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

April 22, 2011

Air Date: April 22, 2011



Pesticides Influence on IQ

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Three recently published papers in Environmental Health Perspectives document the deleterious effects of organophosphate pesticides on children's IQ levels. One study, from UC Berkeley, focused on agricultural workers' children in Salinas, California. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi, the lead author of the UC Berkeley study. (05:50)

Climate Goes to Court / Mitra Taj

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A dispute over whether states can sue big industrial global warming polluters has reached the Supreme Court. The justices seem reluctant to agree that federal courts can order companies to cut emissions when the EPA is already regulating them. But Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Mitra Taj reports the justices might not want federal courts to be totally barred from climate change claims in the future. (05:25)

Remembering Chernobyl / Bruce Gellerman

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25 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, host Bruce Gellerman revisits a story he reported in 1996. He updates that report by looking at efforts to build a new safe confinement for the aging sarcophagus built to cover and contain the destroyed reactor. He also examines the state of the natural environment in the exclusion zone with author Mary Mycio, and hears from photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart how communities near the reactor are living with radiation exposure. (21:30)

Solar Street Lamps could be a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet / Sean Faulk

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Researchers in Denmark have created a solar lamp called SunMast that generates energy from the sun during the day and feeds that energy into the grid, making it the first ever grid-connected solar street lamp. The creators also claim it generates more energy than it ultimately consumes. Sean Faulk reports. (01:40)

Coal and Oil Shape Cultural Stereotypes / Jeff Young

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This month marks one year since disasters of historic proportion struck the country’s coal and oil industries — a mine explosion in West Virginia and BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young talks to two writers from those regions who explain how oil and coal have shaped the popular view of the places and people that bring the country its energy. (10:40)

BirdNote® / Mary McCann

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In today's BirdNote® Mary McCann checks out the prickly nest of the Cactus Wren. It's America's largest wren, and has a clever way of keeping its nestlings cool in the desert heat. (01:45)

**Web Extra" TVA's Landmark Decision

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The Tennessee Valley Authority will spend up to $5 billion dollars in a landmark Clean Air Act settlement. The Government owned Southern electricity provider has agreed to shut down 18 of its oldest coal-fired boilers and install pollution monitoring devices on remaining plants. Host Bruce Gellerman asks Senior Vice President of the TVA, Anda Ray, what this means for the historic utility and the people who depend on its power. (06:50)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Brenda Eskenazi, Peter Keisler, Lisa Heinzerling, Laurin Dodd, Mary Mycio, Michael Forster Rothbart, Ken Wells, Denise Giardina
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Bruce Gellerman, Jeff Young, Mary McCann, Sean Faulk


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. 25 years after the worst nuclear catastrophe in history, the effects of Chernobyl's radiation persist. So do memories of those who cleaned up the disaster.

DODD: They were limited to 10 or 15 seconds to pick up a piece of radioactive graphite. They basically had taken a lifetime of radiation and they went back home.

GELLERMAN: 850 thousand Soviet soldiers served as liquidators - now many are paying the price.

ROTHBART: When he was sick with cancer, he said, ‘we sold our car to pay for the surgery, we sold our TV, our refrigerator, jewelry…Well now my wife Lydia has cancer and there's nothing left for us to sell.’

GELLERMAN: But in the abandoned radioactive zone, nature flourishes.

MYCIO: In one single day, I saw a herd of red deer, a herd of about 40 boars, four moose, and wolf.

GELLERMAN: Chernobyl a quarter century later - 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.

Pesticides Influence on IQ

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Pesticides are designed to kill pests, not hurt people. But now, three independent studies find two organophosphate pesticides, widely used on foods in the field, can be passed on from moms to their babies during fetal development with devastating effects on the kids' IQs.

The studies appear in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers from Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center studied pregnant women and their children in New York City. Epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi and her team from UC Berkeley focused on agricultural workers’ kids in Salinas, California. Dr. Eskenazi, welcome to Living on Earth!

ESKENAZI: Pleasure to be here!

GELLERMAN: So how great was the drop in IQ for the children who had been exposed to these organophosphates?

A crop duster spreads pesticides over an agricultural field. (Photo: cdn-pix Flickr Creative Commons)

ESKENAZI: We measured organophosphates by something called dialkyl phosphate metabolites in the mother’s urine during the pregnancy. For every tenfold increase in the mother’s levels of these metabolites during her pregnancy, we saw a 5.5 point decrease in the child’s IQ. That translates to meaning that the children in the very highest 20 percent group of exposure, versus the very lowest - we see about a seven point difference in IQ.

GELLERMAN: So you looked at these mothers’ exposures and then you measured the children as they developed.

ESKENAZI: Yes, that’s right. We enrolled women during their pregnancies and have been following their children up until age seven at the point of the study.

GELLERMAN: How important is this type of IQ reduction, this kind of level - what effect does that have on a child’s chances of success in school?

Researcher Brenda Eskenazi.

ESKENAZI: Well we are looking at a population level result, not an individual result. And so the way to think about this is that if you see a five or seven point shift in the IQ in the general population, you will see more children that are going to need special services and more children that would be driven into the area of IQ that we would be concerned about them.

GELLERMAN: Should we be surprised by these findings? I mean, these organophosphate chemicals - they’re sometimes called nerve agents. I mean, they’re designed to affect the brain.

ESKENAZI: There is no doubt that at high doses, these chemicals are neurotoxicants. Children and farm workers have been poisoned for years at high doses. The question that we were faced with is what happens with low-level - maybe chronic exposure - but low-level exposure to these chemicals, and how does it affect a child during a critical window of development.

This study found a link between a child’s IQ and his mother’s organophosphate load. (Photo: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: These chemicals - how widespread is their use now? Will I find it in my house?

ESKENAZI: Organophosphates were voluntarily removed for home use in the early 2000s. However, they have been widely used in agriculture since that time.

GELLERMAN: So if I buy organic, do I lessen my exposure to these?

ESKENAZI: Yes, you probably would have lower levels of exposure, if any.

GELLERMAN: For individual parents and children, these findings could be quite tragic. On a societal level, the educational level, it could be quite costly. Do you have any idea of the economic impact of this kind of decrease in IQ is having in our school systems?

ESKENAZI: No, it’d be very hard to estimate that. And also, it would be very important to make sure that parents know that eating a good diet may also affect neurodevelopment. And so we don’t want to restrict people from eating fruits and vegetables because of their concern about organophosphates - that would be an anti-public health message.

GELLERMAN: So what are people to make out of this study?

ESKENAZI: What I would say is eat lots of fruits and vegetables, make sure you wash those fruits and vegetables really well - even if it has a skin, and if you can and afford it - eat organic. And if you’re going to use pesticides in your home - even though we don’t use organophosphates in the home any longer, we are still using other pesticides that we know even less about - and the best thing would be to use integrative pest management, where we don’t use sprays, but we use baits and traps and other herbal remedies to rid ourselves of ants and roaches and other critters.

Brenda Eskenazi says, wash fruits and vegetables—even those with peels—before eating them. (Photo: muammerokumus Flickr Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Now your study is one of three that just came out. There were studies at Mt. Sinai and Columbia University, and researchers there have just found similar declines in IQ of children exposed to these very same chemicals. Were you surprised by those findings?

ESKENAZI: I was surprised that we saw the same types of associations in three parallel studies, and the fact that we saw similar findings is noteworthy.

GELLERMAN: So I can imagine a mom feeling guilty, getting these results and knowing that something that they ate prenatally is affecting their kids now.

ESKENAZI: I would hope not. I would hope that the mother would feel that she did the best, knowing what she knew, and she ate well, and she tried to protect her child as much as possible. And that’s really the best we all can do: is base our behavior on what we know now.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Eskenazi, thanks a lot, really appreciate it.

ESKENAZI: Thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: Brenda Eskenazi is a professor of epidemiology and maternal and child health at UC Berkeley.

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[MUSIC:] [Club D’Elf “Mogador” from Electric Moroccoland (Club D’Elf Music 2011)]

Climate Goes to Court

GELLERMAN: Climate change has been to court before. It's the subject of more than 200 legal cases across the country - but so far, only two disputes have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first time, back in 2007, the high court ruled the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Now the justices are poised to make another landmark decision: whether states can force utilities to reduce their climate-changing emissions. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: The states suing major power companies say they’re already suffering the harmful impacts of climate change and federal courts should force the country’s biggest polluters to clean up.

But that argument met considerable skepticism when it reached the Supreme Court - and not just from conservative justices like Antonin Scalia, who questioned whether people exhaling carbon dioxide might also be sued. The liberal side of the bench seemed unconvinced as well.

Justice Elena Kagan suggested the lawsuit has no precedent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked: couldn’t this turn a federal judge into a kind of “super EPA”? Questions like that backed up arguments made by Peter Keisler, an attorney defending the electric utilities.

KEISLER: Our position is that these issues are fundamentally important policy questions that have to be decided through the democratic process.

TAJ: Keisler says a lot has happened since the suit was first filed in 2004. During the Bush administration, the federal government wasn’t doing anything to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But now, thanks to the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that gave the EPA the authority to address climate change, the executive branch has begun to act. And that, Keisler says, means the courts can’t.

KEISLER: You know that EPA and Congress both have weighed in on this area - Congress in the Clean Air Act, and EPA in implementing the Clean Air Act - does it make sense to set up a parallel process in which courts would be asked to consider through tort litigation all the same questions that Congress and the EPA are wrestling with at the same time?

TAJ: But the EPA so far is only regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. Rules for the dirtier and aging coal-fired power plants featured in the lawsuit aren’t expected until next year - and that’s if they come at all. Some members of Congress have vowed to revoke the EPA’s climate authority.

Iowa says more frequent flooding and rising temperatures caused by climate change are costing the state's farmers $40 million per year. (Photo: Joseph Heck/Flickr)

The states and environmental groups want a backup plan in case Congress and the administration balk. They argued in court that the promise of federal regulation isn’t enough to get the courts off the hook. Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University, says the issue at the heart of the case is whether federal courts can handle climate change claims at all.

HEINZERLING: The kind of underlying idea there is this is a problem that's too big and too complicated, too new, to be dealt with through law - and I find that premise scandalous, actually.

TAJ: Before returning to teaching last fall, Heinzerling worked for the EPA, helping design policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The effort there is ongoing but this climate case puts the Obama administration in an awkward position. One of the companies being sued is owned by the federal government, and the administration has had to come to the defense of the country’s biggest polluters, even as it writes rules forcing them to cut emissions.

The Solicitor General, speaking for the administration, told the Justices that the global nature of global warming makes it suitable for the EPA, but too unwieldy for the courts. But Heinzerling says there’s no reason all three branches of government can’t help shape solutions.

HEINZERLING: Many, many people think that climate change is the most important environmental issue we face, maybe the most important issue we face, period. And the notion that this is something that cannot be resolved through law is, I think, a deeply dangerous proposition.

TAJ: Together, the five companies are responsible for 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but legal experts sympathetic to the industry’s case think it's dangerous to allow courts to weigh in. Jon Massey is an attorney and a former Supreme Court law clerk.

MASSEY: There is a real risk here that if courts get involved, they could make the problem worse. So one thing a political branch can do is manage tradeoffs and consider the whole problem. And one thing a court can't do is look at the whole problem, because a court can only decide the case before it.

TAJ: That argument came up in court, and Matthew Levine - the assistant attorney general of Connecticut, one of the states bringing the lawsuit - said it’s nothing new.

LEVINE: That's always been the cry of industry whenever there's any threat of litigation or regulation, but that's just not the case. We're asking for reasonable, cost-effective measures that they can take to reduce their CO2 emissions.

TAJ: If the court does side with utility companies, it might still rule in a way that leaves the door open for federal climate change suits in the future. Almost all of the justices seem skeptical of the industry’s claims that climate change doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of federal courts. If not federal courts, they said, then the cases would be left to state courts. The industry lawyer responded he’s confident power companies can defend themselves there. But law professor Lisa Heinzerling says: be careful what you wish for.

HEINZERLING: If the court reaches that kind of result, the interesting question is: would the people who have been fighting so vociferously against these claims in federal court - are they really going to prefer 50 different states handling these kinds of claims?

TAJ: The Supreme Court will render a decision this summer. For Living On Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

Related links:
- Read a transcript of the oral arguments before the court here.
- For the case's briefs, click here.
- Click here for a state-by-state assessment of the costs of climate change.

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[MUSIC:] [Al DiMeola “Full Front Contrapuntal” from Pursuit Of Radical Rhapsody (Telarc Records 2011)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - we commemorate Earth Day and continue our April update of stories from our archive. Today, revisiting the world's worst nuclear disaster - keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUT AWAY MUSIC:] [Lonnie Liston Smith : “Quiet Moments” from Explorations: The Columbia Recordings (Sony Music 2002)]

Remembering Chernobyl

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. 25 years ago - April 26, 1986, at precisely 1:23 in the morning, Ukraine time - the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.

The graphite core of the Soviet reactor ignited and fuel rods vaporized, sending a plume of radioactivity high into the atmosphere. For nearly two days, Soviet officials denied anything had happened. Then the radiation was detected in Sweden and Russian TV news had this short announcement:

[SFX - Russian news cast…SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: "An accident has happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One reactor has been damaged. The government has formed a commission of inquiry.”]

GELLERMAN: The Soviet denial delayed the evacuation of the irradiated region around the plant and the city of Pripyat, where Chernobyl workers and their families lived.

[SFX - Announcement in Russian; Voiceover: "Attention, attention. Dear comrades, to ensure your safety and especially the safety of your children, it is necessary to temporarily evacuate the city and surrounding areas in the Kiev region…"]

GELLERMAN: The abandoned city of Pripyat is crumbling - covered in dust like a Soviet Pompeii. It lies in the heart of the Zone of Alienation; it's an area the size of Rhode Island. To this day, the zone is off-limits, a vast radioactive no-man’s land. Now, a quarter of a century after the disaster, we look back on this place and its people. We begin with a story Living on Earth aired 15 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl. I drove into the Zone where the remains of the doomed reactor were entombed in a cement and steel sarcophagus.

A concrete sarcophagus was built in 1986 to seal off the contents of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. (Photo: Pedro Moura Pinheiro)


GELLERMAN: It’s a two-hour drive from Kiev to Chernobyl, along rolling hills and peat bogs. Ukrainians say the soil here is so rich you can eat it - at least that’s what they used to say. Today, a thousand square miles around the plant is off-limits to most people.

[DRIVING; SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Translation: “There’s a sign that says it’s impossible to live here constantly…]

GELLERMAN: 18 miles from Chernobyl, we enter the exclusion zone. My driver Pietro is quiet as we pass empty farms, homes, churches, and schools. A week after the disaster, 135,000 people were permanently removed from this area.

[DOORS CLOSING; SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Translation: “It is our tragedy. This was a very good place to live. What can we do? This is our fate.”]

GELLERMAN: To visit Chernobyl requires special permission and an official guide. We are joined by a plant technician who will monitor radiation levels. He sees the look in my eyes.


GELLERMAN: He says we’re completely safe - still, I’m given special clothes to wear: a Russian hat, burly coat, cotton socks, gloves, leather boots, and a face mask, just in case.


GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents - plant workers and their families. The sign reads: “The Party of Lenin Leads Us to a Communist Victory.” My guide Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan: the people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly Atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.


A worker checks radiation levels (Photo: Diana Markosian)

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town’s children.

GELLERMAN: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evacuated?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions. I think it is forever - it shouldn’t be forgotten.


SHEVCHENKO: How to forget it? How to forget this abandoned city.


GELLERMAN: The radiation readings jump as we pass the remains of a contaminated forest buried in a field. It’s a two-mile ride from Pripyat to the plant. Chernobyl dominates the desolate marshland. It’s a white, windowless monolith - a mile long and nearly a football field high.


GELLERMAN: We’re standing at Ground Zero. Today, what remains of the melted number four reactor is entombed in a massive 24-storey sarcophagus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can’t contain the intense radiation within.


GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we pointed at the sarcophagus - it’s the most radioactive building on the planet. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

Workers prepare the sight for the sliding, new confinement structure. (Photo: Diana Markosian)


SHEVCHEKOV: We better get to the car.

GELLERMAN: Why’s that?

SHEVCHEKOV: Because it’s rather high. You know, I’ve been inside the sarcophagus four times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHEKOV: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high levels of radiation. Only two minutes allowed.

[MUSIC: New Flora & Fauna Silence of Doors]

GELLERMAN: The Chernobyl sarcophagus was built in seven months - a Herculean effort by some 850 thousand Soviet soldiers, so-called “liquidators.”


GELLERMAN: Shovelful by shovelful, the liquidators removed the radioactive debris and erected the sarcophagus.

[SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “We were like ants. Just as some were finishing their task, others would immediately take their place. And that’s how, together, we were able to fight the radioactivity.”]

GELLERMAN: The sarcophagus was never designed to last 25 years. Only now has work begun to build a new confinement structure. Laurin Dodd is managing director of the project - to make safe what the liquidators built a quarter century ago.

Video about Chernobyl’s “Biorobots”

DODD: What they did was heroic, you know, and I shudder at the thought of anybody ever having to work like that again. Many of these people - and you’ve seen them in the videos - went up on the roof of the Turbine Generator Hall and were basically given instructions to run out into the hall to pick up a piece of fuel or radioactive graphite, carry it 30 or 40 meters, and throw it over the wall. Oftentimes, they were limited to 10 or 15 seconds to do that - once they did that, they basically had taken a lifetime of radiation and they went back home.

GELLERMAN: What’s the condition of the sarcophagus now?

DODD: Well it’s better now than it was two or three years ago. When that was built, it had a design life of ten years. And there were large, large holes throughout the facility where birds and small mammals could enter. Things were kind of stacked together like you might build a house out of a deck of cards.

And we undertook some measures, starting six or seven years ago, to stabilize both some of the internal structure as well as some of the external structures. Today, with that particular work that we did, we think it’s good for the next 15 years. Even having done that, you know, I would be concerned here if we were to have particularly high winds. I would not have a lot of confidence that it could survive even 20 or 30 years of natural events.

GELLERMAN: So now you’re in charge of building this giant…how would you describe it - a hanger?

This computer-generated image shows the New Safe Confinement, commonly known as “The Arc.” (Wikipedia Commons)

DODD: Well we call it a ‘New Safe Confinement,’ but we often refer to it as the ‘arch,’ because in fact it’s an arch shape. It’s being made of steel - it’s being constructed some couple two hundred meters away from the damaged reactor in order to reduce the radiation doses to the people who are building the arch. Once it’s fully constructed, it will be sled from the construction location to its final resting place.

GELLERMAN: I heard that you could fit the Statue of Liberty in it.

DODD: You can fit the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty inside of it. The width of it is close to 900 feet wide, and the length’s almost 500 feet. The New Safe Confinement will actually be slid over the sarcophagus in July of 2015, and then it will be commissioned and it’s expected that commissioning will be completed by the end of 2015.

GELLERMAN: So if there were an earthquake and this sarcophagus and the entombed reactor did shift or collapse, this structure would contain that? Is that the idea?

DODD: You know, the New Safe Confinement serves several purposes, and one is that if, in fact, the unstable structures were to collapse prematurely, the New Safe Confinement would confine the dust and any other aerosols that are generated. The second thing is it provides a place and a capability for starting to dismantle those structures that are unstable.

And this New Safe Confinement structure - one of the features is that it has a very, very large overhead crane system in it that will be used to remotely disassemble both the old sarcophagus as well as unstable portions of the reactor. It’ll provide a clean, safe environment for doing that.

GELLERMAN: What about the money - do you have enough money to pay for this?

DODD: Oh, no, we don’t. For the total project, today we’re about 600 million euros short. I’m fairly optimistic that the international community will continue to support this and a good portion of what we need to complete the work will be committed.

GELLERMAN: But here we are - 25 years out from Chernobyl - and many people have forgotten it, and you don’t have enough money to complete your work, at least right now, and yet we’re betting on future, future, future generations to deal with this.

DODD: That’s right. I mean, this is a consequence of Chernobyl, and certainly for the 100-years lifetime of the New Safe Confinement, there’s going to be…it’s going to employ the children and the grandchildren of some of the current workers of the Chernobyl site.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Dodd, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.

DODD: It was my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Laurin Dodd is managing director of the new Chernobyl safe confinement structure. He lives just outside the evacuation zone. Author Mary Mycio has been inside the zone more than 25 times. She’s author of the book "Wormwood Forest - A Natural History of Chernobyl."

MYCIO: The first time I went there, I was absolutely stunned to find out that it was, first of all, not this big giant dead parking lot that I’d imagined - it was really green. And that - when you get out into the wild, it’s actually…there are parts of it that are very, very beautiful.

The Pripyat Swamps were some of the largest wetlands in Europe, until they were drained for agriculture by the Soviets. Since the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent evacuation of 135,000 people, the swamps are gradually returning to their original state. (Credit: Mary Mycio)

You have the wetlands and peat lands. In one single day, I saw a herd of red deer, a herd of about 40 boars, four moose, and wolf. In the absence of human activity, it becomes a very inviting environment for wildlife.

GELLERMAN: But it’s radioactive!

MYCIO: Well they can’t tell. Radioactivity’s invisible.

GELLERMAN: But isn’t that the point? You can’t see the radiation, yet there’s been this terrible disaster there. Can’t you tell that radiation has its biological effect?

Mary Mycio standing in the highly radioactive Red Forest. (Photo: Mary Mycio)

MYCIO: Well I guess you could if you did large animal studies and had, you know, random samples or comparative studies, but nobody is doing that. And…I mean, yes, you can study mice because all you would theoretically need is a couple of mouse traps and some cheese and you’ll get your sample of mice.

If you want to study, let’s say, moose, you have to do some big game hunting and it takes awhile - it’s not like they show up on command. So nobody has been providing that kind of funding right now.

GELLERMAN: But we had no gross genetic damage that we can see now. No giant insects and birds…

MYCIO: No, no, nothing like that. If there are mutations being born in the wild, they die - they get eaten by scavengers so nobody actually finds them. Nobody has identified any mutations except for these studies done on swallows where they have some…they had pigmentation damage, like albino spots on their faces.

GELLERMAN: What about the forests and the flora, the trees? Have they been affected? Can you see mutations in them?

In highly radioactive areas, pine trees are susceptible to radiation. This stunted pine tree has been affected by radiomorphism. (Credit: Mary Mycio)

MYCIO: Well there are places where you can see - it’s called radiomorphism, which is radioactivity affecting the orientation that the plant has and the way that it grows. So in very, very radioactive areas, you will have these kind of stunted pine trees that look more like bushes.

GELLERMAN: So now we have this largely abandoned area - when do you think people will be able to come back?

MYCIO: Oh, it depends. There are parts of the zone where people could actually live now because the lines were drawn in a very, very rough way. Other parts - the parts that are closest to the reactor - as a practical matter, never. They won’t be able to come back. Because plutonium - you have plutonium there and that’s got a half-life of 24,000 years. So unless they figure out a way to clean it up, or…I don’t know if there’s an ‘or’ to that. (Laughs). I can’t see how people could come back there in a safe way.

GELLERMAN: When I was in the zone around Chernobyl 15 years ago, I interviewed an old couple who moved back into the zone, and they’re not alone - there are a bunch of people who have moved back. Have we seen any changes in them - any biological effects?

MYCIO: Well the irony is that a lot of the people who went back - they’re doing better than people of their own age who were evacuated because the impact of radiation takes so many decades to show up that if you’re an older person, you’ll die of something else before the radiation will kill you.

(Photo: Mary Mycio)

And the people who were evacuated, let’s say, from these beautiful - really truly beautiful, lush wetlands - into, let’s say, the suburbs of Kiev in a high-rise apartment building…that’s a traumatic thing, and a lot of the older people had a very, very difficult time adjusting. While the people who went back - they were sort of in their old houses and, yes, there’s radiation around, but a lot of them prefer to be home. Though I would also caution that a lot of the people who live in the zone aren’t there because they have happy stories to tell.

GELLERMAN: Mary Mycio is author of “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

This song is by Danilov Ilya - his father still works at Chernobyl.

[MUSIC: Danilov Ilya, “Our Small Town.”]

GELLERMAN: The song is called “Our Small Town”. Michael Forster Rothbart recorded it. He’s a photojournalist who spent two years in and around the zone, documenting its people.

FORSTER ROTHBART: My commitment to this project started when I discovered how other photojournalists distort Chernobyl. You know, they visit briefly and they expect danger and despair, and so that’s what they photograph - photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings.

Pripyat, Ukraine, was a closed Soviet city built to house workers at the Chernobyl plant one mile away. In the days after the accident, its 49,360, inhabitants were evacuated and told they could return in 3 days. Most never returned. Valuables were stolen long ago, but abandoned dolls remain on a windowsill in the Solntsye kindergarten. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

And I feel like this sensationalist approach really obscures more complex stories about how these communities adapt and survive. So I really wanted to photograph the suffering that’s there, but also the joy and beauty, the endurance - and really the hope.

GELLERMAN: One of your photographs is of a woman named Tanya, who is a Chernobyl engineer. And she was a winner of the Miss Atomic Beauty Pagent?

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, it’s…I think it’s hilarious. But every year, all the Ukrainian nuclear power plants have this beauty contest for their workers and that year - it was 2009 - she won. And it’s really interesting - she is actually the third generation in her family to work at the Chernobyl plant. And a story I love about her is…I have a picture in my current exhibit in Chicago of her husband Sergey in this liquid waste treatment facility. He’s just walking past all these - this endless row of barrels marked with radiation symbols – and this is the place where Sergey and Tanya fell in love.

Tanya Bokova won the Miss Atom beauty pagent in 2009. She is the third generation in her family to work at the Chernobyl power plant. She told Michael Rothbart, “For me, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is like a little kitten, which demands care and attention. In order not to let it become stray, wild and dangerous." (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

These workers are working at the plant, their lives are all about Chernobyl, and so, of course, they meet, they flirt, they fall in love, they marry, they have kids, and more often than not, the next generation also grows up to work at the Chernobyl plant.

GELLERMAN: I like this picture of Leonid - he was a mailman who was delivering top-secret mail to the military headquarters in Chernobyl.

Leonid Budkovskiy, a mailman from Ivankiv, Ukraine, delivered top-secret correspondence to the military HQ in Chernobyl town. His legs slowly stopped working, and by 1996 he was confined to a wheelchair. His grandson Slava helps him move around. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, Leonid Skripkobski was reassigned from his job as a mailman to deliver this top-secret mail. And - he’s now in a wheelchair - he told me that in Chernobyl… here’s what he said, he said, ‘in Chernobyl, no one knew how serious it was; we wore no special clothes…’ He said, ‘I’m 55 years old and no one needs me.’ He feels like there’s not much left for him to do in this life.

And I heard that sentiment often. There were actually 850,000 liquidators, people who worked in the cleanup after the accident. And this was a moment of crisis when they were pushed to their limit and they did everything they could for their country or for the world, and after that, you know, their lives never seemed the same.

After his wife Natasha died in January 2007, Vasily tattooed her face on his shoulder as a personal memorial. She died from cancer after a long illness, a few days after her 46th birthday. He told Michael Rothbart, "I was born here and I'll die here. I already want to die. Forgive me, I'm drunk. I drink a lot now. We only have what God gives us, our health, our place, our friends." (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

GELLERMAN: One of the, if not the saddest photo I think you’ve taken and the one that kind of has burned an image in my mind, is the one of a farmer and he’s got a tattoo of his wife on his shoulder.

FORSTER ROTHBART: So his full name is Vassily Olessandrovich. I was walking through the town of Ivankiv and I heard him half-drunk, crying in his front yard, and I peeked over his fence and I thought, ‘he’s never going to let me photograph him.’ But I screwed up my courage to knock on the door and ask, and he let me in and talked to me, and we just talked for a few minutes.

And he has this tattoo of a woman - I asked him about it. And he told me that his wife had died the previous year from cancer - she died of liver cancer after a long illness. And so after she died, he tattooed her picture on his shoulder as a personal memorial. And while I was working on this new exhibit, I had my assistant Kiev do some fact-checking and she found out that Vassily has now also died. He died last year of stomach cancer, and he was 57.

GELLERMAN: You photographed a Chernobyl engineer who had worked at the plant for 24 years - I’m looking at the picture of Viktor.

Viktor Gaidak shows his scar after surgery for colon cancer. Like the Gaidaks, nearly half the evacuees from Pripyat live in Troeshchina, a new neighborhood at the edge of Kyiv, Ukraine, where they face health problems, unemployment, crowded apartments and insufficient government support. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, Viktor Gaidak was an engineer at the plant and he continued to work for almost a decade after the 1986 accident. And then in 2004, he had colon cancer and had surgery. And one thing he told me…he told me that when he was sick with cancer, he said, ‘we sold our car to pay for the surgery,’ he said, ‘we sold our TV, our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could.’ And then he pointed to his wife Lydia next to him and said, ‘well now my wife Lydia has cancer and there's nothing left for us to sell.’

[MUSIC: [Slavutych A Cappella Choir “Inspiration”, Choir of Chernobyl workers ]

GELLERMAN: Photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart. He recorded this choir of Chernobyl workers who call their group “Inspiration.” To see some of Michael Forster Rothbart’s Chernobyl photos and for links to his touring exhibits, go to our web site, L-O-E dot O-R-G.

Related links:
- Michael Forster Rothbart’s home page
- Read Mary Mycio’s Blog
- Learn more about Chernobyl and get updates about Fukushima and other issues from Mary Mycio on Facebook
- See a photoessay by Mary Mycio about Chernobyl
- Click here to hear Bruce Gellerman's original 1996 story from Chernobyl
- Michael Forster Rothbart's website After Chernobyl

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[Slavutych A Cappella Choir “Inspiration”, Choir of Chernobyl workers ]

GELLERMAN: Coming up - hillbillies, Cajuns, coal, and oil - how fossil fuels foster stereotypes. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And, from Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[Donald Harrison: “Bob Marley” from Nouveau Swing (Impulse Records 1997)]

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Ahead - how a desert wren keeps its nestlings cool. But first, this Cool Fix for a Hot Planet from Sean Faulk.

Solar Street Lamps could be a Cool Fix for a Hot Planet


FAULK: The street lamps that illuminate our roads at night don’t do much during the day, but that idle time spent in the sun may change soon. Engineers say the fix is simple: turn the street lamps into solar panels.

Researchers from the Denmark-based company Scotia have developed a solar lamp they call SunMast. SunMast is the first street light designed to generate energy from the sun during the day and feed that energy into the local power grid.

(Photo: Adam Mørk/Scotia Light Ltd.)

The street lamp is fashioned with a new type of photovoltaic solar cell specially built to handle dim and indirect lighting. This allows the lamp to collect light efficiently even though it faces the ground. It can even gather light on cloudy days. Its creators claim that SunMast generates more electricity than it consumes.

Developers are currently testing the product in the UK, so it may not be long until solar street lamps begin to light up cities on this side of the pond. That’s this week’s Cool Fix for a Hot Planet, I’m Sean Faulk.

Related link:
Link to original article:

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GELLERMAN: And if you have a cool fix for a hot planet, we'd love to hear it!
If we use your idea on the air, we'll send you a shiny electric blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated can save you hundreds of dollars a year in fuel costs. Call our listener line at 800-218-9988, that's 800-218-99-88. Or email coolfix -that's one word - at LOE dot org. That's coolfix@loe.org.

Coal and Oil Shape Cultural Stereotypes

GELLERMAN: One year after BP’s Deep Water Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico comes news that BP will pump a billion dollars into restoration projects. The money will be used to rebuild marshes and barrier islands along the Gulf Coast and protect wildlife habitat. Residents along the coast have just marked the anniversary of the oil disaster that killed 11 workers. Just two weeks earlier, West Virginians paused to remember the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years - the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine claimed 29 lives.

The two disasters, just 15 days apart, give us a vivid glimpse of the true costs those regions pay to provide us with the energy we use. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young spoke with two writers - one from West Virginia, the other Louisiana - who have chronicled the ways coal and oil have shaped our sense of these places and the people who live there.

YOUNG: BP’s oil spill was the biggest, but far from the first. So as Louisiana officials sought fines of a million dollars a day from BP, Bloomberg reporter Ken Wells investigated what the state had done to punish other oil spillers.

WELLS: Louisiana gets four thousand spill alerts in the coast guard a year, so it’s the ‘oil spilling-est’ state in the union. And yet, fewer than one in a hundred oil spills are penalized in any way and the average fine for an oil spiller in Louisiana, even a serial spiller, was about three thousand dollars. They have created a culture in which it actually pays for them to pollute.

Ken Wells catching (and releasing) a redfish in Louisiana. Wetlands like this are eroding at an alarming rate. “It’s hard to imagine the Cajuns without their marshes and bayous,” Wells says. (Photo: Ken Wells)

YOUNG: Wells is a Louisiana native. His articles and books explore the complex interaction of oil, environment, and culture in his home state. There are oil jobs, of course, and state revenue. But there are also the spills and toxic air emissions from refineries. Wells says the industry’s greatest mark may be on the land itself - miles of canals for oil and gas pipelines that cut through the delta’s great marsh.

WELLS: So vast stretches of marsh that were once robust and healthy are dead and underwater, and there’ve been some very smart scientists down there who’ve actually done studies and put the estimate that can be traced to oil development at about 36% of all the wetland loss.

YOUNG: With the land melting away and fishing at risk, what does that mean for people who are so closely tied to the land and to fishing?

WELLS: Well, you know, I think this has set off an existentialist crisis there in a way. You know, it’s hard to think of very many places in America where the fate of the ecology and the fate of a culture are so inextricably intertwined. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the Cajuns without their marshes and their bayous.

YOUNG: Wells speaks with some authority on this, as he grew up on a bayou - Bayou Black, in Terrebonne Parish.

WELLS: We lived in a little farm right across from the bayou, and you know, learned to swim there amidst the cottonmouths and alligators.

YOUNG: But Wells did not learn the language that defined Cajun culture and community.

Ken Wells’ mother, Henrietta "Bonnie" Wells. When oil workers arrived in Cajun country, she was made to feel so ashamed of her culture that she did not teach her children French. (Photo: Ken Wells)

WELLS: My mother, who was a Cajun French speaker, was born in 1926, and she remembers well - late 30s and 40s - this influx of people from Texas and Louisiana coming to work the oil fields. And there was this huge denigration of the culture, you know. They found these people who - many of them didn’t speak English very well - if they spoke English they spoke with an accent, and they began to ridicule them. You know, the term ‘coonass’ became sort of the chief pejorative that rednecks used against Cajuns. And my mother, in the middle of this denigration, begins to feel bad about herself and her culture and does not teach me the language.

YOUNG: From the 1920s, Louisiana law prohibited children from speaking French on school grounds. Just as the growing oil industry straightened the bending bayous into linear canals, the dominant culture sought to mainstream the Cajuns. This was even reflected on the silver screen.


YOUNG: In the 1953 film “Thunder Bay,” Jimmy Stewart plays the first offshore driller on Louisiana’s Coast.

[FROM THE MOVIE; Stewart: “Look down there. All you can see is water. But if you dream real hard, you can smell the oil.” SNIFF; “There, can’t you smell it?”]

YOUNG: Stewart’s nemesis is a rowdy Cajun who fears the drilling will kill his shrimp. In the movie’s climax, Stewart confronts a Cajun mob.

[FROM THE MOVIE; Stewart: “Alright, now you may put me out of business, all of you. But that isn’t important. The important thing is that there’s oil under this gulf. And we need it. Everybody needs it - you need it. Without oil, this country of ours would stop and start to die. You can’t stop progress - nobody can.”]

WELLS: (Chuckles). Well, you know, I’m kind of shocked that the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association hasn’t dusted off and sort of use as the promotional message. You know, their message…they’re always-on message: we’re here on a holy mission to get out the oil and gas - we need this, you need it, you know, we’re going to give you jobs, and just stand aside and let us do our thing. And you know, unfortunately, that tends to be some of the attitude that’s still there today.

Wells’ father, William “Rex” Wells, on Bayou Black sometime in the late ‘40s. “We learned to swim there among the cottonmouths and gators.” (Photo: Ken Wells)

YOUNG: The end of “Thunder Bay” has Jimmy Stewart and progress triumphant, as a gusher of oil showers onto the Gulf waters.

[SOUND OF GUSHER; Stewart: “Ah, Ha ha ha! There she is! Ah, Ha ha ha!”…FADES]

YOUNG: Nearly a thousand miles away from Wells’s Bayou Black, writer Denise Giardina grew up in Black Wolf, a coal camp in West Virginia’s McDowell County.

GIARDINA: We lived in a house that was owned by the coal company. The coal company controlled the local political machines, the local school systems, built the churches, owned the company stores. And…it was a totalitarian system in many ways.

YOUNG: Giardina left the coal camp and discovered that there was much more to Appalachia than just coal. She studied history and found, to her surprise, that the region had a rich culture and deep roots.

Black Wolf coal camp in West Virginia, where Denise Giardina grew up. (Photo: Denise Giardina)

GIARDINA: If you had asked me when I was 12 years old what was my history, I would have said we have no history. Those cultural historical references were destroyed piecemeal, over a hundred years ago. And what took their place was, again, this totally controlled system run by the coal industry with little emphasis on connection to the land or connection to the past. I really, you know, as I grew up, learned that there were structural reasons for the problems that we had and I just wanted to tell that story.

YOUNG: Her novels, “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth,” trace generations of families through the turmoil of the coal industry and the fierce battles to organize miners.
And Giardina explores the ways outsiders eager to exploit the region’s mineral wealth depicted the Appalachian culture and determined its fate.

GIARDINA: The Appalachian stereotype of the, you know, toothless, barefoot, ignorant and violent hillbilly actually can be dated precisely back to the time the coal industry came in. You know, the national media took a murder and turned it in - you know, fabricated it into this very large Hatfield and McCoy feud, which was then used to justify coming in and taking over Appalachian land.

Giardina’s novels explore how coal has affected Appalachian people. “I learned there are structural reasons for the problems we had and I wanted to tell that story.”

And this has been documented by scholars. The New York Times in 1890 noted that land was being taken over in the mountains by the coal industry and said, ‘that’s fine - these strange people can go live their squalid, unambitious lives somewhere else.’ That’s where the Appalachian stereotype came from and it’s been used down through the decades then to denigrate Appalachian people.

[AUDIO MONTAGE: Ringing bell; Announcer: “The Real McCoys”; FADES TO music of dueling banjos; “Deliverance” excerpt - Ned Beatty character: “Talk about genetic deficiencies. Isn’t that pitiful?”; “Beverly Hillbillies” excerpt - Ellie May: “Happy Possum Day!”, and theme music - “Y’all come back, y’hear?]

GIARDINA: And the only sin people committed was living on top of coal. I mean, the things that people put up with here in the coalfields wouldn’t be allowed anyplace else. Those counties are among the poorest, least educated counties in the United States of America - and in fact, in terms of health indicators, you’re talking more like a third world country.

YOUNG: If you had to sum up, how would you describe this relationship between coal and the place where you grew up?

GIARDINA: Well it’s sort of like the relationship between a drug addict and the drug. (Laughs). People know how harmful it is, they know it’s been bad, but after, you know, 120 years, 130 years of dependence, it’s hard to break the habit.

YOUNG: Giardina’s metaphor of addiction also comes up as Ken Wells describes Louisiana’s relationship with oil. In fact, as you listen to these two writers, Bayou Black and Black Wolf coal camp don’t seem so far apart. They’re linked by a common experience with the black minerals beneath them. And now they're linked by the timing of two tragedies. Giardina and Wells see little evidence that what happened to the Upper Big Branch Mine and Deepwater Horizon rig has resulted in much change.

Denise Giardina: “The things people put up with here in the coalfields wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else.”(Photo: Page Hamrick III)

WELLS: I think it genuinely shocked people and I think this, you know, changed a number of minds and attitudes. The real question - the real test, I think - is whether what can be done is affordable or whether it really is…you know, time is sort of running out and it’s too little too late.

GIARDINA: You know, what’s been done in the year since it occurred? Nothing. What’s Congress done? Nothing. You know, if 29 people had been killed in an upper class community, that would have gotten some attention. But whether it’s the Louisiana oil fields or coalfields in West Virginia, anyplace where you have a major extractive industry and that’s the dominant industry in a place, then you’re going to have the same situation. We’re the cannon fodder for the energy war. So that’s basically it.

YOUNG: Authors Denise Giardina and Ken Wells. There’s more about them and the places they’re from at our website, L-O-E dot org. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Related links:
- About Ken Wells
- About Denise Giardina
- More about wetlands loss in Louisiana
- Hear part 1 of Jeff Young’s report from last week:
- Look at photos of life in a coal camp in the 1950’s.

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GELLERMAN: Thankfully, Earth Day renews our spirit and reminds us of the precious, tenacious nature of life on earth. We offer up this from the Arizona desert:


GELLERMAN: In today's BirdNote®, Mary McCann considers the nesting habits of America's largest wren.

A Cactus Wren nesting. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)


McCANN: In late April in the Arizona desert, it’s already over 90 degrees by 11 a.m. And the mercury is still rising. A Cactus Wren sings, perched atop a many-lobed cactus.


A Cactus Wren. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)

McCANN: Then it hops down to its nest, tucked among the spiny lobes of the prickly pear. In a desert realm where it’s hot enough to fry an egg on a flat rock, how can the delicate nestlings of a Cactus Wren survive? Well Cactus Wrens, which may nest several times between March and September, carefully orient their nests in tune with the season. Their bulky twig structures, shaped roughly like footballs, have a side entrance.

That tubular entrance curves toward the inner chamber. When building a nest for the hot months, the wren faces the opening to receive the afternoon breeze. This circulates cooling air through the chamber and over the chicks.

A Cactus Wren foraging. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)


McCANN: By contrast, a Cactus Wren building a nest in early March orients the entrance away from the cold winds of that season, keeping the chicks snug and warm.


GELLERMAN: That's Mary McCann for BirdNote®. For photos and more information, fly off to our website, L-O-E dot O-R-G.

Related links:
- Sounds of the Cactus Wren provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by W.R. Fish and G.A. Keller.
- BirdNote® Cactus Wren Nest Building Oriented with the Season was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: Andrei Krylov “Your Love Is My Prescription Drug” from Dragon From The Dark Side Of The Moon Freak Out (Andrei Krylov Productions 2010)]

**Web Extra" TVA's Landmark Decision

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GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, we travel to Borneo - or Kalimantan as locals call it - where an international effort is underway to restore land ruined by a failed rice-growing scheme.

MAN: I think this will probably be the world’s largest effort to rehabilitate a degraded peatland in a lowland area that’s ever been attempted, so it is big.

GELLERMAN: Turning a fiasco in the field into a model for restoration - next time on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our technical director.

Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, The Ford Foundation, The Town Creek Foundation, The Oak Foundation - supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues. And Pax World Mutual Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at pax world dot com. Pax world, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI - Public Radio International.

[All Living On Earth music themes composed by Allison Lirish Dean (2001).]


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