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

April 15, 1994

Air Date: April 15, 1994


Chlorine Causes Controversy / Bruce Gellerman

As part of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is proposing to study the effects of chlorine on both people and animals. A growing number of scientists believe that the multipurpose chemical has alarming health effects. Industries are contesting the recommended studies, saying the chemical is invaluable and substitute chemicals too expensive. Bruce Gellerman reports. (07:15)

Listener Line Comments

Living on Earth listeners respond with their thoughts on electric cars. (02:05)

Update on Ozone / David Baron

David Baron examines the current debate over the state of the planet's thinning ozone layer. Although the hole in our atmosphere continues to grow, scientists say it's doing so more slowly these days, and the global phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons may have prevented a real disaster. Still, controversy remains about current damage, and most scientists agree that this is no time to stop worrying. (06:09)

Religious Partnership Promotes Stewardship for the Planet

On Earth Day, 53,000 U.S. congregations will receive packets promoting ways to incorporate environmental stewardship into their communities. Host Steve Curwood talks to the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Paul Gorman, about building an environmental ethic within religions, and the importance of organized religion to the future of the environmental movement. (06:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Terry Fitzpatrick, Amy Eddings, Sherry Hemsat, Bruce Gellerman, David Baron
GUEST: Paul Gorman

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Amid growing evidence about the dangers of many chemicals containing chlorine, the Clinton Administration has asked Congress to fund a study of the element as it considers possible curbs on its use. But that's outraged the chemical industry.

MASON: Our first reaction was that the EPA was prejudging chlorine. Any study that's undertaken with the perspective of prohibiting, reducing, or eliminating the use of these very beneficial chemicals, we will not support.

CURWOOD: Also, on Earth Day, 50,000 churches and synagogues will share a call for environmental awareness and action.

GORMAN: The issue of environmental protection is an inescapably, intrinsically religious challenge. We're talking here about what God created, and beheld as good.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news. Pacific Northwest fishing communities are looking for millions of dollars in emergency aid after the Federal government banned nearly all salmon fishing in the region. From Seattle, Terry Fitzpatrick reports.

FITZPATRICK: Economists estimate the salmon shutdown could cost thousands of jobs and nearly $100 million in lost income. The commercial and sport fishing season has been completely closed in Washington and parts of Oregon; strict limits have been imposed on fishermen in California. Thirty-one Congressional representatives, including House Speaker Tom Foley, say many coastal communities cannot survive the restrictions without Federal assistance. The Clinton Administration last month set a precedent of aiding fishing communities by granting $30 million to New England states, where decades of over-fishing forced severe restrictions this year. West coast officials claim they have a more compelling case. Besides the ongoing destruction of spawning habitat, El Niño weather conditions have further reduced the survival of Pacific salmon at sea. For Living on Earth I'm Terry Fitzpatrick in Seattle.

NUNLEY: Long Island women who lived near certain industrial plants in the 60s and 70s are at higher risk of developing breast cancer. That's according to a new, two-year study by the New York State Department of Health. The study is considered one of the first to make the link between breast cancer and factory emissions. From New York, Amy Eddings has more.

EDDINGS: The study looks at Long Island, an area that has one of the highest breast cancer rates in the country. It found that women who lived less than a mile from chemical, rubber, and plastic manufacturers during the 1960s and 70s have just about the same risk of getting breast cancer after menopause as women with a family history of the disease. That risk is 62% higher than average. The study does not prove that chemical pollutants cause breast cancer, and it did not look at current plant emissions under today's tougher clean air regulations. The National Cancer Institute will use the Health Department's data in its own 5-year study of the region. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

NUNLEY: The Forest Service has canceled a controversial 50-year logging contract in the last large tract of temperate rainforest in the US. The contract gave a heavy subsidy to a Japanese company for cutting timber in Alaska's Tongas National Forest. The Forest Service says it dissolved that contract with Alaska Pulp because the company failed to meet its employment obligations. The Service says the move will encourage better forestry practices in the rare ecosystem.

The EPA hopes lowering sewage treatment standards will spur older cities to fix outdated sewer systems. So-called combined sewage overflows, which often flush raw effluent into waterways, were outlawed by the Clean Water Act of 1972. But few of the 1,100 cities with combined sewer overflows have the money to fix them: a total cost of more than $100 billion. The EPA says its new regulations protect public health at about a fourth the cost. Some clean water advocacy groups applaud the flexibility of the new approach; others worry it may gut stricter state requirements. This is Living on Earth.

Incineration of the US's chemical weapons could begin as soon as next Spring, now that the Army has decided burning is the best means of disposal. The decision follows a review of disposal options by an independent Federal research panel. Concerns over the effects of emissions from incinerators have led citizen commissions in 8 states to push for no-burn methods. The Army says alternate methods, such as chemical neutralization, may be appropriate for a small fraction of its 30,000 tons of chemical weapons.

More than 6 million acres of southeastern California desert may soon receive greater protection from the Federal government. The California Desert Protection Act is expected to sail through the US House, after it passed the Senate by a wide margin. Earlier versions of the bill were blocked by former California Republican senator John Seymour, who felt it would hurt the state's economy. But Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who defeated Seymour 2 years ago, has made desert protection a priority. The act would set aside 74 new wilderness areas and upgrade the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national monuments to national parks.

Urban forestry programs have been pruned or chopped completely in many US cities recently, but a new Federal study says that kind of short-term cost cutting could be short-sighted. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Sherry Hemsat explains.

HEMSAT: The 3-year study by the US Forest Service found planting 95,000 more trees could save homes and businesses in Chicago $38 million by absorbing air pollution and trimming heating and cooling costs. The report comes at a critical time for many municipal governments. Cash-strapped cities and counties have a tough time backing costly tree maintenance and planting. But the report bolsters environmentalists' claim to support those line items. And many homeowners might rethink felling bothersome trees that have grown too close to their houses. The study found 3 well-placed trees could pare nearly $90 off residential utility bills. For Living on Earth, I'm Sherry Hemsat in Chicago.

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

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Chlorine Causes Controversy

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

A major battle is shaping up in Congress over what at first might seem to be a minor issue. Among the Clinton Administration's proposed amendments to the Clean Water Act is a request for $3 million to study the health effects of chlorine used by industry. It's a small budget line, but it has spawned big fears on the part of chemical companies. Chemicals made with chlorine are a major part of industry, from the production of life-saving pharmaceuticals to the manufacture of plastics, paper, and computers. but an increasing body of evidence shows that synthetic chlorinated chemicals are dangerous to the health of humans and wildlife in almost every form tested so far. Last year, after an extensive review by its scientists, the US/Canada International Joint Commission, which oversees the Great Lakes, called for a virtual ban on the use of chlorine. The chemical industry is reacting bitterly to the proposed EPA study. They think the Agency may have already prejudged chlorine, and that Congress could be stampeded into ill-considered and economically destructive action. Bruce Gellerman of member station WBUR has our report.

GELLERMAN: If there's a manufactured chemical that's produced better living through chemistry, chlorine might be a good candidate. It's familiar to most of us as a disinfectant for drinking water and as a bleach. But that's only the beginning. Chlorine, or one of the 11,000 chlorinated compounds, is used in making everything from cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and disposable diapers, to durable plastics, pesticides, and rocket fuel. But now the EPA is thinking what at least some people believe is the unthinkable. The Agency is raising the possibility of banning chlorine from industry. In the words of the Administration's amendment to the Clean Water Act, the EPA would develop, quote, "a national strategy to substitute, reduce, or prohibit the use of chlorine in chlorinated compounds." Charles Fox is director of policy development in the EPA's Office of Water.

FOX: While there are a number of beneficial uses of chlorine, there are some compounds and byproducts of chlorine's use that can bioaccumulate in the food chain, impose significant threats to the aquatic ecosystems, and ultimately to the people that rely upon the food that they provide. And it is fair to say that this proposal was somewhat controversial.

GELLERMAN: That's an understatement. Outraged is the way a press release described the chemical industry's reaction to the chlorine study amendment. It goes on to say, "The Agency has left us no choice but to fight. And we will. Vigorously."

MASON: Our first reaction was that the EPA was prejudging chlorine.

GELLERMAN: Ann Mason, Director of Regulatory Affairs with the Chemical Manufacturers Association, believes the EPA has already decided to ban chlorine.

MASON: Any study that's undertaken with the perspective of looking at, prohibiting, reducing, or eliminating the use of these very beneficial chemicals, we will not support.

GELLERMAN: The CMA says banning chlorine from industry would have dire economic consequences. It estimates the element plays a role in 45 million US jobs and 40% of the Gross National Product. The industry's opposition has not caused the EPA to back away from the proposed study. But eager not to lose support for the overall Clean Water Bill, EPA administration Carol Browner met with the head of the Chemical Association and told him the chlorine amendment had been misinterpreted. Charles Fox of the EPA says the study will include members of the chemical industry, as well as independent scientists and environmentalists.

FOX: It is ludicrous to suggest that we are banning any one element from the periodic table. Obviously that is something that is impossible to do. Our goal in this is to look at some of the complex ways that these substances are used throughout our environment, and to try and do our best to control those uses that we believe will be most beneficial to protecting public health and the environment.

GELLERMAN: In some forms, chlorine is unquestionably safe. It's found in every drop of sea water. But it's the pure form, rare in nature but common in industry, the EPA wants to study. It's in this form that chlorine is toxic, and some of its compounds and byproducts, so-called organochlorines, have been linked to cancer. They include DDT, dioxin, and PCBs. But the newest evidence suggests toxicity and cancer may be only part of the problem. Theo Colburn is a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund.

COLBURN: I'm afraid that in many instances we've overlooked these very, very less obvious, but certainly equally as devastating, health effects, that are not being expressed in the individuals who are directly exposed, but in their offspring.

GELLERMAN: Colburn is the leading proponent of a hypothesis that chlorinated compounds can disrupt the endocrine system during fetal development. The theory, and a growing number of studies, suggests chlorine chemicals and byproducts can mimic hormones: chemical messengers in the body that regulate growth, reproduction, and the ability to fight diseases. Recently, the International Joint Commission, a US-Canadian agency, which oversees the Great Lakes, cited evidence of hormone disruption in calling for the complete phase-out of chlorine and chlorinated compounds. Mike Gilbertson is with the IJC.

GILBERTSON: One of the things we first noticed in the Great Lakes was that the herring gull embryos, the male embryos, were in fact developing parts of the female anatomy. So they look like hermaphrodites. And in fact it just doesn't affect feminization; it affects a whole series of other processes like the neurological development.

COBURN: Some of the messages we're getting within the last year or two tell us that yes, these things seem to be happening in people, too.

GELLERMAN: Theo Colburn cites studies linking chlorinated compounds to reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, and arrested sexual development in humans. The EPA wants to study these hormonal effects along with chlorine's other health impacts. But Ann Mason of the Chemical Manufacturers Association doubts the objectivity of the EPA's investigation, and says the industry is doing its own studies.

MASON: We are aware of these allegations of the linkage between organochlorines and other non-cancer end-points. This is a new area of science, and we really are looking for the ways of getting answers. After all, the studies that we have seen and have discussed, really pose conflicting findings.

GELLERMAN: So far, the chemical makers have successfully blocked the Clinton Administration's chlorine studies. But another bill, already before Congress, could accomplish almost the same goal. It calls for a phase-out of the use of chlorine in the paper industry and would fund studies of the health effects of other industrial uses of chlorine. Some European nations are already eliminating chlorine as a bleach in their paper and pulp companies. Even if the Clean Water Amendment fails, it seems the debate over chlorine in the US is just beginning. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.

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Listener Line Comments

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should the EPA study chlorine? What about a ban? Call our listener line at 1-800-218-9988. Last week our line was literally jammed with a record number of calls, and our apologies to those of you who couldn't get through. We asked our listeners if they would buy an electric car. By a margin of nearly 100 to 1, the answer was yes. Here's what some of you said.

CALLER: My name is Gilbert Zaccaro. I'm calling from North Bend, Oregon. About the electric cars, yes I would buy one as long as they were reasonable. I'm also the chief of police here in North Bend, and I'd like to have them in my fleet.

CALLER: My name's Dave Ostergrund, and I'm in Morgantown, West Virginia. I think we need to think very cautiously about the unseen costs of plugging your car into a wall socket. I'm worried about producing electricity from either hydropower, which uses up rivers, or coal, which still puts things into the air.

CALLER: Would I buy an electric car if they're readily available? I certainly would. There's nothing I'd like better than be able to start up my car in the morning, get out for a second, and still be able to hear the birds singing. I would buy it in a minute, assuming I could afford it. There's the catch, probably.

CALLER: I'm a demolition contractor and I put about 200 miles on my vehicle every day, and once they can do that and go at a reasonable speed, you know, between 50 and 60 miles per hour, sign me up and I'll pay twice as much to get a clean, quiet car that doesn't hurt the environment.

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CURWOOD: The number again is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

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Update on Ozone

CURWOOD: Among the chlorinated chemicals which industry has agreed to stop using are chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs. Nearly two decades ago, scientists found that CFCs were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, and in 1987 the world's nations agreed to phase out CFCs. Even after the phase-out began, though, for years studies of the ozone layer kept showing it to be getting worse. But recently, scientists have begun saying that the worldwide CFC ban may be working, and that the worst of ozone layer depletion may soon be over. David Baron of member station WBUR reports.

BARON: Two atmospheric chemists at the University of California first alerted the world to the potential danger of ozone depletion 20 years ago, in a paper published in the British journal Nature. One of the authors was Mario Melino. He now teaches at MIT, and he keeps a copy of that historic article in his filing cabinet.

(Filing cabinet being opened, files riffled through)

MELINO: There we go. Destruction of ozone, Nature, 1974.

BARON: This seemingly unexceptional technical report contained a profound message. It suggested that common manmade chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used at the time in aerosol spray cans, refrigerators, and air conditioners, could migrate to the upper atmosphere and destroy ozone. Ozone is a naturally-occurring gas that shields the planet from deadly ultraviolet radiation. Without this ozone layer, scientists said, the Earth would likely suffer an ecological and human health disaster. But after 20 years of fearing dire consequences, Melino now believes a disaster will be averted.

MELINO: The worst is not over yet, but it's not going to get a lot worse.

BARON: In fact, the situation should start to improve before long. Sherwood Roland was Mario Melino's coauthor on the 1974 paper.

ROLAND: The worst, as far as ozone depletion, might pass within the next 10 or 15 years.

BARON: Such forecasts have led some politicians and journalists to claim that scientists have backed down from their earlier doomsday predictions, and that perhaps ozone depletion never did pose a major threat. But atmospheric chemists like Roland and Melino are adamant that their warnings were justified. That serious consequences could have resulted, and that health and environmental problems from ozone depletion could still lie ahead. Scientists say the outlook is better now only because the world heeded their warnings, and implemented agreements to phase out CFCs.

PRINN: Clearly the policies are working. We are now going to reach the peak a lot sooner than most people expected.

BARON: MIT chemist Ron Prinn has monitored ozone-destroying CFCs in the atmosphere since 1978. For most of that time he's found concentrations of the chemicals steadily rising with no end in sight. Prinn says CFC levels are still rising but things have changed.

(Papers being flipped)

PRINN: Looking at this graph you see very good news. You see that for the two major chlorofluorocarbons, the rate of increase has been flattening out.

BARON: Prinn says a little after the turn of the century, CFC concentrations should begin to fall. But World Meteorological Organization calculates that the Earth has already lost about 10% of its ozone. By the time CFC concentrations peak, the WMO predicts that number could rise to 12 or 13%. That's a significant loss, which could cause higher rates of skin cancer and cataracts in people, and could harm plants and animals. Recent research suggests increases in ultraviolet radiation may have already reduced the growth of plankton in the ocean around Antarctica, and a new study hints that loss of ozone could be partly responsible for a worldwide decline in frog populations, which maybe be highly susceptible to ultraviolet light. But the world has in some ways been lucky; ozone depletion has occurred in a way that has minimized risk to life. Ozone has been lost mostly over the poles, where few people live, and in the winter when there's naturally more ozone to begin with and thus the loss has a smaller impact. And some early reports of harm from ozone depletion haven't withstood scientific scrutiny. Several years ago there were reports from southern Chile, an area that for part of the year sits below Antarctica's ozone hole, that increased ultraviolet radiation had blinded thousands of sheep and rabbits and had caused skin diseases in people. Dr. Oliver Schein of Johns Hopkins University traveled to southern Chile a year and a half ago to examine the region's people and animals.

SCHEIN: I believe the reports in the lay press did not have a basis in reality. We could not see any evidence of unusual eye disease or skin disease in these populations.

BARON: But Michael Oppenheimer, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, says it's too soon to conclude that ozone depletion hasn't caused substantial damage to natural ecosystems.

OPPENHEIMER: We are so profoundly ignorant about the way ecosystems operate that we don't know what we've done.

BARON: And much remains unknown about how ozone depletion occurs. In many years, ozone loss has been worse than scientists had predicted. Harvard researcher Jim Anderson, in New Zealand for a study of the ozone layer above Antarctica, stresses that the ozone layer will continue to deteriorate before it starts to recover. And any prediction of what will happen in the next few decades is nothing more than an educated guess.

ANDERSON: 1992 and 1993 were the two worst years for ozone erosion over the Northern Hemisphere, and we don't have the key evidence that defines why that occurred. We didn't predict the Antarctic ozone hole. So I think history speaks to us to be very careful about making assumptions.

BARON: Even the most optimistic scientists point out their forecasts depend on a central assumption, which could turn out to be invalid. That is, that the nations of the world will continue their strict adherence to agreements to protect the ozone layer. Optimism may be warranted, scientists say. Complacency is not. For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron.

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Religious Partnership Promotes Stewardship for the Planet

CURWOOD: Over the Earth Day weekend, 53,000 US Christian and Jewish Congregations will receive information packets on environmental issues, environmental activism, and the relationship between faith and the environment. The packets mark the beginning of a 3-year effort by the newly-founded National Religious Partnership for the Environment, endorsed by the leadership of many major religious groups as part of an effort to bring environmental awareness more into the mainstream of US society. Paul Gorman, the Executive Director of the partnership, recently came to NPR's studios in New York to discuss the initiative.

GORMAN: The issue of environmental protection is an inescapably, intrinsically religious challenge. We're talking here about what God created, and beheld as good. We're talking here about what scriptures call upon us to care for. So for people of faith, our relationship with other species, and other habitats, is about as fundamental a religious issue as we can imagine. This is not paganism; it is the Creator who is the source of our life and to whom we give gratitude, and our engagement with God's creation is one means in which many people have found a much more intimate relationship with God the Creator.

CURWOOD: What are you asking parishioners and members of synagogues and congregations to do here?

GORMAN: We're asking them to be religious around this issue, and to translate that into the various areas of congregational life. What kinds of sermons are preached, how they educate their young people, how they worship, how they engage the community in efforts for environmental sustainability, how they conduct their own lives and how they care for their own buildings and their own land. We're really seeking a comprehensive congregational response to this issue, some of which inevitably will move out into community action projects.

CURWOOD: Are you talking about moving the churches into more political action?

GORMAN: I think what we're offering congregations is the opportunity to engage this issue in ways that they feel are most appropriate. For example, there are members of the New Waverly Baptist Church in West Dallas who have been dealing with medical problems arising from the proximity of a lead smelting plant. In Bath, Ohio, there are Catholic nuns who are taking inner-city children to do hands-on organic gardening. Members of an upstate New York Presbyterian congregation have become stewards of the creek in their back yard, monitoring pH levels. There's a rabbi in St. Joseph, Missouri, who sells energy-saving products in his temple gift shop which often come with free installation by the rabbi. There are people in St. John's Episcopal Church in New Jersey who have been protesting the construction of incinerators, holding candlelight vigils and throwing sacred ashes on one of the incinerators. So there's a range of activity that congregations by themselves are undertaking. I think we're not so much asking congregations to take any single action as offering them a variety of acts that they themselves can choose.

CURWOOD: Traditionally there has been some suspicion of organized religion by some environmentalists: people who open the Bible to Genesis and come to the part that says God blessed them and said unto them, Be fruitful, multiply, replenish the Earth, and subdue it. And some environmentalists have been apprehensive of religious involvement because of this dominionistic view of the environment. How does your initiative respond to that concern?

GORMAN: I think habits of dominion are not confined to people of faith. That the entire human species has been guilty of the assumption of mastery over nature. Insofar as religion may have contributed to this species-wide habit of understanding, we have to look more carefully at our teachings and our scriptures, which are rich with the call to stewardship of the Earth, rich with our sense of obligation to care for God's creation, and lift up those teachings, understand them afresh, and look critically at our own previous understandings of what scripture teaches us.

CURWOOD: What's next? What do you expect to come out of this effort?

GORMAN: I think if this movement is to have living spirit and political power, it's going to come from the people in the pews. Forty percent of all Americans attend religious service of one kind or another every week, and I would add here, Steve, that I think one likely outcome is a broadening of the base of mainstream American engagement in environmental issues. I read yesterday that the president of the League of Conservation Voters said the best we can do is prevent this Congress from weakening the Clean Air Act, from weakening Superfund, from weakening the Safe Drinking Water Act, and from weakening the Endangered Species Act. If the environmental movement is only capable of that level of activity right now, with a Vice President of the United States who is an ally and many environmentalists in positions of responsibility in the Administration, there's a clear need to broaden the base of engagement and deepen the motivation of engagement among mainstream Americans, and we expect that to be an outcome in the long term from this mobilization.

CURWOOD: Paul Gorman is Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Beginning on Earth Day, 53,000 US congregations will receive packets from the Partnership with suggestions about how to include environmental awareness in their worship services, congregation management, and community outreach. And next week at this time, as part of a special Earth Day program, Living on Earth will celebrate people who are making a difference for the environment. We'll visit an innovative Massachusetts fish farm, and meet New Mexico environmental justice activist Richard Moore. Be sure to join us.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Coordinating producer is George Homsy, the director is Debra Stavro, and the associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Chris Page, Jan Nunley, Colleen Singer-Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, Eve Stewart, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Mark Navin, and Rita Sand. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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