT Flood Safe Early Warning project team.

Elizabeth, before I ask you about your project, can you tell me about the community you’re working in?

BASHA: So we’re working in the northeastern area of Honduras. It’s a river called the Aguan. And we’re working with communities that live on the very end of this river, right where the river meets the Caribbean Ocean, actually. And these communities are in a very precarious position. The river is very flat, and so the area they live on, when it does flood, the water just spreads out and engulfs them.

A view of Santa Rosa de Aguan, a community destroyed by Hurricane Mitch and unable to rebuild. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Basha.)

CURWOOD: So what’s wrong with the current flood warning system there? I understand the government of Honduras has installed a pretty sophisticated system, right?

BASHA: It’s not actually that sophisticated. They just installed the system in this river last year, and the way that system works is primarily volunteer-based, in terms of the measurement technique. So, families will have a radio in their home and periodically throughout the day they will go and look at markings on a bridge that tell them the river level; radio that in to a central spot; and that central office, run by the government, collects all this data and then determines what the alert system should be. And they do sometimes take into account some satellite sensors that were installed by the USGS but, primarily, it’s based on these markings on the river.

CURWOOD: So what’s wrong with that?

BASHA: The problem is those people don’t necessarily go out in the middle of the night.


BASHA: And Mitch caused a wall of water in the middle of the night. So…

CURWOOD: So they were sleeping. And I suppose it’s not a problem for them. If they’re upstream and there’s a lot of water, it’s interesting, but if you’re downstream, it’s a disaster.

BASHA: Exactly, and that’s the key problem in this basin. And they’ve successfully installed the system in very small basins, where the same people measuring are the same people affected. But, in this instance, the people upstream aren’t affected by the flooding in the same way.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the system that your group at MIT has developed. Where’s it located? How does it work?

A MIT student works with an employee of the Centro Tecnico San Alonso Rodriguez to hold a radio antenna for communication testing purposes. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Basha.)

BASHA: So we’re actually still in the process of it. It’s going to be all along this river basin, and it’s an autonomous system, meaning that the sensors upstream measure on a regular basis without any need for human contact. The data values are transmitted via radio and compute a level of what the river’s going to be like in the communities. They, basically, determine whether or not there will be a flood. As the picture becomes clearer it matches that to other levels; it determines whether or not, based on community input, that means they need to evacuate. And once it’s determined that it sends that information on to the communities, as well.

CURWOOD: So, you’ve designed a system that’s, well, it’s rather complex, but at the same time, well, it’s fairly simple. So this is an example of simple being better?

BASHA: I think in this situation we examined the problem and tried to solve it in a very different way than the people had done before. I mean, the USGS had installed these satellite sensors with the same idea, but it seems that they haven’t considered the problems that those sorts of things have. Satellite systems are very expensive, there’s long term messaging costs, and those sorts of issues. And instead, we went down and we said, okay, we know we don’t have a lot of money, and we know that we need to install something that’s easy to maintain, and we went as low-tech and as minimalistic as possible in order to do that. And I think that our end result is a system that’s much easier to install, much easier to maintain, and really solves the problem.

Elizabeth Basha looks up from the base of a water tank during radio communication testing in Honduras. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Basha.)

CURWOOD: Elizabeth Basha is an MIT graduate student of electrical engineering and computer science, and back to Honduras sometime in the near future. Thanks for stopping by.

BASHA: Thank you.

Related link:
FloodSafe Honduras Project

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[MUSIC: To Rococo Rot “Sol” from ‘Semper Sagato’ (Domino – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: Hurricane Katrina’s floods left behind hundreds of thousands of ruined cars. The challenge of keeping them off the used car lot and getting them into the junkyard is just ahead on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Konono No. 1 “Paradiso” from ‘Congotronics’ (Crammed Disc - 2005)]

States Tackle Global Warming

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. As thousands of diplomats from around the world meet in Montréal to negotiate the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the United States remains on the sidelines, in firm opposition to mandatory caps on emissions of global warming gases.

But back home that hasn't stopped some states from moving to enact limits on CO2 from power plants. The most ambitious plan is called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, and it involves Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

The states were expected to announce a cap and trade system, similar to the Kyoto Protocol, during the Montréal meeting. But, at the last moment, Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney put on the brakes, saying as the deal is presently written a cap and trade regime might be too costly. Joining me is reporter Beth Daley who’s been following this story for The Boston Globe. Thanks for coming in, Beth.

DALEY: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So, Beth, how would a cap and trade system work here with these power plants in the northeast?

DALEY: What happens is that every power plant will get a certain allotment of how much pollution they can emit into the air. If they use up that allotment then they’ll have to buy more allowances from cleaner burning power plants that haven’t used up their allotment of pollution credits. And so, basically, the dirtier plants will buy the right to pollute from cleaner plants.

CURWOOD: And that price would float whatever the market would bear?

DALEY: Exactly, the price would float. And the understanding is that the price would rise the dirtier the power plant is, and the closer to the overall emissions cap they’re reaching. So, the price can fluctuate greatly from, you know, zero to way up there.

CURWOOD: Now, what has Governor Romney, the Massachusetts Republican governor, proposed? I gather he likes the notion of having a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions but he doesn’t want to have this cap and trade system?

DALEY: Exactly. He likes the idea of a cap but he doesn’t seem to like the uncertainty it will provide to businesses of how high it will cost to emit a ton of carbon dioxide. So what he’s proposed is, let’s place a price cap saying the price of a ton of carbon dioxide will never go over a certain amount. And businesses like this very much because it provides certainty for them when they’re trying to pollute, that they’ll know they’ll never have to pay over a certain amount. Now, environmentalists dislike this intensely because they feel it will give a power plant the right to pollute even more than they’re allowed to.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, Governor Romney of Massachusetts, is considered to be a possible presidential candidate. To what extent do you think his presidential ambitions might have to do with this reversal now or this slowdown on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative?

DALEY: Certainly, a lot of what Governor Romney does is viewed through the prism of him running for the national office. But we don’t have any direct knowledge that he’s getting any pressure from the White House, for example, or this is anything but his decision.

CURWOOD: What will the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative do to consumer bank accounts in those northeastern states when it comes right down to it?

DALEY: Well, it’s interesting, in part, because Romney said three weeks ago that prices would only rise one or two percent under RGGI. And, in fact, RGGI’s own analysis shows that the average household bill will increase three dollars to 33 dollars annually over the next 15 years. But if energy efficiency programs are enacted, it would actually decline over 100 dollars a year.

CURWOOD: How much would this initiative actually reduce greenhouse gases?

DALEY: Actually, that’s a really good question. Hardly anything. I mean, global warming, as we all know, is a global problem, and the northeast states getting together to reduce climate change is really seen as a symbolic move to the rest of the world. And it meant so much that the RGGI organizers have worked incredibly hard to get it done in time for the Montreal Conference to say, ‘Hey look, world, you know, President Bush may not be doing anything but we certainly are, and we’re committed to making this happen.’ And there’s also a belief that if RGGI is done soon enough other states might start grappling with the same issues. If RGGI fails, it’s unclear what is going to happen.

CURWOOD: Beth Daley is a science and environment reporter at The Boston Globe. Thanks for this update.

DALEY: Thanks for having me.

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California Climate Action

CURWOOD: It's not just in the east that there’s growing interest in regulating major emitters of greenhouse gases. With me to talk about developments on the other side of the continent is Living on Earth's western bureau chief, Ingrid Lobet. Hi, Ingrid. How’s the issue playing out there?

LOBET: Hi, Steve. Yeah, you are starting to hear talk about this subject here in California. The governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has his own climate action team, and they’re going to be presenting him with several different plans for letting power companies trade carbon credits. And then, the Los Angeles legislator who authored California’s climate change law for vehicles, Assemblymember Fran Pavley, she’s working on a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and from the oil and gas industry and cement makers. That would probably mean mandatory CO2 reduction, and could become a regional coastal initiative with Oregon and Washington.

CURWOOD: But all these are in the talk stages so far, aren’t they? Where the rubber literally meets the road is on California’s vehicle emissions law, and other states are now following suit. Tell me more about that, please.

LOBET: Right. As you know, California has this landmark law to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. And when California passed that legislation it was a fierce fight with the auto companies because other states so often adopt California’s measures to fight air pollution. And that’s the same thing that’s happening here now with the greenhouse gas issue, as well. In fact, now states with combined sales of 30 percent of the American car market are now adopting California’s rules.

CURWOOD: So, if they proceed along the same timeline as California, what could that mean?

LOBET: It would mean that about three years from today, the 2009 model year cars would have to emit less carbon dioxide or one of the other greenhouse gases; 22 percent less by 2012; and 30 percent less by the year 2016.

CURWOOD: And this is currently the law in California?

LOBET: This is the law. The regulations that accompany the law have been written, they’ve been approved, and they go fully into effect in January in a few weeks.

CURWOOD: But right now the automobile makers are quite unhappy about this. They’re challenging the law in court. They started by filing a lawsuit in California. How’s that going?

LOBET: Right, they’ve already challenged New York, they’ve challenged Oregon, and they say that they will challenge every state that votes to adopt greenhouse gas rules. Because they say this is really about forcing carmakers to build cars with better mileage, and only the federal government is allowed to that. But as you said, of course, the real battle is the lawsuit that’s already been filed in California. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sued California in federal court in Fresno, and that case is proceeding. And recently the judge, Judge O’Neill, said that environmental groups could join with the sate to help it make its case. And, on the other side, he said, like, why is that the automakers could be joined by their friends in International Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers?

CURWOOD: Now, why is it important that environmental groups have been allowed to join this lawsuit? What’s the argument that environmental groups are helping to hone?

LOBET: California believes, and their environmental joiners agree, that their best argument is to go directly head to head with the car makers and argue that, in fact, they are regulating air pollution, not mileage, and that they are authorized to do that by the Clean Air Act. Where the case might get a little more interesting for the average listener is when the parties actually start to argue about whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. That’s a pretty important question for the country. And that aspect of the case could end up being decided in D.C. or in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

CURWOOD: And, in the meantime, the assembly line is already changing to accommodate the law?

LOBET: Well, we don’t exactly know that and it does raise an interesting question. You can’t just change an assembly line on a dime, and the first cars that will have to comply will be the ones in showrooms about three years from now. Of course, it’s not a radical reduction in emissions that they have to have by then, but it is interesting to note that the automakers have not asked the judge for an injunction. They’ve not asked to have the judge put the regulation on hold. So, yes, it’s going forward.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s western bureau chief. Thanks so much, Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome, Steve.

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[MUSIC: Pablo’s Triangle “God Let’s Us Know” from ‘20 Nights Of Wine And Song” (Greyday Productions – 2005)]

New Orleans' Waste Woes

CURWOOD: It’s still hard to grasp the enormity of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma along the Gulf Coast. One measure is how much debris the storms left behind.

The Environmental Protection Agency now says that in Louisiana alone, 22 million tons of waste – everything from refrigerators to oak trees– will need to be disposed of. Reporter Molly Peterson found that hundreds of thousands of flooded cars constitute one disposal nightmare. And they're only a fraction of the cleanup task at hand.


PETERSON: Claiborne Avenue was once a center of black commerce in New Orleans. Along this stretch was like a grassy neighborhood park. Even after the freeway overhead blocked out the sun in the 60s, people have still gathered down here, on lawn chairs and around barbecues. But three months after the waters rose, Claiborne Street is still a graveyard of flooded cars.

Over here’s a brown Chevy pickup truck. In the truck bed there’s three air conditioners, one with a rusty metal tank attached. A few cars down there’s a gray Infiniti sedan with rings of sediment on it. It looks like striations, lines on a rock. It’s leaking coolant. There are 17 blocks of cars, just here, along Claiborne alone.

CARPENTER: Nobody was thinking, cars as a major problem. It’s debris, debris. I’m like, okay, it is debris, but we have to treat it differently. Where do you put 300,000 cars?

PETERSON: Three hundred thousand. And they’re not like other junk. Even an abandoned car is still property. Lieutenant Allen Carpenter of the Louisiana State Police says that’s why his officers, along with insurance-fraud investigators, have been cataloguing vehicle identification numbers in the field. Carpenter says taking time to identify cars and choose collection areas for them is risky. But letting towers and wreckers move in too quickly at first had its own cost.

CARPENTER: We had one instance in the city of New Orleans. Police officers had identified either vehicles that contained deceased persons, or near deceased persons, and those bodies were moved and the vehicles were gone before the group could come collect the bodies. It’s everybody’s got their own interest in doing this, but we have to do this in a lawful, orderly way.

PETERSON: Carpenter’s interest has been protecting property and clearing the streets safely. Others see flooded cars as a potential health hazard. Initial testing showed that New Orleans floodwaters did not contain high levels of carcinogens, like benzene. But Bob Stewart, from the auto repair advocacy group C-CAR Greenlink, says many waterlogged cars still contain heavy metals and bacteria.

STEWART: The flood waters that were there in New Orleans tested high for levels of raw sewage, of arsenic, of lead, so this was a very dangerous brew. And there are open spaces, compartments within a car that’s flooded, that may retain that water, and certainly, the sludge and residue after the floodwaters have subsided.

PETERSON: Insurance adjusters see the cars as tempting merchandise that could be sold to the unsuspecting. Mexican agencies and car importers fear that smugglers could sneak them across the border. All these concerns spurred the Louisiana legislature to take action. A bill requiring flood cars to be crushed and preventing their future sale is now awaiting Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s signature. But local parishes are still responsible for towing and disposing of abandoned cars. And some in private industry have been hoping to benefit by obtaining raw material for their scrap yards, without much luck so far.

TORRES: When you look at it in terms of tons, you know, we melt over 600,000 tons a year. And, so far, it’s been minimal, the impact of the scrap coming in.

PETERSON: Kevin Torres is vice president of Mississippi River Recycling in Laplace, west of New Orleans. Each flood car is worth around a hundred dollars there. They’re taking in truckloads of big appliances, too.

TORRES: Obviously, the enormity of the whole event has overwhelmed many agencies. There’s kind of some things upstream from us that are taking time, and the insurance companies, quite frankly, are overwhelmed, as well.

PETERSON: Torres says he believes business is picking up. Parishes are starting to contract for mass car removal. That parallels what’s happening with debris removal overall, as more people return to clean out or demolish houses.


PETERSON: The Old Gentilly landfill on the east side of Orleans Parish takes in what’s called “C & D” – sheet rock, wood, couches and mattresses. Louisiana environmentalists are already suing in federal court to close it. They say Old Gentilly isn’t ready for this kind of traffic. It’s got clay on the bottom – but not around two of its long sides – to prevent metals and waste leaching into soils.

But it’s unlikely to close any time soon. As much as a hundred thousand cubic yards of debris a day is coming in now. Each truck is stopped on the way in. From newly built wooden towers, Army Corps monitors and private waste managers look down into trucks to record their length and fullness.


PETERSON: Closer to the front of the landfill, Patrick Roth stands in another tower. He’s here to take payment for debris and to keep hazardous waste out.

ROTH: Every now and then we see ‘em with it, we turn ‘em around when they get it.

PETERSON: How often does that happen?

ROTH: What, about three, four, five times a day, maybe. It ain’t that much. I mean, everybody knows we don’t take it, you know. But they got some out-of-towners that don’t know no better, So. We’ll catch ‘em.

PETERSON: Roth says it’s a slow morning, though in one hour spotters pull out a gas can., computer monitors, a small television, a fire extinguisher. All are classified as hazardous wastes. None should be here – this landfill is not lined or monitored for it. The state says nowhere have environmental laws been compromised for cleanup. But Chuck Carr Brown of the state’s Office of Environmental Services says there’s no model for how to get rid of this much waste.

CARR BROWN: Let’s take 9/11. The amount of debris generated when the twin towers went down was 1.5 million tons, in a confined area. A few blocks. We have 22 million tons. That’s spread out over 90,000 square miles. That’s the size of Great Britain. Okay? You can only process so much at one time safely.

PETERSON: Brown says even if everything goes according to plan, it could be 18 months before the streets here are clear. For Living on Earth, I’m Molly Peterson in New Orleans.

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Bird Business

CURWOOD: Cars can sometimes be for the birds. Bird droppings can make quite a mess; but they also happen to be historic in nature. Katharine Brainard drops her observations about this natural nuisance.

BRAINARD: Last night I parked my car under a tree. This morning my car was covered with bird droppings. Why can’t those birds watch where they go?

Bird droppings can be very annoying, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in the world besides on my windshield. In ancient Peru, the Inca harvested bird manure and they called it “guano.” Back then, guano was considered “white gold” because it fertilized the soil of overused fields. But when the Spanish arrived, they went straight for the “yellow gold,” bypassing the white stuff, and guano went out of style.

In the mid-1850s, guano’s popularity made a comeback in the United States. When east coast fields began to falter, ships sailed out in search of guano. Tropical islands full of birds and “white gold” became big money, and businesses like the Baltimore Fertilizer Company fought for harvesting rights. The actual work – hacking and dynamiting rock-hard bird excrement from cliffs – was dangerous and difficult. It was not a job many wanted. So the guano companies hired recently freed black slaves from Maryland to do the dirty work.

Eventually, chemical fertilizer was invented and guano’s glory days were over. But bird droppings are still around today, and people still find uses for them.

A company in Benson, Minnesota, just built a power plant fired by, you guessed it, bird droppings. Turkey dung. The company calls it a “poultry litter plant” because “poultry” sounds better than turkey and “litter” sounds better than dung. It will consume 700,000 pounds of turkey droppings a year, and supply 55,000 homes with clean, renewable power, giving a whole new meaning to “turkey leftovers.”

In New Zealand, the Museum of Nonprimate Art hosted an exhibit called “Significant Works of Windshield Art.” Viewers saw framed droppings of barn owl, pigeon, and spotted flycatchers. A portrait of blue-winged teal poop sold for $6,000.

And at a Santa Fe spa you can get a “Japanese Nightingale Facial.” The bird droppings are imported from Japan, pulverized into powder, and then mixed with essential oils to form a facial mask that cleanses and exfoliates skin. All for a hundred and thirty bucks, plus tip.

Which is funny because once my sister got the same thing for free! We were walking down a street in New York City. Suddenly, a pigeon did his business on my sister’s head. Right in her hair! A lady nearby got all excited, said it was good luck and that my sister had been blessed by a bird. “Oh honey,” she said, “Get yourself to the corner market and play the lottery!”

So the next time you or your car get “bombed” by birds, think about the history of bird droppings. And here’s a clean-up tip: pour seltzer water over the droppings, let it sizzle a few seconds, and then wipe it clean with a soft cloth. And consider the children’s rhyme:

Little birdie in the sky,
Why’d you do that in my eye?
I sure am glad that
Cows can’t fly!

CURWOOD: Katharine Brainard will now avoid parking her car under trees outside her home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Back to top

Just ahead: why your body image may be mostly in your head. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Esquivel “Lullaby Of Birdland” from ‘Cabaret Manana’ (RCA – 1995)]

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at m-o-t-t dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable and sustainable society; The Kresge Foundation. Building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e dot org; The Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and, The W-K Kellogg Foundation. ‘From Vision to Innovative Impact: 75 Years of Philanthropy; This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Thomas Wydler & Toby Dammit “Ramwong” from `Morphosa Harmonia’ (Hit Thing Germany – 2004)]

Emerging Science Note/Here’s Lookin’ At You

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: Why the mall is where it’s at. First this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Torgrimson.


TORGRIMSON: ‘Honey, does this make me look fat?’ Don’t go there, people…into that dead-man’s land, the fragile netherworld of body image. Especially because what your partner sees in the mirror may be a mirage. According to a new study led by University College London, feeling fat – or thin – is a construct of the brain.

To identify which parts of the brain involve body image, scientists tricked patients into believing their waists were shrinking using a technique called the “Pinocchio Illusion.” Scientists attached a vibrating device to volunteers’ wrists, which simulates the sensation of the wrist flexing inward. With their hands resting on their waists, volunteers all felt that their waist had shrunk by up to 28 percent.

At the same time, scientists found high activity levels in the posterior parietal cortex, the part of the brain that integrates sensory information from all over the body. The subjects who reported the strongest shrinking sensation also demonstrated the strongest activity in this part of the brain.

Though we process information about our body size and shape every day, there’s no specialized receptor, like the nose for smell. The information comes from various sources – our skin, joints, muscles, our vision – and the brain appears to synthesize these sources into a map; a sketch of our body.

The goal for scientists is to see if people with anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder – people who over- or underestimate their body size, or focus on a small or imagined flaw – if they too experience distortion in this part of the brain. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Torgrimson.

Back to top


Attention Shoppers

CURWOOD: Like it or not, you’ll probably find yourself in one before the holiday season ends. I’m talking about “The Mall,” that Mecca of merchandising and marketing that has come to define how and where many Americans not only shop, but socialize as well. Producer Jonathan Mitchell returned to his hometown in the Midwest to bring us a sound portrait of the place that was, and still is, the community’s center, if not its very identity.


MALE: Suburbia.

FEMALE: Freshness.

MALE: Edge City development.

MALE: That was the sign of the future.

MALE: The very future of who we want to be.

FEMALE: Metropolitan.

FEMALE: Younger, fresher, cleaner.

FEMALE: You know, what we have here is what we have, and –

FEMALE: BAM! It’s all there. It’s all there.

FEMALE: People were so ready for a mall to come here and it –

MALE: It was just an untapped market.

FEMALE: You have to change with the times, and you have to figure out what people want.

FEMALE: Who wants to walk around downtown in the middle of winter? Nobody.

MALE: The mall offered a whole new range of national companies that weren’t present in the community at that point in time.

FEMALE: Everybody will want to come to our mall now.

FEMALE: It was American, it was –

FEMALE: Metropolitan.

FEMALE: Metropolitan-feeling.

FEMALE: Why are we the only town that doesn’t have a mall in the United States? So, when it came –

FEMALE: We were hip and happening! We were a real town. (LAUGHS) We weren’t just some little spot in the middle of a cornfield!


FEMALE: We’ve made it!

FEMALE: And it left, it left such an enormous hole in the downtown.


MALE: I kind of liked downtown like as it was when I was a kid, you know? All of the businesses were downtown.

MALE: For many years, the downtown had been the epicenter of retailing.

MALE: Older people don’t like change that much. They like to have it just like it was.

MALE: Downtown was magical. People came down here on Friday night and it was the hangout. It was the place where you came, where you had something to eat, where you shopped. And we felt with a great deal of pride that we were the leading department store in town. Started in 1886 on Fifth Street. My grandfather and his two brothers built this ten-story building at the corner of Fifth and Washington in 1925 and 1926.

FEMALE: I think that changed –

MALE: With the coming of the automobile.


MALE: Edge city development –

MALE: Suburbanization, automobile culture, the moving outward.

FEMALE: It was the ‘60s, and the trend of the day was these new malls that were popping up everywhere.


MALES: Malls were being built, and we wanted to be involved.


FEMALE: The large department stores made a pretty quick exodus from the downtown to the new mall.

MALE: Because it was part of being in business and trying to grow your business.

MALE: The usual newspaper stories appeared decrying, you know, the loss of our downtown, our sense of community. And I think with some real basis.

MALE: We had heard these horror stories in certain towns where a mall had been built and the downtown stores had dropped its volume as much as 40 percent. Well, that’ll put you out of business in a hurry. And we knew we were going to drop volume because some of the volume of the people that came downtown to the store were going to go to the new shopping center, obviously. So we calculated that it would be about 25 percent. Well, when it was all said and done it was 100 percent because the store was eventually closed.


FEMALE: When I was five years old I remember driving by the mall just to see its progress, and seeing this huge…

MALE: And it was so huge!

FEMALE: This huge building.

MALE: This mall was just massive!

FEMALE: These huge forms. I don’t remember seeing anybody actually working on it, but I remember watching it and wondering what was going on in there. Because at that time I didn’t understand the concept of a mall.


FEMALE: Okay, we are now driving around the mall. There’s a Sears…

MALE: It looks like any other mall.

FEMALE: We’re looking for…we’re going to go around the mall to the second level, and it’s where the theater, we have a movie theater, where the entrance is. But that’s also the main drag into the food court.

MALE: People tend to have their favorite entrance. Even if the store that you’re going to is far away you always park up in the, you know, upper level by Bergner’s, because that’s where you’ve always parked. (LAUGHS). And it’s easier to get out or, you know, they all have their motivations.

FEMALE: This is my favorite place to park because it takes you – BAM! – right into the food court.

MALE: My favorite place to park is actually the lower level near Bergner’s, yeah. Because it’s overlooked because it’s actually sort of cutting into the hillside.

FEMALE: If I cannot find a good parking space, which it’s not looking good…

MALE: There’s hardly any parking places out here.

FEMALE: Then I go down to the lower level of Sears that will take me into the automotive section…

FEMALE: Just park anywhere.


MALE: Should I just park in my normal spot?

FEMALE: Yeah. I don’t think it’ll be open, but –

FEMALE: We are now in G9, upper G9, and – wait, is this a parking space? Because if it is, I’m taking it. DNGG! I hate when that happens!

MALE: That’s handicapped…

FEMALE: That’s handicapped…

FEMALE: It’s not looking good, dude. Let’s go down to Sears.

MALE: We could park right here!

FEMALE: What, you want me to park here?


MALE: Oh, look, here’s a parking place. Amazing. Well, there’s always the possibility of a better one.

MALE: We’re still only half a block away from –

FEMALE: I suppose so, but you know what? I walk nowhere.


FEMALE: I don’t! I don’t walk anywhere. I drive everywhere I go.


FEMALE: So, for me…

MALE: But, even when you’re far away you’re still, like, if you were downtown you’d have to walk blocks, probably.

FEMALE: That’s true. But you know what? I don’t go downtown. Most people don’t go downtown. You know why? Because the mall brought everybody here.


MALE: All right, here we are.

FEMALE: Whoo-hoo! We are at the mall. What are we going to do?

FEMALE: We just walk around, and we look at the clothes…


MALE: Time disappears…

FEMALE: Oh, that’s nice…

MALE: And everything was shiny and new…

FEMALE: Restaurants and drug stores and movie theaters, and--

MALE: Smiling clerks greet you…

FEMALE: Oh, that’s nice…

FEMALE: And it smelled new…

MALE: It’s clean, there’s no crime…

MALE: There’s a place in the center of the mall that they call Center Court…

FEMALE: Can you meet me at Center Court?


MALE: But, you know, it had skylights, and it had trees growing inside, which was really bizarre…


FEMALE: It was a good place to go look and just, look around. And I was kind of like wishing, you know, you go there, and you wish, I wish I had this, or when I get some money maybe I’ll come back and I’ll get this, and…we did a lot of wishing. Everybody did a lot of wishing.


FEMALE: That’s cool…

FEMALE: Isn’t that cool! I love that, isn’t that cool?

MALE: What are you looking at?

FEMALE: This right here. I always want to stop here and look in. I’m like drawn into the store…

MALE: It’s got shiny objects.

FEMALE: That’s exactly (LAUGHS) it is, it’s got shiny objects. Look at that, isn’t that cool? How much is that?


MALE: I guess it became the place to go. For shopping, for entertainment, for just that sort of teenage adolescent lingering around kind of thing.

MALE: There’s a lot of young people in here.

MALE: I’m looking, I’m standing here looking around, I could be the oldest one here.

FEMALE: Look, right over there.

MALE: A lot of kids.

FEMALE: Look at the way they’re kind of walking. They kind of got the little twitch in their hip, and their hair is kind of bouncing a certain way, and their eyes are darting back and forth.

MALE: The eyes…

FEMALE: And they’re lookin’.

FEMALE: You would walk around in search of boys.

MALE: When you’re of a certain age, the mall is the place where you find your freedom.

MALE: That was where everybody went.

FEMALE: Looking for boys and clothes and whatever else you could find!

MALE: Traveled in little tribes around different locations in the mall…

MALE: And look for girls. That’s it.

MALE: Like this group of guys here. They all have stocking caps all pulled down like over their eyebrows.

FEMALE: Some guys following us around…

MALE: Yeah, I stalk ‘em. So, all you girls out there, watch out now! (LAUGHS). I’m just playin’.

FEMALE: We’d all act like we were cool and we really didn’t want them to follow us, but…

FEMALE: Do you look for guys here?


FEMALE: You know, that was the whole reason why we were there was for them to follow us.

FEMALE: Have you ever found a girl here?

MALE: Ahh, yeah, yeah. A few times.

FEMALE: I don’t know, like you’d be in line and they’ll ask you something and then they’ll just start talking to you.

MALE: Be myself, that’s all you can be.

MALE: I met people by working there.


FEMALE: Thank you very much.

FEMALE: Thank you.

MALE: Everybody that I knew, all my friends, worked at the mall.

FEMALE: Oh, I became the assistant manager and acting manager, thank you very much.

MALE: I think what there was, was there was a food chain related to where you worked. And, you know, you started working at McDonald’s or one of those god-awful kiosks in the center that sold like, you know, barbecue paste, and then you’d work your way up. And I got to the point where I was the guitar salesman in the music store, and I worked in the CD shop, as well. So, that was probably the coolest I’ve ever been.

MALE: Oh, you know where we should go?

FEMALE: Where?

MALE: The perfume department.


FEMALE: The perfume department (SING-SONGY)

FEMALE: I’m a beauty advisor, is my actual title, so, like, when people come up I tell them about like, color, and that kind of thing. And then, um, sell makeup, basically.

FEMALE: Do you do makeovers?

FEMALE: Mm-hmm. I don’t really like working at the mall. I would come to shop and that used to be fun, but now I just feel like I don’t even want to come here anymore because I have to come here all the time to work. Most people are rude. I used to think most people were nice but most people are rude.

FEMALE: There was a part of working at the mall that I didn’t like. I didn’t like the idea that I could look outside windows and see what was going on outside. I was stuck inside this cave.

FEMALE: The mall is, I don’t know, it’s pasty. It’s just, it’s sunless and windowless and…

MALE: Immaculate.

FEMALE: Sterile.

MALE: That sort of hermetically-sealed mall type of environment, that corporate street.

MALE: A really safe environment where there’s security all the time.

MALE: Very orderly, very modern…

MALE: It gives you a place to be inside.

FEMALE: You don’t have to get out in the cold or the heat.

MALE: What is a mall but a large cocoon keeping the world out?


FEMALE: They’re too…

MALE: Generic.

FEMALE: And there’s nothing unique about them anymore.

MALE: It’s sort of a homogenous experience, where if you go to almost any mall in the country…

FEMALE: Any mall in any town in any state…

MALE: Every mall and every place and every town there’s –

FEMALE: Gap Gap Gap Gap Gap.

MALE: It’s very similar, by design. Maybe there’s comfort in that.

FEMALE: Our city, I think, has a lot to offer people. But, basically, people talk about the mall. People go to the mall, people are talking about what they bought at the mall.

FEMALE: You know, what we have here is what we have.

FEMALE: And if you want things, that’s where you have to go to get them.

MALE: Anything you every wanted is inside of a mall.

MALE: Well, I met my wife at the mall (LAUGHS). When I was cool. We would get off work at 9 o’clock, because that’s when the mall closed, and we would hang out in the parking lot at the mall.


MALE: And we would make jokes about how the full moon was beautiful, shining off of the windshields of you know the ’88 Buick. And sometimes we would ride in my convertible around the mall parking lot. And you know, despite all of the problems and cultural homogenization, it’s still a pretty fond memory.

FEMALE: My husband bought his tux there right before we got married. And then when I was pregnant I went into labor there.


FEMALE (TO CHILD): Honey, Mommy is recording right now, all right? Do you like the mall, Hannah? What’s your favorite thing about the mall?

BABY: The Disney Store!

FEMALE: The Disney Store.


MALE: Now it’s interesting, in the history of retailing in the 19th century actually, before the development of the great department stores, most shopping was done in small regional areas, neighborhood grocers and so on. And as it became centralized, a group of merchants in Chicago brought suit against the stores like Marshall Fields and others as an unfair competition.

MALE: Well, some people get left out and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it. It’s just the way it is.

MALE: Obviously, that didn’t keep Marshall Fields and other large department stores from prospering. And we began to think of our downtowns traditionally as the center of our community.

FEMALE: Cities are a living, breathing, changing entity. Right now, malls are going through a very difficult time.

MALE: Now, these many years later the mall has spawned so many other “big box” stores.

FEMALE: And perhaps the bigger threat are the big box stores. So, it’s nothing new. This is a way that cities live or die.

FEMALE: And maybe, maybe, you know what? Maybe if we never got the mall, maybe our city would just be this small little town that had nothing – not even a mall.

MALE: And I think what’s significant here is we not only look at history as something that’s 100 years old or ten years old or even one year old; we look at history as happening today and in the future.

FEMALE: Where are we going, what are we going to do, what are we reaching for?

MALE: Well, the world is moving pretty fast, and as you get older it even seems to move faster.

FEMALE: Trends come and go.

MALE: We decide as a society the things that are good for us.

FEMALE: If you can see that things can change and that you can survive and that they can be better.

MALE: Is it better? I’m not sure it is. But that’s the way it is.


FEMALE: Our city, I think, has a lot to offer people.

MALE: It’s a really nice place to live.

MALE: It’s easy to buy a house.

FEMALE: It’s a nice size city.

MALE: Fairly easy to make a living.

FEMALE: I think it’s a safe place.

MALE: And the cost of living is very reasonable.

FEMALE: It’s really a great place to raise a family.

FEMALE: It’s the middle of America. I think that’s a good thing.

MALE: Fits my taste perfectly.

FEMALE: You’re probably going to find its beauty in the people.


MALE: Be myself, that’s all you can be.

MALE: It’s the people. And I think by and large, we have a community full of wonderful, wonderful people.


FEMALE: But while I think the people shape the town, the town shapes the people.

FEMALE: The question is, do these people look happy that they’re here?

MALE: Do you think they do?

FEMALE: I don’t know.

MALE: She didn’t look too unhappy.

FEMALE: No, I think they look pretty happy.

MALE: It’s just fun to see our country be our country, and our people be our people. And what better place to do it at the mall?

[MUSIC: Laurie Johnson “Happy Go Lively” from ‘Music For TV Dinners’ (Scamp – 1997)]

CURWOOD: Our portrait of “The Mall” was produced by Jonathan Mitchell of the Hearing Voices Radio Project, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Back to top




CURWOOD: We leave you this week at a different kind of mall on the other side of the world.

[EARTH EAR: “3 for 500 Yen (Merchants at Ameyoko)” recorded by Sarah Peebles from ‘Walking Through Tokyo’ (Post Concrete – 2001)]

CURWOOD: Sarah Peebles recorded these merchants hawking their goods at Tokyo’s Ame Yoko shopping district.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, Eileen Bolinsky, Susan Shepherd and Jeff Young, with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Brianna Asbury, Kevin Friedl and Emily Torgrimson. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at Living on Earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt, smoothies, and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.


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