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

May 31, 1996

Air Date: May 31, 1996


Consensus on Census: A Salmon Solution? / Jennifer Schmidt

A number of varying interests in the quest to keep salmon spawning and hydropower in place for residents along the Columbia River may have found a new and worthwhile compromise. Based on a report by independent scientists commissioned by the four-state coalition Northwest Power Planning Council, a new science and way of looking at the salmon crisis is emerging. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU in Seattle explains. (04:57)

Keeping Soil in Its Place / Jane Fritz

Jane Fritz reports from southern Idaho on the results from use of a polymer commonly called PAM which appears to keep soil from eroding with no known adverse side effects. (07:55)

All About Poison Ivy

Steve Curwood speaks with Susan Carol Hauser, author of the book titled Nature's Revenge, for practical advice on avoiding, identifying and coping with outbreaks from contact with poison ivy. (07:17)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about...vaccinations. (01:15)

Zabbaleen: The Garbage Pickers of Cairo, Egypt / Laurie Neff

Zabbaleen is an Arabic word meaning "garbage people." Laurie Neff reports from Egypt's capital Cairo on these Zabbaleen who are active and enterprising recyclers, and what they can teach people in other huge cities around the world about rubbish re-use. (09:53)

Coordinating Mega-Cities

Steve Curwood speaks with Janice Pearlman, Executive Director of a non-profit network called Mega-Cities that helps the world's largest cities share innovative solutions to problems they all have in common. (06:29)

Geographic Satellite Mapping / Beth Fertig

Geographic Information Systems (or GIS) are among the latest technological tools being used to help local community leaders track data which may show possible links between land use and public health effects. Beth Fertig reports from Bronx, New York. (04:44)

One Listener's Dream House: Made from Tires

Host Steve Curwood speaks with a listener who is building his own off-beat brand of dream house; a dwelling made from old tires. (03:49)

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: Alex Kirby, Zachary Fink, Jennifer Schmidt, Jane Fritz,
Laurie Neff, Beth Fertig
GUESTS: Carol Hauser, Janice Pearlman,Paul Potyen

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Soil erosion is a major threat to the world's food supply. Every year, irrigation washes away billions of tons of vital topsoil. Now farmers in Idaho are testing a new substance that seems to stop erosion right in its tracks. It's a chemical fix that might actually work.

TREVERTI: And it looked just like you could have taken that water right out of the well. It was really kind of amazing. This is going to revolutionize our little way of irrigating here.

CURWOOD: Also, the warmer weather means it must be the season of the itch.

HAUSER: The experience of having poison ivy is so intense that even thinking about it brings back the memory. The skin remembers.

CURWOOD: We'll tell you some of the secrets of how to beat poison ivy. How to keep it away and what to do if it gets you, this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Ozone destroying chemicals are now declining in the upper atmosphere, and the ozone hole above the Earth could start closing within 10 years. In a report in the Journal Science, researchers say for the first time ever, ground level measurements on 3 continents and 2 Pacific Ocean islands have detected reductions in the industrial chemicals that erode the ozone layer. Thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer is thought to be caused by chlorofluorocarbons, halons, and chlorine-based solvents. The high-altitude natural ozone layer forms a barrier against ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Pesticide use in the United States reached record highs last year. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency says farmers spent more than $10 billion on the chemicals. The EPA says agriculture used one and a quarter billion pounds of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides in 1995. That's up 100 million pounds from 1993 and reverses a downward trend in pesticide use. The unpublished report was released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the US Public Interest Research Group. Both groups say it contradicts claims by the chemical industry and farm groups that they are cutting pesticide use. But an industry trade association says the numbers reflect more acreage being planted and more weather-related pest problems, especially with insects on cotton. EPA is closely studying the chemical methyl bromide for the possible effect of direct exposure to farm workers and neighbors exposed to drifting vapors.

British parents and doctors are up in arms following the disclosure that leading brands of infant formula contain high levels of chemicals that can harm the reproductive system. The government has asked manufacturers to investigate the cause of contamination. From London, Alex Kirby reports.

KIRBY: Scientists from the British government agriculture department tested different brands of infant formula. In every sample from 9 leading brands, they found significant levels of chemicals called phaligs, and 6 other brands are under suspicion. Phaligs are clear, oily liquids used for softening plastics. Annual world output is put at around 5 million tons, and like many other pollutants, they're probably widely spread throughout the environment. Phaligs are among the compounds thought to be implicated in falling human fertility and other disorders. But the picture is confusing. Although sperm counts seem to be falling steadily in much of Europe, there's no matching evidence from urban parts of the USA. The level of phaligs found in the infant formula were close to those that damaged the reproductive systems of laboratory rats. The amount of the chemical allowed in food is usually only one percent of the lowest levels of which it's thought capable of causing harm. The government says there's no health risk. The parents are not reassured. This is Alex Kirby in London for Living on Earth.

NUNLEY: Scientists are at a loss to explain the deaths of thousands of fish off Florida's west coast. Catfish, pin fish, trout, and croaker have washed up along the coastline from Tampa to Pensacola, and other species are dying in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers don't think the in-shore and off-shore fish kills are related. Earlier this year a mystery epidemic off Florida's coast killed more than 250 endangered manatees. Officials have not been able to pinpoint the cause of those deaths.

New York City officials are planning to close the mammoth Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island by the year 2002. The closing would curtail a major health hazard, but the question of what to do with the city's trash remains. From WFUV in New York, Zachary Fink reports.

FINK: New York City officials say they are planning to close the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island by the year 2002, although the proposal must still be approved by state regulators. Fresh Kills, which covers 3,000 acres with its 175-foot high mountains of garbage is the world's largest dump. Residents of Staten Island have complained for years not only about the smell, but of the health hazards Fresh Kills imposes. The dump has been blamed for health ailments ranging from asthma to cancer. The city's Department of Sanitation says it plans to send the trash to other states, but exporting the garbage will likely cost more than the city currently spends on disposal, and New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani has proposed cutting the city's recycling budget by $28 million. For Living on Earth, I'm Zachary Fink.

NUNLEY: Mad cow disease and oil pollution have forced a group of Cistercian monks to break their vows of silence on television. The monks finance their monastery on the tiny island of Caldey with money from tourists who enjoyed the boat trip over from Wales and then bought the monks' farm produce. But disaster struck in February when the tanker Sea Empress ran aground off the coast, spilling thousands of tons of oil. To make up the shortfall, the monks then tried to sell some of their prize herds of cattle, only to be hit by the worldwide scare over mad cow disease. Now the monks have drawn up a series of TV ads hoping to draw the tourists back.

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

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Consensus on Census: A Salmon Solution?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest used to be so flush with salmon each spring that people said you could cross the river on the back of salmon. But in recent years that flood of fish has dwindled to a trickle. This spring officials counted only about 250,000 salmon on the Snake River: by far the lowest number in history. For years people have disagreed about what's necessary to save the salmon, especially when it comes to the massive and lucrative hydroelectric dams that block the fishes' migration. But a new study by a team of independent scientists is gaining unusual support from many sides in the dispute, and it may help forge a consensus for action. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: Up till now, much of the controversy over dwindling salmon runs has focused on whether proposals to restore the runs are scientifically sound. But the new study by 9 independent scientists may help end the stalemate over science. The team looked closely at the migration of young salmon from the mountains of Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. In the course of their research they made some disturbing findings.

WILLIAMS: Some of the fish that are being observed have no food in them. So they do look like they're starving.

SCHMIDT: Rick Williams is an Idaho fisheries biologist and the chair of the scientific team. He says one reason the fish may be starving is that some of the deep reservoirs created by dams on the Columbia system have destroyed critical shallow water habitat along the river's edge, where the fish traditionally rest and feed. He says if these salmon runs are to recover, some stretches of the Columbia must function more like a natural river.

WILLIAMS: We're not calling for the Columbia River to be brought back to a pristine state. That's probably not socially or economically acceptable and might not even be possible ecologically. But what we need is basically more high quality habitat.

SCHMIDT: To recreate this habitat, scientists favor permanently lowering the level of one or even several reservoirs to create shallow free-flowing stretches. And floodgates should be periodically opened to mimic natural spring floods, which would scour gravel beds and restore degraded riverbank habitat. The idea, says Rick Williams, is to give the salmon more safe havens as they move through an environment made hostile by the dams.

WILLIAMS: And if you look at high quality habitat like beads on a string, right now we have very few beads and a lot of string. And the beads are very poorly connected. What we need is to create more habitat which would be to put more beads on this string, and to make the distances or connections between them easier or shorter.

SCHMIDT: The study was commissioned by the Northwest Power Planning Council, which represents the 4 Northwest states. The conclusions are only preliminary, but so far Council Members like what they hear. John Etchart of Montana is Chairman of the Power Planning Council.

ETCHART: This is the freshest, cleanest, most comprehensive and thorough look at this problem ever, and I don't know -- if this isn't good science or the beginning of good science, I don't know how you get it.

SCHMIDT: In the past, Mr. Etchart has sided with industry against the lowering of reservoir levels. He says he wasn't convinced by the original reason for draw downs: to help speed up the flow of the river and flush migrating salmon to the ocean.

ETCHART: We may well have been barking up the wrong tree, and this is a new idea, a new concept about what the fish might really need, which is to say not a quick trip to the ocean but a healthy habitat on the way down.

SCHMIDT: Even commercial interests have expressed tentative support for the scientific group's conclusions. Bruce Lovelin is President of the Columbia River Alliance, a group which represents utilities, ports, and barge operators on the Columbia.

LOVELIN: We are pleased. This looks at the whole salmon crisis in a whole different way. Looks at it from a basin-wide perspective and try to use the best available science to move this, the Columbia/Snake River system, back into a healthier system.

SCHMIDT: Still, commercial groups warn that what scientists say is best for salmon may not be best for the region. For instance, if reservoir levels are dropped, barges may have trouble navigating. Irrigators might have to build new pumping stations, and there might be less water available for power production. But Washington Power Planning Council member Mike Kreidler says debating the costs and benefits of a salmon recovery plan rather than whether it's scientifically sound is a major step in the right direction.

KREIDLER: And now it's going to be a real question. Are we willing to belly up to the bar and pay for what's necessary here, make the sacrifices that it's going to take in order to keep salmon?

SCHMIDT: Even if the answer to this question is a resounding yes, there is another factor to consider: time. Scientists say unless the region acts quickly, endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin are unlikely to survive into the next century. For Living on Earth I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Keeping Soil in Its Place

CURWOOD: The Snake River faces more environmental perils than the threatened extinction of the salmon. Much of its water is used to irrigate agriculture. When the water runs off the land back into the river, it often carries with it valuable topsoil as well as pesticides and fertilizer. The result is soil erosion, sedimentation, and pollution. Of course, this is hardly limited to the Snake River. Literally billions of tons of topsoil are washed away every year by farmers irrigating fields all over the world. And that causes grave harm to our long-term ability to grow food. But the eyes of agronomy are now on southern Idaho, where an intriguing experiment in soil protection is taking place in the valley of the Snake River. A chemical is being tested that binds irrigated soil and prevents it from being washed away. Jane Fritz brings us this report.

(Water flowing)

FRITZ: The powerful Snake River winds across southern Idaho, cutting a deep gorge through what's known as the Magic Valley.

Irrigation from the Snake has transformed this sagebrush desert into some of the most productive farmland in the country. Beans and sweet corn grow here, potatoes and sugar beets. But since much of the valley farmland is furrow irrigated, muddy runoff from farmers' fields typically drains back into the river. It carries topsoil, nutrients from fertilizers, and chemical pesticides, putting the Snake River's water quality on the critical list. Farmers have used varied methods to reduce irrigation erosion, sediment ponds that hold runoff until it settles and clears. Mulched furrows that help keep soils in place. And manmade wetlands that filter and clean the wastewater. But last summer, farmer Tom Tverdy of Buhl, Idaho, tried the newest solution.

TVERDY: Here's a little bag of it right here. It's some left from last year. It' really quite interesting material. When you put it on, you'd swear that there just wasn't hardly anything going on.

FRITZ: Mr. Tverdy added the polymer, poly-acrylamide, to hundreds of acres of sweet corn that he grows for Green Giant Foods. He used the chemical late in the season and was surprised by the results.

TVERDY: I waited for about, oh an hour, maybe an hour and a half. My brother was in the shop here. And so I went down to the bottom to see what it was like. And pretty soon he came down there. And it looked just like you could have taken that water right out of the well. It looked just like well water. It was really kind of amazing. This is going to revolutionize our little way of irrigating here.

(Running water)

FRITZ: Across the Magic Valley from Mr. Tverdy's farm a team of soil scientists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Research Service is in its sixth year of studying the effects of poly-acrylamide -- or, more simply, PAM -- on furrow-irrigated lands.

SOJKA: We're standing in the middle of a potato field that's being furrow irrigated.

FRITZ: Dr. Robert Sojka is co-leader of the PAM research team for the USDA Kimberly Station.

SOJKA: And we're standing between 2 furrows. The one on our right has been irrigated with water the way any normal farmer would. It's untreated water, it comes from the Snake River. And the water coming off this furrow looks about like a chocolate milkshake. You can't see the bottom of the furrow. We're losing a lot of soil. This is a problem.

FRITZ: By mixing a couple of handfuls of PAM in the first run of irrigation water, Dr. Sojka finds that erosion is reduced on this 3-acre test plot by better than 95%.

SOJKA: If we look over our left shoulder we can look through the water of this furrow and actually see the bottom of the furrow. It's completely clear. This water has been polymer treated, and it has completely stopped the erosion in the furrow. Irrigating this way is a sustainable practice. It prevents erosion. A farmer could continue to farm this field this way for hundreds of years because of the fact that the soil that we're looking at today will still be here then.

FRITZ: With just a small amount of the chemical in the water, PAM causes the soil particles to gather, clump together, and fall out of suspension.

SOJKA: The beauty of using this polymer is that we're not fixing a problem after it's happened; we're preventing the problem from happening in the first place. The water is not causing any erosion, so the soil stays put wherever it is in the field. We don't have to come back at the end of the year and clean out a pond, or we don't have to do any tillage to move soil around. The soil basically stays where it belongs in the field.

FRITZ: And with PAM, the soil holds water better, so farmers may be able to irrigate less. For decades PAM has been used in various ways, including food processing and wastewater treatment. It's been approved by the FDA and the EPA. That may be why this new use for PAM isn't raising many eyebrows among environmentalists, but Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC, does have some concerns.

COOK: It's pretty rare that you find a silver bullet in modern agriculture. It's pretty rare that you find a technology that doesn't have some side effects of one kind or another. In the case of PAM, we really don't know what those may be yet. It clearly is promising when used correctly for erosion control. But are there other effects? We don't know.

FRITZ: Cook wants researchers to closely monitor agricultural use of PAM.

COOK: We've come to learn from lots of past experience in agriculture and in other industries that sometimes there are second generation effects of these technologies that weren't anticipated at the time, and that become evident as they're being used over years and years.

FRITZ: He's particularly concerned about the chemical leaching into ground water and finding its way into rivers and streams. But Dr. Rick Lentz, the other leading USDA researcher, claims PAM is not a ground water threat. Nor does it move far from the farmer's fields.

LENTZ: Basically all the PAM is captured in the upper quarter inch of the topsoil in the furrow. Within several hundred feet or a little over a thousand feet, depending on the time of year, the PAM will be gone. So there's very little threat of the PAM ever reaching surface waters in that case.

FRITZ: And the research team says it hasn't been able to find any negative impacts of PAM on either the soil structure or its productivity. And Bob Sojka notes that PAM also keeps phosphates and nitrates from fertilizers and pesticides in the field rather than in the river.

LENTZ: It's the only case I can think of in which the chemical we're adding results in the removal of more polluting material than it results in adding to it. Yeah, it's a chemical fix. It is a chemical. But in the sense that this is a chemical to be dread, no, I don't think so.

FRITZ: The USDA will continue to study the long-term effects of PAM. This past year PAM went commercial and farmers throughout the western states are now using the chemical as their latest weapon against soil erosion.

TVERDY: It's going to be a great thing for us.

FRITZ: Farmer Tom Tverdy is hopeful about future irrigation treatments with poly-acrylamide. He says in addition to the environmental benefits, using PAM is affordable and not as labor-intensive as some of the other conservation practices he and his neighbors have used.

TVERDY: Nobody wants to have a bunch of dirt going down the river. I mean that's just not how we like to do business. You know, they usually say things sound too good to be true and they usually aren't, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens here. If it doesn't work out as well as we hoped, or if there are side effects to it, then we're going to have to plan something else. But at least there might be a way to fine-tune this somehow to make it work.

FRITZ: Poly-acrylamide may be poised to revolutionize farming in Idaho's Magic Valley, and with a couple billion tons of topsoil lost globally each year to furrow irrigation, maybe the rest of the world is next. For Living on Earth I'm Jane Fritz in southern Idaho.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Poison ivy is called nature's revenge. We'll have the secrets of how to beat it just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

All About Poison Ivy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ah, summer. Finally time to enjoy the great outdoors, right? Well, Mother Nature isn't always glad to see us. The itch inducing trio of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, lurk just about everywhere in North America. And just because you've never had it before doesn't mean you won't get it. Author Susan Carol Hauser, who's written the new book Nature's Revenge, thought she was immune until -- well, let's let her tell the story.

HAUSER: Well, I thought I was one of the chosen immune. That I was not going to get poison ivy. I waded through it all of my life, merrily, with people yelling at me, you're going to get poison ivy. And I never did, so I didn't pay any attention until about 5 years ago. And I was helping a friend clear some brush, and I wore leather gloves and jeans and I covered up all my skin, and 3 days later I broke out in a terrible rash that -- I'd been sitting on berries and the juice from the berries soaked through the back of my jeans --

CURWOOD: Uh ohhh...

HAUSER: And the backs of my legs became like raw hamburger. So I became inspired to find out about poison ivy and found there was very little reliable information on it. It was very difficult. So I started doing some heavy research.

CURWOOD: All right. So you went out, you did that research, and you can tell us now the secrets of it. First of all, what is it that happens when you're exposed to poison ivy or poison oak or sumac? Is it the same thing?

HAUSER: Yes. The oil in the plants, in all 3 plants, is exactly the same. It's called arusiol, and it's an almost invisible -- well, it's invisible to us in the quantities that we would see it in. It's a very clear, thin oil that flows in canals in all parts of the plant. When the canals get broken by something such as a broken leaf or even an insect bite, the arusiol comes out and sits on the leaf and waits for a human to pass by, and when it gets on our skin 85% of us will have an allergic reaction after our first exposure. As with most allergic reactions you have to have a sensitizing exposure. Then the next exposure, the body decides that this allergen is a dangerous thing and goes after it.

CURWOOD: You started scratching.

HAUSER: I did start scratching and I will probably continue to do so for a while. Because the experience of having poison ivy is so intense that even thinking about it brings back the memory. I think the skin remembers the assault.

CURWOOD: All right. Now we called you here today specifically to get the secrets of how to deal with this stuff once you get it.


CURWOOD: What do you do if you're exposed to it? What should you do if you think you've been exposed to poison ivy?

HAUSER: The first thing you do if you're going to be outside is to have someone help you identify the plants and do learn what they look like, because it does help to avoid contact. But the second thing to do is to take care to respond to the presence of the arusiol if you think you might have gotten into it. And there are a couple of ways to do that. One is to bathe in lots and lots of water; it takes copious amounts of water. Don't just use a washcloth over your skin; get under running water so that you dilute the arusiol. But the best thing I found out in my research and it's wonderful, it's inexpensive, wonderful, pretty much benign, is that rubbing alcohol is an organic solvent and neutralizes the arusiol.


HAUSER: So we keep a Mason jar with rubbing alcohol in it, with a cloth, and we take it when we go hiking and we keep one in the garage when we worked outside. You just take the cloth and swab it over your skin, you don't have to scrub. And then wash with lots of water. And it will neutralize the arusiol and prevent a reaction up to 3 to 4 hours after exposure. Whereas water you have to use within less than an hour. The arusiol starts to bond with your skin in 10 to 15 minutes.

CURWOOD: Okay. But what if we didn't notice so we didn't have the alcohol with us or we didn't wash and we're starting to get that itchy feeling?

HAUSER: Yes. It'll start with just a little kind of itch and you won't even realize it's poison ivy. And then it'll start getting red. And the next day it'll start to blister and ooze and do terrible things and people won't want to come near you.


HAUSER: Because they don't know if you can spread the poison ivy or poison oak to them.


HAUSER: And in fact you cannot. The blisters, the fluid in the blisters is body serum and does not contain the oil arusiol, which is long gone from your skin; it bonded within 10 to 15 minutes, and unless you're recontaminating yourself from clothing or tools, you cannot get -- your exposure to the arusiol is done. So you don't have to worry about spreading it by scratching the blisters. As you start reacting, if you have a mild case and you can avoid scratching, use home remedies and over the counter drugs like cortisone creams, calamine lotion, compresses of Avena, oatmeal solutions, vinegar and water is another good one. And whatever you can use that's comforting to your skin and allows you to not scratch it. If you must scratch, and you have a big case with bad blisters and over more than a fourth of your body or on your face, you should get some kind of help. There are prescription drugs that stop the reaction. The prednisone, cortical steroids, injection and pills, will stop the itching. They have side effects, they might make you feel bad, but they will stop the itching.

CURWOOD: What about the home remedies, or rather the folk remedy I'm thinking of, of jewel weed?


CURWOOD: You know, it's a long, spindly plant, and you're supposed to be able to use the sap from that to protect you.

HAUSER: Yes. The stem of jewel weed is very juicy, like an aloe plant.


HAUSER: And it's an old American Indian remedy for poison ivy and for other things. Many people report good effect from using this immediately; as a preventive they wash with it after they've been in the woods. Or as soon as they feel a rash they start using it. They've done clinical studies with this, and it works about 30% of the time.

CURWOOD: Okay, but for right now what I should do is, I'm out walking, I should stay on the path. If I get off the path I should look out for those plants.


CURWOOD: And if I am not careful about it, if I think I've got the stuff, I should wash off with rubbing alcohol.


CURWOOD: And then a lot of water.

HAUSER: That's right, a lot of water, yes. Also, watch out for your clothes, your bicycle tires, any tools you're using. The oil arusiol bonds within 10 to 15 minutes to human skin, but it stays active for years on objects. So if you get some on your tennis shoe laces and you put your tennis shoes away in the fall and take them out again in the spring, or in January, you can get arusiol on your hands from your tennis shoes. And then you scratch your face and you've got poison ivy in January, and you wonder where in the world it came from.

CURWOOD: Susan Carol Hauser's book is called Nature's Revenge: the Secrets of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac and the Remedies. And now you know the secret remedies that she does. Thanks for coming and joining us.

HAUSER: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

(Music up and under: "You're going to need an ocean of calamine lotion. You'll be scratching like a hound the minute you start to mess around. Poison ivy! Poison ivy! Late at night while you're sleepin' for that after comes a-creepin' around. La da la da la la...")

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

Back to top

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up in the second half of our program: even in poverty there is a wealth of knowledge that can be shared. Meet the rag pickers of Cairo, just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Two hundred years ago an English physician, Edward Jenner, administered the first vaccination against smallpox to an 8-year-old boy. It was the first step in the eventual eradication of the disease around the world. The last known case was reported in 1977. Smallpox still remains in 2 places: the laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and its Russian counterpart in Moscow. The microbes are scheduled for destruction in 1999, though there's a debate among scientists about the wisdom of doing this. Some say we should keep the virus for research. Others fear accidental releases if the samples are not destroyed. The World Health Organization hopes 2 other viruses will be eradicated next. Polio has already been vanquished from the Western Hemisphere, and the WHO hopes to eradicate it worldwide by the year 2000. The organization also expects measles to be gone by the year 2010. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Zabbaleen: The Garbage Pickers of Cairo, Egypt

CURWOOD: The world's urban leaders are gathering in Istanbul as June begins for a special United Nations conference on the rapid growth of cities. More people will live in cities in 30 years than occupied the entire planet just a decade ago. The Habitat II meeting will focus on the problems this boom is bringing, as well as putting the spotlight on some possible solutions. One success story that will be highlighted is an innovative project in Cairo that is attempting to transform the city's scavenger community into entrepreneurs. In Arabic they are called Zabbaleen: literally "garbage people." From the Egyptian capitol, Laurie Neff has their story.

(Trash being gathered; a woman speaks in Arabic)

NEFF: A middle-aged barefoot woman sweats in the heat of the midday Cairo sun a she shovels garbage from a truck into a large space underneath her home, where it will be sorted. Nearby sits Neama Sami, a 6-year-old boy, unwashed and in tattered clothes.

NEAMA SAMI: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: My uncle and my grandfather go with a cart and collect garbage and bring the things over. And we sort it. The glass alone, the garbage alone, and the glass with oil alone. The plastics, like the hard plastic and this soft plastic, we take it and sort it out.

NEFF: These are the Zabbaleen of Egypt: some 18 to 20,000 live in the squatter settlement called Manshiet Nasser in hills on the outskirts of Cairo. Theirs is not a pleasant job or environment. Piles of rubbish, bits of plastic, newspaper and flies feasting on rotted lettuce, onions and banana peels, sit inside and outside many buildings here. Some are burning, adding an acrid thick smoke to a heavy, putrid odor of decay. Muddied streets are filled with animals: pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs, alive and dead. Narrow pathways are clogged with donkey carts and battered trucks loaded with debris. Lilah Kamel is an Egyptian activist involved with the Zabbaleen.

KAMEL: Yes, well, the lowest rung of society, I don't need to tell you, their trade makes them look dirty, smell bad. They handle rotting food manually, which is awful. They perform the lowest service in the city. But the most important one, or one of them, because it keeps us alive and healthy.

NEFF: Cairo, a city with an estimated population of 14 to 16 million, produces some 7,000 tons of garbage a day, and the Zabbaleen pick up more than 60% of it. Trash gathering has been the Zabbaleen trade since they started coming to Cairo from upper Egypt in the late 1940s and 50s. They were Coptic Christian pig farmers who began collecting garbage to feed their animals. Mounir Neamatalla is an Egyptian environmental activist who's worked with the Zabbaleen for 17 years. He says as bad as Manshiet Nasser is now, it was much, much worse.

NAMATALLA: People, some 15, 20 years ago, resided in shacks encrusted within garbage piles. Today the conditions are very different. Businesses, there are cafes, there are workshops, there are schools, there are pathways that people can access the settlements. I remember just going into the settlement was almost an impossible endeavor.

NEFF: The improvement since then is not due to any government action but the accomplishment of a number of private Egyptian groups, largely funded by Western foundations, religious organizations, and the World Bank. The starkest example of their work sits behind a large metal green gate in the middle of the neighborhood. The gate opens onto a smooth paved road that's virtually spotless. There's no garbage on this street. Inside, Zabbaleen women and girls work on looms in a bright L-shaped factory. They're learning to recycle rags left over from textile mills, that they turn into everything from bags to patchwork quilts. Ms. Kamel helped set up the facility 8 years ago. She says it's actually a form of non-traditional education.

KAMEL: So the rags come in big bags from the textile industry. They're dumped in the middle of a clean room. The girls sit around it just like they do at home around garbage, and they start sorting into baskets. It's like coloring into a coloring book: color, order, classification, categorization, space relationships.

NEFF: Girls and women trained here produce 300 products a week, generating more than $70,000 last year. At the same time, Lilah Kamel says, they're learning such things as personal hygiene, family planning, and personal responsibility.

KAMEL: Personal hygiene first, they have to come clean. I don't care how little water there is in the neighborhood. I taught them in the literacy school how to do just that. Take a bath with so little water. Wash. And they have to have one clean dress. I don't care how poor we are, we have one clean dress in the closet that we come to school with.

NEFF: The rag facility is just the latest addition to the neighborhood. Down the street is a composting factory, set up in 1987. The Zabbaleen used to pay people to clean out their animal stalls. Now, instead of paying to get rid of organic waste, the Zabbaleen are earning more than a half million dollars a year by composting their animal waste and selling it to farmers and for use in desert reclamation projects. The first formal undertaking here was a recycling micro-enterprise project Mounir Neamatella set up in 1983. He showed the Zabbaleen how to process and re manufacture solid waste instead of selling it to middlemen. He also helped set up loans so that trash pickers could buy machines to grind, mold and smelt raw materials. Mr. Neamatella says the
aim of all these projects was to cultivate the Zabbaleen's existing occupation in an effort to clean the environment and improve their standard of living.

NEAMATELLA: I mean that's really the most fascinating aspect of the work of the Zabbaleen, is that waste is indeed a resource. It's regarded as a resource, and it enters into a cycle, into a commercial cycle, where small establishments that don't have much resources can access a cheap, raw material to produce a product that can then be sold to a large number of low-income people that reside in Cairo.

NEFF: Residents here, such as 19-year-old Jonee Ginataya, say their standard of living has improved tremendously.

GINATAYA: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: First there weren't houses like these. There were tin shacks. And there weren't trucks to bring the garbage. There were donkey carts. Now of course, these tin shacks have been removed, and we have these houses like this. And the wooden donkey carts that used to bring the garbage are now trucks. There's now water, electricity, and sewers. Now there is everything here.

NEFF: A recently concluded private survey shows that there were nearly 1,400 houses made of brick or stone in Manshiet Nasser in 1993, compared with just 5 in 1975. And today, 85% of households have access to water and 97% have electricity. Formal education and heath care facilities were nonexistent 15 years ago. Now there are 2 schools, 5 literacy centers, 2 hospitals, and a number of health clinics. The infant mortality rate, 240 per 1,000 in 1979, has dropped by more than half. The economic makeup of the community has also been transformed. In 1981 there were no local industries. Pig production was the main source of income. As of 1993 there were 215 local enterprises, most involved in recycling. And the annual net income of a Zabbaleen household has increased 50-fold to nearly $100,000 a year. The changes appear to have had a positive impact on the self regard of the Zabbaleen. For example, young Jonee Ginataya, the daughter of illiterate trash sorters, plans to go to college and start her own business.

GINATAYA: [Speaks in Arabic]
TRANSLATOR: Of course it's my duty to bring my knowledge back. I will make a small project and it will grow and benefit the community. Any small company I make will grow, and any project, they will help make it grow, the youth of this community.

(Trash is shoveled in the background)

NEFF: The apparent success of the Zabbaleen operations has attracted international attention and they've become models for similar projects elsewhere. But activists acknowledge there's still a long way to go. The environment of Manshiet Nasser is still barely tolerable. Thousands of other Zabbaleen live in other scavenger settlements around Cairo untouched by such innovations. And while their self respect may be growing, the Zabbaleen are still looked down upon by most Egyptians. At the same time the Zabbaleen face a separate battle with some government officials who want to do away with their trade, replacing their creaky, dilapidated donkey carts with modern garbage collecting companies. Activists say that could mean the end of an operation that not only cleans the environment but teaches one of the lowest segments of Egyptian society how to help itself. For Living on Earth, I'm Laurie Neff in Cairo.

Back to top

(Garbage shoveling continues)

Coordinating Mega-Cities

CURWOOD: The success of Cairo's Zabbaleen recycling project has inspired people in other cities to start similar programs. They learned about the waste picker project through Mega-Cities, a nonprofit group that helps the world's largest cities share innovative solutions to common problems. Janice Perlman is executive director of Mega-Cities, which has helped transfer the Zabbaleen idea to Bombay, India, and to Manila in the Philippines.

PERLMAN: They've taken up the idea of seeing waste as a resource rather than as a problem. So they've created dozens and dozens of recycling centers, and in each of those they've created a series of micro-enterprises that generate income. Let's say you use plastics to create those jelly shoes or dolls, or use the metal to make trays that are embossed. Use cloth to create beautiful tablecloths, placemats, bedspreads. They've also created the idea that you can link infrastructure development and education and upgrading of their communities with the income stream that's generated from the selling of the manufactured good or the crafted goods. They've also taken on the idea that these people who work with garbage don't have to be considered an underclass, and that this is a dignified type of work, so that they don't have to feel like second class citizens as they go about their daily lives. That has been really profound.

CURWOOD: In Manila it seems to me that these programs were implemented by the local activists who came and made the connection that you facilitated. In Bombay, is it local activists or is the government that is doing it?

PERLMAN: In Bombay it's the government. The way the project works there is that they have traditionally, the households put all their garbage in dumpsters, and they mix wet and dry garbage. And the scavengers crawl into the dumpsters, strew the garbage all around the streets --


PERLMAN: -- and try to pick out what can be recycled.


PERLMAN: The pilot project picked 2 neighborhoods. And with the municipal support they work with the residents to separate their wet and dry garbage, and to not use the dumpsters for their dry garbage but to give it, let it directly be collected by the scavengers. So the scavengers can take it to their recycling centers, can use it to create their own manufactured product just like in Cairo and in Manila, and they are able to therefore solve the problem of the hazard on the street of the dumpsters and of the income-generation problem. So it's -- if this works well in these two neighborhoods they plan to take it city-wide.

CURWOOD: You seem to believe that big cities of the world, whether it's New York or Shanghai or Karachi, have more in common with each other really than the smaller cities and towns in their own countries. I'm wondering how this can be if you consider all the enormous cultural, political, economic, and geographic differences that distinguish all those nations from each other.

PERLMAN: The fact is that these cultural and historic and political and economic differences do show up, and that's why you can't transfer one innovation to another city in its exact same format. And it won't look the same. But what is so parallel about these things and is so striking when you start to visit them, is that the scale of these cities, the size and scale that's completely unprecedented in human history, comes with its own set of challenges. And the questions of how to feed all this many people, how to remove their garbage, how to house them, how to create jobs and an income, how to deal with the environment -- they're so overwhelming in cities of 10 million or more, that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that you might be able to find solutions to these things that have been developed and cultivated in one culture and context that can be adapted to another. It's like the Magic Eyes campaign from Bangkok, which is an anti-litter campaign based on young kids and using a cartoon figure and a little jingle called Magic Eyes are Watching You, that enable the kids to tell their elders, without being impolite, of course, not to litter and not to throw their waste on the streets. That was transferred to Rio de Janeiro and took on a totally different form. They transformed this frowning Magic Eyes figure, which is a green character with little black frowning eyes, into an extraterrestrial with little antennae, and it's a very, very interesting adaptation. Because if you look at those two figures, the Magic Eyes Green Giant, sort of, from Bangkok, and this little extraterrestrial in Rio, you would think it's a totally different thing. And they are perfectly different because they're adapted to their cultures. But the underlying core of the innovation and the magic that makes it work is not in the particular figure, but is in the approach of using shame and making the grown-ups feel embarrassed when they litter. So it's just a kind of proof that if you really let the cities adapt the things to their own needs, you can transfer the core of the ideas and they will adapt it to their own culture and their own specificity of their city.

CURWOOD: Why is it the world's biggest cities are ripe for this? What makes the big, big, the mega-city, you call it, so different and so right for this kind of communication?

PERLMAN: Well, I think it's for two reasons. One, that mega-cities have all the problems of other cities around the world, but they just have them in more exaggerated proportions. So what would be a problem in another city is a crisis in a mega-city. If there's an environmental need, it's an environmental crisis or a transportation crisis, or a gang riot or AIDS or drug crisis. So you have these pressing, pressing problems of this scale. And on the other hand, you have the most creative and innovative people from every sector. You have the best and the brightest from the government sector, from the business sector, from the community sector, from the media, from the academic sector. They've all come to the mega-city to seek their fortune, make their fame, and to give their kids a better chance for the future. So you get a huge diversity of people with very high talent in very close proximity facing very extreme problems, and it's a perfect cauldron for innovation.

CURWOOD: Janice Perlman is executive director of Mega-Cities. She spoke to us from her office in the mega-city of New York.

Back to top

CURWOOD: How would you like to have a house made from free building materials? A listener will tell you how to do it, coming up on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Geographic Satellite Mapping

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the biggest challenges for grassroots environmental activists has often been their inability to link human health problems with particular sources of pollution. With spotty information and many possible causes, it has been tough to prove, for example, that a hazardous waste dump is responsible for a certain cancer cluster. But now advances in computer technology have given some activists a powerful new tool. It's called the Geographic Information System, and it allows them to combine information on environmental hazards, neighborhood demographics, the flow of ground water and other data, into a multidimensional map of their community. As Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports from New York City, community leaders in one polluted area are hoping to use the computer program to protect the health of their neighborhood.

(Woman: "Okay. Anthony, all the number eights. Can you find all the number eights?")

FERTIG: The children in Eva's day care center look healthy and happy as they play with a deck of cards scattered across a hardwood floor. But here in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, director Eva Sahnhorho says many of her children are often ill. She notices complaints especially when a nearby factory emits a foul-smelling smoke.

SAHNHORHO: They have asthma attacks, especially too when -- I have one, she has chronic asthma, and she's told me, "Eva, when the smell is out, very bad headache." She starts wheezing, like high ventilating. And it's when the smell is out.

FERTIG: Eva Sahnhorho admits it's hard to prove any link between the illnesses and the factory, which turns solid waste into fertilizer. City health officials studied a public school near the facility and found asthma rates are no higher than the city-wide average. But in this heavily-industrialized borough, home to many factories and the city's only medical waste incinerator, residents are still concerned about airborne pollutants. Overall, asthma rates in the Bronx are twice the national average, and lead poisoning rates are also very high. So community leaders are hoping a new computer program will tell them more about the effects local industries are having on the health of their neighborhood. Last fall, the Federal Government awarded a $300,000 environmental justice grant to the Bronx to set up a Geographic Information System, or GIS. Associate Director Juliana Mantaay says the GIS computer software will enable her staff to plot highly detailed maps of the local environment which incorporate area health data.

MANTAAY: This GIS, when it's complete, will have information about every property lot in the Bronx. You'll be able to know what was there before, what hazardous conditions may exist on there in terms of soil, contamination, what the air quality is.

FERTIG: The Bronx GIS program is said to be the largest study of its kind in the nation. A similar project is also underway in a smaller industrialized community in nearby Brooklyn. Analyst Linda Timander shows off the data that's been collected.

TIMANDER: In this picture we have the waste transfer stations, and we have the census tracts. And in any census tract you have the population, the total population figures. So just to get an idea, to start to get an idea of how much, how many people are affected by the waste transfer station.

FERTIG: City environmentalists concede even mounds of data alone may not prove any link between land use and environmental or health effects. Still, Steve Richardson, director of the New York Environmental Action Coalition, says the new computer program can prove to be an effective tool.

RICHARDSON: That information is only as effective as you have a community which is strong, which is organized, which is able to develop political muscle, to get the authorities to listen to the conclusions that they draw from that information.

FERTIG: Bronx community leaders are already excited about the new GIS program. Carlos Pedilla is co-chair of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, he says he'll use the GIS data to press local factories to clean up their emissions and when lobbying city officials on planning and zoning issues.

PEDILLA: When we go into a room we're going to debate professionals who are hired by these corporations. Okay? These guys turn around, they say well I'm from Harvard and Yale, I got 46 degrees, and you're completely wrong, because see, you don't have a degree. The only thing you have is a child who's dying with asthma, bleeding through his nose, a sick community. But that's not credentials.

FERTIG: Officials at the Center for A Sustainable Urban Environment, which is conducting the GIS research, plan to release a preliminary study of the Bronx health and environmental data in 6 months. The program is funded only through the fall and the center is presently lining up grants to continue its research. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

One Listener's Dream House: Made from Tires

CURWOOD: What kind of house would you like to live in? A ranch, a duplex, a colonial maybe? My next guest has his eyes on something different. Paul Potyen is a San Francisco-based media producer. Recently he bought a chunk of land in the Colorado mountains and has started building a straw house to live in temporarily while he constructs his permanent dwelling: a house made of tires. He joins us now by phone. Mr. Potyen, a straw house? I mean I have to say it sounds kind of cold for Colorado among other things.

POTYEN: Well, actually, straw builds have a very high insulation value, R-60 in fact.

CURWOOD: So that's better than a regular house.

POTYEN: That's right.

CURWOOD: Well, what will this house look like?

POTYEN: Well, it is going to be covered with stucco after the bales are up, so it will look a lot like an adobe house.

CURWOOD: Now, why are you building a temporary house? Seems like this would make a regular house that you could use for years, right?

POTYEN: Well, it's not actually a temporary house. It's the first step. It consists of a garage and a single room that we can live in while we construct the tire house, which will be attached.

CURWOOD: So, why is it that you want to go to tires? I mean, straw sounds easy, and if you say it's going to be permanent why not stick with that?

POTYEN: Well, a tire house uses entirely recycled materials, doesn't require a foundation. Basically you've got tires and dirt, and for internal walls you'll use recycled tin cans.

CURWOOD: Where do you get the tires from?

POTYEN: Well, that's one thing that there's an abundance of in this culture. I actually have some friends who are in various stages of building these tire houses, and they've had no trouble at all collecting tires from local service stations who are in the business of changing tires for people.

CURWOOD: Mm hm. Mr. Potyen, are you married?

POTYEN: Yes I am. For 25 years.

CURWOOD: So what did your wife say when you wanted to go to the mountains in Colorado and live in a house that's, well, a little piece of it's made out of straw and the rest of it's made out of tires?

POTYEN: Well, it took a lot of talking.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] I guess so!

POTYEN: I think she agree -- well, I know she agrees with the sort of goals that I have. And it's a matter of convincing her that I'm going to do it the right way, and that we're not going to get left broke with a house that caves in on us.

CURWOOD: Why this interest? What are your goals here in this alternative kind of housing?

POTYEN: Well, for a lot of years I've felt very strongly about environmental issues, and the way I sort of addressed my concern for those issues was to give money to admittedly worthy causes. But I really at the end of the day felt that it was sort of a hollow contribution. I didn't really know what was happening to my money. I felt increasingly a sense of isolation from my environment. So I decided that I wanted to actually be involved, and it seemed like literally the best place to start was at home.

CURWOOD: Are you going to be working in Colorado?


CURWOOD: Oh, good. I was hoping you'd say that, because otherwise you'd be re-tired.

POTYEN: Ohhhhh-whoaaaaaa! Bu-rump-ump, as we say in the music business.

CURWOOD: Well, Mr. Potyen, good luck.

POTYEN: Thanks.

CURWOOD: Paul Potyen lives for now in San Francisco.

Back to top


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

(Music up and under: "Our House")

CURWOOD: Senior producer for Living on Earth is Chris Ballman. Our editor is Peter Thomson and our director this week is Liz Lempert. Our production team includes Deborah Stavro, George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We also had help from Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, Justin Kim, and Paul Masari. And today we bid a fond farewell to Emily Atkinson; good luck in Atlanta. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin. Our Harvard University engineers are Larry Bouthilier and Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Music up an under)

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

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Books


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth