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

March 15, 1996

Air Date: March 15, 1996


Our Stolen Future: Human Reproduction and Modern Risks

Chemical compounds which seem to be causing problems in the reproductive ability of animals and humans have been the subject of a number of Living on Earth segments in the past year and a half. Now, a team of three scientific writers have written a ground-breaking book on the subject and it is raising much controversy. Vice President Al Gore wrote the foreword to the tome, likening the new book in importance to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Now the chemical industry is attacking the book and the authors in the press. Steve Curwood speaks with one of the co-authors, Boston Globe reporter Diane Dumonowski. (15:45)

Wide Ranging Reactions / Kim Motylewski

Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski reports on some of the reactions in the scientific community, from chemical manufacturers, and among policymakers to the controversial new book Our Stolen Future. (04:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about Saint Patrick's Day and the "green"ing of Ireland. (01:23)

China: Gasping for Air / Lucie MacNeill

Lucie MacNeill reports from China where "oxygen bars" provide Beijing residents with some of the cleanest air available. Coal dust and steel plant emissions create health problems, and Chinese admit they're worried about the smog. The Chinese government is looking to use newer, cleaner technologies and move away from so much coal use, but it's slow going. (11:30)

Bavarian Monks Go Golfing? / Michael Lawton

An order of Benedictine Monks in Andechs, Germany are looking for a change. The Monks are looking to diversify their business profits by turning farmland into a golf course, much to the chagrin of German environmentalists. Michael Lawton reports from the Bavarian village of Andechs. (06:46)

Green Listeners: Low-Tech Lawn Mower in Use

In response to a recent query, listeners called in with some of their environmental success stories. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood speaks with New York audience member Gary Finnelli about his original lawn mower: pet sheep, for his two-acre lawn. (05:00)

A Look Ahead to Next Week's Show: The Last of the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

A documentary report by reporter Brenda Tremblay. (01:48)

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: Stephanie O'Neill, Jana Schroeder, Jennifer Schmidt, Kim Motylewski, Lucie Mcneill, Michael Lawton
GUESTS: Dianne Dumanoski, Gary Finnelli

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Thirty years after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and warned of the risk of cancer from pesticides, there is a new book in the popular press. It claims there is strong evidence linking common chemicals to the dangerous disruption of animal and human hormone systems. The book is called Our Stolen Future.

DUMANOSKI: We've largely had the assumption that if we regulated for cancer we would cover everything. One of the messages of this book is that that's not true. There are many chemicals that do not cause cancer but do disrupt hormones, and may actually affect us more broadly across the population than cancer does.

CURWOOD: Among the possible risks: infertility, immune disorders and interference with proper brain development. Hormone disruption and human health this week on Living on Earth. First, this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley.

In a blow to the states rights movement sweeping the west, a Federal court has rejected a bid by a Nevada county to seize millions of acres of public land from the Federal government. In 1993 Nye County, Nevada, commissioners had approved a resolution that said the state, not the Federal government owned national forests and other public lands. Nye County's lawyers say they won't appeal. Federal government lands account for 93% of the county, which is larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. Some 36 western counties are currently battling the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service over range management, logging, mining permits, and water rights.

California law makers say farmers can continue to use a crop fumigant that environmentalists blame for making farm workers sick. Stephanie O'Neill reports from Los Angeles.

O'NEILL: The pesticide is methyl bromide, a widely used, ozone depleting fumigant that's pumped into the ground to kill worms that destroy the roots of 60 different crops. it's also used to fumigate shipping warehouses to prevent the spread of pests in or out of California. Farm groups say it's essential to California's agriculture, but environmentalists say the ozone depleting fumigant is harmful to farm workers and residents who live near the fields. A 1984 California law required health risk studies on a number of pesticides be completed 5 years ago if they were to remain in use. That deadline, however, was extended for methyl bromide until March 30th of this year, and now methyl bromide manufacturers say they need up to 2 more years to finish their studies. Environmental groups say the measure, which extends the study period through 1997, is an example of the ag industry's hold on state politics. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.

NUNLEY: Mexican environmental officials have announced an ambitious 4-year plan to improve air quality in Mexico City, one of the world's most polluted cities. But some residents are questioning the program. From Mexico City, Jana Schroeder reports.

SCHROEDER: Some Mexican environmentalists are skeptical of a new program announced by the government to clean up the air in Mexico City. They say billions of dollars have already been spent to improve air quality with no positive results. Mexico's environmental secretary announced 95 steps aimed at reducing emissions of dangerous gases by up to 50%. The plan, which targets air pollution caused by private vehicles, public transportation, and industries, will cost more than $13 billion over the next 4 years. Some industry leaders in Mexico City agree with environmentalists that the plan is too vague, that there are no specifics on how to carry it out. They add they don't see how the private sector will be able to contribute over $2 billion to the program as the government claims. For Living on Earth in Mexico City, I'm Jana Schroeder.

NUNLEY: Genetically engineered foods can pose a danger to people with allergies. Scientists at the University of Nebraska report that people with allergies to Brazil nuts are also likely to be allergic to transgenic soybeans containing Brazil nut genes. The New England Journal of Medicine study marks the first time allergens have been tracked across transgenic lines, and an editorial in the Journal urges the Food and Drug Administration to require labeling of transgenic foods. Pioneer Hybrid International, cosponsor of the study and the manufacturer of the soybeans, says they'll keep the product off the market.

In Norway, hunters are back to killing seals after a 7-year ban. Officials say the seals are depleting fish stocks; and meanwhile in Washington State, fishery officials and animal rights groups are battling it out over sea lions who are gobbling up endangered trout. Jennifer Schmidt reports from Seattle.

SCHMIDT: Washington State Fish and Wildlife officials asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to kill California sea lions that forage at a shipping locks in Seattle. In past years the sea lions have consumed substantial numbers of steel head trout at the locks. The steel head run is dwindling fast. The Fisheries Service's Joe Scordino says losing even one more fish to the sea lions is one too many.

SCORDINO: Lethal removal is the solution of last resort. We've tried a whole number of nonlethal approaches over the past 10 years. The bottom line is we don't have the luxury any more to wait and watch the animals kill steel head.

SCHMIDT: The state says it could begin killing sea lions within a few days. Meanwhile, animal protection advocates are considering court action to try to stop the move. They say not one steel head has been consumed by a sea lion this year. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

NUNLEY: And college kids on spring break aren't the only ones disturbing the locals. On South Carolina's Hilton Head island, hundreds of cedar waxwings have been gorging themselves on fermented berries and crashing into windows and cars, too drunk to fly straight.

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

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Our Stolen Future: Human Reproduction and Modern Risks

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the last couple of years we've been bringing you reports about a disturbing new environmental concern: the suspected links between common chemicals such as pesticides, dioxin, and PCBs, and the disruption of the hormone or endocrine systems of animals and humans. It was in 1992 that Dr. Theo Colborn, the leading scientist who has been developing the endocrine disruption hypothesis, edited the first scientific volume on the subject. That book touched off a major buzz among scientists in industry, and slowly the general public has been hearing pieces of the story, especially the parts linking endocrine disrupters to declining human sperm counts. Now, for the first time, all the science has been put into plain language, in a new book written by Dr. Colborn, zoologist J. Peterson Myers, and journalist Dianne Dumanoski. It may become the most controversial environmental volume since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring first appeared 30 years ago.

The book is called Our Stolen Future. Even before its official publication date, it was the subject of a flurry of stories in major national newspapers and magazines, and of a blistering editorial in the conservative Washington Times. The first printing of the book has already sold out in many bookstores. Vice President Al Gore wrote a foreword to the book, in which he makes an urgent call for more research. The Vice President adds that Our Stolen Future takes up where Rachel Carson left off. I recently spoke with the book's co-author and Boston Globe reporter Dianne Dumanoski. She was quick to agree.

DUMANOSKI: I think this book is a direct descendant of Silent Spring, and in fact it picks up a thread that is present in Silent Spring but never gets fully developed by Rachel Carson.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. And that is?

DUMANOSKI: This is the thread of reproductive problems and sterility that's very much raised in the fable that opens Silent Spring. And Carson at various points says things like these are no ordinary poisons and there's something strange going on. But I think science wasn't developed sufficiently at that time for her to really completely explore that, and there was also the specter of cancer, which was very much on people's minds in this period.

CURWOOD: So in other words, Carson kind of got stuck at cancer, as it were.

DUMANOSKI: Yes. And Silent Spring helped set us off on a regulatory track that has regulated largely according to cancer risks. And we've largely had the assumption that if we regulated for cancer we would cover everything, that that was really the toughest standard, and, you know, if you really scrutinize chemicals carefully for whether they could cause mutations or cause cancer we were really protecting ourselves. And one of the messages of this book is that that's not true. There are many chemicals that do not cause cancer, but do disrupt hormones, and they cause a whole series, or have the potential to cause a whole series of problems that are not cancer. And may actually affect us more broadly across the population than cancer does.

CURWOOD: You mean more people being --

DUMANOSKI: It may affect more people.

CURWOOD: Can you talk about some of the effects on fertility of people?

DUMANOSKI: Well, one of the most worrisome signals is our effects on male sperm count. That would be an expected effect. It's something that's been seen in the laboratory in rat pups who are exposed before birth to these endocrine disrupting chemicals. Scientists had raised this question here in the US at roughly the same time that researchers on the other side of the Atlantic were actually believing that they were seeing dropping male sperm counts and beginning studies. These studies, when they emerged in the British Medical Journal, reported a 50% drop in male sperm count based on an analysis of 40-some studies from the US, Europe, and other places in the world. Shortly after that study appeared, 2 key male reproductive researchers in Europe put forward a hypothesis linking the drop in male sperm count and some other reproductive effects seen in males including undescended testicles, genital defects, and testicular cancer, to exposure before birth in the womb to elevated estrogen levels. And since some of the chemicals in the environment can elevate estrogen levels, these chemicals have come under suspicion as playing a possible role in this.

CURWOOD: There's some controversy over this research, though. I saw a study the other day, or a study reported, perhaps, the other day, that's still in progress, saying no, no, no, sperm counts aren't falling in this place and that place. How do you respond to this controversy?

DUMANOSKI: Well there have been a number of studies. The initial study by Carlson and Skakkebaek, that sparked incredulity among some researchers and several follow up studies. There were at least 3 studies that confirmed that there were dropping sperm counts, and some of them were done by researchers who'd been skeptics. But there was also a report from Toulouse in France that did not report a fall in sperm counts. So basically I think as the question is coming under closer scrutiny, you're seeing contradictory evidence coming from different geographical places, so it's not necessarily absolutely contradictory. We may be just seeing a pattern of falling sperm count that is different in different places.

CURWOOD: Meaning?

DUMANOSKI: Meaning people have had different exposures. In some rural places, exposure might be greater or less than in an industrial center.

CURWOOD: So, how are we exposed to these chemicals? It seems that there are all kinds of substances that people and animals would be exposed to having all kinds of results in the city, out in the countryside. How do they get into our bodies?

DUMANOSKI: Well some of us, if we're young enough, have inherited them from our mothers, so that's the first way that they can get into your body. Over a lifetime, a woman accumulates a store of persistent chemicals, and some of these are endocrine disrupting chemicals. They're stored in her body fat, and during pregnancy these chemicals are released from the body fat; they cross the placenta and they can affect the developing fetus. So -- and it's not just what the mother eats during pregnancy; it's basically a lifetime legacy, shall we say, that is passed down to the infant. These chemicals can also be passed onto a baby through breast milk. Human breast milk contains a large number of these chemicals, and in fact during breast feeding a baby is exposed to higher levels of some of these chemicals, such as dioxin, than he or she will ever encounter in their entire lifetime. So breastfeeding is potentially a large source. Then we are exposed to them through our food. The persistent members of this family, and not all of these chemicals are as persistent as others, are very attracted to fats. And so they will ride up through the food chain on fats. So in ice cream and in milk and in meat one can get exposed to many of these chemicals. You can be exposed to them in the air. We are discovering that some of these chemicals are leaching out of plastics, plastic containers, so one could possibly be exposed to some of these chemicals through food packaging. The lining of cans has been tested; there are sort of plastic linings in metal cans that have been shown to leach endocrine disrupting chemicals into the foods in these cans.

CURWOOD: So Mom can give this to you at birth. Or if Mom opens up a can of soup that has this substance in it, you could get it at the kitchen table from Mom.

DUMANOSKI: Yeah. So there are a lot of sources.

CURWOOD: Now, there are some critics that say that lots of these substances occur naturally. In plants, for example, you'll find estrogens and soybeans and rice and wheat and all kinds of things. And so that we really shouldn't be worried about synthetic things that imitate hormones. Or should we?

DUMANOSKI: Well, there's an important difference between the naturally occurring phyto-estrogens --

CURWOOD: Phyto-estrogen means?

DUMANOSKI: It means plant estrogen.


DUMANOSKI: And some of these synthetic substances. This has been a very important question because the body has protective mechanisms to keep estrogen levels from exposing a developing baby, for example, to too high a level during development. And these natural protective substances seemed to protect us also from some of the plant estrogens, and this may be a result of our evolutionary experience with these plants. But studies are now showing that at least some of the endocrine disrupting manmade chemicals can make an end run around this protective system. So if one is being exposed to these chemicals, all of it will be biologically active. The body will not be keeping most of it out of circulation.

CURWOOD: Are there ways that we can protect ourselves from exposure to synthetic hormone mimickers? What are you doing to protect yourself?

DUMANOSKI: Well, I am buying organic produce, which I actually have always done. One of the reasons to buy organic produce is not only because of the pesticides that are used, but because there are so called inert ingredients in pesticides, and what we've discovered in doing the book is that some of the so-called inert ingredients are actually endocrine disrupting chemicals. I'm as worried about those inert ingredients as I am about the active ingredient. I don't microwave in plastic because there's no way to know which plastic is safe and which isn't, and of course we don't believe that all plastic is necessarily going to be problematic, but there's no way for a consumer at the moment to know. And there is evidence that heating plastic will tend to accelerate the emergence of chemicals into the food or whatever's in the container. And I try to eat low on the food chain. And the thing that's surprising is that the kind of diet that is recommended to protect your heart, to protect you against cancer, is the same kind of diet that will protect you against endocrine disrupters. It's a low fat diet where you're eating low on the food chain and you're eating lots of fruits and vegetables and you're not eating a lot of red meat all the time or a lot of high fat cheeses.

CURWOOD: Dianne, let's talk more about some of the possible effects that the endocrine disrupters have. In your book you talk about hormone-like chemicals possibly affecting human behavior, and our ability to cope with stress. Can you tell me more about these findings?

DUMANOSKI: Yes. This has been one of the sleepers in the story, I think. There's been so much emphasis to date on estrogen mimicking chemicals and possible effects on sperm counts. That's been the hot story. I think that there is a new story emerging, that has to do with thyroid hormones and the possible impact of thyroid disruption on the development of the brain and behavior.


DUMANOSKI: When Theo was first doing her work, she was quite taken by a study that was done in the early 80s by a couple called the Jacobsons, who studied the children of women who had eaten Lake Michigan fish. And they found a distinct difference in the children of these women as compared to women who had not eaten fish.

CURWOOD: And the difference was?

DUMANOSKI: They found measurable motor differences. They found that the children weighed less; they had smaller head circumference. And basically their neurological and motor development was retarded.

CURWOOD: Are you saying they weren't as smart as kids?

DUMANOSKI: I don't think their study, it was one where you could talk about as smart, but they were definitely slower in developing. And these were subtle effects. This was not what you'd call profound retardation. It was the kind of effect that would be visible to psychologists doing sensitive tests. But it would be within the range of normal. The suggestion was, however, that these children had in some way been slowed down. That they had not, because of this exposure to the chemicals in the fish, become what they might have become. Now this study was quite controversial. It was difficult to do, there was a lot of criticism saying well they should have done this and they should have done that. So more recently, a team at the State University of New York at Oswego decided to try to replicate this study and to do a parallel animal study. So they have been looking both at humans and at rats who have been eating Great Lakes fish. And they now have preliminary results that were reported last year, and they have found many of the same effects that were found in this earlier study. They have found there is a difference in these children. A lot of their reflexes are different; they're not as sharp; you know, they have delayed reflexes. And they have done tests that are thought to have, to predict intelligence later. And there does appear to be some diminishment of babies whose mothers have eaten the astonishingly small amount of 40 pounds of Lake Ontario salmon in their entire lifetime. Now 40 pounds of fish is not a lot of fish if you're in a sport fishing family.

CURWOOD: And the result is a little less intelligence, perhaps.

DUMANOSKI: Perhaps. Another part that seems very worrisome to me is that these infants of mothers who had eaten fish did not seem to be able to cope with stress or negative stimuli, as the psychologists would call it.

CURWOOD: Huh. How do you measure that?

DUMANOSKI: This is very interesting. They will do something to startle a sleeping baby. They will shine, the researcher would shine a light in the baby's eye or ring a bell, and the baby will startle awake. And the normal response is for a baby to, after it's been disturbed 2 or 3 times, to start saying oh yeah, it's that guy shining the light in my face again. And the baby gets less upset each time; it becomes habituated. And what the researchers at SUNY-Oswego have found is that the children of women exposed to Great Lakes, to Lake Ontario fish, don't get used to it. Some of them get more upset as they get disturbed. And this obviously has implications for how easy you're going to get through life if you get more and more upset at unpleasant experiences, rather than becoming used to it and letting it roll off your back.

CURWOOD: This has enormous implications for society. You're telling me that all those cranky cab drivers and other people in traffic that I'm having a hard time with, maybe they're victims of endocrine disruption and they're less tolerant of the stress of being --

DUMANOSKI: Well that's certainly a theory that we ought to explore. Helen Daly, a researcher working with this team, did parallel work on rats to see whether rats would be a good model for exploring these effects, and she found exactly the same result in her rats. The rats basically did fine until life got a little bit unpleasant, and then they just sort of lost it. She used to say they would go bonkers. So you know, if you had the same response in your personal life it's going to be very difficult for you.

CURWOOD: Well wait a second. You're saying that these chemicals are widely dispersed in the society, that they're in virtually all of our bodies --

DUMANOSKI: At some level.

CURWOOD: At some level. And that research shows that if you're exposed to these chemicals...

DUMANOSKI: You're less robust and tolerant of stress.

CURWOOD: And cranky. So you mean society could be breaking down in part because...

DUMANOSKI: Well I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but I'd say that you're posing a question that we'd better start researching and exploring pretty quickly. Because I think these behavioral implications are quite worrisome.

CURWOOD: I guess they are. My guest has been Dianne Dumanoski. Along with Theo Colborn and John Peterson Myers, she's author of Our Stolen Future. Thank you.

DUMANOSKI: Thanks, Steve.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: government and business responds to the threat of hormone disruption. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Wide Ranging Reactions

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Much has changed since Silent Spring was published back in the '60s, including the response of government and business to possible threats to human health from synthetic chemicals. Back then, Silent Spring surprised and stunned the White House. This year, the Vice President wrote a foreword to Dianne Dumanoski, J. Peterson Myers, and Theo Colborn's Our Stolen Future. The book follows the scientific publications of Dr. Colborn and others over the last 5 years, so in one sense it is certainly not news. But its accessible, popular style is striking a nerve in the broader society, and the increasing public scrutiny of a theory that Dr. Colborn first introduced in 1991 is bringing a stepped up response from government and industry today. Living on Earth's Kim Motylewski has more.

MOTYLEWSKI: It may have been a coincidence, but just as Our Stolen Future was scheduled to go on sale, a new international body was wrapping up meetings in Australia. The group agreed on a list of 12 toxic chemicals that persist in the environment, and on the urgency to stop or restrict their use. It's called the Inter-Governmental Forum on Chemical Safety, and the group includes just about all members of the United Nations. It's closely linked to the United Nations Environment Program, which developed a treaty to limit trade in hazardous waste, and another to phase out the use of ozone depleting chemicals. The chemicals which concern the panel are those which have been most firmly linked to endocrine disruption: dioxin, PCBs, DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin, and Chlordane. The group's main task will be to determine how exactly countries should deal with these substances: whether to ban them or restrict them. And how other chemicals might be added to the list. Lynn Goldman, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency's Office on Toxic Substances, is part of this working group. She says a major barrier for researchers and regulators around the world is money. Dr. Goldman says the EPA has only about $5 million to look at endocrine disrupting chemicals.

GOLDMAN: There really is so much that is underway today and so much new information that's been generated over the past 5 years or so, that really what the challenge is going to be is to figure out how to most effectively target the funding that we do have available.

MOTYLEWSKI: The EPA will spend about $2 million inside the Agency, and about $3 million on outside research: the first external grants the Agency is making on the topic. Dr. Goldman says she's choosing projects that will have the greatest payoff.

GOLDMAN: Both in terms of getting a fundamental understanding about, say, immune system, neurological and endocrine system effects, and also in terms of how these chemicals might be affecting humans. Are they affecting sperm counts? Are they affecting the incidence of certain diseases such as cancer of reproductive system organs or endometriosis? These are very important questions.

MOTYLEWSKI: Publication of the book Our Stolen Future has prompted calls for still more research into the effects of persistent toxics on human health. And there have been unconfirmed reports that Vice President Al Gore will soon announce a much larger program of Federal research into endocrine disruption. The White House has declined to confirm or deny this. Meanwhile, industry says it's on top of the issue and it's pressing ahead with research on endocrine toxicology. An industry funded lab plans to spend one and a half million dollars on it this year. That's in addition to research by individual companies. And for the past several years, the Chemical Manufacturers Association has been working closely with the EPA to develop a research agenda for hormone-like chemicals. Sandra Tirey is the CMA's Assistant Vice President for Regulatory Affairs. She's downplaying the significance of Dr. Colborn's book.

TIREY: Quite frankly, we don't think there's any new news in the book, so we are kind of proceeding on with our general plan, which is to work with the agency and other scientists to develop the appropriate kind of research to help assure the public that our products are safe to use.

MOTYLEWSKI: Safety is indeed the issue, and it's not at all clear that the new research will be reassuring, either to industry or the public. With tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce and no reliable way of testing them for a broad range of effects, endocrine disruption has become a priority issue for government and industry researchers. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood.

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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.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half hour: China's economy is booming, but so is its air pollution crisis. The fight for clean air in China coming up on Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In the season of St. Patrick's Day and the wearing of the green, we turn now to the ecology of Ireland. St. Pat probably caused all sorts of problems with biodiversity when he allegedly vanquished snakes from Ireland. Yet it's still an emerald isle, though over the centuries the green has turned from forest to fields. By the end of World War II, just about all of the broad leaf forest had vanished from Ireland, so right after the war the Irish started what is still probably the world's most ambitious tree planting program. Today they're planting 70,000 acres of trees a year, much of it in pine plantations. Still, Ireland is not self sufficient in lumber, and is a major importer of tropical timber products. Nor is it self sufficient in food production, even though more than 80% of Ireland's land is still in agriculture, pasture, barley, turnips, and of course potatoes. By the way, the major environmental problem is water pollution from farm runoff, and keeping the country's rivers and lakes safe for fish is an ongoing problem. And for the third week of March 1996, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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China: Gasping for Air

CURWOOD: China's conversion from a Communist economy to mostly free enterprise has touched off amazing economic growth. In less than 20 years China's cash economy has quadrupled, foreign investment is pouring in, and by the year 2010 China's economy is expected to be the largest in the world. But as the monetary standard of living keeps rising in China, the environmental quality of life is falling. Most obvious is the loss of clean air. China is rich with coal, which provides most of its energy, but its use of dirty coal has given it some of the most serious air pollution and acid rain problems on the planet. Even among the usually placid Chinese, 80% of people surveyed cited air pollution as their biggest worry. Lucie McNeill has the second of 2 reports this month on China's changing environment.

MCNEILL: Nowadays you can get anything you want in Beijing, even clean air, but you've got to pay for it.

(Air hissing)

MCNEILL: The Chinese capitol regularly makes the list of Asia's 10 most polluted cities. Sometimes the smog is so thick visibility drops to less than a mile. That's why the Dreamy Oxygen Bar has been a hit ever since it opened for business a year ago. Customers come here literally for a breath of fresh air.

(Jia Lei speaks in a Chinese dialect)

MCNEILL: Jia Lei is the manager of the Dreamy Oxygen Bar.

JIA: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: This is how it works. It's very simple. We have an oxygen machine connected to these valves you see along the wall. You just take a seat here, insert this tube in your nose, turn on the valve and breathe normally. Breathing oxygen for half an hour clears your head. It makes you more alert.

MCNEILL: Half an hour costs about $10: one tenth of the average worker's monthly salary. That's a lot of money. Yet every day dozens of people pay this much for a little clean air. There's no evidence this kind of therapy is beneficial, but oxygen bars like this one are sprouting up in most of China's industrial centers.

(Air hisses, followed by traffic sounds)

MCNEILL: Just a few miles down the road from the Dreamy Oxygen Bar is a nightmarish complex of smelters and foundries. This is West Beijing's Capitol Steel Works. Like most of China's industries it's powered by mountains of coal from the country's enormous reserves. One hundred thousand people work in the sprawling compound, and millions live in the immediate neighborhood. Every day they breathe the thick and acrid smog belching from hundreds of stubby smokestacks.

(Industrial vehicles and motors)

MCNEILL: Zhang Yuxiang and his wife Zhang Xiuyun have lived in the shadow of Capital Steel for 30 years. They have a little shop just outside the factory gates.

ZHANGs: [Both speak in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR (WOMAN): The worst place for air pollution is right here.

TRANSLATOR (MAN): It's bad 24 hours a day. We can't run away from it. Most of us get bronchitis and sinus infections. It's very common.

TRANSLATOR (WOMAN): Because we've been breathing the fumes and the coal dust all our lives, we know we won't live as long, that's for sure.

MCNEILL: For people who work inside Capital Steel, it's even worse. This man, who spoke to us only on the condition we not use his name, is in charge of one of the furnaces. It's tough, sweaty work, but he's worried about more than his own health.

CHINESE MAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Look -- even in the halls, the air we breathe is filthy. We have to dust the soot every day, so I'm really worried about my daughter's health. We'd sure welcome a cleanup. It would be good for our health and the health of our children. But we know the government can't do it all at once.

(People speaking; clanging sounds followed by industrial motors)

MCNEILL: Most of China's smog originates in mines like this one. The Lingxing coal mine is the most modern in northwest China's Ningxia Province. But by western standards it's a very primitive operation. There's not even an elevator to take the miners underground. The air in the tunnels is humid and thick with gas and coal dust. For hours the workers stoop as they hack at the coal seam. Still, 24-year-old Zhang Jianrong likes the high wages here. He wouldn't go back to his father's farm.

ZHANG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I'm the one who sets the explosives there. It is dangerous work. I was really scared when I started, but I'm used to it now. It's so much better than working on a farm. It was just too filthy there.

MCNEILL: Young Zhang doesn't think much about what the coal dust is doing to his lungs, let alone the environment. Most of the coal produced here is trucked to the power plant 80 kilometers away. Wu Jinghe, the deputy manager of the mine, shrugs when he's asked about pollution.

WU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: We know this mine contributes to air pollution because our coal is burned in a power plant. And of course we know we should be concerned about this. But that power station is far away, so we don't feel the effects of the pollution directly.

(Industrial motors running)

MCNEILL: China has the largest coal reserves in the world. Last year national consumption was 1.2 billion tons of coal; that's one ton per capita. About a third is burned to produce electricity. The balance is for industry, to power boilers, furnaces, and smelters. Briquettes are also used to heat homes and cook food. Coal supplies fully 75% of China's energy needs. It's the soot from all this coal that's causing health problems, but it's the high sulfur content in the coal that's at the root of China's acid rain problem. It's already affecting one third of the territory. Susan McDade is in charge of energy and environmental projects with the United Nations Development Programme in Beijing.

McDADE: The impact through the acid rain side has an obvious effect on agriculture, and to a certain extent on industry. There are known technologies to deal with, such as scrubbers and desulfurization. These technologies are mandated by the Chinese government on all new power installations. However, because the power sector is still a relatively small part of total coal use, the industrial sector really becomes the key challenge.

MCNEILL: Acid rain is also a bone of contention between China and its neighbors, especially Japan. And there's the even stickier issue of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. According to official statistics, in 1990 China was already releasing about 600 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere: 10% of the world total. And China's coal consumption is expected to jump by two thirds over the next 25 years. Yet despite the obvious drawbacks of coal, China can't quite kick the habit. Wang Zhixia is with NEPA, the National Environment Protection Agency.

WANG: We know in the next maybe 20 or 30 years, it is impossible for China to change our energy structure. That means coal will remain as the main energy. So now, first we advocate clean technology, to use coal cleanly. At the same time, of course, we develop some renewable energy resources.

MCNEILL: China is exploring energy alternatives. It has plans to erect more hydro dams, build a dozen nuclear power plants, install wind farms, and tap solar power. Even so, the World Bank and the UNDP predict these energy sources will only supply at most 30% of China's needs. For better or for worse, coal is the resource with which China has been endowed. And it's economics that will drive the adoption of clean and more efficient technologies. The price of coal used to be heavily subsidized by the government. More recently it's been allowed to rise. Higher energy costs could very well force factories to invest in energy saving equipment. Susan McDade is with the UNDP.

McDADE: Coal and energy has become one of their real production costs. But where there is unresolved problems is in the type of boiler technology that China produces. There are numerous boiler works all over China that produce very old technology, 1930s technology from western Europe coming straight off the assembly line today.

MCNEILL: If present pilot products work well, high efficiency, clean burning boilers could eventually replace China's antiquated stock. However, financing remains a formidable stumbling block. While China's economy continues to grow, money for capital investment is tight. So even if a factory can prove investing in a high tech boiler will pay off in greater efficiency and profitability in the long run, banks will only loan money for quick payback. It's a vicious circle with little hope for improvement. That's why some environmentalists counsel China to simply slow down on growth, since that would mean burning less fossil fuels and cutting down on emissions. But Susan McDade of the UNDP has some sympathy for the dimensions of the problem here.

McDADE: There is no other industrialized or industrializing country that has ever developed using a model of sustainable development. Without exception, every industrialized country, every OECD country, has used a model of industrialize first and clean up later. And I think it's very good to keep in perspective that there are no easy answers and there are no quick solutions for Chinese public policy makers.

MCNEILL: Whether or not it's possible for China to take a more sustainable course, there seems to be little enthusiasm for that here. The overriding priority remains economic growth. But western observers note there's been a slight shift in the Chinese leadership. They recognize China's resources will not allow growth to continue at this pace. Pollution must be cleaned up, and conservation measures adopted. The government has started to take some of these steps, but no major improvement is expected on either air pollution or acid rain any time soon. For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill in Beijing.

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CURWOOD: You're probably looking ahead to summer, but have you thought about that lawn? Stay tuned to learn a secret of easy lawn care from one of our listeners, coming up in a few minutes on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Bavarian Monks Go Golfing?

CURWOOD: Germany is one of the most environmentally active nations. For example, the government requires recycling of just about all packaging. And business there is making big gains in industrial ecology. So it is with a bit of surprise and no small degree of discomfort that some German environmentalists have found themselves locking horns with unusual adversaries: monks in the Roman Catholic Church. Squeezed by finances, a Benedictine monastery in the village of Andechs, south of Munich, wants to convert much of its farm land into a golf course. But some say fairways and greens would wreck the bucolic setting. Michael Lawton prepared our report.

(Church bells ring)

LAWTON: The sacred mountain of Andechs has been a place of pilgrimage since the 10th century. It boasts among its relics pieces of Christ's crown of thorns and the wedding dress of St. Elizabeth of Turingia. The Benedictine monks have only been here since the 15th century, running a large agricultural estate on the land they own roundabout. They also brought with them the tradition of brewing beer, which is still the monastery's main source of income. And it's the monastery's own tavern in which most of Andechs's million and a half visitors a year end up.

(Boisterous people indoors)

LAWTON: Here beer is served in 2-pint glasses and smoked knuckles of pork are eaten at bare scrubbed wooden tables. And most of the people in the tavern don't think much of the monks' idea of turning their farm land into a golf course.

MAN: I think it's isn't a good idea, because this is a traditional place, a religious place. And I'm not of the opinion it's a place which is connected with a golf course.

WOMAN: [Speaks in German]

LAWTON: This lady says everything should stay as it is. Golf courses are the big fashion these days and we just don't need them, she says. We just want the cozy atmosphere and the good Andechs beer. People can go hiking instead.

[A bell rings. An organ plays.]

LAWTON: But the cozy atmosphere and the good Andechs beer, say the monks, won't keep the monastery going. Eight monks live and pray here and another 16 in Munich, where they run a number of social projects. Beer is a declining market and agriculture is losing money. That's why father Anselm, the monastery's cellarer and the man in charge of its business activities wants
the golf course.

ANSELM: [Speaks in German]
TRANSLATOR: The motto of the Benedictine order is to pray and work. In other words, the monks are required to ensure their own maintenance through their labor. If we make a loss on part of our real estate so that we have to subsidize it from elsewhere, it's my job to find another way of making money.

LAWTON: But at what cost? The opponents of the golf course, led by the Green lawyer Wolfgang von Nostitz, choose to explain their objections in a restaurant just outside the monastery gates.

VON NOSTITZ: We expect from religious institutions that their activities are responsible an that they think beyond profit and fancy sport. That they think of employment of healthy food and of the preservation of God's nature. Unfortunately, they are not doing that.

LAWTON: The local environmentalists want to see the land turned over to organic agriculture. They've offered to lease it from the monastery and farm it themselves. But the monks say there's no money to be made that way. Jurgen Schott, the man in charge of the golf course project, says it's an exciting and creative compromise.

SCHOTT: [Speaks in German]
TRANSLATOR: Our plans for the Andechs landscape and golf park are to create a unique concept which will unite ecology and economy as equal partners. The park will be on an area of 460 acres, and will take into account the interests of organic agriculture, nature preservation, and leisure: in this case, golf.

LAWTON: The trick is that the 18-hole golf course will be integrated with organic farm land and nature reserves, so that golfers will have to walk through wheat fields and past natural ponds to get from one hole to the next. Fertilizer and pesticides will only be applied to the greens, which will be separately drained so they have no effect on the rest of the land. But Wolfgang von Nostitz doesn't believe you can separate the greens from everything else. What happens when it shows, he asks. It's an experiment and he's not prepared to take the risk.

(Voices milling around)

VON NOSTITZ. This particular nature around Andechs, which has grown during many hundred years, cannot be the object of an experiment. Because the experiment, once done, the nature as it is now is destroyed. We have seen pictures, how the architect which intends to make this golf course here has done others. It starts with destroying the entire nature, and then start at zero again.

LAWTON: Father Anselm doesn't mind the opposition. He says it's led them to revise their earlier plans so that the current project is one which not even the strictest environmentalists could fault. But the opposition continues and he thinks it's got nothing to do with real concern for the environment.

ANSELM: [Speaks in German]
TRANSLATOR: There's a basic ideological opposition from people who reject the very idea of a golf course without even listening to the arguments. In other countries like Britain, America, every village or town has 2 or 3 golf courses. It's only here that people think golf is an elitist sport. It'll take time but it makes me very happy to know that a monastery's in the vanguard of turning golf into a sport for the people.

(Monks chanting Gregorian Chants)

LAWTON: The liturgies say, may the Lord give his people peace, not golf. A regional planning committee will have to decide on the monastery's project. If it says yes, then Andechs will have the chance to prove that golf and the environment can be made to mix. If not, then the monks will still come up to the church every evening to pray, but they'll have to look for other ways to support their monastery. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in Andechs.

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(Monks chanting Gregorian Chants)

Green Listeners: Low-Tech Lawn Mower in Use

CURWOOD: As winter winds down and that blanket of white starts to melt away, people's thoughts will quickly turn from snow blowing to lawn mowing. Well, most people's thoughts, anyway. My next guest doesn't really have to worry about that; he's taken an interesting approach to keeping his yard trim. He's brought in some sheep. Gary Finnelli, welcome to Living on Earth.

FINNELLI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Most of us who have to push a lawn mower from time to time thing about ah, it would be wonderful to get a sheep or a goat to do this. But I mean, we think about it but we don't do it. I mean, what possessed you to actually get some sheep and try it?

FINNELLI: We have just under 2 acres, and I spent so much time mowing it, and out of frustration I decided to look into alternatives, and driving around the countryside I saw these places where people had some sheep. I noticed the grass was kept short, and I started asking a lot of questions. I thought I'd try it.

CURWOOD: Gary, are you married?


CURWOOD: So what did your wife say when you --

FINNELLI: She and my other relatives weren't so sure about this. I guess they thought I was a little crazy.

CURWOOD: What benefits have you noticed from having sheep cutting your grass? Aside from saving you time, of course?

FINNELLI: Well, there's quite a few advantages, such as very low maintenance compared to mowing. That's an obvious one.

CURWOOD: Now is it really? I would think that you have to get up every morning and feed -- you don't have to feed them, what am I talking about?

FINNELLI: Well, in the winter time we do. I just purchase some hay and have it delivered. It costs me $1.75 a bale. And I find that the cost of hay and feed for the sheep is much less compared to the cat food and cat litter. So the cost is not that high.

CURWOOD: How does it compare to the care and feeding of a lawn mower?

FINNELLI: Actually, the initial cost was probably comparable to getting a riding mower, which we would have had to do if we had to keep that large of an area down. But over a couple of years I see it as cheaper, with the periodic repairs needed to mowing, the gasoline, eventually a new mower. Where our healthy sheep really get sick, actually they've never gotten sick from me, and reproduce, so there's never need to buy new ones compared to a riding mower.

CURWOOD: Yeah, that's an advantage. I mean definitely your lawn mower won't make another one for you.

FINNELLI: Right. Also, they produce their own fertilizer for the lawn. So it's better for thenvironment than commercially produced fertilizer, which I used to buy before I had the sheep. And you can't beat the bucolic quality of it. I mean we sit on our deck and watch the pleasing scene of a small flock of sheep grazing, who are cutting my grass for me.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) It's sounds wonderful. What's the down side?

FINNELLI: They will eat things that maybe you don't want them to eat, such as your shrubs, small trees. Another thing we learned the hard way was concerning rams. We have 5 ewes and 1 ram. When the ram became sexually mature it lost all interest in being a pet to our children and became extremely interested in our ewes. A ram will fight for dominion of the flock. Our ram had no other rams to direct its natural instincts, so it started to show its aggression towards my wife and our children. Our mistake was having the ram become a friendly pet where it lost all fear of us. We have another ram that I encouraged my kids to chase, since it was very young, so as not to become friendly with it. This ram still protects its ewes but it has a healthy fear of my family, so my kids can go about the yard without being bothered by him.

CURWOOD: Now, we have to go but I have to ask you this question.


CURWOOD: What happens to these lambs? Do they wind up on your kitchen table?

FINNELLI: No. (Laughs) No, they all have names. They all have names and they all become pets. The one ram that was butting our children, it did wind up to be somebody's meal, and my wife even cried with even that ram. But no, we don't keep them for that purpose. We keep them for keeping our grass short.

CURWOOD: And are they on your backs any place literally? I mean, do you knit their wool and wear it?

FINNELLI: We have a large amount of wool. My wife was going to get into spinning it. I've bartered it, some of it. You want some wool?

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

FINNELLI: I can send you 3 bags full, actually.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Thank you so much for taking this time with us.

FINNELLI: You're very welcome.

CURWOOD: Gary Finnelli lives in Wassaic, New York, and has gotten rid of his lawn mower.

Back to top

CURWOOD: If you or someone you know is doing something interesting in regards to the environment, tell us. Give us a call. Our listener line number is 1-800-218-9988. That's
1-800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And our postal address: Living on Earth, Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Post Office Box 639, Harvard Square Station, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238.

(An old recording plays, with bird calls)

A Look Ahead to Next Week's Show: The Last of the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

CURWOOD: The only known recording of the ivory-billed woodpecker, made in the hardwood forests of Louisiana in the 1930s.

MAN: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered, like the whooping crane, the largest crane, the trumpeter swan, the largest swan, the ivory billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

MAN 2: The ivory billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

CURWOOD: Most scientists think the ivory-bill is extinct. But the specter of North America's largest woodpecker continues to haunt hundreds of professional and amateur bird watchers. They refuse to give up hope that some of the pterodactyl-like birds, with their 3-foot wing spans, might be hanging on deep in some southern swamp. Next week on Living on Earth: the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, and a journey through the cultures of those who have made it their own holy grail.

(Music up and under)

MAN 3: Well, you know what the holy grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there, but you still go out to see if it's possible. (Laughs)

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: 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 Mark Borrelli, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Michael Argue, and Emily Atkinson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthellier 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 National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics; and the Joyce Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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