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

September 22, 2006

Air Date: September 22, 2006



Popcorn Production Harms Workers

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One of America's favorite snack foods - popcorn - is at the center of a national health controversy. The chemical diacetyl, used to make artificial butter flavoring, has been linked to a respiratory disease called "popcorn lung" in hundreds of people. Labor unions and prominent occupational health scientists are calling on federal authorities to set an emergency standard for the chemical in the workplace. Living on Earth host Bruce Gellerman has our report. (06:30)

Soot Rules: No Small Matter / Jeff Young

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The EPA has released what it calls “the most health protective air quality standard in our nation’s history.” But Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells host Bruce Gellerman that the agency ignored its own science advisors’ advice to enforce stricter controls on soot particles in the air. (05:00)

Reducing CO2 From the Top Down

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The second annual Clinton Global Initiative brought together world business and political leaders and asked them for a commitment to take action to stop global warming. Living on Earth talks with Carol Browner, head of the EPA under the Clinton administration, and a member of the Initiative’s energy and climate change advisory board. (03:30)

Climate Economics

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Al Gore recently called for an immediate freeze on greenhouse gas emissions but critics say an immediate action will also freeze the U.S. economy. Living on Earth turns to Robert Stavins, director of Harvard’s director of the Environmental Economics program, to find out the economic impacts of climate change action. (03:30)

California Sues Automakers

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The state of California is suing the world’s six largest automakers. The lawsuit charges greenhouse gas emissions from cars are responsible for high healthcare costs, pollution, wildfires, and beach erosion. (01:00)

McBlogger Speaks Out

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This August, McDonald’s teamed up with General Motors to give out toy models of the gas-guzzling Hummer in their “boy” Happy Meals, stirring up a blogstorm of criticism. An eco-blogger and a McDonald’s spokesman share their views on the promotion. (05:00)

Listener Letters

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We dip into the LOE mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. ()

Blue Jeans, Blue Water / Jana Schroeder

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In Mexico, the production of worn-out jeans has environmentalists singing the blues. Manufacturing methods send chemicals into nearby waterways. Jana Schroeder reports on how environmental authorities do and don’t enforce Mexican environmental laws (10:00)

Pure Poo-etry

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A Welsh company is turning sheep droppings into paper. This zero-waste operation recently won an award for social entrepreneurship. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Lawrence Toms, co-owner of the company that produces Sheep Poo Paper. (05:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Nick Aster, Carol Browner, Robert Stavins, Lawrence Toms, Bill Whitman
REPORTER: Ingrid Lobet, Jana Schroeder, Jeff Young

GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Popcorn is America’s favorite snack but for people who prepare it for a living, it can be life threatening. Some say workplace safety hasn’t caught up with the science of popcorn ingredients.

MICHAELS: As the scientific information developed, not a single regulatory agency stepped forward to even look at the extent of the problem. OSHA, which is in charge of protecting American workers in the workplace, did absolutely nothing.

GELLERMAN: And what about microwaving popcorn at home?

Also, the EPA turns a deaf ear to its own science advisors who wanted to limit the levels of soot in the air. Many advisors aren’t happy, and neither are public health advocates.

O’DONNELL: Unfortunately I’m afraid what we’re going to see is a big victory for big polluters and breathers will suffer a big defeat.

GELLERMAN: And we have the scoop on Sheep Poo Paper.


GELLERMAN: That and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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[MUSIC: Boards of Canada “Zoetrope” from ‘In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ (Warp Records – 2000)]

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


Popcorn Production Harms Workers

(Credit: Jennifer Percy)

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

We begin our show with a story about allegations that federal regulators have failed to protect workers who make one of our favorite snack foods: Popcorn.


GELLERMAN: Popcorn is fun. Fun to make. Fun to eat.

(Credit: Jennifer Percy)

We love the stuff. Americans eat more than a billion pounds of popcorn a year. According to the industry, that's nearly 14 gallons of popcorn for every man, woman and child in the country. But for some people –workers in factories where butter flavored popcorn is produced- it's not fun. It can be fatal.

PENNELL: I do know of one girl that died from it. She was really in bad shape when she did.

GELLERMAN: In the 1990's Ed Pennell and Linda Redman worked in a microwave popcorn packing factory in Jasper, Missouri. Linda Redman died last May. One of 3 victims who died from what's called "popcorn lung disease" or bronchiolitis obliterans. The disease scars small airways in the lung so victims have to struggle to breathe. It's irreversible. There’s no treatment. Ed Pennell was also diagnosed with popcorn workers’ lung in 2000.

PENNELL: When I started getting sick it was almost like having the flu, almost. I had a nagging, hacking cough and it got worse and worse. I went into the hospital, they thought I had pneumonia. When I came out I didn't get any better. They didn't have any idea of it was.

GELLERMAN: Bronchiolitis Obliterans is a rare disease but when health inspectors from NIOSH—the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health investigated the Jasper, Missouri popcorn plant 6 years ago, they discovered 5 to 11 times the expected cases of lung disease. They also found workers at popcorn factories in 3 other Midwestern states suffering from popcorn lung.

Federal investigators traced the outbreak to a chemical called Diacetyl. Diacetyl is found in many things we eat and drink: beer, wine, vinegar. But industrial flavor manufacturers synthesize the chemical in much greater quantities. And it can become airborne in popcorn factories when it's mixed with hot oil or sprayed on kernels of corn to give them that buttery flavor.

In 2001, after discovering the disease in popcorn workers, federal researchers exposed lab rats to vapors of diacetyl similar to levels found in factories. Half the animals died in just 6 hours. The researcher called it the most dramatic case of cell death she'd ever seen.

In Missouri at least one plant dramatically lowered worker exposure to flavoring chemicals, yet these controls were never made mandatory by federal regulators
Dr. David Michaels, professor of public health at George Washington University calls it a regulatory failure.

MICHAELS: As the scientific information developed, not a single regulatory agency stepped forward to even look at the extent of the problem. OSHA, which is in charge of protecting American workers in the workplace, did absolutely nothing.

GELLERMAN: This summer, after at least 2 California popcorn workers fell gravely ill, Dr. Michaels circulated a petition. Signed by 42 prominent scientist and public health researchers, it urged federal regulators and California officials to set emergency limits for diacetyl. Right now, there is no exposure limit for the chemical. And because it never set a limit, OSHA argues there is nothing to enforce.

Now, that's not unusual. There are more than a thousand artificial ingredients suspected of causing inhalation injuries to workers but the federal government has set permissible exposure limits for less than 50 flavors.

Since the law makes it difficult to sue your employer, popcorn production workers who became ill went after the makers of the artificial butter flavor. They won 53 cases. There are a hundred more pending. John Hallagan is general counsel of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association ---whose members were sued. But Hallagan says even before the settlements, the association was holding safety workshops and sending out bulletins to flavor makers showing them how to limit workplace exposure to diacetyl.
HALLAGAN: Obviously the safety of our workers is very, very important. We haven't waited for regulation. When we found out about the potential dangers of butter flavor from NIOSH back in September 2001, we jumped right into it and began providing assistance to our workers. At this point we would welcome regulation – science-based regulation – but we haven't waited for that.

GELLERMAN: OSHA would be responsible for coming up with those regulations, but despite repeated requests, no one from the agency was available for an interview in time for this broadcast.

Now, The Food and Drug Administration considers diecetyl safe to eat but the FDA hasn't studied what happens when the chemical is vaporized in a microwave oven.

Requests to the Food and Drug Administration for an interview referred Living on Earth Back to OSHA. Again, Dr. David Michaels of George Washington University.

MICHAELS: You would think that the FDA would step up to the plate and say well we're going to look into the problem because we know that high level exposures are killing people. So what are the effects of low level exposure? People who pop popcorn at home? And we just don' t know the answer to that.

GELLERMAN: So are there harmful effects from microwaving buttered popcorn at home? Well, turns out the EPA ---the only federal agency that would talk with us about Diacetyl ---has studied that very question. EPA scientists did an experiment—they popped 50 bags of microwave popcorn and analyzed the vapors. The results aren't final and haven't been released, but Dr. William Farland, the EPA's deputy administrator for science says consumers have nothing to fear.

FARLAND: As we do these kinds of studies if something should pop up that suggests that there is an acute risk we would always make sure the public was aware of that. We'd contact our colleagues in FDA, or the consumer product safety commission and so on.


GELLERMAN: As for workers at movie theaters who pop popcorn, no one knows if their workplace exposures are dangerous. There is no research. But investigators have found health effects in popcorn factories at levels hundreds of times lower than they expected.

Meanwhile, Ed Pennell, the popcorn worker in Jasper, Missouri, who’s been on disability for 6 years, waits for the lung transplant he needs but doesn't want.

PENNELL: Cause when you get a lung transplant, you pretty much decided how long you're going to live. I think it's 5-7 years after you get a transplant you die.

GELLERMAN: California officials will hold a meeting to consider the petition for an emergency standard for Diacetyl at the end of September. So far there's no word from OSHA on when it might consider the request.

Related links:
- Occupational Health and Safety Administration Standards
- Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association
- The Popcorn Board
- Dr. David Michaels, George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services

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[MUSIC: Ian Boddy & Markus Reuter “History” from ‘Index 02: The DIN Sampler’ (DIN – 2006)]

Soot Rules: No Small Matter

GELLERMAN: Its being called one of the most important public health decisions in years, and many health advocates are not happy with it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has defied the recommendation of its own science advisors on regulating the tiny airborne particles in soot. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us to discuss the fallout. And Jeff in this case I guess the word fallout is more than just an expression, huh?

YOUNG: Yeah, we’re talking actual fallout here, from power plants, smokestacks, tail pipes of autos, all of these mixing together to form these little particles and droplets that we then breathe in. And scientists have known for a long time that particulate matter is a hazard--linked to asthma attacks, hospital visits, respiratory disease and premature death. And many, many recent studies reinforced that. But the health standards had not been updated in nine years. So EPA was under a court order to review those standards.

GELLERMAN: And what did EPA do?

YOUNG: EPA tightened one standard, the daily standard on particulate matter, by about fifty percent. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson says the result will be fewer premature deaths and lowered health costs.

JOHNSON: I am proud to announce my final decision: EPA is issuing the most health-protective national air quality standards in our nation’s history.

GELLERMAN: That sounds pretty good to me Jeff. Why are public health groups so upset about that?

YOUNG: Well, while EPA tightened one standard, it left another very important one unchanged. That’s the annual average standard - which is a very important measure of the sort of day in- day out exposure that people have. Most scientists said that should be made stronger, in order to protect public health as the law requires. And nearly every public health and medical group that you can think of—the American Medical Association, the pediatricians, the Thoracic Society—they all said this standard should be stricter. And EPA did not follow that advice.

Harvard medical school professor, Dr. Frank Speizer, is a member of the EPA’s board of science advisors. It’s called the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. It also recommended a stronger standard. Speizer says the bottom line on this is that the difference between what EPA chose and what his committee recommended means more people will continue to die prematurely.

SPEIZER: If they go with the number they have at present time, you can be assured that at least as many people who died in 9-11 will die each year from air pollution in this country. It probably means that the political influence they’re listening to has more weight than the scientific influence.

GELLERMAN: Now Jeff what does Dr Speizer mean when he talks about political influence?

YOUNG: Well, this is the first time an EPA administrator has not followed the recommendations of the agency’s science advisory committee when setting one of these final health standards. And that committee’s been around for more than 30 years. So naturally that raised some suspicion.

GELLERMAN: How does EPA explain that, not following the advice of its own advisors?

YOUNG: EPA administrator Johnson says it’s because there was no unanimous agreement among the committee members. He says that this is a complex issue and because there was no unanimity there that shows that reasonable people can disagree. However, you look a little more closely at what that the committee actually told administrator Johnson, and you find that only 2 of 22 members disagreed here. All the others said the best science points to a need for a stronger standard.

Dr. Rogene Henderson is with the Lovelace respiratory center in Albuquerque and she chairs the science advisory committee.

HENDERSON: To choose to go with a minority opinion when it is a small minority is unusual. So I think they chose a path which may have been convenient but it is not based on the best science available.

GELLERMAN: So, if they weren’t listening to their own science advisors, who were they listening to?

YOUNG: Some public health and environmental groups say the real reason EPA did not follow it’s own advisors is because of the Bush administration’s connections to the power industry. Frank O’Donnell is with a group called Clean Air Watch.

O’DONNELL: And a lot of what we’re seeing, I believe, is a reaction to the lobbying by electric power industry which has said we’re gonna clean up a little bit of stuff in the future, but we’re not gonna go as far as those health nuts want us to go. Unfortunately I’m afraid what we’re going to see is a big victory for big polluters, and breathers will suffer a big defeat.

GELLERMAN: So public health groups are really upset. What, if anything, can they do about it? What’s next for them?

YOUNG: This health standard is very important in guiding other decisions down the road on how to clean up soot in the air, so I think we can expect a legal challenge here. Public health groups make it clear they’re already poring over this decision looking for any vulnerable points of attack. And also, because this dispute about science and not following the EPA’s science advisors, I’m sure this is going to be more ammunition for the administration’s critics, who say this administration and this president ignore science when making policy decisions.

GELLERMAN: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Bruce.

Related links:
- Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) letter to EPA
- American Lung Association study on particulate matter
- EPA press release on new standards, with links to background information

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GELLERMAN: Coming up: Happy meals with toy Hummers make green bloggers unhappy. Keep listening to Living on Earth

[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “See In You” from ‘Into the Blue Again” (Sub Pop – 2006)]

Reducing CO2 From the Top Down

Former Vice-President Al Gore spoke on climate change at New York University. (Credit: New York University)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Al Gore insists he’s not running for president, but he’s been campaigning for the environment lately, and he’s had sharp words for the Bush administration. In a speech he gave at NYU Law School Gore warned that we’re running out of time to save the planet from global warming.

GORE: Well, first of all, I think we should start by immediately freezing CO2 emissions, and then beginning sharp reductions. Merely engaging in high-minded debates about theoretical future reductions while continuing to steadily increase emissions represents a self-delusional and reckless approach. In some ways, that approach is worse than doing nothing at all, because it lulls the gullible into thinking that something is actually being done, when in fact it is not.

GELLERMAN: Gore’s former boss was also campaigning for the environment this past week. Bill Clinton hosted the second Clinton Global Initiative. The annual conference is a gathering of some of the world’s most powerful thinkers and politicians brought together to solve the world’s toughest problems and raise money to do the job.

Carol Browner is a member of the Initiative’s Energy and Climate Change advisory board.
She was the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton Administration. We called her at her office in Washington. Ms. Browner, thanks for joining us.

BROWNER: Well, thank you.

Carol Browner is on the Energy and Climate Change advisory board of the Clinton Global Initiative, and she’s also former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Courtesy of: The Albright Group)

GELLERMAN: Well, you heard the criticism by Al Gore. He said enough with talking, we’ve got to do something.

BROWNER: Well, precisely and I think when it comes to climate change we’ve been talking for over 20 years now and it’s time to get on with doing things. And part of, a number of the commitments at this conference speak directly to the issue of climate change. Whether it’s how to get boards of directors at multinationals to accept responsibility, renewable energy, looking at both electricity and fuels, very very far reaching ideas.

GELLERMAN: This is a who’s who of the world’s scientists, Nobel Prize winners, presidents, prime ministers, queens, kings. Do you think they’ll sign on to what Gore’s calling an immediate freeze on CO2?

BROWNER: Well, I think some will sign on to that. I think – equally important – some will make commitments within their companies to switch fuel to look for alternatives to invest money into getting about the business of actually reducing their greenhouse gases, of reducing the footprint, the impact that they’re having on the world environment and the health of the environment and the health of the world’s citizens.

GELLERMAN: I know this is a bipartisan meeting, the Clinton Global Initiative but is there any way you can avoid politics?

BROWNER: Well, I think in some ways this is outside of politics. It is absolutely bipartisan. But as important as that is, it’s finding ways to work together that perhaps haven’t been explored before, or wouldn’t be explored, but for putting people in the same room.

GELLERMAN: Will we really be able to measure the effect of this conference? I mean next year at this time if I were to talk to you, you’d say we were successful and here’s how.

BROWNER: Well, you take the commitment. And if the commitment is made to reduce someone’s carbon impact by 20 percent, you can go out and measure that. If a commitment was made to work with 20 or 30 boards of directors, go out and find out what happened. Did you educate those people? That’s the first step. But more importantly did those boards of directors of multinationals make a decision to change how their company was doing business.

GELLERMAN: Well, what do you feel the Bush administration should be doing to address climate change?

BROWNER: Well, obviously this has been a passion of mine for many years. And I’m disappointed this administration has not taken on the lead. I think the single most important thing we can do now is call on Congress to set a cap, a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions. And lets get working within the economy to find the common sense cost-effective ways to go about reducing our carbon impact.

GELLERMAN: One of the reasons the Bush administration has been against reducing carbon dioxide emissions is because he says we can’t afford it.

BROWNER: Well, we’ve heard that argument time and time again when it comes to protecting our environment, our air our water: that somehow or another we have to choose between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We don’t have to make that choice. We proved that during the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration. Certainly there would be changes. I’m not saying that this would be without impacts. But the idea that it’s all negative is simply not the case. At this conference we have lots of people who are making investments they believe there is going to be a return on those investments. Investments that will reduce greenhouse gases, that will reduce carbon emissions.

GELLERMAN: Well, Ms. Browner, thank you very much.

BROWNER: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Carol Browner is on the energy and climate change advisory board of the Clinton Global Initiative. She was head of the EPA during the Clinton administration.

Related links:
- Clinton Global Initiative
- The Albright Group
- Gore Speech Webcast and Transcript

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Climate Economics

Robert Stavins is a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Environmental Economics Program at Harvard University.

GELLERMAN: So what would happen to the economy if we took Al Gore’s advice and hit the brakes on carbon dioxide emissions. A person who’s thought a lot about that is Robert Stavins. Professor Stavins is the director of the Environmental Economics program at Harvard University.

Robert Stavins is a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Environmental Economics Program at Harvard University.

STAVINS: I think that the Vice President has a point in which he says that global climate change is a very important problem. The question is to do something about it that’s going to work. That’s going to be sensible. And the most important thing to recognize about this environmental problem that really distinguishes it from other environmental problems we’ve dealt with, and I’ve studied these and worked on them both at Harvard and Washington for 25 years, is that this is a stock, not a flow problem. What we’re concerned about is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere not the flow at any moment in time. Therefore it’s very important to recognize that we have flexibility in terms of the timing with which we can deal with the problem.

Therefore there’s no reason even if there were a crisis, which I don’t think it is at present, there’s no reason to think in terms of freezing emissions. Rather what we need to do is get onto a sensible trajectory to bring about the long term technological change that’s required to shift us gradually from coal to petroleum to natural gas and indeed away from fossil fuels altogether. That’s not going to happen overnight. That’s not going to happen overnight with coal-fired power plants. Or your car or my car or your furnace or mine but we need to begin to send the signals to begin to do that.

GELLERMAN: Critics of the Bush approach say what’s needed are mandatory caps on the emissions. Does that make sense form an economic point of view?

STAVINS: I agree that a cap on emissions will be required. I don’t think there’s any doubt about the fact that voluntary approaches, which are a big part of the Bush administration’s approach, voluntary approaches, will not be sufficient. The reason of course that they won’t be sufficient is that there are real costs of addressing the problem. If there were no costs, by the way, then voluntary approaches would be just fine. Everyone would be jumping up and down and just doing them. But there are real costs and that’s why voluntary approaches are not sufficient.

A cap will be required. The question is what’s the right trajectory over time for that cap? What I would say, based upon all of the economic analysis that’s been done, and that’s in Europe, the United States, and Japan, Australia, around the world, it points to slowing the emissions, the rate of growth of emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide. Stopping that growth and then reversing that growth. And then taking it down to even much more severe than even the Kyoto protocol would have. That’s the time path that’s actually needed.

GELLERMAN: Professor, are economics and environmentalism at odds or can you have both? Can it help the economy, or does it harm the economy by going green?

STAVINS: Well look, the causes of environmental problems are fundamentally economic. It is a result of market activity that we have environmental problems in the first place. Furthermore, there are important economic consequences of environmental problems. Hence an economic perspective is essentially very very very helpful, indeed it’s essential to diagnosing the problems and doing something about them that’s sensible. What one can do is to address environmental problems and address them in the most cost-effective way. There are sacrifices. We spend right now a substantial amount on environmental protection in the United States and we’re not in a constant recession. That doesn’t mean there’s zero cost because they don’t throw us into recession. So of course we can grow the economy and also address environmental problems.

GELLERMAN: Professor, thank you very much.

STAVINS: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Robert Stavins is director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University.

Related link:
Robert Stavins Home Page

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[MUSIC: Architecture in Helsinki “Imaginary Ordinary” from ‘Fingers Crossed’ (Bar None - 2004)]

California Sues Automakers

GELLERMAN: Well, the state of California is not content with just having the toughest greenhouse gas emissions limits in the country. Now it’s playing hardball. The state is suing the six largest automakers in the world.

ALEX: We believe we can establish that the harms are occurring in California from global warming and that they are occurring now

GELLERMAN: That’s California Deputy Attorney General Ken Alex. His office charges the state spends millions of dollars as a result of damage from global warming, in increased health care costs, wildfires, beach erosion and pollution. He says a lot of it is due to the greenhouse gas emissions spewed by cars. Vehicles emit thirty percent of the carbon dioxide in California and the state’s lawsuit says the automakers should be the ones footing the bill. But deputy AG Ken Alex says the real goal of the lawsuit is to get the car companies to build cleaner cars.

ALEX: To be honest we hope the next iteration of the automobile is a global warming fighter and the automobile industry is part of the solution to the problem. I think that would be the best possible outcome here.

GELLERMAN: The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers have called California’s lawsuit, “a nuisance.”

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[MUSIC: Gnappy “Alien Propoganda” from ‘…is this a machine?’ (Bean Pie Records – 2003)]

McBlogger Speaks Out

Eco-bloggers created these mock golden arches to criticize McDonald’s promotion of toy Hummers. (Credit: Environmental Working Group and hybridcars.com)

GELLERMAN: This summer, McDonalds teamed up with General Motors for a Happy Meals promotion. They gave away plastic toy Hummers, and environmentalists are not lovin’ it. Does Mickey D’s deserve a break today, or are the give-away Hummers teaching kids to glorify the hulking gas-guzzlers? The issue sent legions of green bloggers into hyper cyber space. Leading the way was Nick Aster, from San Fransisco, founder of the popular blog Triple Pundit dot com, which looks at environmental, social, and business issues.

Hello, Nick.

ASTER: Hey, how are ya doing?

GELLERMAN: I’m fine thanks. So, you know, it’s called a happy meal, but it doesn’t seem to be making you very happy. What’s your problem?

Eco-bloggers created these mock golden arches to criticize McDonald’s promotion of toy Hummers.
(Credit: Environmental Working Group and hybridcars.com)

ASTER: It is a happy meal. I think the issue with the Hummer, is that the Hummer isn’t really a happy image, at least not to a lot of people.

GELLERMAN: What about to you?

ASTER: Not really to me. I think a Hummer to me is sort of this classic almost to the point of cliché example of excess, and greed, and disregard for the environment and the people around us.

GELLERMAN: But you know, Nick, sometimes a toy is just a toy.

ASTER: It’s true it is. But the thing about the Hummer is it has enough symbolism attached to it that I think that even with kids it goes a little bit beyond just a toy.

GELLERMAN: Well, you helped launch a blogstorm. I mean talk about a firestorm of protest. A lot of other blogs picked you up. And I’m wondering about using a blog to conduct this type of corporate protest.

ASTER: Well, you know, interestingly, I think that a blog storm if you want to call it that, turns out to be a pretty effective form of getting one’s point across when it comes to issues like this. My whole beef with the whole thing is that McDonalds has made a very public statement that they care about the environment and I think that giving away toy Hummers in happy meals flies in the face of that claim.

GELLERMAN: Well, one person wrote on your blog that if all McDonalds’ toys were promotional then the last one, Pirates of the Caribbean, would have been promoting a pirate lifestyle of raping, pillaging and plundering. Where do you draw the line between harmless toys and promotion?

ASTER: Well, I think the Pirates of the Caribbean promo would have been promoting going to see the film, which it probably did effectively. You know, I personally am not so much taking the stance of lets hammer McDonalds and make them look bad. They’ve done quite a bit with regards to packaging. We all know about the progress that McDonalds has made with regards to rainforest beef, and some other sourcing issues. I’m sort of taking the perspective of let’s think about what could have McDonalds done better.

GELLERMAN: The vice president from McDonalds said you should write on their blog, actually.

ASTER: I did, as a matter of fact. I left a comment and I suggested to them that they might be better off talking to Honda or even the Tesla people. And giving away a car that represents new technologies like hybrid motors or electric cars or even some sort of gadget that demonstrates the effectiveness and the coolness, if you will, of wind power, that I think kids would get a kick out of.

GELLERMAN: A little plastic windmill?

Eco-bloggers created these mock golden arches to criticize McDonald’s promotion of toy Hummers.
(Credit: Environmental Working Group and hybridcars.com)

ASTER: Sure, why not. It’s a zany idea. But imagine if McDonalds got big into renewable energy and gave away little toy windmills. You could blow on it, lights up a light. Something like that. I’m sure there’s plenty of toy companies that would be interested in promoting something like that. And I’m sure kids would go crazy for it, and they’d probably play with them a lot more than they’d play with the Hummer, which winds up at the bottom of the sandbox after a few days.

GELLERMAN: Or how about a hybrid Hummer?

ASTER: [Laughs] It’s a step, it’s a step, I guess. Course the irony is that the thing’s so big that you’re probably defeating the point, you might as well drive a regular gas car and you’d still be better off. Schwarzenegger drives a biodiesel Hummer, which is definitely a step in the right direction. So, that would be progress.

GELLERMAN: Nick Aster runs Triple Pundit dot com. Thanks Nick.

ASTER: Thanks very much.

GELLERMAN: Well, to be fair, we put a call to McDonalds headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. It’s home to hamburger U, where they came up with the Hummer of a Summer Happy Meal Promotion. Bill Whitman is a spokesperson for McDonalds. Mr. Whitman, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

WHITMAN: Thanks for having me Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Why a Hummer?

WHITMAN: Well, why not a Hummer? I certainly appreciate the fact that there are some who have concerns about the environment, which we certainly share. We have a long history of responsibility for the environment, and we will continue to do so. But the happy meal promotion with a Hummer toy certainly speaks to what children do best, and that is use their imagination and play.

GELLERMAN: Did you ever consider maybe a Hybrid car?

WHITMAN: Well, we haven’t gotten to that point yet. That doesn’t mean that we won’t, and it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t consider it when the opportunity presents itself.

GELLERMAN: You know, Mr. Whitman I once read that McDonalds was the biggest distributor of toys in the world?

WHITMAN: We’re also the nation’s largest distributor of fresh sliced apples. So McDonalds – with 13,000 restaurants in the US with 26 million customers coming through our restaurants every day – we do a lot of things in big numbers. But we’re most proud of the commitment that we have to our customers and the communities that we serve. To ensure that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons. And that’s a commitment that McDonalds has shared for many years and we will continue to demonstrate and act in a socially responsible way.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Witman I want to thank you very much.

WHITMAN: Bruce, thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: Bill Witman is a spokesperson for McDonalds USA.

Related links:
- McDonald's Corporate Responsibility Blog
- Nick Aster's blog, TriplePundit
- Environmental Working Group's and hybridcars.com's parody sign-o-matic

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Listener Letters

GELLERMAN: Time now to hear from you, our listeners.


GELLERMAN: Our recent story about the benefits of planting vegetation sky high on green roofs prompted several listeners to write in. Kenneth Myslik listens to Living on Earth on WNYC in New York. He likes the show, and says “the federal government should subsidize the greening of our cities.”

But Mary Krane Derr of Chicago was surprised we didn’t talk about green roofs as places to grow local food. It seems the Windy City’s City Hall is a prime example, according to Ms. Krane Derr. The green roof on that building attracts birds and has beehives that produce up to 150 pounds of honey each year. Sweet.

Our interview with Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Gina Solomon rubbed U.S. EPA press officer Dale Kemery the wrong way. We asked Dr. Solomon to compare EPA’s actions at Ground Zero to the way the agency handled contamination after Hurricane Katrina. Following our interview we aired a sound bite from Mr. Kemery on behalf of the EPA. But still he felt we had given him short shrift. So we asked him to comment again.

KEMERY: Likening 9/11 to like disaster that befell New Orleans is like comparing the ocean to the sky. The Environmental Protection Agency learned from the events of 9/11, how to cope with major disasters. EPA tested for hundreds of toxins, like lead, aspestos, and mold, and the results were analyzed both by the agency and in an independent laboratory. EPA’s inspector general’s office reported that EPA had done its job, and reported its findings in a timely manner.

Let us hear from you – once, even twice, if you like – give us a call on our listener line... The number is 800-218-9-9,8-8; 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 l o e dot org. That’s comments at L-0-E dot O-R-G And stop by our web page at Living on Earth dot org where you can hear us anytime. That's Living on Earth dot org.

Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Amon Tobin “Chocolate Lovely” from ‘Supermodified’ (Ninja Tune – 2000)]

Blue Jeans, Blue Water

Chemicals from blue jean factories in Tehuacan, Mexico, have turned nearby canals bright blue. (Credit: Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Have you ever wondered how that new pair of jeans got that already lived-in look? They may have gotten that way at a factory in Mexico, where the jeans are hand-rubbed with sandpaper, sprayed with color and bleaches, or even washed with rocks. It seems there’s a price for fashion: a lot of water and chemicals are used in the process. Jana Schroeder traveled to a place that was once the blue jeans capital of the world, and has our story.

SCHROEDER: In a valley in central Mexico is the city of Tehuacán. The name means, “place of the gods” in Nahuatl. The city used to be known for its pure spring water believed to have healing properties.

HERNANDEZ: Whenever you hear the word Tehuacán, you think of water because it has become famous all over the centuries because of the high quality of the mineral water that springs up in this area.

SCHROEDER: Raúl Hernández has been working on water conservation in the Tehuacán area for 25 years. He says the local water has been ideal for bottling, and a popular brand of mineral water is even named after the city.

HERNANDEZ: Whenever you go into any restaurant in Mexico, and you want mineral water, you don’t ask for mineral water, you just say ‘I want a Tehuacán.’

SCHROEDER: The water was also once used in a thriving soft drink industry that has since fizzled out. Now, some of the abandoned facilities – built right over natural springs – are used by another industry that needs easy access to large volumes of water—the blue jean industry.

HERNANDEZ: One of the important processes in the blue jeans manufacturing is the stonewashing to give this kind of worn look by adding chemicals for color and then stones for washing it away,

SCHROEDER: Mr. Hernandez, who directs a nonprofit called “Water Forever,” says much of the water that goes into blue jean factories comes out contaminated with bleaches, detergents, dyes and other chemicals.


SCHROEDER: The chief engineer for the group, Gerardo Reyes, drives us to a blue jeans laundry on the outskirts of the city.

MAN: Allí está la lavandería, y allí puedes ver el agua que está corriendo.

SCHROEDER: We stop along the road just short of what looks like a small warehouse. Next to the road runs a stream of bright blue water in a narrow canal. It’s coming from the plant.

(Credit: Maquila Solidarity Network and the Human and Labour Rights Commission of the Tehuacan Valley)

[JEEP DOOR OPENS AND SHUTS, WALKING. VOICE: “El agua está totalmente azul”]

SCHROEDER: The engineer says the noise we hear comes from the laundry machines. He points to the blue water with bits of pumice stone and lint, and says the water has obviously not been treated. He says this is worrisome since the aquifers—the underground water— are very close to the surface in this valley, and easily contaminated.

MAN: No va a ninguna planta.

SCHROEDER: Farther downstream, the canal becomes overgrown with weeds, so we can’t follow it to see where it goes, but a half mile from here is an old irrigation canal, the Valsequillo. This bigger canal was originally built to bring clean water from the hills above, but now it’s used to collect wastewater. Local environmental authorities are trying to crack down.


ATELA: Here we have the last inspection we have done in a laundry.

SCHROEDER: Martín Atela heads Tehuacán’s Environment Office, which has banned any new blue jean laundries within city limits. Since he took this post last year, he’s been inspecting those already operating.

ATELA: Sometimes if they do not want to open the door, is one of the problems, we have to be in the right place at the right moment. What we need is to have a permanent inspection, to see what is really happening there.

SCHROEDER: At one facility Mr. Atela found a treatment plant installed, but sitting idle. Critics of the industry say that’s not an isolated case, but Mr. Atela points to what he thinks is a bigger problem.

New blue jean factories, known as maquilas, are still coming in, but since the city tightened its standards, they’re locating in outlying areas, where there are no environment officials.

ATELA: Now every year more laundries are established because there are no regulations, local regulations.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Atela says a regional approach is needed—since his efforts are undone when contaminated water from the maquilas upstream flows down the Valsequillo Canal right through the city. But he says things are changing, thanks to foreign environmental standards.

ATELA: There are enterprises, especially foreign companies, that are asking us to make the inspection, because they need our official papers to testify that they are working well in order to export, and for us that’s wonderful.

SCHROEDER: Many smaller maquilas that sell within Mexico are immune from this foreign pressure. So, Mr. Atela says foreign companies are the best partners he’s found for reaching environmental goals.

Arturo Neira is the Export Manager at the largest blue jean maquila in the area, Cualquier Lavado. It churns out about ten million pairs of jeans a year for leading US brands such as Levi’s, GAP, and Old Navy.

NEIRA: Most of the prestigious brands that we work with request that we comply with all the environmental measures or laws obviously it has a cost. I know we made a huge investment, more or less about two million dollars.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira says the maquila sector is facing heavy criticism, for worker treatment and environment standards, just when it’s struggling to survive the tough competition.

NEIRA: Right now, this industry is, instead of growing, we’re going down. Because, we’re competing against the Orient, China, Central America, and they have labor costs which are a lot cheaper than us.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira takes me on a tour through the plant. He says the processes used are dictated by changing fashions. “Sand blasting” has been replaced by hand-sanding blue jeans with sand paper.

We walk by an area where workers—covered from head to foot with protective suits, masks and gloves—are spraying jeans with a bright purple chemical, potassium permanganate.

NEIRA: No es consejable respirarlo.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Neira says the chemical, which should not be inhaled, is one of those used to give jeans that “already worn” look. His company has installed an expensive water treatment plant, with a full-time engineer. But most plants are smaller and don’t invest in these controls.

Out behind the plant, Mr. Neira points to a small stream of clear water he says is the treated water from his factory. We watch it flow down into the Valsequillo Canal, where it immediately mixes with untreated wastewater from other maquilas, agricultural wastes, and sewage.

Where does all this wastewater end up? The same place it did back when clear water ran through the canal--into cornfields downstream.


SCHROEDER: Martín Barrios, the director of a human rights commission in Tehuacán, accompanies me about twelve miles down the valley, to the farming community of San Diego Chalma. Mr. Barrios is a labor activist and has co-authored a book about blue jean maquilas.


From the highway we walk a short distance into a cornfield fed by an irrigation ditch filled with dirty water.

BARRIOS: Ves esta milpa. Ayer o anteayer fue regada.

TRANSLATION: Look at this cornfield. You can see it was irrigated yesterday or the day before.

SCHROEDER: He picks up some of the soil. It has a bluish-gray layer on top that crumbles in his hand.

BARRIOS: Aquí es donde se termina finalmente su recorrido las aguas azules de las lavanderías…

TRANSLATION: This is where the blue water from the laundries reaches its final destination. Look at this handful of soil. It's all blue. Unfortunately, the negative side of globalization has brought this pollution from blue jeans to the fields and now it contaminates the food we eat in Tehuacán.

SCHROEDER: Local authorities concede that watering food crops with untreated industrial wastewater is a problem. Still, they say they haven’t tested the liquid to find out exactly what’s in it.

Mexico has environmental standards that limit the contaminants allowed in industrial discharge. Yet, ten years after the standards went into effect, authorities in Tehuacán say inspections are still only in the planning stage. A treatment plant at the end of the canal is also still on the drawing board.

BARRIOS: Dicen que ya va a venir la planta tratadora, tiene la planta tratadora, seis años...

TRANSLATION: They’ve been saying a treatment plant is coming for the last six years. Every year they say ‘next year.’ We need to demand that the treatment plant be built, and paid for not just by the town. These foreign plants have to pay for the problems they're creating. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

SCHROEDER: New blue jeans used to come off the shelf stiff and in a dark navy color. They took months to wear in. Some of today’s young consumers may not remember that. Activists like Martín Barrios wish more people would ask what it takes to give jeans that already-worn look and feel—the first time you slip them on.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jana Schroeder, in Tehuacán, Mexico.

Related link:
Maquila Solidarity Network

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[MUSIC: Daniel Lanois “Agave” from ‘Belladonna’ (Epitaph/Anti – 2005)]

Pure Poo-etry

Reams of Sheep Poo Paper dry in a zero-waste factory in Snowdonia, Wales. (Credit: Creative Paper Wales)

GELLERMAN: Some people poo-poo recycling. But not Lawrence Toms. He recycles poo-poo. Lawrence Toms is a co-founder of Creative Paper Wales, maker of Sheep Poo Paper. To get the poop about the paper – sorry, I couldn’t resist – we phoned him, and he joins us from Snowdonia, Wales. Mr. Toms, it’s good to speak with you.

TOMS: Hello, Bruce. It’s a lovely, sunny day here in Snowdonia. Nice to speak to you.

GELLERMAN: Sheep poo paper. Dare I ask where you got this idea from?

TOMS: By all means. It’s not entirely original, I have to tell you. The degree of originality is in using sheep. In the developing world it’s well known to make paper out of elephant dung, for example. And indeed dung is a valuable commodity in developing countries where it is used for a number of things including fuel for fires. And we just went out to view a couple of these operations in the Far East and came back armed with information and tried to see if we could make it work with sheep poo. And six months later we worked out a way of doing it.

GELLERMAN: Tell me how it’s made.

TOMS: We find very fibrous sheep dung. We do sterilize the sheep poo in a large industrial autoclave almost as soon as it arrives at our unit. And so once that’s done, anything that would survive that process would survive re-entry on the nose cone of the shuttle. So, it’s sterile enough, if you had a strong enough stomach, to eat it at that stage.

Then we run it through an antique piece of machinery called a Holland beater, which reduces the fibers to pulp, which are then formed in to sheets and we turn them into lovely products.

GELLERMAN: Well, what about the water that comes out of the process? I would imagine there’s waste from that.

TOMS: We don’t really like the word waste, I have to tell you. Something is only waste if it doesn’t have a use and it causes a problem. With our process, I think what’s absolutely wonderful about it is that after we’ve washed the sheep poo, the water which is loaded with all of the nutrients we sell to local grocers as an organic fertilizer. It’s been instrumental in winning prize vegetable competitions. So it’s in much demand. In fact I would say at the moment it’s as popular as the paper, and we’re delighted by that. Or as poopular even.

GELLERMAN: [laughs] Well, you’ve got plenty of fiber-eating sheep out there in Wales.

TOMS: And they only digest 50 percent of what they swallow. So, coming out the back end of a sheep is 50 percent cellulose fiber which has already been pre-chewed, which reduces the amount of processing we have to do. People love the idea that something that other people would walk past can be turned into something beautiful and valuable. So, we are in fact, a zero waste operation. Everything that comes in the front door goes out as a usable product. So, it’s the ultimate in recycling really. Even the washing water is sold on as fertilizer.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Toms, how many sheep does it take to make a ream of sheep poo paper?

TOMS: That’s an interesting question. If I wanted to produce one ton of sheep poo I would need two and a half sheep for one year. Now, obviously half a sheep wouldn’t produce any poo at all. That’s just a biological impossibility, but it gives you a rough idea of it. It takes about 3 tons of sheep poo to produce one ton of paper.

GELLERMAN: That’s a lot of poo.

TOMS: That’s a lot of paper.


TOMS: A ton of paper is a lot of paper. To give your listeners some idea, 3 tons of sheep poo making one ton of paper would produce about 140,000 greetings cards. So, that’s quite an efficient process we like to think. Especially when you consider that we don’t need to use all of the energy-intensive machinery that they use in traditional paper mills, because all of our fibers have been pre-processed by our lovely sheep.

GELLERMAN: Now, if I were to write a love letter using sheep poo paper, would I be sending the wrong message, that is, is there any smell to this?

TOMS: Well, there is a smell. And funnily enough it’s quite pleasant. Once we’ve washed it and boiled it, basically what you’re left with is nothing more than macerated hay. And the smell of the paper is a little like a freshly mowed hay field. We think there is a great romantic value to this. We sell all sorts of products that people can use. Of course you have a paper anniversary after one year. So, we do sell quite a lot to people, and wedding invitations, we’ve done. But we like to think that roses are red and violets are blue, but our paper’s great ‘cause it’s made of poo.


You can see I’ve spent a lot of time on that one.

GELLERMAN: What about at the old factory, I mean the place where you make the paper. Are there a lot of poop jokes?

TOMS: You’d have thought there might be, but after a couple months, I think you run through them all. [laughs] We are thinking of running a pooetry competition. Where people send in their poems, and we decide which are the best and then we’ll publish them on the sheep poo paper, as you know pooetry from Wales.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Toms thank you very much.

TOMS: No problem at all, Bruce. Nice to speak to you.

GELLERMAN: Lawrence Toms co-founded Sheep Poo Paper. The company is based in Snowdonia, Wales.

Related link:
Sheep Poo Paper

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[MUSIC: Benny Goodman & Helen Ward “You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes” from ‘More Greatest Hits: Benny Goodman’ (RCA/Victor – 1997)]

GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth: on tap, a brewer in Colorado puts a head on it, using alternative energy. It may cost more, but that’s okay with them.

SHAWN: It's a very, very family-oriented place. You can't sling a cat around the brewery without hitting a newborn on every given week. And we want our kids to have the best future.

GELLERMAN: Look out for that cat! A brewski fermenter goes green, on the next Living on Earth.

[EE - “Two Bridges Sheep Herding (England)” recorded by John Levack Drever from ‘Sounding Dartmoor’ (Spacex – 2002)]

We leave you this week – south of Wales with a flock of potential papermakers.


In County Devon, England, the town of Two Bridges hosts a yearly sheep-shearing event during the summer months. John Levack Drever recorded this heard of wooly bleaters being rounded up for a trim. There’s another ream.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Emily Torgrimson and Jeff Young - with help from Bobby Bascomb, and Kelley Cronin. Our interns are Ian Gray, Tobin Hack and Jennifer Percy. Dennis Foley is our technical director. Our executive producer is Steve Curwood. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us at loe dot org. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening. BAAA-ye.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; And Stonyfield farm Organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com.

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