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

February 16, 1996

Air Date: February 16, 1996


Lead in Children: A Cause for Aggression

Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Herbert Needleman, author of a scientific study linking criminal aggression to lead levels in children's blood. Dr. Needleman is a professor of psychiary and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical school. (04:45)

New York City Struggles Against Lead / Neal Rauch

Neal Rauch reports from New York City on the emotional debate over new lead abatement laws. Different legislators have varying ideas on how to cope with the continuing health problems associated with exposure to lead that is especially dangerous for young children. (09:30)

Chicago Dumped on by Corruption / Shirley Jahad

Prosecution is pending for some corrupt Chicago politicians who sold out a Chicago neighborhood to illegal garbage dumping. Residents have fallen ill, and an investigation was mounted to find out who was behind the mounds of garbage put there by bribes. Shirley Jahad of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports from Chicago. (06:29)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about Hong Kong. (01:00)

Go Hydrogen?: The Future of Automobiles / Sandy Tolan

In 1896, two engineers in Stuttgart, Germany invented the internal combustion car engine. Now, reporter Chris Brooks and producer Sandy Tolan return to Stuttgart to examine whether the world has made a cheap and dirty “deal with the devil", in obtaining this quick and easy transportation mode. The solution of hydrogen fueling is explored as a clean, though less glamorous, option for the future. (21:55)

Listeners Who Walk the Walk

Steve Curwood talks with a listener who goes out of his way to put his environmental values to the test. (03:38)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1996 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: Jana Schroeder, Stephanie O'Neill, Neal Rauch, Shirley Jahad, Chris Brookes
GUESTS: Dr. Herbert Needleman, Bill Battigen

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. For years, there's been evidence that even tiny amounts of lead in children can lower intelligence and increase learning disabilities. Now, the latest study of a leading researcher suggests that minute amounts of lead can make some youngsters more aggressive and prone to delinquency.

NEEDLEMAN: I'm not saying that lead is the cause of criminality, of course I'm not saying that. But I think it may be a substantial cause; if it's somewhere between 5 and 20% that's an enormous amount of preventable disease.

CURWOOD: In New York City there is heated debate over the failure of local government to stem the epidemic of lead poisoning.

BILLINGS: Talk about child abuse. This is worse than the lack of child protection that is going on at the Child Welfare Administration.

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

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. United Nations experts are pushing for an international treaty to cut the use of pollutants blamed for a global drop in sperm counts and a rise in cancer deaths. The pollutants include PCBs, dioxins produced by combustion, and pesticides such as DDT. The UN's Lars Nordberg says persistent organic pollutants can stay on the ground for many years and then be transported through the air across continents. They accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and animals. A recent US Academy of Sciences report blamed the pollutants for more than 20,000 cancer deaths a year in the United States alone.

Protesters blocking wells in Mexico's oil rich state of Tabasco have drawn international attention to claims of serious environmental damage in the region. From Mexico, Jana Schroeder reports.

SCHROEDER: Mexico's state owned oil company has announced it will conduct an environmental impact study to determine the extent of damage caused by intensive oil drilling in Tabasco. The announcement came 2 weeks after protesters began blocking access to oil wells and other installations of a company known as Pemex. Police and army forces have arrested more than 100 members of the opposition political party, the PRD, for participating in the blockades. The protesters, most of whom are small farmers and fishermen, say Pemex has damaged their crops and contaminated the many rivers and lakes in Tabasco's coastal lowland region. Environmental groups in Mexico claim the government is minimizing the ecological damage caused by Pemex, but the oil company says it's the victim of a political dispute. Pemex has promised to hire international experts to participate in ongoing environmental studies at a cost of up to $3 million a year. For Living on Earth I'm Jana Schroeder in Tabasco, Mexico.

NUNLEY: Secretary of State Warren Christopher is making environmental issues an integral part of US foreign policy. In a memo to senior State Department officials, Christopher says worldwide environmental decay threatens US national prosperity. Christopher asks officials to provide detailed plans on how environmental concerns can be integrated at every level of foreign policy. A departmental spokesman says environmental protection will be a prominent theme in Christopher's upcoming travels to Latin America, including a stop in the Brian rainforest. Christopher's emphasis on the environment comes as President Clinton promises to make the issue a top priority in his reelection campaign.

Construction on a nuclear waste dump at California's Ward Valley is on hold for at least a year. A spokesman for the US Department of the Interior says the agency has ordered additional safety tests because of fears about radioactive chemicals migrating from the site. The dump is located 18 miles from a major Southern California water source. California Governor Pete Wilson blasted the order, calling it a detriment to business. If opened, Ward Valley will be one of 3 dumps in the United States licensed to accept low level radioactive waste. Of the 3 it's the closest to completion.

California Governor Pete Wilson wants to end his state's mandatory electric car production plan, replacing it with a voluntary program. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: The Wilson plan calls for voluntary contracts that allow auto makers to decide how many electric cars to produce, instead of an existing requirement that mandates the sale of 20,000 cars. Environmentalists say the plan, which doesn't obligate automakers to make, sell, or deliver a specified number of cars, is a cave-in to industry pressure. The plan would repeal a requirement that beginning in 1998 2% of all cars sold in the state be exhaust free. The governor's proposal by contrast requires only that the car companies provide data to air officials regarding the number of electric cars a particular company is capable of producing, the amount of money invested in those vehicles, and the special features of each model. The auto industry has endorsed the good faith plan as a workable alternative. They predict it will put 15,000 electric vehicles on California's roads by 1998, and they expect it will prove the auto industry is serious about producing electric cars. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Whether a Congressman is a hero or a zero depends on where you stand. The League of Conservation Voters recently released its yearly scorecard of Congressional voting records. The League says a record 135 members of Congress didn't cast a single vote for the environment. The League evaluated more than a dozen floor votes in each chamber on logging, mining, drinking water, and protecting endangered species. Not to be outdone, private property rights advocates also released their Congressional scorecard. Its heroes list matched the League of Conservation Voters' 135 zeroes. A spokeswoman for the League said this year's report showed the biggest disparity ever in the records of Democrats and Republicans.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Lead in Children: A Cause for Aggression

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A provocative new study suggests that the epidemic of crime in America today could be partly due to the widespread exposure of children to lead. For years it has been known that children recovering from acute lead poisoning tend to be more aggressive and have behavioral problems. But what about children exposed to small amounts of lead, who don't have any physical symptoms? Landmark research done by Dr. Herbert Needleman years ago demonstrated that even tiny amounts of lead exposures for kids could lead to lowered intelligence, learning disabilities, and higher school dropout rates. Dr. Needleman's research led the Federal Government to lower the threshold of lead poisoning it considers dangerous. As many as 1 in 12 young children in America today have these dangerous but asymptomatic levels of lead in their blood, and the number is much higher among the poor, urban, and black. Now, Dr. Needleman has studied the effects of low levels of lead in relation to aggression and delinquency, and published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He found that even when race, poverty, and family stability are taken into account, low levels of lead significantly increase attention problems, aggression, and delinquency. I asked Dr. Needleman why he decided to study these links.

NEEDLEMAN: Anybody who's treated kids with lead poisoning, and I've done a considerable number of them, will hear parents say that their child was a very nice kid, very easy to manage, and then got lead poisoning and then became unmanageable. That's not an uncommon story. So I decided to see if using more sensitive measures, that effect persisted at lower doses.

CURWOOD: And so what did you find?

NEEDLEMAN: Well, we studied something over 200 boys in the Pittsburgh school system. We measured the lead in their bones by a relatively new technique, X-ray fluorescence. We had questionnaire data, good questionnaire data, on their behavior from their mothers, from their teachers, and from the subjects themselves, and we found out the children with the higher lead levels had a significantly higher rate of attention problems, aggressive behavior, and delinquent behavior.

CURWOOD: How much greater rate?

NEEDLEMAN: It was almost twice as frequent.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose that even tiny amounts of lead make kids act out more, become more aggressive?

NEEDLEMAN: Well, it's a brain poison, and the brain mediates impulses, that's one of the important functions of the brain is to make you think of the consequences of an act before you commit it. And I believe that lead interferes with that capacity of the brain to say to a child, if I throw this brick at this person something bad might happen.

CURWOOD: Now, does your study mean that kids who are exposed to lead are more at risk of becoming juvenile delinquents?

NEEDLEMAN: Yes, exactly. I do not think that every child with an elevated blood lead is going to be delinquent, but I think it does raise the risk of delinquency.

CURWOOD: Dr. Needleman, how big a factor do you think lead is in terms of crime and delinquency and violence in our society?

NEEDLEMAN: I haven't made that estimate. I'm going to try to. Criminality can be predicted early, that's true. It's more common in boys, that's true. It's more common in African Americans, that's true. It's more common in urban dwellers. Criminals have lower IQ scores, and more hyperactivity. All of these are also shared by lead. Now I'm not saying that lead is the cause of criminality, of course I'm not saying that, but I think it may be a substantial cause. If it's somewhere between 5 and 20%, that's an enormous amount of preventable disease.

CURWOOD: Dr. Needleman, what are the implications for a society if kids that are exposed to small amounts of lead, so small that they don't have symptoms, that they have twice the delinquency rate or twice the aggressive tendencies as kids that aren't exposed?

NEEDLEMAN: If lead is a contributor to the variance that leads to delinquency, it's a completely preventable contributor. And I think this is increased incentive to remove lead from old housing stock before it gets into children, rather than removing it from children once it gets into their body. I think that this offers a splendid opportunity to perhaps reduce one of our most important societal problems.

CURWOOD: Dr. Herbert Needleman is a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.

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(Music up and under)

New York City Struggles Against Lead

CURWOOD: More than 60 million dwelling units in the US have some lead paint in them. That's about two thirds of the nation's housing. In many of these homes the actual risk of lead poisoning is fairly low because the lead paint is intact, covered by layers of other paint. But as soon as the lead starts to come off the building in chips or dust, people are in serious danger. And this can happen because of poor maintenance or, ironically, good maintenance. The family that renovates an old house can stir up lots of lead dust. If it's not removed by special vacuum cleaners, it's virtually guaranteed to poison the family. Perhaps nowhere is lead poisoning more common than New York City, which has plenty of renovations and shabby housing. A 1982 city law was supposed to solve the problem, but it's been largely ignored, and thousands of kids continue to be poisoned every year. Now New York is trying to write a new lead abatement law, which will actually work. But as Neal Rauch reports, it's been slow going. The two sides can't even agree on what abatement means.

(A baby gurgles, a mother talks to it)

RAUCH: For the last 6 months, Monique Smith and her 4 children have lived in one of New York City's 2 lead-safe houses. Her apartment is contaminated with lead dust, and her 3-year-old daughter Deja has been lead poisoned.

SMITH: She doesn't eat well. Stomach cramps, abdominal pain. She has a lot of behavioral problems. Hyper, don't listen. You have to constantly keep talking to her over and over again, and she still don't listen.

RAUCH: Monique Smith is worried about Deja's future.

SMITH: I don't know how she's going to end up. I don't know, you know, she could end up in special aid. She could end up having, you know, different things wrong with her. I don't know what's going to happen as she gets older, because right now the lead is not going down. It's sticking to her bones and is not going down. I've been here for almost 6 months and it hasn't went down at all.

(A child yells in the background)

RAUCH: Monique Smith blames her landlord for dragging his feet on making her home lead safe. Her situation is far from unique. A 1982 New York City law was supposed to deal with the persistent problem of lead poisoning in children caused by flaking paint. But the law's author, City Councilman Stanley Michaels, now admits it didn't work. There are 2 million apartments with lead based paint in New York and the vast majority have yet to be cleaned up. And the City, which is the largest landlord in New York, has never adequately enforced the law, despite being found in contempt of court.

MICHAELS: The fact is there was nothing enforced and not been applying, I'd say it was unsuccessful. I'm very unhappy about the fact that we perhaps could have saved more children than we have.

RAUCH: Now Stanley Michaels, who heads the council's Committee on Environmental Protection, is proposing a new bill that would clarify and toughen provisions in the old law which have allowed it to be tied up in court for years. His bill would be more specific in terms of when an apartment is in violation and what a landlord must do to correct the situation. It would also require property owners to deal with the problem in a certain amount of time or face increasing fines. In addition, it would expand the law to cover public spaces such as schools and daycare centers. Councilman Michael's proposal is one of 2 competing plans to revise the 1982 lead law. The other was sponsored by Housing Committee Chairman Archie Sprigner. Councilman Sprigner believes the problem with the old law was not that it was too loose, but that it was too tough, especially on landlords. He says the biggest obstacle to cleanup is cost. Currently, landlords have to foot the entire bill, possibly tens of thousands of dollars a unit for total lead removal. Councilman Sprigner wants to allow landlords to pass along these costs to tenants.

SPRIGNER: If a landlord has to do major abatements, unless we find a way to give grants or tax abatements, the money's got to come from somewhere, and I'm not at this point ready to say that we can immunize the tenants. I mean if it's a cost of running a building, it's a cost of running a building.

RAUCH: Councilman Sprigner's actual bill is still taking shape, and he's been willing to compromise on other provisions. Like the one that would have required tenants to notify landlords of a potential lead problem by certified mail. Detractors charge that would have intimidated low income, poorly educated renters. But Stanley Michaels says Councilman Sprigner's bill is still a bad approach.

MICHAELS: It tries to do away with the health regulations by the Health Department. There's very little accountability; they say landlord can self certify that he did the work, and we know in this city, when checked upon, 25% of all self-certification proves to be false.

RAUCH: Despite their substantial differences, the 2 sides to agree that the current court-ordered standard of making apartments lead free is unrealistic. They both say they want housing to be lead safe. But they disagree on exactly how to define that key term.

MICHAELS: Lead safe is where you have a condition where the paint is peeling, chipping, or where you have an area where there is a constant abrasiveness, when a door opens and closes all the time, windows go up and down. Or areas where we know that children of the tender age of 5 years or under chew on because of the availability there, when they're teething, like a window sill. Those areas have to be made safe.

RAUCH: For Councilman Michaels, that means either a complete removal of the old paint from these areas or at least covering them with a hard sealant, a less expensive approach called encapsulation. But Archie Sprigner's definition of lead safe would establish an even lower standard.

SPRIGNER: Right now, we don't believe that encapsulating and covering whatever a chewable surface is, I don't know what a kid can get his teeth around, you know, it's just not necessary to ensure the health and safety of the kid. They should be painted, intact, not peeling, on a sound subsurface.

RAUCH: The New York debate is taking place in the absence of Federal standards on lead poisoning and abatement. And Don Ryan, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington, DC, says that makes it even more difficult for localities to act.

RYAN: We need to have clear national standards on what conditions constitute a hazard. How much lead contaminated dust on a floor is too much. We need clear Federal standards on, for an abatement contractor, what qualifications and training are necessary.

RAUCH: In 1992, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with such standards, and they're expected to be issued later this year. Don Ryan says with these Federal standards in place, states and localities can finally craft better laws to address the issue. He says these laws should do 3 things.

RYAN: First, it has got to prevent children's exposure to lead instead of simply reacting to already poisoned children. Second, children's homes must be made safe from lead hazards, not necessarily lead free. And third, the law has got to make very clear and specific what steps property owners, especially rental property owners, need to take in order to control lead hazards.

RAUCH: Even with Federal standards and a clearer local law, tackling New York's lead paint problem will be an enormous challenge. The number of city housing inspectors has fallen drastically, and the city's safe houses for people with contaminated apartments can only accommodate 10 families. In the meantime the New York Public Interest Research Group says the number of lead poisoned children is rising even as the number of kids tested has fallen. The majority of children never get tested.

(A girl babbles, then cries, in the background)

MAN: She's irritated, she moves and she don't sleep like she used to. Every 3, 4, hours she wakes up.

MARTINEZ: Anything more than this is too much. It's no good.

MAN: She's 26.

MARTINEZ: That's too much for her. She's too little to be carrying around that much.

RAUCH: At the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Mary Martinez counsels a father of a 2-year-old girl being treated for lead poisoning.

MAN: How this problem's going to affect her future?

MARTINEZ: Right now, it would be hard to say. Each child is a very individual kind of a case.

BILLINGS: Any council member who votes in favor of the landlord lobby bill should be embarrassed to death...

RAUCH: Not surprisingly, the debate over the revised lead law has become highly emotional. Supporters of a strengthened law recently held a press conference in front of City Hall, at which Lucy Billings of Bronx Legal Services spoke about the risks of weakening the law or even leaving things as they are.

BILLINGS: ... it's costing us $40,000 just to get the lead out of those children's blood. That's to keep them from being harmed any further. They've already experienced irreversible harm that's costing our special education systems, our social services systems, our public assistance systems. I mean talk about child abuse. This is worse than the lack of child protection that is going on at the Child Welfare Administration.

(Applause from the crowd)

RAUCH: The situation may not change any time soon. Both sides in the dispute say they have come closer together on a number of key issues, but they remain far apart on others. And promised public hearings on reforming New York City's lead paint law already have been delayed several times. For Living on Earth I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

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CURWOOD: A Chicago neighborhood gets dumped on while some politicians line their pockets. That's just ahead on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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Chicago Dumped on by Corruption

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. An unfolding investigation in Chicago has revealed that some politicians profited while illegal waste sites piled high in city neighborhoods. Before it's all over, as many as 40 people could be indicted in the undercover probe called Operation Silver Shovel. Shirley Jahad of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports from Chicago.

JAHAD: The view from Keith Wardlow's back porch isn't pretty, but it is awesome. It is simply called The Mountain: 700,000 tons of debris.

(A subway runs in the distance)

K. WARDLOW: Now that's The Mountain. Now you're seeing The Mountain; you see how tall that is? You see how tall that is. How far it is. Now that's The Mountain. Now you imagine, do you imagine how much all that dirt, bricks and all that -- I mean you can't even call it in no mountain. I don't know what to call it.

(The sound of dump trucks)

JAHAD: The illegal dump is piled 60 feet high with mostly concrete and road construction waste. It covers 4 square city blocks and now residents on Chicago's West Side are wondering who will clean it up. The neighborhood is predominantly African American and lower income. Vacant lots mark the spots where factories once stood. Keith Wardlow's house shakes every time trucks roll in and out of the dump site. He always keeps his windows closed and covered with plastic in a vain effort to prevent dust blowing off the heap from settling in his apartment. He says his 4 year old son Keno has contracted severe asthma. The boy's mother, Debra Wardlow, says the child has to breathe through a machine, a nebulizer.

D. WARDLOW: He's on it twice a day and sometimes the machine doesn't work so I have to rush him to the emergency room.

JAHAD: Chicago-style corruption is at the core of this illegal dump and several others around town. Cash for trash, it has been called. A former Chicago alderman, Bill Henry, allegedly sold out his community 5 years ago by taking $5,000 a month in bribes allowing the dumping to start. Mr. Henry was already facing other corruption charges in 1992 on separate issues, and he died before being indicted for the illegal dumping. At least half a dozen current or former aldermen have been named in the probe. One of them, Ambrosio Modrano, has already pleaded guilty and resigned. As many as 40 other lower ranking city officials could be indicted for corruption connected to the illegal dumping.

HENDERSON: It is not simply a case of glorified littering. This is really dumping and assaulting the community.

JAHAD: Henry Henderson is Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment.

HENDERSON: It's exacerbated breathing problems, asthma, health threats to the community. It has attracted the dumping of other hazardous wastes and hazardous materials. The material has fallen off the site into the streets. It has choked the sewers, ended up in flooding communities. The activity has caused people to abandon the buildings and leave the immediate periphery, leaving abandoned buildings that are very dangerous and in themselves health threats.

JAHAD: It has been just over a month since the probe was made public, and many of those involved are still pointing fingers. Community residents not only blame local officials for allegedly taking bribes. Some also blame the Feds for apparently standing by, letting the neighborhoods get trashed, while investigators spend years trying to nab a few dirty Aldermen. Keith Wardlow says Federal officials should have just helped clean up the site early on, rather than have an undercover mole offer bribes to city officials while trash continued to mount.

K. WARDLOW: One crook trying to prosecute another crook. (Laughs) To me, you know, if you're so concerned about what they had, why you ain't in the neighborhood trying to see who got infected from the dirt? You know. That's what you should have been doing first, you know, instead of trying to find out who took some money.

JAHAD: Area residents and elected officials say the dumping never would have happened in a toney suburb. Environment Department Commissioner Henry Henderson agrees.

HENDERSON: This happened to this community because this community was seen as vulnerable. And I think that is not unrelated to racial realities of this community. I think this is one of the more easy cases to make of environmental injustice, environmental racism.

JAHAD: While the charges continue to fly, at least a small part of the cleanup has begun.

(Garbage trucks spilling junk)

JAHAD: Lindalh Brothers Construction dumped about 100,000 tons at the site. To avoid prosecution they've reached an out of court settlement with the city to remove their share, about one seventh of the total debris. Rick Bore is an operating engineer for Lindalh Brothers.

BORE: It's been here so damn long and it's so high that it's a problem.

JAHAD: How many trucks do you have coming in and out a day? Truckloads off that mountain?

BORE: About 120.

JAHAD: How long will you be at it?

BORE: Oh, 3, 4, months. It will be a while.

JAHAD: Even after Lindalh Brothers cleans up its share of the mess, though, 600,000 tons of trash will remain. The city is still fighting in the courts to get that and other dump sites cleaned up. Meanwhile, Chicago officials aren't happy that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has done little to help. EPA officials say their agency will only get involved if hazardous materials are found at the sites, but so far their tests have turned up negative. Many local residents say there's just no way to tell what's under all those tons of trash.

K. WARDLOW: They should'a never put this stuff there.

JAHAD: Yeah.

K. WARDLOW: People get sick. That's probably got all kinds of, it's a health hazard in the first place. Rats. Cats and dogs, you know. It's just a health hazard; you can look at it and tell. Garbage, you know. Probably a couple of bodies up under that stuff.

JAHAD: Bodies may not actually be found, but political casualties are likely to mount in the coming months as more indictments are announced. The probe has already led to one change: a new law, passed by the Chicago City Council, that will slap dumpers with higher fines, loss of city contracts, and possible jail time. For Living on Earth, I'm Shirley Jahad in Chicago.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. If you want to get in touch with us call 1-800-218-9988. You can also e-mail us at LOE@NPR.ORG. Or write Living on Earth, Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living on Earth include the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: A family cuts itself off the electric power grid in the second half of Living on Earth. Don't touch that dial.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Cars. Sometimes it seems that we can't live with them, and of course many of us feel that we can't live without them. Is the affluent world's obsession with automobiles a deal with the Devil? Or can technology show us a way out? That's coming up in this half hour of NPR's Living on Earth, but first this week's almanac.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: 1996 marks the 155th anniversary of China's concession of Hong Kong to Great Britain at gunpoint. The colony was used as a calling station for British ships, and played a key role in the opium trade. Today, Hong Kong is a capitalist mecca. On July 1st of next year, China gets Hong Kong back, much richer but much dirtier. Hong Kong's 5-and-a-half million people have exports of nearly $170 billion each year. They also produce 24,000 tons of trash, and dump 1.6 million cubic yards of sewage and industrial wastewater into the ocean each day. And as much as 50% of the seafood available in Hong Kong is dangerously contaminated. The world's busiest harbor is also home to the world's only population of China's pink dolphins. Only about 85 of the animals have been sighted by researchers since 1993, and since then 19 have been found dead. And while the Union Jack is coming down in Hong Kong, China is receiving no compensation for the ecological damage that Britain is leaving behind.

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Go Hydrogen?: The Future of Automobiles

CURWOOD: The automobile is one of the miracles of the 20th century. It's given us unprecedented freedom and power over time and space. But of course this power has come at a tremendous cost: in deadly smog and climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. All this has led some to compare our deal with the automobile to Faust's deal with the Devil, but perhaps with a key difference. We can still turn back. In Germany, where poisonous yellow haze often chokes the Rhine Valley and the Autobahns, scientists and auto makers have been racing to save us from this Faustian predicament by designing a new kind of car: one that would run on pollution-free hydrogen. Producers Chris Brookes and Alan Weisman traveled to Germany, where the gasoline-powered car was invented, and to Los Angeles where car culture was invented, to bring us the story of Dr. Faust or Dr. Kleiber.

(A man calls a cat, which meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Some say it's a legend. Others say it really happened. Right here at Number 49 Hufesbaden Street in the village of Stauffen, Germany. The ancient building with the medieval inscription on the wall.

(The cat meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Perhaps there was a black cat on the step then, too, when it happened a long time ago, at midnight.

(A bell tolls)

BROOKES: It's old German.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, very old.

BROOKES: Can you give us even a rough translation?

GERMAN MAN: Here it said that in 1539, a doctor from Stauffen, from here, gave his soul, you see? [Reads in German] He gave his pure soul to the Devil, you could say.

BROOKES: This is a very famous story.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, yes.

BROOKES: This is an opera as well, yeah?

GERMAN MAN: Yes, sure. It's an opera, it's Faust. It's called Faust.

BROOKES: And it's about a man who sold his soul to the Devil in return for power.

GERMAN MAN: Yes. In return he gave, the Devil gave him power for a period of time. And after this period he'd have to return his soul to the Devil, because the Devil wants something in return for the power.

BROOKES: Thank you.

GERMAN MAN: Yeah, okay.

BROOKES: Good night.


(The cat meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil in return for power. It seemed like such a cheap deal, but the price turned out to be high when the debt came due. For the past century, you have to wonder: maybe we've sold our soul to a different devil. Fossil fuels, internal combustion engines, automobiles. That seemed like a cheap deal, too. But today, just like the story, the Devil has come for his due.

(The cat meows and purrs. A car starts up, motor purring. Music: "Every woman I know is crazy 'bout automobiles. Every woman I know, crazy 'bout automobiles. And yeah, I'm standing with nothing but rubber heels. Hey, hey!" Radio announcer: "KFI FM 640 more stimulating talk radio. Mike Nolan, KFI on the ground. Michael!" "Yeah, good morning, Bill. quickly again, still closed, Pacific Coast Highway northbound south between Chataqua. And also very heavy traffic as you work your way..." A phone rings. A woman answers. "Hi, I'm Camille, what city?" "Los Angeles. A listing for the Los Angeles Opera." Radio announcer: "Attention, Ford, Honda, Oldsmobile and Toyota owners, how would you like to get your next oil and filter changed at a full-service factory authorized..." Click or Clack [Bob or Ray Magliozzi]: "You're in love with this New Yorker, am I right about this?" Caller: "This is my first luxury car." Bob or Ray: "Go for it. This 2.5 motor will last forever." Radio traffic announcer: "...trying to make it to work on time. It's been a real struggle on the ... "

BROOKES: Los Angeles, the city that's crazy about the automobile. Freeways, freedom, sex appeal, American dream. Step on the gas, hit the road, feel that power. Gas goes in the tank, fumes come out the tailpipe. Who cares?

(Music up and under. Woman: "Good afternoon, L.A. Opera." "Hi, can you tell me what opera you're playing right now, please?" "Faust. There's a performance on the fourth, one on the seventh..." Newscaster amidst music from Faust: "...dousing a car fire in La Morata; we go live to KFI's Jay Lawrence." "Suzanne, the burning car was in the parking lot..."

BROOKES: In Los Angeles, the Faustian bargain we made for cheap power, for the modern miracle of the automobile, has come due. It's about all those emissions spewing out of 9 million tailpipes in the Los Angeles basin.

(Music from Faust up and under)

BROOKES: Mike Nolan flies traffic for LA radio station KFI. Every day, he strains to see those cars through the murk that pours out of them.

NOLAN: Well my working altitude as I fly above the traffic in the Southern California Basin is only about 2,000 feet. My visibility, looking straight down, is considerably restricted by the pollutants. It is not at all uncommon for a very clear Monday morning, at 6 o'clock, to become a very smoggy Monday morning by 8 o'clock in the morning. We can see that kind of a pattern where between 6 and 8 o'clock in the morning, just the number of cars on the road will actually increase the pollutant levels to a point where the mountains, for example, are partially obscured. And the visibility becomes extremely difficult. During those kinds of days I can literally look straight down to see the traffic and that's it.

BROOKES: And it's more than just a matter of visibility. According to one study, air pollution in Southern California causes 1,600 premature deaths and costs over $9 billion in health problems every year. But if you want to find the car that may save California, don't bother asking the Big Three. Ask the people who invented the car in the first place. No, it wasn't Henry Ford in Detroit; it was the Germans in Stuttgart.

(A performance in German. Drums and cymbals.)

BROOKES: This is the Novali Buhne Theatre in Stuttgart. And wouldn't you know it, they're performing Faust, too. It's the Hell scene, and you can hardly see the actors for the smog pouring from the smoke machine in the Devil's cauldron. The actor playing Faust leans against the side of the stage looking sick. He's probably thinking of his next line, but if LA traffic reporter Mike Nolan was playing this part and peering through the smog, he might just be thinking it's all the fault of 2 guys named Gustave Daimler and Karl Benz, who unveiled the world's first gasoline-powered automobile just across town in 1886.

(A car revs up)

BROOKES: Believe it or not, it still starts, that first car, at the Museum of the Stuttgart car manufacturer, Daimler-Benz. By the way, that's Benz as in Mercedes.

GERMAN MAN: Would you like to do the steering?

BROOKES: Sure. It's built like a horse carriage with a single cylinder engine and a handlebar instead of a steering wheel.

BROOKES: This is the first automobile.

GERMAN MAN: The first automobile.

BROOKES: This is it.

GERMAN MAN: By Karl Benz, yes?

BROOKES: In 1886 this was a transportation miracle. But nowadays at Daimler-Benz, they know the days of the gasoline-powered car are numbered. Dr. Helmut Buchner is a physicist working in the Daimler-Benz research division. He knows emissions standards are changing, both in the US and in Europe, and he's looking for solutions. One solution could be an electric car, but --

BUCHNER: But of course we have just the same opinion as any other US car manufacturer, saying an electric drive train is a battery on wheels, with quite a lot of problems. Of course an electric drive train you see that the conventional electrified train, and that's a fantastic engine with 80% efficiency. No problem. But to carry electricity with you, you still need tons of batteries to replace a 50-kilogram tank of gasoline.

(A streetcar bell rings amidst flute playing)

BROOKES: In other words, electric motors work just fine for German streetcars like this one. A sidewalk musician is here, can tootle at the tourists without fear of getting a face full of fumes whenever old Number 9 passes by.

(A streetcar motor)

BROOKES: But who wants a zero emission electric car that has to run on tracks, and overhead wires?

BUCHNER: And under these existing circumstances, to implement now a zero emission solution is not an easy task. Look at California, that's the problem. If such regulations are there to be met, okay. Then we can say either the car industry has to go electric, or they can eventually go hydrogen.

BROOKES: Go hydrogen? Well, if you drive down the Autobahn to Munich, you'll find that Mercedes Benz's competitor, the BMW company, has done just that.

(A car door closes)

GERMAN MAN: Let's start the engine.

(A key turns in the lock; a car revs up)

BROOKES: This is a normal BMW sedan with a normal 3.5 liter BMW internal combustion engine painted a normal BMW blue. What's not normal is what's in the fuel tank.

(A motor runs)

BROOKES: So this car is running entirely on hydrogen?

GERMAN MAN: With liquid hydrogen on the drums with gasoline. We can switch between gasoline and hydrogen with this switch you can see here.

BROOKES: That little pushbutton on the dashboard allows you to choose your fuel. Fill up with gasoline and it's like any other car. Pumping fumes out the tailpipe, pollution into the atmosphere, bad news. Fill up with liquid hydrogen, though, and it's a very different story.

GERMAN MAN: I think we stop here because it's, I think it's relatively quiet. Okay.

(Car door opens)

BROOKES: Okay. And where you see that different story is when you get out of the car and take a look at the tailpipe.

(Car door closes)

GERMAN MAN: We have no emissions because hydrogen reacts with the oxygen of the air only to water.

BROOKES: So I can put my face down in front of this and breathe in and I won't cough?

GERMAN MAN: Yes. It's impossible to get toxic nitrogens. You can see my glasses, you see the vapor. And it condenses on the surface of my glasses.

BROOKES: Yeah, and you have them about 2 inches away from the tailpipe. And all I can smell is steam.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, it's like when you are cooking water, that's the same smell. You can compare it, yes.

BROOKES: Like breathing in front of a kettle.

GERMAN MAN: (Laughs) Yes.

BROOKES: Like sticking your nose over a kettle. Run this car on hydrogen and virtually the only emission is water vapor. So this is great. We got the car, it runs on hydrogen. Let's all dash down to our local BMW dealer and buy it and save the world, global warming, and California. No problem, right? Not quite. These 2 BMW engineers say bringing this car to market is a little more complicated than that. Klaus Pehr and Rudolf Probst.

PEHR: Bringing to the market means selling it and there are some disadvantages compared to the usual car, and one very important problem is the problem of infrastructure. We can't sell the car if there's no refueling station.

PROBST: It's the question of chicken and the egg.

BROOKES: The chicken or the egg. Who's going to buy a hydrogen powered car when there's no hydrogen filling stations to gas up in? And who's going to build hydrogen filling stations when there's no hydrogen cars on the road? And supposing you do build a hydrogen filling station on every corner: where does the hydrogen come from in the first place? Most industrial production uses methane. But that produces greenhouse gases, and methane is a fossil fuel that will run out some day, too, just like gasoline. Can we get hydrogen from a renewable source? Here in Germany, they're working on that, too. But to see it, we have to drive all the way back to Stuttgart.

(A car motor revs up. Music plays, water bubbles.)

BROOKES: Okay. We got to this lab here in Stuttgart and I'll cut to the chase. This gadget here. No, it's not Lawrence Welk's bubble machine and it's not going to play polka music. It's called an electrolyzer, and it looks like an oil drum, only plastic. The wires on the end here hook up to electricity from a bank of solar cells outside. This electricity from the sun is splitting the water into oxygen and hydrogen, making these bubbles which are collected and stored in big tanks outside. Clean hydrogen from a renewable source. You could pump these bubbles into that BMW internal combustion engine. But there's still a very tiny amount of trace emissions from that engine. So there's even a better way. Reverse this process. Pump hydrogen and oxygen into this plastic barrel. That'll be called a fuel cell and it will generate electricity. And could such a fuel cell power a high efficiency electric motor in an automobile? Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen.

(A car runs very fast)

BROOKES: This is the Mercedes Benz test track in Stuttgart, the auto maker's own private speedway with a lot of lean, mean, sleek looking test cars ripping around the fast turns and straightaways. Oodles of high speed automotive sex appeal. Except for one bashful, slightly pudgy engineer in a lab coat standing proud beside what looks like an ordinary Mercedes delivery van. It runs on a hydrogen fuel cell.

(Beeping sounds)

KLEIBER: My name is Tomas Kleiber, and you're in the research department of Daimler-Benz responsible for this project.

BROOKES: What was that beep?

KLEIBER: First, sensors for hydrogen, have to warm up, and in this time we can hear the beep. Now I can start the engine. Turning the key. Now the system is started; you hear the compressor of the engine. The compressor, which is delivering air to the fuel cell.

(A compressor motor)

BROOKES: I don't hear the fuel cell itself; that makes no noise.

KLEIBER: No noise in the fuel cell; the noise is coming from the air compressor. I'm starting the electric engine; have to close switches. Put in gear and we can start.

BROOKES: There's no internal combustion engine under the hood of this van. Instead, there's an electric motor. In the back, a big tank of hydrogen gas connected to a box not much bigger than a couple of cases of beer with wires sticking out. That's the fuel cell.

(A motor revs up)

KLEIBER: Now I'm accelerating.

BROOKES: This thing doesn't exactly lay rubber. Yeah, so what do you want? It's a van. In the driver's seat, mild mannered Dr. Kleiber works a normal clutch, gear shift, gas pedal -- I mean hydrogen pedal. The hydrogen pumps out of the tank into the fuel cell. Air pumps in as well, and inside the cell the hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce steam and electricity. Keep feeding it hydrogen, the fuel cell keeps generating DC electric current, kind of like a refillable battery, that powers the electric motor that drives us down this Mercedes test track.

KLEIBER: I'm driving 50 kilometers per hour.

BROOKES: About 35 miles an hour. Everything else on the track is leaving us in their dust. A lot of the cars that are passing us here on the test track are very fast, very powerful, very sleek looking cars. Very glamorous cars with some sex appeal. (Kleiber laughs) Do you feel that you're driving a vehicle that doesn't have any of that? Or does it have a different kind of sex appeal for you?

KLEIBER: I have an automotive powered car, and I think it's more than a normal car with an internal combustion engine [can't get exact phrase].

BROOKES: This is glamorous to you.

KLEIBER: It's more important for me. It's a good feeling.


BROOKES: It is a good feeling. Driving around a test track in a completely zero emission electric vehicle running on a hydrogen powered fuel cell. This could be the car of the future.

(Music up and under: "Turn up and flip on the sand, and then you start rolling just as fast as you can! Crazy 'bout an automobile...)

BROOKES: Of course it's heavy. The whole cargo space is taken up with that hydrogen gas tank. And Dr. Kleiber thinks realistically it will be at least 10 years before everything is made small and light enough to go on the market.

(Music up and under)

BROOKES: That leaves one other teensy little problem. You notice, he said, driving this dumpy little state of the art van is a good feeling. Not a glamorous feeling, a good feeling. And that's the problem. They don't write songs like this because a car is a good feeling. And by and large, car makers don't sell us cars because they're good for us or good for the environment. Like they say on Madison Avenue, it's not the steak that sells, it's the sizzle.

PLECKING: I collect red, one size, one 18 cars.

BROOKES: Here's a guy whose business is sizzle. He's got a collection of 29 miniature red race cars lined up on his desk. He's got a tan, he's got all his hair, and he's got a very expensive, very sleek and very powerful sportscar that he's planning to drive through the Italian Alps tomorrow. He's Johan Plecking, Vice President of Marketing for Mercedes Benz.

PLECKING: The sizzle we need because people buy cars more emotional than rational. To their friends they argue normally, very rational, but deep in their heart they bought the car emotional. And therefore you have to have and to create emotion around the car. In the United States we have very good agencies, and I have an ad here for them.

BROOKES: He pulls out a full color Mercedes magazine ad. It doesn't look like dumpy Dr. Kleiber and his pokey little fuel cell van.

BROOKES:Let's see -- a red convertible.

PLECKING: This is a red convertible, yes, this picture. You see a desert through the front. There is a red car coming, driving to the camera. A man or a woman is sitting in the car, and the car is open; it's a convertible, SL Convertible. It's early morning, there is a little bit of dust in the air. And it's a great feeling of freedom. It's a wonderful emotional shot. The sun is rising.

BROOKES: This is the dream of the car in America.


BROOKES: In the future, when we all have to conform to necessity, accept limits, you're going to have to be saying well, you can't drive very fast, you can't go very far, the car will be quite small. Perhaps it won't be as attractive, but you really should buy it because it's better for you. Is that a sizzle you can sell, that society will buy right now?

PLECKING: I don't think so. I think we have new desires in the future. And, but it is different, it is not a car to drive fast. It's not a car to dream the dream of the blonde girl and the open SL; it's another dream. But dreams are there and we will fulfill dreams. But this is a hard task to do. You are right. It's not easy.

BROOKES: It's not easy. Changing over to clean emission-free hydrogen-powered cars may mean more than sorting out a few technical details, as Dr. Kleiber believes. More than having enough hydrogen filling stations, as the BMW folks believe. It may just mean you and me and all of us becoming less interested in consuming and more interested in conserving. Dreaming a different dream.

(Music from Faust up and under)

BROOKES: In the theater in Stuttgart, the chorus is chanting another warning to Faust, and we know how the story goes. He's so in love with cheap and easy power, he'll ignore the warnings. Of course this is just a myth, just a play. But if Faust were alive in our modern world and had to make his choice today, I figure I know where he'd be. He wouldn't be sitting in Dr. Kleiber's hydrogen fuel cell van; he'd be in that red Mercedes SL Convertible, driving across the desert with the top down and his foot to the floor. Heading for Los Angeles.

(A car races down a road)

BROOKES: He'd be doomed, of course. Too bad.

(The car continues. Nolan: "... work on time, it's been a real struggle on the drive northbound 5 out of Orange County up into the interchange, we have that circular southbound freeway Euclid off of the interchange; that's been affected... Eastbound 118 on the southbound now going circular, it's a difficult highway so far... )

CURWOOD: Dr. Faust or Dr. Kleiber was written and produced by Chris Brookes and Alan Weisman, with Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan and Homelands Productions.

Back to top

(Music up and under, with racing car)

Listeners Who Walk the Walk

CURWOOD: It's easy to turn off the light when you leave the room, lower the heat in your house, take other transportation aside from your car to work, all simple ways to save energy. But some people are willing and able to go further. On the line with me now is Bill Battigen; he lives just outside of Taylorsville, that's a tiny town in northeast California. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Battigen had the local power company come to his house and disconnect the power supply. Did they just come in and clip the wires form your house, Mr. Battigen?

BATTIGEN: Well, yeah, they did. They came in and climbed up the tower, disconnected the wires up there and then snipped the wires at the house and they were gone.

CURWOOD: But that hasn't left you in the dark.

BATTIGEN: Not at all. We have plenty of power here at the house. We have a lot of solar electric panels here and batteries to store up the power.

CURWOOD: Well how many panels do you have now?

BATTIGEN: We have 13 panels here.

CURWOOD: And how long ago did you start with that first one?

BATTIGEN: That was about 10 years ago.

CURWOOD: So why did it take so long for you to disconnect yourself from the grid?

BATTIGEN: Partly I wasn't sure just how far I wanted to get into this myself, and also monetary reasons. Each panel costs very approximately $350 to $400. And to do that all at one time, especially back then, would have been unheard of for my income.

CURWOOD: How about your neighbors? Do they mind if your house looks a little bit like Ice Station Zebra or Moon Station or something?

BATTIGEN: Well, we live in an area where the trees are 50 to 100 feet tall, so none of the solar electric panels are on the house. Three of them are on the tree and the rest of them are on a tower that is just about even with the treetops around here. If you were, say, on the order of 200 or 300 feet away from the house, it's very hard to spot them because of the trees.

CURWOOD: How has this changed your lifestyle, living off the grid?

BATTIGEN: Well, the first thought that comes to my mind is the word appreciation.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

BATTIGEN: You sure as heck know where your power comes from, watching the meter go up as the sun shines brighter, or a cloud goes in front of it watch the meter drop. You really get a sense of direct connection there, you know. It doesn't bother me to have a limit to my consumption.

CURWOOD: So, for instance, what do you do that's a little different from those of us who are connected to the grid?

BATTIGEN: Oh, things like you want to use power mostly when it's available. In other words, if we waited until the sun set and then immediately fired up the vacuum cleaner and washing machine and whatever else in the house that we could have done during the day, then we wouldn't have, you know, been able to take advantage of that power. Whereas if we did those chores that consumed electricity at say 10 or 11 in the morning, then we would still get recharged by the end of the day and not have to draw the batteries down that night as much.

CURWOOD: Do you recommend this to other people?

BATTIGEN: Well, sure, if other people think that this is a nice planet to live on. I recommend it to everybody.

CURWOOD: Well, Mr. Battigen, thank you so much for taking this time with us.

BATTIGEN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Bill Battigen lives near Taylorsville, California.

Back to top


CURWOOD: And if you or someone you know has an interesting way to deal with environmental change, give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. And our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Of course if you want to mail us a letter, the address is Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Special thanks this week to Marketplace, which first broadcast the segment on hydrogen cars. Thanks also to public radio international, KUSC Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California. Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Christopher Knorr, Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Michael Argue, and Katherine Bennett. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthillier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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