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

October 16, 1992

Air Date: October 16, 1992


Congress Tackles Lead Paint Poisoning, Sort of... / Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis reports from Washington on major new legislation to reduce the risk of lead paint poisoning. The bill represents what some are calling an historic compromise between lead paint activists and the housing industry. It adopts a standard of safety short of complete removal of lead paint. (04:10)

...And Energy, Sort of

Steve talks with New York Times energy correspondent Matthew Wald about the new National Energy Strategy, which was passed this month after nearly two years of debate. Initially conceived during the Gulf War as a way of weaning the country off foreign oil, the bill ended up doing little to either increase domestic production or dampen demand. (04:10)

Green Ballot Questions / Andrew Caffrey

Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the array of environmental referenda and initiative petitions on ballots around the country this fall. Activists are increasingly bypassing legislatures and taking their proposals directly to voters, but the trend has also stimulated a backlash at the ballot box. (06:10)

Ozone Hole: once Again, Worse than Predicted / Steve Curwood

Steve reports on the latest data on the Antarctic ozone hole, which has opened every southern spring for the last decade and a half. This year's hole is 20 percent bigger than last year and is passing for the first time over large human settlements. (02:00)

Problems With Promising CFC Substitute / Mike Villers

Mike Villars of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports on the decision of two major companies to stop working with a promising substitute for ozone-depleting CFCs. The companies say their workers could be exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical. (05:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Host: Steve Curwood
Newscaster: Jan Nunley
Reporters: Janet Barrie, David Baron, Rebecca Davis, Andrew Caffrey, Mike Villars
Guests: Matthew Wald, Jim Anderson

(Theme music up)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

After two decades of off-and-on debate, Congress has finally passed a bill that takes action on the massive lead paint poisoning problem in America. The new law is a classic of compromise.

RYAN: There is the recognition that over half the US housing stock has some lead paint. We can't throw up our hands and panic, or we would all be living in tents.

CURWOOD: Also, each year the hole in the Earth's protective ozone shield grows worse than scientific projections. This year is no exception.

ANDERSON: We don't want to overreact to this problem. We don't want to scare people, but at the same time we don't want to underestimate the severity, which we have done now for twenty years.

CURWOOD: And a roundup of green ballot questions, this week on Living on Earth. First, the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

German authorities have seized large quantities of highly radioactive material smuggled into the country from the former Soviet Union. The discovery supports fears that material from the Soviet weapons program is being sold on the black market. Janet Barrie reports from Bonn.

BARRIE: In what's believed to be the biggest seizure of its kind, firefighters in Frankfurt found quantities of cesium-137 stored in a luggage locker in the city's train station. Three cylinders of strontium-90 were also found in the trunk of a car. Five Polish citizens have been arrested and accused of smuggling the material into Germany. The International Atomic Energy Authority said earlier this year that nuclear material from former Eastern bloc states was on sale on the black market in Western Europe. German environment minister Klaus Topfer said German embassies in former Eastern bloc states would press governments there for tighter border controls. He said Eastern European governments should make it clear to their citizens that there is no market in Western Europe for highly radioactive goods. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Barrie in Bonn.

NUNLEY: In a move with potentially important impact on environmental lawsuits, the US Supreme Court has agreed to decide what kind of scientific evidence can be presented to a jury. The justices will hear a case in which key evidence was dismissed by a lower court as "junk science", and the move comes as some court reformers are arguing that evidence should be admitted in court only if it is generally accepted by the scientific community. But University of Maryland law professor Robert Percivul says such a standard may be too strict.

PERCIVUL: It's very difficult to separate out what some people call junk science from cutting edge science. . . In many cases what was originally dismissed by the scientific community later proved to be a very important contribution to scientific thought.

NUNLEY: Percivul says a narrow ruling by the high court could make already tough environmental cases much more difficult to win.

Indonesia says it will cut down its forests and replace them with farms if other countries adopt boycotts on tropical woods. The statement by Indonesia's forestry minister comes in response to a new Austrian plan to label all tropical timber products, a move which Indonesia considers a hostile act. Some environmentalists have advocated labeling or boycotting tropical woods as a way of reducing deforestation. But Indonesia says that unless they can sell their wood, the forests have no economic value to the country. Indonesian forests supply over 50 percent of the world's tropical plywood.

Vietnamese officials are blaming unchecked logging and illegal gold mining for the country's most devastating floods in seventy years. Torrential seasonal rains in the country's central mountains have combined with a lack of ground cover to wash out roads and farms and take the lives of 37 people. The United Nations recently stated that deforestation was Vietnam's biggest environmental problem.

This is Living on Earth.

Wildlife officials in Zimbabwe say poachers have reduced the world's largest surviving black rhino herd from two-thousand animals just four years ago to less than five-hundred today. The Zambezi Wildlife Society is dehorning the remaining rhinos in hopes of deterring poachers. Poachers sell the horns in the Far East for medicinal purposes. There are believed to be only about ten- thousand black rhinos left in the world.

The Federal Government has approved a Midwest high speed rail corridor, the first of five demonstration projects in the US. The line will cut travel time between the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis in half, with trains whose speeds will approach 150 miles per hour. Officials say the trains will be nine times less polluting per passenger than cars.

Meanwhile, a Boston-area inventor is offering another solution to auto exhaust. He says he's found a way to dramatically reduce automobile emissions while raising fuel economy. . . David Baron of member station WBUR in Boston reports.

BARON: Engineer Michael Ward has come up with a new kind of spark plug and ignition system that, he says, allows engines to run more cleanly and efficiently. Ward developed the technology over the past fifteen years at his private company. He's now installed the system in a 1986 Ford Escort. Independent tests show the car's fuel efficiency increased ten percent, while emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides dropped as much as 95 percent. Michael Ward.

WARD: With this system, plus some other changes, we can meet the emissions standards being proposed for the year 2004.

BARON: Other automotive engineers say they're not convinced the ignition system will prove reliable. The technology might also reduce a car's responsiveness, making it less attractive to consumers. But the Ford Motor Company and three foreign firms have expressed interest in learning more about the invention. For Living on Earth, this is David Baron reporting.

NUNLEY: That's this week's environmental news. . . I'm Jan Nunley.

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Congress Tackles Lead Paint Poisoning, Sort of...

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

As the 102nd Congress wrapped up before adjournment, it enacted a number of important environmental measures, including what some call an historic compromise on lead paint poisoning. About one in every six American children has received an unhealthy dose of lead, mostly thanks to its widespread use in house paints until the early 1970's. While many of these children show no outward signs of poisoning, many others have physical and mental impairments. Lead paint has been banned in homes for two decades, but little has been done about the lead remaining in as many as 100 million houses and apartments. From Washington, Rebecca Davis reports on the new agreement.

cutive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

RYAN: There is the recognition that over half the US housing stock has some lead paint. We can't throw up our hands and panic, or we would all be living in tents. We must take a common - sense approach to this problem, and I think that's what Title X lays out.

DAVIS: For privately-owned property, TITLE X essentially establishes a standard of informed consent. The Act holds the private sector responsible largely for disclosing and informing potential buyers and renters about the possible presence of lead-based paint on the property, and its potential hazards to the health of children. The housing industry supports Title X, because the seller bears no responsibility for the presence of lead paint, as long as the disclosure requirements are fulfilled. The standards are tougher for Federally-owned properties, where the government must in some instances have the lead paint removed. This includes Federal agencies, such as the Resolution Trust Corporation, the nation's largest landlord. The Act also puts a two-year deadline on abatement of lead paint hazards in Federally-assisted housing, although it doesn't provide any funds for compliance. This has some state and local governments concerned. Ann Scott is an environmental lobbyist for the City of New York.

SCOTT: Because the requirements apply to all Federally-assisted housing units, it could potentially take money away from the construction of new affordable housing units. Unless the Federal Government comes up with new money, there will be a shift away from housing construction to lead paint abatement.

DAVIS: Scott says she hopes Congress will pass additional legislation that would fund the management or removal of lead paint. A bill that would have done this through a tax on the lead industry failed this last session. Outgoing California Senator Alan Cranston, who sponsored the Title X legislation, also supports additional funding for lead paint abatement.

CRANSTON: In the long run it's a saving. There've been lawsuits, for example, against the Federal Government where it didn't warn a family that theing units. Unless the Federal Government comes up with new money, there will be a shift away from housing construction to lead paint abatement.

DAVIS: Scott says she hopes Congress will pass additional legislation that would fund the management or removal of lead paint. A bill that would have done this through a tax on the lead industry failed this last session. Outgoing California Senator Alan Cranston, who sponsored the Title X legislation, also supports additional funding for lead paint abatement.

CRANSTON: In the long run it's a saving. There've been lawsuits, for example, against the Federal Government where it didn't warn a family that the
cutive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

RYAN: There is the recognition that over half the US housing stock has some lead paint. We can't throw up our hands and panic, or we would all be living in tents. We must take a common - sense approach to this problem, and I think that's what Title X lays out.

DAVIS: For privately-owned property, TITLE X essentially establishes a standard of informed consent. The Act holds the private sector responsible largely for disclosing and informing potential buyers and renters about the possible presence of lead-based paint on the property, and its potential hazards to the h

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...And Energy, Sort of

CURWOOD: Another major piece of environmentally-related legislation, passed as Congress adjourned, was the energy bill. Debate over the measure began nearly two years ago during the Gulf War, when both Republicans and Democrats called for reduced dependence on Mideast oil. The measure encourages the development of renewable energy sources, and imposes new conservation standards. But according to New York Times energy correspondent Matthew Wald, the new energy law does little to reduce the consumption of foreign oil.

WALD: It's a little underwhelming. The original thought was to do something to improve domestic production and something to reduce domestic consumption. And in the end it barely does either of those. It gives a small tax incentive to small oil producers in this country, but it doesn't do what the oil industry wanted, which was to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other offshore areas to drilling. It especially, conspicuously does nothing about automobile fuel efficiency. Cars and trucks use about 60 percent of the oil. The efficiency standards have been frozen since 1986, they're just not getting any better, and it proved too controversial a point for the Congress to take on. So in the end it's a non-oil bill; they called it the National Energy Strategy -- as far as oil goes it's kind of a national lethargy strategy.

CURWOOD: What does the bill do?

WALD: It does a lot of things, many of them useful. It changes the electric industry, by opening up generation to more companies; those that build independent generating stations are allowed access to the transmission grid on easier terms than they used to be. It also changes some things on the consumption side of electricity by setting minimum standards for some equipment that uses electricity, so it'll do the same work with less electricity. It gives a boost to the nuclear industry, although I don't know in the end how effective that will be. It also has some policy in that, regarding transportation, by encouraging states to use cars and trucks that run on something besides gasoline. This is mostly environmental policy masquerading as energy policy, although there's nothing wrong with that and it does achieve a purpose.

CURWOOD: Now what about electrical conservation standards? I read that now the government is going to be telling how efficient your air conditioner, your refrigerator, your electric motor is going to be.

WALD: Yes, and that could be important. In theory, everybody wants to save energy. I heard an engineer talking about the on-the-truck theory of water heaters a few weeks ago. He said everybody knows that the best available water heaters use substantially less electricity, and that if you buy the best one it may cost you a little more up front, but you'll earn it back in savings. So in theory, if you need a new water heater, you buy the best one you can get. In practice, nobody shops for water heaters. You're standing in the shower one morning, the hot water ends, you get out, you call the plumber and the plumber says oh, yeah, he says I can get you one of those really good water heaters, it'll be here a week from Thursday. Or I can come by this afternoon and give you the one that's on the truck. So you get the one that's on the truck. If we have national standards for appliances, then the one that's on the truck will be slightly better, and that's something the states can't do on their own -- it has to be a Federal initiative.

CURWOOD: So, Matt, is this bill a significant advance in energy policy? I mean, was it worth the last two years of debate and the hassle there in Washington?

WALD: Well, it depends on what you think a congressman's time is worth, I guess.


WALD: It certainly shows the limits on what we're able to accomplish, if we couldn't get a strong oil bill at a time when domestic production is continuing to decline, domestic consumption is rising slowly -- if we couldn't do it now, after sending half a million people to fight in the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, when on earth are we going to do it? Other countries have an easier time at this, because they are either producers or consumers. This country is both, and both sides are very well represented in Washington, and they've checkmated each other.

CURWOOD: All right, thank you very much. Matthew Wald is energy reporter for the New York Times. Thank you.

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(Music up and out)

Green Ballot Questions

CURWOOD: In this year's election season, it's not just the candidates with ideas that are on trial before the voters. . . In many places ideas themselves are on trial, in the form of ballot questions. Increasingly, environmental activists, and their opponents, are bypassing balky legislatures and turning to ballot initiatives. As part of our series on environmental issues in the 1992 elections, Andrew Caffrey, of member station WBUR in Boston, reports on a number of this year's green measures, including a Massachusetts battle over recycling.

(Sound of rattling paper bag)

PERRY: I'm going to show you just some samples from a bag of groceries. These are products that people buy, and they're in packaging that people then throw away.

CAFFREY: When it comes to goods and garbage, Amy Perry is an expert. She's spearheading a voter referendum campaign to require products that are sold in Massachusetts be wrapped in recycled or recyclable packaging. Many of the state's landfills are scheduled to close within five years; nearly a third of the garbage in those landfills is wasteful packaging, Perry says, that should be used again. For an example, Perry reaches into her grocery bag of consumer goods.

PERRY: Again, it's a container that, as far as I know, is made up of several different kinds of materials that clearly can't be recycled in any program in Massachusetts. It's plastic, it has a plastic top, it has a different kind of plastic side . . . (Fade under)

CAFFREY: Curbside recycling is popular in many Massachusetts communities, but Perry says the lack of demand for reusable materials has kept many programs from expanding, and even forced some communities to cut back. Perry and her supporters hope to create a market for recycled material by forcing product makers to incorporate used paper, plastic, glass and metal in their goods and packaging. The initiative is on the Massachusetts ballot because environmentalists have been unable to get a recycling bill through the State Legislature five years running. The direct ballot route has become more popular recently, prompted by what many groups see as legislative gridlock or hostility to new environmental programs. There are at least 33 major environmental propositions in 17 states, according to Roy Morgan of Americans for the Environment. Morgan says there is no one theme among the ballot referenda, but rather a variety of environmental subjects.

MORGAN: I think it illustrates the environmental movement is quite a diverse panoply of groups, and reflects a number of interests. Some of these are traditional environmental efforts to preserve parkland, create new parkland, and some of these efforts are more activist in nature.

CAFFREY: In Colorado, an initiative would limit hunting of its fast-diminishing black bear population. Ohio has been ranked third by the EPA in overall toxic pollution, so environmentalists are sponsoring a right-to-know initiative that would disclose chemical content of products. And in Austin, Texas, voters in August approved three separate land conservation measures to preserve a drinking water aquifer. These types of environmental programs enjoy wide support among the electorate, according to Roy Morgan. His analysis found voters approved 60 percent of the environmental initiatives on the ballot in 1990. But environmental referenda are encountering increasingly well-organized opposition -- especially land conservation measures. Among the most prominent of this new opposition is "People for the West!" Barbara Grannell is head of the Colorado-based organization.

GRANNELL: I think when you are a multi-billion dollar special interest agenda like the environmental agenda in this country is, then you have the money and the power to put anything on the ballot that you want. And what has to happen is for other people who might have a different point of view, or a more balanced, moderate point of view, to get involved in the process, and that's what has to happen.

CAFFREY: But environmentalists charge that it's industry which has been willing to spend heavily to defeat environmental referenda. In Massachusetts, for example, the major petrochemical and national brands companies have, by mid-October, ponied up more than 4 million dollars against the recycling campaign's 130 thousand dollar budget. A common theme advanced by corporate opponents is that environmental programs are expensive in such tough economic times. Such sophisticated opposition has Roy Morgan of Americans for the Environment worried. He warns his fellow environmentalists to expect a much harder time at the ballot box.

MORGAN: One, there's a lot of organized opposition to them. Two, they're more expensive than they might have been in the past. And three, you've got to convince the voters that these measures which do cost are good investments in the long run.

CAFFREY: But even losing at the ballot box does not necessarily mean the end of a particular environmental cause. In Oregon, for example, the plastics and packaging industry spent millions to defeat a recycling proposal two years ago. But in its next session, the Oregon Legislature brought the two sides together and passed a scaled-down version of the recycling question. Joel Areo, policy director of the National Environmental Law Center, says the ballot campaign was a wake-up call to industry.

AREO: That was what got their attention, and they saw that if they didn't participate constructively in making recycling progress, they could expect to see another similar ballot initiative here in 1992. They didn't want to see that.

CAFFREY: Though this is a record year for referenda politics, specialists say 1994 may actually be a more contentious season at the ballot box, because the opposition has taken a page out of the environmentalists' play book. In Arizona, for example, landowners have already prepared a referendum that would make conservation takings by the state more difficult. And environmental watchers expect similar initiatives to appear on ballots in at least several other states. For Living on Earth, this is Andrew Caffrey in Boston.

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(Music sting)

Ozone Hole: once Again, Worse than Predicted

ANNOUNCER: . . . the rest of New South Wales, but the good news is they should start to move out over the next 24 to 48 hours. Ultraviolet radiation reached 2 point 4 today, back to a moderate reading on the scale. Air pollution as tracked by the State Pollution Control . . . ( fade under )

CURWOOD: The ultraviolet radiation rating has become as much a part of the daily weather report in Sydney, Australia, this year as temperature, wind and rain. That's because Australians, and others deep in the Southern Hemisphere, are worried about increasing levels of cancer-causing UV radiation getting in through the ever-thinning ozone layer. Ozone-destroying chemicals produced around the world tend to concentrate over the cold regions, especially the South Pole. For more than a decade now, a large hole in the earth's protective ozone layer has opened up over the region each southern spring. Recently, NASA and other monitors reported that the Antarctic ozone hole this year has grown by 20 percent, to a record size. Jim Anderson is an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University, who has worked with NASA on ozone depletion. He says this means that for the first time, the ozone hole is passing over sizeable human populations.

ANDERSON: We now have a region that's 12 to 13 percent of the entire area of the Southern Hemisphere, and so as it moves over Australia, Argentina and Chile it leaves a very large gap overhead through which ultraviolet radiation can penetrate.

CURWOOD: This year's Southern Hemisphere ozone depletion also began earlier than the usual mid-September; it's proceeded more quickly and it's expected to last longer than the 4 to 6 weeks seen in the past. Exactly why the South Pole's ozone hole has grown so dramatically remains a mystery. Volcanic eruptions may be adding to the problems caused by CFC's. And the depletion of ozone may be feeding back on itself. What scientists do know is that each year the news seems to be worse than the year before. Again, Jim Anderson.

ANDERSON: We don't want to overreact to this problem. We don't want to scare people, we don't want to invert economic priorities, but at the same time we don't want to underestimate the severity, which we have done now for twenty years.

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Problems With Promising CFC Substitute

CURWOOD: In response to the ozone problem, more than a hundred countries have agreed to phase out most ozone-eating chemicals by the end of the century, and the US has set a deadline of 1995. But a major glitch may may have arisen in the rush to meet the deadline. Two companies using a substitute for CFC's in commercial coolers have stopped working with the chemical because of health concerns. The problem has some wondering if the phase-out deadline will be met. Mike Villers of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

VILLERS: There are some 80 thousand industrial refrigerators in the US. Right now, virtually all of them use chlorofluorocarbons as their coolant. But the government's mandate to phase out the manufacture of CFC's means that soon, all of these refrigerators will have to be replaced, or converted to use a different kind of coolant. This necessity has produced a scramble to find a standard replacement for CFC's, a scramble with a potentially huge payoff. Dave Rasmussen is an analyst for the CFC Report, an industry newsletter.

RASMUSSEN: An average chiller can use anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds up to a thousand or more pounds of this refrigerant. And the potential market for just the refrigerant alone is close to a billion dollars, and it's got to be much more than that for the equipment.

VILLERS: The specific refrigerant Rasmussen has in mind is called HCFC-123, the most promising CFC replacement now on the market. It's basically a chlorofluorocarbon with a hydrogen molecule tacked on, and while it's chemically similar to CFC's, it's far more ozone-friendly. It destroys just 2 to 3 percent as much ozone as CFC's. The DuPont Company has taken the lead in manufacturing HCFC-123, and the Wisconsin-based Trane Corporation has been out front in developing and modifying equipment to use it. About 1500 HCFC-123 machines are already in operation around the country. But this rush to market, which began before safety testing of HCFC-123 was complete, may turn out to have been premature. One of the great benefits of CFC's was that they were generally non-toxic to humans. And they had to be, because the maze of pipes, valves and compressors required to run a refrigerator almost invariably leak. But tests have shown that laboratory rats exposed to the new refrigerant develop benign tumors, and the allowable exposure limit for people working with HCFC-123 is now set 100 times lower than for CFC's. These new safety concerns have given some companies pause about working with the new coolant.

PONZAK: In view of the possible health risks that were demonstrated or that were intimated in these studies, Johnson Controls at this time would decide not to expose its employees to HCFC-123.

VILLERS: Glen Ponzak is a spokesperson for Johnson Controls, one of the largest companies in the country that services industrial refrigerators. Johnson recently joined the Carrier Corporation, a major manufacturer of such equipment, in announcing that it would stop working with HCFC-123 machines. Both companies say that the nature of cooling equipment is such that they could never guarantee their workers wouldn't be exposed to possibly unsafe levels of the chemical. These actions worry companies like Trane and DuPont, who fear that potential customers may be scared away from HCFC-123. Both of those companies defend the safety of the chemical, and they question Johnson and Carrier's motives for withdrawing from the business. Gene Smithhart, a marketing director at Trane, says Johnson got out because it lacked the training and experience to work with the new coolant.

SMITHHART: Of the 1500 centrifugal machines that Johnson has in their service contracts in the US, only between approximately ten to fifteen have HCFC-123.

VILLERS: And the EPA backs up Trane and DuPont on HCFC-123. Reva Rubenstein, a CFC and HCFC specialist at the EPA, says its testing showed the danger to workers from the new coolant to be minimal.

RUBENSTEIN: We found that the level was well below the ten parts per million which is what the recommended level is. And in most cases, it was under one part per million; in fact in most cases we couldn't detect it at all.

VILLERS: But the EPA admits it tested only six sites, and that it cooperated with Trane and DuPont in setting up those tests. Meanwhile, the CFC Report's Dave Rasmussen says DuPont has had its own problems handling the coolant. An environmental manager for DuPont recently told the CFC Report that workers at a company plant in Michigan were exposed to more than twice the allowable levels of the refrigerant. Rasmussen says DuPont's troubles point to the central question regarding HCFC-123 as a primary replacement for CFC's.

RASMUSSEN: If indeed the manufacturer itself is having trouble maintaining these limits even in drumming the stuff, that calls into question how safe it can be used throughout the industry.

VILLERS: How the safety issues concerning HCFC-123 will play out remains uncertain. But if they're not resolved by the end of 1995, they could result in very uncertain economic futures for those companies committed to HCFC-123 technology. And with no other viable alternatives yet on the horizon, even more uncertainty for the fate of the ozone layer. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Villers.

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CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments about our show, give us a call on our listener line. . . at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us. . . at Living on Earth. . . Box 639. . . Cambridge, Massachusetts. . . 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

Our editor and producer is Peter Thomson. Deborah Stavro directs the program. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and we had help from Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, and engineer Laurie Azaria. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music under funding credits)


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