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

September 8, 2006

Air Date: September 8, 2006



The Health Legacy of Ground Zero / Rachel Gotbaum

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9/11 WORKERS’ HEALTH: Five years after 9/11, many rescue workers and volunteers at ground zero suffer extensive health problems related to their exposure to the dust and debris of the Twin Towers. Rachel Gotbaum brings us their stories from New York City. Also, a comprehensive study of illnesses affecting rescue workers at ground zero reveal that dust and other toxins have caused chronic health problems, and even death. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Dr. Philip Landrigan who co-authored the study and has been screening rescue workers since 9/11. (12:15)

New Orleans Health

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A year after Hurricane Katrina, critics of the EPA say the health hazards in New Orleans are under-researched and under-regulated. Living on Earth talks with Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is on the ground in New Orleans testing the quality of the air, sediment, and water. (05:30)

Duct Tape & Procedures

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Umatilla County in Oregon houses one of seven chemical weaponry stockpiles in the U.S. The county was prepared for large-scale disaster long before 9/11 raised the rest of the nation’s emergency awareness. Living on Earth talks with Cheryl Seigal of Umatilla County Emergency Management to find out what steps Umatilla takes to be ready for the unexpected. (06:00)

Farm Life / Jennifer Obakhume

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Youth Radio’s Jennifer Obakhume hails from L.A. and comments on the culture shock of her first visit to a farm. (03:45)

Emerging Science Note/It’s Not Only Hormones / Tobin Hack

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A recent study shows that teenagers are less likely than adults to use the region of the brain involved in thinking about other people’s emotions and feelings when making decisions. Tobin Hack reports. (01:30)

Listener Letters

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Living on Earth dips into our mailbag to hear from our listeners. (02:00)

Wetland Mystery / Ashley Ahearn

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Marsh grass is dying in wetlands in the northeastern U.S. and scientists are having a hard time finding out what’s causing this "sudden wetland dieback." Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn visited some sick wetlands and has our story. (05:00)

The Big Green Apple / Susan Hassler

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Environmentally friendly roofs are sprouting up all over New York City. Susan Hassler of Spectrum magazine reports from a sky-high rooftop. (07:30)

This week's EarthEar selection
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An afternoon at the farmers market in Somerville, MA.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUEST: Dr. Phillip Landrigan, Dr. Gina Solomon, Cheryl Seigal, Dale Kemery
REPORTER: Ashley Ahearn, Rachel Gotbaum, Susan Hassler
COMMENTATOR: Jennifer Obahkume


GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. 9-11 five years later and only now is there research confirming that dust from the world trade center disaster is causing death and disease among rescue and recovery workers.

SFERAZO: I was starting to cough…and then I was coughing up these things that looked like silver dollars. I started getting severe lung infections and then succumbing to pneumonia.

GELLERMAN: And medical investigators say there could be tens of thousands of chronic cases just like this one.

LANDRIGAN: I’m concerned, given the nature of these problems and given the type of disease that we’re seeing, that the effects are going to be permanent in a substantial proportion of these people.

GELLERMAN: Also a breath of fresh air. A city girl gets a taste of rural farm life.


GELLERMAN: These stories and more 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.

The Health Legacy of Ground Zero

(Photo courtesy of FEMA)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Steve Curwood is away.

Can it really be 5 years ago? 9/11 is still raw in our hearts and minds and it continues to claim victims. The plume of dust from the collapse of the twin towers flew high into the air and deep into the lungs of people living and working near ground zero. We have two updates on the health effects of the World Trade Center disaster. We begin with reporter Rachel Gotbaum.

GOTBAUM: Today ground zero is a construction site fenced off from the public. A place of silent memorials and tour guides.


GOTBAUM: Looking at the site today it’s hard to imagine that precisely five years ago, this was a scene from purgatory. When the planes hit the twin towers on 9/11 the buildings were pulverized. It’s estimated two million tons of dust containing cement, asbestos, glass, lead, PCBs and other known carcinogens rained down on lower Manhattan.


GOTBAUM: Ever since the attacks researchers have been trying to understand the health
effects of the dust and smoke that filled this area. Among them is Doctor Paul Lioy a professor of occupational and environmental health at Rutgers University. Lioy took dust samples at ground zero soon after 9/11.

LIOY: This is unprecedented. We don’t have any benchmark from which to play from. We’re looking at a material that’s a mixture that we never ever characterized before. So that I cannot say to you that exposure will lead to a long-term health effect. There’s no answer to that question at this point in time.

GOTBAUM: But for many of those who worked on the rescue and recovery at ground zero there is no question that their medical problems are due to the air they breathed at the site. John Sferazo was an ironworker who volunteered at ground zero.

SFERAZO: The smell of death was in the air. You could smell the bodies burning or what was left of bodies burning. Sometimes the smoke was so bad your eyes would burn you couldn’t open your eyes.

GOTBAUM: Sferazo says at first he says he was offered paper masks to protect against the dust and the smoke. He wasn’t worried about toxic exposure because just days after the attacks government officials said the air was safe. But he began to get sick.

SFERAZO: I was starting to cough and then I was coughing up these things that looked like silver dollars. They were silverfish gray and sometimes there was blood in it. Short after that I started getting severe lung infections and then succumbing to pneumonia. And I’ve never had pneumonia in my life. Nor have I ever had any pulmonological problems.

GOTBAUM: Today John Sferazo is 51 and can no longer do construction work. He receives workers compensation and federal disability payments because he has been diagnosed with reactive airway disease, gastro reflux disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder. More than 40 thousand people worked in the recovery and rescue at ground zero. And thousands of workers including firefighters, police, and construction crews have filed for workers compensation and disability.

City, State and Federal agencies say they provided respirators and urged workers to wear them. But less than half of the workers say they did.

HERBERT: Good deep breaths with your mouth wide open please. And again.


GOTBAUM: Doctor Robin Herbert is examining Daniel Lewis. Lewis delivered lunches to rescue and recovery workers in the days after 9/11. He is now disabled.

LEWIS: I’m taking antibiotics. They was considering steroids cause I have a hard time breathing.

GOTBAUM: Lewis is one of 16 thousand workers from ground zero evaluated at the World Trade Center treatment program at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. The patients here range from undocumented immigrants who cleaned dust out of nearby office buildings to emergency service workers to fire fighters who worked at the site for months. Doctor Herbert directs the program.

HERBERT: When we would look in people’s nasal passages it was as if the nasal tissue were just burnt out, it was bright cherry red. I mean, our patients initially couldn’t sleep through the night. They couldn’t sleep for more than an hour they were coughing so badly.

GOTBAUM: In a just-released study of 10 thousand patient’s in the Mt. Sinai program,
70 percent show signs of new and lingering health problems related to their time at the world trade center site.

HERBERT: One of the primary causes of the respiratory problems was exposure to pulverized cement and glass. The cement in particular was very alkaline, very high ph, extremely irritating, and we think that that then caused chronic inflammations in our patients.

GOTBAUM: The federal government is paying for Mt. Sinai’s monitoring of patients, but it’s the Red Cross that’s footing the bill for their medical care. Forty percent of those in the program don’t have health insurance.

WORBY: Thousands of people are going to die from this problem.

GOTBAUM: That’s attorney David Worby. Worby is suing New York City, federal agencies and private contractors who were responsible for the cleanup at ground zero.

WORBY: This case is about thousands upon thousands of people who are sick. Many of whom are dying. A lot more of whom will die because of the rush to clean up garbage after September 11 when we were not saving lives because of a governmental decision and contractors’ decisions to do everything possible to keep 50 thousand people busy, 24/7, with zero protection in the middle of the worst toxic waste site ever.

GOTBAUM: Worby represents 8,200 clients who worked ground zero. One of them is New York City police detective John Wolcott. In 2003 Wolcott was diagnosed with leukemia. He believes working at the 9/1l site caused his medical problems.

WOLCOTT: Well, when I got admitted to the hospital I was diagnosed that morning and they said you had a week to live and you had to go to the hospital. The nurses would come in and interview you, and they found out what kind of leukemia I had. I fielded about a hundred questions about were you ever in any kind of employment with chemicals? Did I ever work in the airports? Did I ever deliver jet fuel? Was I ever around benzene? And I didn’t put two and two together. I had other things on my mind at that time. And my sister said, “what do you think was burning down at the World Trade Center?”

GOTBAUM: Wolcott thinks the fuel from the jets that crashed into the towers may be responsible for his cancer and his partner in the police department needing a kidney transplant. Attorney David Worby says the connection is obvious.

WORBY: How does one partner have kidney failure and the other have leukemia and the only thing they have in common after 12 years of partnership is 9/11? Sitting in my office a week and a half ago were six cops with leukemia. These were all people who have been diagnosed in the last year. All people who had significant, at least two weeks, many of them seven months, some of them two years of exposure at 9/11.

GOTBAUM: Five years after 9/11 the question of the health effects from ground zero is
a matter for medical researchers and the courts. New York City health officials have just announced a new16 million dollar program to monitor and treat residents of lower Manhattan and 9/11 workers. The Bush administration has allocated 52 million dollars for medical treatment, but federal officials admit that’s not nearly enough for those who may seek medical care because of the effects of Ground Zero.

For Living on Earth, I’m Rachel Gotbaum.

GELLERMAN: The Mt. Sinai World Trade Center screening program that reporter Rachel Gotbaum just cited in her story was founded by Dr. Philip Landrigan. He’s chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at the medical school there and one of the authors of the 9/11 health effects study which found the dust at Ground Zero was the cause of health problems. He joins me on the phone.

GELLERMAN: Thanks, Dr. Landrigan.

LANDRIGAN: Thank you, Bruce. It’s good to be here.

GELLERMAN: Do you expect this to be chronic problems? Are they going to be disabling problems?

LANDRIGAN: Well, those of course, are the big unanswered questions. I think the best way to give a partial answer to the question is to tell you about the composition of the dust these people inhaled. The dust was very toxic. Sixty percent or so of the material was comprised of pulverized concrete; very alkaline, very caustic, a ph of 10 or 11. In essence what this material did was it seared the upper and lower respiratory tracts. It caused burning, which progressed over time into scarring. Which, I think, is why we are now seeing evidence of restricted lung disease. So, the scarring causes shrinking and distortion of tissues and hence the functional abnormalities that we are seeing.

I’m concerned given the nature of these problems and given the type of disease that we’re seeing that the effects are going to be permanent in a substantial proportion of these people. Probably not in all, we’re learning to treat them aggressively with steroids and other approaches and we certainly get some benefit from that. But there is a high likelihood that a lot of this impairment is going to be permanent.

GELLERMAN: Now, soon after 9/11 happened, just a week actually, people went back to work. The Environmental Protection Agency said it’s safe to go down there and breathe the air.

LANDRIGAN: Yes, that’s true. And unfortunately that statement may have been a bit premature. The data that we presented make it plain that the air was not safe.

GELLERMAN: So, what happens now to these people?

LANDRIGAN: Well, first of all, we have a good continuous stream of federal funding for diagnosis and evaluation. Secondly, the federal government has made the decision to provide money for the first time for treatment. Up until now the feds have been giving money for diagnosis and evaluation. And all that was well and good the problem though was that approximately 40 percent had no health insurance or if they had it before ground zero they lost it as a consequence of the disabilities they incurred. It was clear that diagnostic and screening programs weren’t enough. And so, we’re very grateful that the feds have come through with funds for treatment.

Also, the mayor of New York, Michael Blumberg, is appropriating 16 million dollars from the city budget to establish a much enhanced diagnosis and screening and treatment program at Bellvue Hospital and that’s obviously a very important step to the good that will help a lot of people.

GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking about the health consequences, but physical health consequences, what about the mental health consequences of 9/11?

LANDRIGAN: Well, we know that there have been a lot of mental health consequences. We know that folks have suffered from PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. Some have the full-blown syndrome, others have symptoms that move in that direction. Still more folks have suffered from depression. We’re in the process right now of wrapping up an analysis of the mental health findings, which we intend to publish within the next couple of months.

GELLERMAN: Now, your study found that 70 percent, seven out of ten, had some kind of serious health effects. Did you have any deaths that were directly attributed to the exposures of 9/11 in New York?

LANDRIGAN: There have been several deaths reported now among responders and there was a finding issued just recently by a coroner in New Jersey in which the coroner declared that a particular death was related to World Trade Center exposures. We certainly don’t have enough deaths yet to do any kind of epidemiological analysis on them. But we are very concerned about deaths. We are very concerned about cancers. We are very concerned about cases of severe lung disease of which several have been reported. And we have now in place a very aggressive tracking system for following up on cases such as those when they occur.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Phillip Landrigan, is chairman of the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and one of the founders of the World Trade Center medical screening program. Dr. Landrigan, thank you very much.

LANDRIGAN: Thank you, Bruce. It was a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Boxhead Ensemble “Nocturne 4” from ‘Nocturnes’ (Atavistic – 2006)]

Related link:
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – Environmental Health Perspectives Report

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GELLERMAN: Coming up: hoping for the best and preparing for the worst for residents living near a chemical weapons depot. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: They Came From The Stars I Saw Them “I Am Not Afraid” from ‘A Rocket Girl Compilation’ (Rocket Girl – 2006)]

New Orleans Health

Dr. Gina Solomon taking mold samples in New Orleans in 2005. (Photo courtesy of NRDC)

GELLERMAN: Unfortunately, the unprecedented catastrophes of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have forced the United States to learn many lessons about the health and environmental consequences of disasters. But the lessons can be harsh and difficult. It can take years to investigate the effects on people and the places they live.

In New Orleans, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the city a clean bill of health and residents the green light to return to their homes. But some say environmental health hazards still plague New Orleans. Gina Solomon is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She joins me from New Orleans where she’s collecting air and water samples.

Dr. Solomon, welcome to Living On Earth.

SOLOMON: I’m happy to be here.

GELLERMAN: We were just talking about the after-effects of 9/11 in New York City. What happened in New Orleans with Katrina was very different but are there any lessons to be learned? Are there any similarities?

SOLOMON: You know, five years after 9/11, and one year after Hurricane Katrina, it is really interesting to look at the parallels of these two major human health and environmental health disasters. And people in both places are concerned about their environmental safety, about chemical contaminants, and pollutants, and also about the health symptoms that many people are having, certainly in New York among the 9/11 workers, but also down in here in New Orleans.

GELLERMAN: I know that in New York City, there’s something, I think it is called World Trade Center cough and you have something called the Katrina cough. Any similarities?

SOLOMON: Yeah, I think there are some similarities and some differences. A lot of the air pollutants were quite different. In New York we were talking about very alkaline particulate matter that was severely irritating to the lungs along with all of the combustion products from everything that was burning. Here in New Orleans it was mostly organic matter, so it was sediments blowing around in the air and also mold spores and also endotoxin from bacteria. All of those kinds of things can irritate the lungs terribly but it’s a bit different both in terms of what it does to your lungs and also the kinds of long term health problems that we might think about.

GELLERMAN: Well, I know that the NRDC has been doing studies and sampling the environment down in New Orleans, and so has the EPA. Do your findings jibe?

SOLOMON: EPA has not done all of the same sampling we’ve done. In fact, we sampled for mold in New Orleans, and for endotoxin, and EPA has not sampled for either of these. So, our results are the only results published so far on mold concentrations in New Orleans in the air. EPA has been testing the sediment, and so have we. And our results, the numbers actually agree very well, but our interpretations are rather different.

Mold is still prevalent in many homes in New Orleans. It’s believed to be causing respiratory health problems among residents.(Photo courtesy of NRDC)


SOLOMON: We have been comparing the numbers with the EPA’s own clean up standards that they normally use for waste sites or any other facility that might be contaminated. And we’ve discovered that the arsenic levels, lead levels, diesel fuel levels and levels of other sooty contaminants are all over numbers that would normally trigger clean up, or at least investigation. EPA has dismissed those results saying that the contamination likely was present before the hurricane. Well, first of all I’m not convinced that it’s ok just to dismiss results even if the contamination pre-existed the hurricane. And secondly, they don’t even have any evidence to say that those levels were high before the hurricane, especially for the arsenic levels, which are quite high in the city.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Solomon, I understand that the EPA has given its approval to start bulldozing in the area that was struck by Katrina. Am I right about that?

SOLOMON: The EPA has announced that it’s not going to enforce its normal regulations on asbestos that may be generated from bulldozing places in New Orleans. That means that it’s possible that the asbestos levels in the air here could be quite high, especially for people right near where homes are being bulldozed. We’re down here to see if there’s a problem with asbestos in the air, and to do some independent sampling.

GELLERMAN: What do you find in terms of the people that were victims of the hurricane? Do they have faith in the EPA that their health and well-being is being looked after?

SOLOMON: The talk of the day down in New Orleans right now is about the 9/11 situation. I’m hearing person after person say, “We now know that the EPA wasn’t to be trusted in New York after 9/11, so why should we trust the EPA and what they’re telling us now after Katrina?” It seems ironic to people that EPA is announcing that the sediment is safe and that there are no toxic contaminants left behind from the flooding right at the same time that there’s information revealed that they gave a false all-clear in New York. So, there’s a lot of skepticism, a lot of mistrust, and EPA, frankly, has a long way to go to earn back people’s trust down here in New Orleans.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Solomon, thank you very much. Appreciate your time.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Gina Solomon is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and she joined us from New Orleans.

We contacted the EPA for a response to Dr. Solomon’s claims that the agency is not properly monitoring and testing for pollutants. Dale Kemery, a spokesperson for EPA says in fact they are testing for asbestos, mold and other pollutants, but he acknowledges that the agency will not be enforcing normal asbestos regulations in upcoming demolition projects in New Orleans.

KEMERY: EPA has not waved environmental or occupational rules for asbestos materials. What the agency did was to use its discretion for reasons of safety and flexibility. You see, certain residential buildings in Louisiana or Mississippi are unsound or uninhabitable for environmental reasons, so the agency is allowing those buildings to be torn down without inspection or removal of asbestos materials.

GELLERMAN: EPA spokesperson, Dale Kemery.

[MUSIC: Jocelyn Pook “Butterfly Song” from ‘Untold Things’ (Real World Records - 2001)]

Related link:
National Resources Defense Council’s New Orleans Site

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Duct Tape & Procedures

Front gate to Umatilla County Chemical Depot. (Photo courtesy of BCES)

GELLERMAN: While many areas in the U.S. are trying to devise emergency preparedness plans, Umatilla County in Oregon has been ready to respond to disasters for decades. That’s because the county, which is larger than the state of Delaware, houses the Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot, one of seven facilities across the country where chemical weapons slated for destruction are stored. Cheryl Seigal is the public information officer for Umatilla County Emergency Management. In the past year, she’s responded to emergencies such as local bomb threats, wildfires, jet crashes, and dust storms. She joins me on the line.

Hi there, Ms. Seigal.

SEIGAL: Hello, how are you today?

GELLERMAN: I’m fine, thanks. Now, Cheryl it’s your job to prepare the public in case there were a chemical contamination. Exactly what is it that you do?

SEIGAL: The first thing that I try to do is try to increase the awareness. Do that through newspaper stories, going to public events, talking to families, groups, businesses, purchasing advertising to let people know that we have this unique hazard that’s in our area, help acquaint them with the ways that they would be notified, help them understand what they would be asked to do, and work with people one on one if needed, to help them know how they would need to implement those things in emergencies.

GELLERMAN: So, what are the scenarios that you’re planning for?

SEIGAL: Literally hundreds of scenarios. Everything from a small minor event – let’s say that they were in the process of moving chemicals and maybe the people involved with that had a heart attack, tripped and fell into some weaponry, and we had a minor type of a release – to what if we had a major earthquake that came through our area that damaged the storage facilities, the weapons themselves. Or, literally, what if we had a plane that fell out of the sky either intentionally or not, and went in to the area where these chemicals are stored.

GELLERMAN: And what’s the worse case?

SEIGAL: The worse case for our area is the possibility of an earthquake.

GELLERMAN: Now, I’m sure I’m not going to give anyone any ideas that they haven’t already had, but since 9/11 the whole situation with terrorism has changed. Have you changed as a result of 9/11 with precautions there?

SEIGAL: Not on the community side, no. Again we have, since we became aware that the chemicals were there, have placed a high priority on creating the plans and putting in place the equipment, and the training, and the tools and things that the public and response agencies would need if there was an event to respond. So the fact that there’s been 9/11, that hazard was here long before there was any type of a terrorism event.

GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Seigal are you convinced that should something, God forbid, happen, you and your county would be prepared.

SEIGAL: I am convinced. We have, since the early 1990’s, have been focused on preparing our area. Every year we do, not only say we think we’re ready but we actually put our plans and our training and our equipment to test. We do a large-scale community exercise that involves well over 10,000 people. That’s well over a quarter of the population that’s involved. We spend at least 4 to 5 hours pretending there’s been a real event, that we’re needing the public to take the actions that they would take, schools to take their actions, hospitals, the American Red Cross. We practice routinely communicating with the public continuously through that emergency.

GELLERMAN: Do you have special medical facilities, special hospitals there to deal with chemical contamination?

SEIGAL: We have 7 hospitals that are within 35 miles of the Umatilla Chemical Depot. And all of them have received training, equipment, and the things that they would need to respond or assist the public in a chemical emergency. They can decontaminate those people. That really means showering those people down and removing the chemical that could be on them. In addition the hospitals and medical personnel have the antidotes, atropine and trypane chloride, are the antidotes that are used for the nerve agents on hand.

GELLERMAN: So these hospitals, these 7 facilities, can handle 40,000 people potentially?

SEIGAL: They would not need to handle 40,000 people. Since 9/11 many many people have heard about plastic and duct tape. And it’s been a joke for many many people, but it’s a long-proven technique that can help people stay safe in a chemical emergency. So, the number of people, potentially, that our hospitals would have to deal with are nowhere near 40,000. But they have the capability to handle large amounts of the public if they needed.

GELLERMAN: Do people know you as the emergency lady?

SEIGAL: (laughs) Ah, sometimes I get called the emergency lady. Sometimes I just get called help.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Seigal, thank you very much.

SEIGAL: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Cheryl Seigal is public information officer for Umatilla County emergency management. You can learn more about being prepared. You can go to www.ready.gov.

[MUSIC: MyLab “Not in My House” from ‘MyLab’ (Terminus Records – 2004)]

Related links:
- Umatilla County Emergency Management
- Homeland Security Ready site

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Farm Life

GELLERMAN: Just before she packed her bags for her freshman year in college, Youth Radio producer Jennifer Obakhume headed 220 miles north from her home in Los Angeles to an organic farm in Three Rivers, California. As Jennifer learned, it was a short trip, but a world apart for a first time visitor to a farm.

OBAKHUME: I’m a city girl from L.A., but until this summer the closest I had ever been to a farm was a petting zoo called Green Meadows Farms in Los Angeles County. Most of what I knew about country living I learned from watching "Green Acres" on TV Land. That all changed when this city girl made her first trip with friends to the country, 4 hours outside of Los Angeles.

BIRCH: “Oh here’s some gala apples. Just startin to ripen. I’ve been picking them and eating them already. If I were y’all, I’d grab some with a little red on ‘em. Some of them might have worms in em”

OBAKHUME: Ah to eat fresh fruit picked right from a tree! James Birch, proprietor of Flora Bella Farm, takes me on a tour of his beautiful 26-acre farm. I learn about the irrigation water needed for crops, and how you monitor fruit and vegetable growth. I also find out that Gala apples picked fresh from a tree are an enjoyable treat.


OBAKHUME: I’ve never considered farming as a career prospect before, although I do know something about farming because I once grew fruits and vegetables in the city with my late grandmother before I was pre-school age. But now I’m 17; it’s been a long time. Everything is beautiful on the farm, except for the bugs.

I do face a major challenge if I ever want to be an organic farmer. Don’t laugh. I have a nearly manic fear of spiders that began when my 2nd grade teacher showed the movie “Arachnophobia” to our class. Of course, there are Daddy Long Legs all over the farm.

So I brew up a plan to sleep in the car for two nights, though I change my mind. Still, I can only stand to shower the first night because there are spiders on the ceiling. But as the weekend passes, the beauty of the outdoors outweighs my fear.

WIESENTHAL: So this is an Othello Rose. This is its third bloom of the summer. And if you smell it, you will be transported!

OBAKHUME: I sniff alongside Bettina Wiesenthal Birch in the Rose garden at her neighboring farm. I think about my fear of spiders and its deeper roots. The truth is, I have bigger things on my mind. I start college in North Carolina in a matter of days.

I begin to contemplate this new chapter in my life in terms of farming: I’m digging the hole for the seeds of new beginnings, and I’m growing roots to maintain stability during uncertain times. And then of course, I’m weeding out the negative, facing those spiders- my fear of the unknown.

My time on the farm tests my ability to accept situations that are out of my control, and out of my comfort zones. This is also what college will do.

In a funny way, visiting Flora Bella Farm feels like coming back to a home I never had. A home where I actually feel free to take in the air, and free to accept that I am going through changes. The Farm can keep the spiders, but I’ll keep the memories of the sweet smelling roses and the feeling of making a bright new transition into college.

For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Obakhume.

GELLERMAN: Jennifer Obakhume is a freshman at Bennet College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her story was produced by Youth Radio.

[MUSIC: Ratatat “El Pico” from ‘Ratatat’ (XL Recordings - 2004)]

Related link:

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GELLERMAN: Just ahead: Saving the earth, one roof at a time. But first, this emerging science note from Tobin Hack.

Emerging Science Note/It’s Not Only Hormones

HACK: Other people’s feelings don’t matter much to teenagers, at least according to London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The institute conducted MRI scans on both teenagers and adults, while asking them a series of questions such as, “a girl just had an argument with her best friend. How does she feel?” and “How would you feel if you were not allowed to go to your friend’s party?” The results show that teenagers are far less likely than adults to use the region of the brain involved in thinking about other people’s feelings and emotions.

Some areas of the brain continue to develop well past adolescence, and one of these is the medial prefrontal cortex. It’s located at the front of the brain, and is responsible for higher level thinking, like empathy, guilt, and understanding other people’s actions. The study found that when teenagers make decisions about how to act, the front of the brain is hardly used. Instead, they make decisions using a posterior part of the brain that predicts future actions based on past actions. So when teenagers are deciding what to do, they’re less likely to think about how their actions will make other people feel.

If adults are better at putting themselves in others’ shoes though, it may be partly because they’ve had years more social experience on which to base their actions and decisions. In any case, it’s clear that puberty is not only a time for massive hormonal change, but for significant neurological change as well.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Tobin Hack.

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

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, investing in nonprofits to help them catalyze growth, connect to stakeholders, and challenge greater support. On the web at Kresge dot org; and , the Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in children, their families, and their communities. On the web at W-K-K-F dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Out Hud “2005: A Face Odyssey” from ‘Let Us Never Speak of It Again’ (Kranky – 2005)]

Listener Letters

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Time now to hear from you, our listeners.


GELLERMAN: Our recent conversation with Daniel Duane who hunted endangered sheep in order to save them raised the hackles of dozens of you. You may recall Mr. Duane is a writer and self-described environmentalist. The hunt he joined raised thousands of dollars for a conservation program that protects the wild sheep. Dana Franchitto of South Wellesley, Massachusetts listens to LOE on WCAI, and takes issue with the idea of hunting in the name of conservation.

FRANCHITTO: I think that is a lame rationalization. We do not have to kill to survive, most people don’t hunt to survive. And, therefore I feel it is unnecessary, and it’s also a danger to hikers and other people who are enjoying the woods recreationally.

GELLERMAN: But just as many listeners supported author Daniel Duane’s actions. Andrew Knutch hears us on KWOI in Atlantic, Iowa, where he’s a life-long hunter and a hunting safety instructor.

KNUTCH: I want to give kudos and applaud the gentleman for opening his mind with regard to the hunting and the cycle of life with regard to prey animals that have been prey animals for one hundred thousand years. And one of my goals is to train and to teach suburban and urban youth that hunting isn’t bad if it’s done in the proper way and if respect is shown for the animal that the individual hunts.

GELLERMAN: Kudos too from listener Robert Perron from Brandford, Connecticut. He enjoyed our special coverage of the New Orleans levee system and the coastal geology of the area. He writes “After a year, I learned more from this show than from most of the coverage since Katrina.” Well, thanks a lot Robert.

And finally, our report on oil industry profits and the oil companies’ ad campaigns casting doubt on global warming sent Grant Garber to his phone. He listens to us on WUNC in North Carolina.

GARBER: For Exxon-Mobile to fund a conservative think tank that poo-poos the threat of global warming would be like RJ Reynolds paying for public service announcements to tell people that the warnings about smoking cigarettes being hazardous for the health are alarmist propaganda.

GELLERMAN: It’s been known to happen. Well, if you want to poo-poo, rah-rah, rant, or rave about something you hear on our program, give us a call. Our listener line is open 24-7. The number is 800-218-9988; that’s 800-218-ninety-nine eighty-eight. Or write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our e-mail address is comments at LOE dot org. And visit our web page at Living on Earth dot org where you can hear us anytime. That's Living on Earth dot org. Somerville, Massachusetts 02144.

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Wetland Mystery

An area exhibiting dieback at the Hammonasset State Park wetland in Connecticut. (Photo: Wade Elmer)

GELLERMAN: Wetlands may not look like much, even though they provide some of nature’s best protection from storms and help filter water. But in some parts of the east coast of the U.S., something murky is going on in wetland salt marshes, and scientists are perplexed. Once-healthy green marsh grasses are now mottled with patches of brown stalks. Researchers call it sudden wetland dieback, and it’s happening from Maine to New York. Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn went to the wetlands to investigate.


AHEARN: The Wellfleet Salt marsh on Cape Cod Massachusetts stretches for acres. Green grasses sway gently above dark brown muck, tapering off into blue ocean. From a distance, it’s a painter’s paradise, the picture of wetland health.


AHEARN: But walk a hundred yards or so into the marsh, and the scene is a bit different.

An area exhibiting dieback at the Hammonasset State Park wetland in Connecticut.(Photo: Wade Elmer)

SMITH: This is all, was, formerly plants. Here’s the old stalks. That’s all root material. All this was vegetated and it has all died back.

AHEARN: Steve Smith is a plant ecologist for the Cape Cod National Seashore. He’s crouched down in the muck plucking at the dead stalks of what used to be green marsh grass.

SMITH: I mean this amazes me. Look at these plants just barely hanging on. There’s no soil left around their root mass. It’s just gone, all that is gone.

Steve Smith of the Cape Cod National Seashore surveys sick marsh. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

AHEARN: The grass roots hold the marsh together. And when they die off, all that’s left is mud riddled with thousands of thumb and fist-size holes. Chunk by chunk, it separates and washes out with the tide. Wetlands become unhealthy for lots of different reasons, but the brown patches of this sudden wetland dieback don’t follow any logical pattern.

SMITH: That’s what’s perplexed us because this pattern of dieback does not correlate in any obvious way with the typical stressors on plant physiology and salt marsh plant vigor.

AHEARN: Stressors, like pollution, drought, flooding or ice damage, have been ruled out. But for every killer scientists cross off the list, another presents itself.


AHEARN: In a wetland a state away, plant pathologist Wade Elmer of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, takes some samples of sick plants at Hammonasset State Park.


ELMER: We’re the CSI of the plant world here.


AHEARN: Elmer specializes in a plant-eating family of fungus called Fusarium, which he thinks is causing lesions on the tips of the marshgrass.

ELMER: This is of interest to me because there’s a lot of death on there and if you look at how the sun shows through the leaf here you can see all the little lesions beginning to form there, and this is where I isolate a lot of Fusarium.

AHEARN: But this isn’t your day to day crop-devouring variety of the fungus. This is a brand new strain of Fusarium and Elmer’s got some good evidence that it might be part of what’s killing the Northeastern wetlands.

ELMER: What I find is that plants that are showing tip dieback, when I take them back to the lab and isolate them about 80% of the pieces that I put onto an auger plate will give rise to a Fusarium colony, suggesting that there’s a lot of Fusarium on this dying tip back.

Wade Elmer suspects the fusarium fungus is eating away at marsh grass tips, causing the grass to turn yellow.(Photo: Wade Elmer)


AHEARN: Elmer’s colleague, Jim LaMondia, searches for clues in the marsh as well, but he’s working from the bottom up. In a metal pail, he rinses muck off a clod of marsh grass roots in search of nematodes.

LaMONDIA: A nematode is a plant parasitic round worm. They typically have stylettes that they stab the plant cells with and suck cell contents out and they cause the plants to be stunted and do poorly.

AHEARN: In the Hammonasset marsh, LaMondia has found a type of root-knot Nematode that only lives in wetlands. As he washes the mud away from the marsh grass sample, he looks for tiny white pustules, or galls, full of Nematode eggs.

LaMONDIA: There’s one right there! Ok what we have here is a sort of an egg shaped gall at the end of the root system which will have probably I’d guess maybe a dozen nematodes in it once we dissect this out under the microscope.

Jim La Mondia suspects nematodes are stunting growth of marsh grass roots. (Photo: Jim La Mondia)

AHEARN: So it’s like a nematode nest?

LaMONDIA: Exactly, it’s a feeding site for them and they develop and produce hundreds of eggs each and it spreads from there.

AHEARN: LaMondia has found high concentrations of nematodes in these grasses. He suspects that the parasitic root-eating worms may be teaming up with Wade Elmer’s leaf-eating fungus, to kill the marsh grass from root to tip.

He and Elmer aren’t the only ones following up on their hunches. Another scientist in Rhode Island plans to study nocturnal crabs that might also see marsh grass as a tasty treat.


Steve Smith, of the Cape Cod National Seashore, says scientists are just starting to piece together what little evidence they have to solve this intricate ecological puzzle.

SMITH: It’s this big complex web of interactions among environmental, physical, chemical, hydrological factors with biological and perhaps pathogenic factors that is difficult to untangle.

AHEARN: And with hurricane frequency and intensity predicted to increase in the Northeast, scientists here know there’s much to be lost if more isn’t learned about what’s causing sudden wetland dieback.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ashley Ahearn in Wellfleet, MA.

Related links:
- New England Sudden Wetland Dieback Information Page
- Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

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The Big Green Apple

Bird’s eye view of New York’s green roofs and roof gardens. (Photo courtesy of www.gardenvisit.com)

GELLERMAN: From the wetlands of Cape Cod, we now go to buildings in New York City where many roofs are starting to sprout green. These environmentally friendly green roofs are popping up on luxury buildings in midtown Manhattan, low-income housing projects in the Bronx, and private brownstones in Brooklyn. IEEE Spectrum’s Susan Hassler visited one of these sky-high gardens and has our report.


HASSLER: Leslie Hoffman, director of the group Earth Pledge, pulls into the parking lot of Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens. She parks her car near a row marked “Sopranos cast only.”


HASSLER: She walks past a catering truck, enters the warehouse-like studio building, and rides up a freight elevator. The doors open onto the real star of the show, at least for Hoffman: New York City’s largest green roof.


HOFFMAN: This is one section, and you see that whole section over there. And then there’s another roof across the “on” ramp to the Queensborough Bridge on the other side. This roof is a total of 35,000 square feet of greened area, all done in GreenTek modular boxes.

HASSLER: Hoffman peers over the railing of a landing at two large, flat sections of roof. They’re covered in pale plants, propped up in plastic crates. The roof doesn’t look particularly green; in fact, it looks brown. But for Hoffman, the term “green roof” has broader meaning than just a reference to color. It refers to a special kind of roof, built for its ecological benefits, on which heat-absorbing plants take the place of black tar.


HASSLER: On the side of the landing, more planting boxes sit on a bed of wires. The wires feed into a box attached to a pole that serves as a small weather station. The instruments collect data about how much heat the plants ward off and how much water they absorb.

HOFFMAN: What we’re really doing here is working to quantify the value of the benefits of green roofs, at least on the thermal and the storm water side in this particular research station, so that policy makers have a good basis from which to understand what the return on investment will be for them.

HASSLER: Widespread green roofs could help New York City deal with some persistent problems, such as heat and storm water runoff. But given that green roofs initially cost up to three times as much as standard roofs, is it worth it for the big apple to go green? Cynthia Rosenzweig is a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She leads an ongoing, city-wide study of green roofs, and says they have many benefits.

ROSENZWEIG: If you have about ten percent of available roofs in NY greened, vegetated, that would help, our studies have shown that would help with the urban heat island that we have right now.

HASSLER: This “urban heat island effect” keeps New York City four to ten degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas. Tall buildings trap hot air in the narrow spaces between them. And cities have dark roof surfaces, concrete sidewalks, and asphalt streets, which absorb heat as well.

Unlike dark roofs, plants reflect sunlight. They also cool air through a process called evapotranspiration, which is like a plant version of sweating. So a green roof keeps the building below it at more stable temperatures. In Chicago, green roofs have been shown to keep roofs up to 50 degrees cooler. Widespread green roofs could even change the climate of the city as a whole. And there’s more, Rosenzweig says.

ROSENZWEIG: Another public benefit that’s very, very important is reduction of combined sewage overflows. In our aging sewer system, because we combine our regular sewage pipes with our storm drains, and when there’s a big storm, the regulators have to divert some of that sewage to the open water.

HASSLER: When rain falls onto a standard roof, most of it slides off or washes down sewage drains. In heavy storms, city sewage drains often overflow, sending polluted water through streets and into rivers and oceans. Green roofs, however, act like giant sponges for stormwater. Thirsty plants and four to six inches of subsoil absorb up to 80 percent of rainfall during storms, while standard roofs absorb only 25 percent.

What’s more, the plants on green roofs filter the pollutants nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil, so any water that flows over the side is cleaner and less likely to taint rivers or lakes.

The greenest roofs in the U.S. may be in Chicago. In the windy city, most public building projects must have a green roof over at least half of free roof space, and Chicago now has over a million square feet of green roofs. All new roofs must be either green or cool. A cool roof is painted in a light-colored reflective surface and bounces sunlight off the roof, keeping a building at about the same temperature as green roofs.


HASSLER: In Manhattan, the area near the financial district has some of the city’s newest green roofs. Battery Park City is part of smoggy, gritty New York, but it has the strictest environmental building regulations in the country. Among its requirements are that every new building, residential or commercial, must have an extensive green roof covering 75 percent of its open roof space. Outside of Battery Park City, there are no regulations to force city developers to plant green roofs.

But some incentives are coming to New York, says Cynthia Rosenzweig.

ROSENZWEIG: Mayor Bloomberg signed into law a bill that requires capital construction for city buildings to follow the LEED that’s Leadership for Energy Efficient Design standards. And green roofs are one way that building owners can receive credits and points, they receive points towards their LEED certification with green roofs.

HASSLER: Right now, though, the costs of green roofs are higher than the actual benefits in terms of heating cost reductions. The Office of Sustainable Design at New York’s Department of Design and Construction recommends cheaper cool roofs instead.

Expensive green roofs aren’t the best route to earth-saving benefits, it says. Big storm water detention tanks are a far more cost-effective way to reduce storm water runoff. And trees on sidewalks provide more economical and more accessible greenery. In fact, the Office of Sustainable Design recommends green roofs only when they have some value as an amenity—when a neighborhood is severely lacking in green space.


HASSLER: But amenity value may be enough for style-conscious New York. Leslie Hoffman surveys the scene at Silvercup Studios, where lanterns hang over an open-air TV set and actors pass on the sidewalk below.

HOFFMAN: Green roofs have the wow factor that make people want them, which is actually wonderful.

For Living on Earth, I’m Susan Hassler in New York City.

GELLERMAN: Susan Hassler is the editor of IEEE Spectrum Magazine.

[MUSIC: Final Fantasy “Song Song Song” from ‘He Poos Clouds’ (Tomlab – 2006)]

Related link:
IEEE Spectrum Online

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GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth, the solar business is a rising star on the energy horizon. Companies that manufacture solar panels are enjoying sizzling sales, and generating plenty of investor interest.

MALE: The top three high tech IPO’s in 2005 were all solar companies, and we’re seeing almost 20 IPO’s occur globally in 2006.

The solar industry is soaring, but prices for consumers are still high. Shining the spotlight on solar power, next week on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with this cornucopia harvested at our local farmers’ market, right here in Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts.


Our late summer bounty of sounds was recorded by Living on Earth’s Tobin Hack and Allison Smith

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Jennifer Percy and Tobin Hack. Dennis Foley is our technical director. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. And before we go, our heartfelt thanks to Christopher Ballman, who leaves us much the better for his many years of creative service. Thanks Chris, we’ll miss you. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

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