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

September 6, 1996

Air Date: September 6, 1996


Political Season

Peter Dykstra of Atlanta's CNN (Cable News Network) Environmental Unit shares his insights with Steve Curwood about what the presidential nominees are up to this fall election season. And what they're leaving out. (03:56)

California House Seat / Stephanie O'Neill

The contest is on again for the same two politicians who fought it out two years ago in California's 22nd congressional district which includes the affluent city of Santa Barbara. Stephanie O'Neill reports that the opponents environmental voting records are a key factor for voters in this tight race. (06:08)

East of Eden

In the past decade, more than one hundred nursing homes have brought more life and nature in to their aging residents. Dr. William Thomas is the author of Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home - The Eden Alternative and he is a leader in the movement to reinvent nursing homes. Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Thomas about some of the healing successes this ecological approach has brought. (11:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about.. light pollution. (01:20)

Parkinson's: An Industrial Age Disease / Dan Grossman

The first literature mentioning the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's Disease are James Parkinson's own writings in the year 1817. Dan Grossman examines the connections between a disease which came to light with the advent of the industrial revolution to possible metal and chemical manufacturing causes, and the current research. (13:40)

Montana: The Treasure State / Mary Boyle

The ongoing conflict between two of Montana's greatest resources, its waters and its metals for mining, is spilling over into this years political scene. Producer Mary Boyle looks at how Montana's new Republican-dominated legislature has weakened clean water protections and what the consequences may be this November. (06:45)

Summer at the Farm Stand / Sandy Tolan

Author and farmer Jane Brox senses fall is around the corner as she vends this summer's bounty from her family's farm stand in Dracut, Massachusetts. Sandy Tolan produces the Brox Farm segments. (04:40)

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: Andrea DeLeon, Owen Bennett Jones, Stephanie O'Neill, Dan Grossman, Mary Boyle
GUESTS: Peter Dykstra, Dr. William Thomas

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

What if nursing homes treated aging as a natural process, instead of as a disease that can't be cured? And what if nursing homes were habitats that celebrated all kinds of life? Over 100 nursing homes are bringing children, plants, and pets under their roofs, with startling results.

THOMAS: I think that bird saved that person's life because her love for that animal gave her a reason to fight through a terrible illness and come back and recover and be stronger than she ever was. I could never have given her a drug that would have caused that reaction. It had to come from her heart.

CURWOOD: Also, why the Presidential candidate are skirting the environment and why at least one candidate for Congress isn't. Coming up this week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. A Federal judge has given the state of Georgia 5 years to clean up hundreds of polluted waterways and ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the cleanup. The Agency must set limits on how much of certain pollutants can be safely dumped into the state's rivers. Environmental activists and industry representatives say the order could mean more than 1,000 pollution discharge permits will be revoked. Among the waterways affected by the order is the Chattahoochie River near Atlanta. Federal officials had already threatened to stop all construction in Atlanta if the river wasn't cleaned up.

For the first time US environmental regulations may be applied to American research in the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. The Senate unanimously passed the bill imposing strict rules on incinerating or disposing of waste in the Antarctic. The legislation also renews a ban on developing Antarctic minerals and puts the US in compliance with an international treaty to protect the Antarctic's environment. The bill now goes to President Clinton, who's expected to sign it.

A paper mill may be to blame for low reproduction rates among bald eagles nesting along Maine's Penobscot River. Andrea DeLeon reports.

DeLEON: The US Fish and Wildlife Service study will determine how chemicals coming from the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill are affecting the endangered birds. A spokesman for the Service says dioxin has been found in the blood of the bald eagles that nest downstream from the mill. The bird's reproduction rate is about 20% below normal. Maine environmental activists are hailing the study, which will be paid for by the paper company. They say it is the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service has made such strong statements about dioxin and the health of wildlife. But they are less pleased that the mill will be allowed to continue discharging toxins into the Penobscot River during the 5-year study. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeon in Portland, Maine.

NUNLEY: Poachers have slaughtered more than 200 elephants in the central African nation of Congo for their ivory tusks. The site of the killing is a large salt marsh, a popular watering hole for animal herds. Commercial sales of ivory are banned in Congo as in most African countries. The African elephant is not endangered, but it's estimated that only half the 1.2 million on the continent a decade ago are living today.

And in London, British police have seized a record number of smuggled rhinoceros horns. The horns, valued at more than $4 million, represent more than 1% of the world's existing white rhino population. Police say the horns probably come from southern Africa. Rhino horns are highly valued in Asia, where they're ground up into a powder believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

The World Wide Fund For Nature says it's found a species of pheasant previously thought extinct. The last sighting of the Edwards Pheasant was in 1928, but as Owen Bennett Jones reports from Geneva, the discovery hasn't assured the bird's future.

JONES: The World Wide Fund for Nature is excited about the discovery, which took place in central Vietnam, the place that provides the only known habitat for the Edwards Pheasant. The highly-colored bird with black, white, blue, and metallic green plumage, can only exist in very wet forests, and they are fast disappearing. Three scientific expeditions conducted between 1988 and 1994 failed to find any trace of the Edwards Pheasant, which was presumed to have become extinct. But a few days ago, villagers who had been asked to look out for the pheasant found a male and a female and took them to forest guards. But it may just be that the conservationists' intervention will turn out to have been counterproductive. In the course of capturing the pheasants, the villagers injured the female, which has subsequently died. Officials at the WWF say they can only hope that there are others still existing in the wild, and that they haven't just witnessed the demise of the last remaining female Edwards Pheasant on the planet. For Living on Earth this is Owen Bennett Jones in Geneva.

NUNLEY: A baby seal native to frigid Arctic waters has surfaced in the warm Caribbean. The 7-month-old hooded seal, native to Greenland and Newfoundland, came ashore on the US Virgin Island of St. John. Such animals are very rare in warm waters and scientists are still trying to figure out what inspired it to swim some 2,000 miles south. The seal was captured and airlifted to Puerto Rico and placed with a Caribbean stranding network, which rescues stranded whales, dolphins, and manatees. Eventually it will be returned to its natural habitat.

An animal rights organization wants the town of Fishkill, New York, to change its name. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say the name Fishkill is cruel, and they want it changed to something friendlier like Fishsave. But Fishkill mayor George Carter says it's a language problem, not a cruelty issue. Kill means stream in Dutch, and the name dates from the 1600s when Dutch immigrants settled in New York. Fishkill isn't the only Hudson Valley community with the -kill suffix. Others include the Catskill Mountains.

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

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(Theme music up and under)

Political Season

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The nearly year-long prelude is finally over, and from now till November it's the real thing: the contest for the White House with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton the main contenders. Pollsters have predicted that environmental concerns will play a major part in this year's elections and we'll be looking at how the debate evolves throughout the fall. This week we turn to Peter Dykstra, who heads up the environmental unit at CNN. He says that so far, both the Dole and Clinton campaigns are steering clear of the tough environmental issues.

DYKSTRA: There still is, according to the proverbial high place sources, something of a gag order on Al Gore to make this a primary issue. The consultants for the campaign going back 2 years or even 4 years ago didn't want to hear, we are told, much about issues such as climate change and global warming. They felt it's the MEGO factor. MEGO is an acronym for My Eyes Glaze Over. And they felt it wasn't a sexy enough campaign issue and therefore shouldn't be discussed by the Vice President or anyone in power.

CURWOOD: So Clinton, in your view, is taking, is playing it pretty safe. I mean a couple of weeks ago he said he was going to spend, what? Two billion dollars to clean up some Superfund sites and abandoned industrial sites, you know, the so-called brownfields. And this is pretty non-controversial, you're saying.

DYKSTRA: There isn't really a huge lobby or a groundswell of public opinion that wants to keep urban industrial sites dirty. And it's not by the standards of the Federal budget a backbreaking sum of money, either. That those comfortable issues are the ones where you're likely to see more discussion.

CURWOOD: But you don't think we're going to see the President talk about the tougher ones. There's of course global warming. But at home there's the question of, say, grazing rights or salvage logging, or protection of the Red Rock wilderness in southern Utah. We won't see anything on that, is that your prediction?

DYKSTRA: I don't think Bill Clinton is going to tell us all that we need to change our driving habits. I don't think he's going to tell us that we need to change our consumption habits. Nor is he going to go out to a western timber town and tell people to stop cutting trees. Certainly not between now and the November election. And by the same token, Bob Dole spoke in midsummer in a timber mill town in northern California and gave sort of a rip-snorting, almost anti-environmental group speech, if you will. And that, I thought, was very surprising, because the Republicans have been very, very clearly backing off that hard line.

CURWOOD: In fact, some pollsters told them recently that attacks on environmental protection weren't washing in the 104th Congress. And that they needed to turn the image around. It doesn't seem that Dole has heeded this advice.

DYKSTRA: Being behind in the Presidential poll as he has been through the summer, I think he has to find where he can distinguish himself from Bill Clinton, and this is clearly one of those issues. Whether or not it will gain any ground for him, I don't know.

CURWOOD: What about the Congressional races? Which ones are you watching?

DYKSTRA: I'm really fascinated by the geographic split. If you look at areas in the South or in the Western US, there are a lot of races here in Georgia. Max Cleeland, a Democrat, and Sky Millner, a Republican, they're both disowning to some extent environmental values, and, if you will, trying to out-brown each other, whereas Senator John Kerry and Governor Weld in Massachusetts, Congressman Dick Zimmer and Congressman Torricelli in New Jersey running against each other to replace Bill Bradley, are both looking to stake a claim as someone the environmental organizations would like. The northeastern part of the country, it's still a very strong issue to run on to say you're pro-environment. In the rest of the country it's hit or miss.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra heads CNN's Environmental Unit. He spoke to us from Atlanta. Talk to you again soon, Pete.

DYKSTRA: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

California House Seat

CURWOOD: One of the places where the Democrats hope environmental issues will be a hit is California's 22nd Congressional District. In 1994 Conservative Republican Andrea Seastrand eked out a narrow victory in the affluent district, which includes the city of Santa Barbara. Now the freshman rep is facing another tough fight against the man she defeated 2 years ago, and in a district long concerned about development and coastal pollution, the challenger is playing the environment card. Stephanie O'Neill has our story.

(Waves and surf)

O'NEILL: Some of the most picturesque stretches of California coastline exist here in the 22nd Congressional district, a 160-mile long slice of California paradise. Overall it's a politically conservative district that's been held by Republicans since the late 1940s. But it's also one with strong concern for the environment, dating back to a 1969 disaster at an offshore oil rig. Al Wyner is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in California politics and the environment.

WYNER: This community has starting in 1969, had a series of political issues revolving around oil development, growth, and water resources, that has continued to keep environmental things at the forefront.

O'NEILL: And that's a fact not lost on Democratic candidate for Congress Walter Capps, a religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara.

CAPPS: And it's easy for politicians to kind of go walking along the beach and get their pictures taken and saying well, you know, we really love this environment. But to be specific about that and to vote for the kinds of precautions and restrictions and rules that will protect the environment, you know, that's another matter. And there my opponent and I are worlds apart.

O'NEILL: Mr. Capps is staging a heated rematch of his 1994 race against freshman Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, a Newt Gingrich loyalist and a political opposite to Capps on just about every issue. She supports cutting funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. He opposes it. He supports more funding for the Mojave National Preserve. She opposes that. She voted to weaken the Clean Water Act. He says he wouldn't have. Two years ago when the duo first battled for the Congressional seat, Ms. Seastrand beat Mr. Capps by only 1,500 votes. But, Mr. Wyner says, this race won't be the same after 2 years of a Congress controlled by the Republican party, with its very clear agenda.

WYNER: It clearly has established a position for her on environmental matters that will repel many voters in the district.

O'NEILL: The target for the Democrat's campaign are potential voters like 28-year-old Rory Strundon. He says he's undecided about the race, but he considers environmental protections vital.

STRUNDON: Especially the ocean. And the mountains and keeping things not as developed as -- I think there's too much development here in Santa Barbara. So whoever's going to keep it as low-key and user-friendly as possible, I think that's why everybody lives here, to enjoy it.

O'NEILL: The race has attracted significant national attention and support for both sides. A coalition of labor, environmental, abortion, and consumer rights groups are running TV and radio spots criticizing Congresswoman Seastrand.

(Commercial spot. Man's voice-over against music background: "It's our land. And our water. America's environment must be protected, but in just 18 months Congresswoman Seastrand voted 11 out of 11 times to weaken environmental protections. July 31, 1995...")

O'NEILL: But if the anti-Seastrand forces hope to use the environment to dislodge her, the Congresswoman and her backers are doing their best to turn the focus elsewhere. She isn't speaking much about the environment on the stump, and her office declined several requests to speak with Living on Earth about environmental issues. Ms. Seastrand's campaign is instead centered around hard-core conservative themes. Opposition to abortion and gay rights, welfare reform, and a smaller, more accountable government.

(Commercial spot. Man's voice over against music background: "It took Andrea Seastrand and the Republicans to force Congress to live under the same laws we do." Woman's voice: "That's only fair." Man's voice: "They also cut Congress's staff and the Congressional budget." Woman: "And that will save us all some money." Man's voice: "They opened Congress's books...")

O'NEILL: Political pictures like this one resonate well with many voters here, as do her conservative positions on the environment according to Professor Wyner.

WYNER: The folks who live in the city of Santa Maria or in the suburb called Orchid are city and suburban folks, but they're much more conservative politically than in other parts of the district. And they're more inclined to be supportive of Seastrand's position on environmental matters. That's the focal point of her support there.

O'NEILL: With the line between the candidates so clearly drawn, the Capp-Seastrand race has in many ways become a referendum on the current Congress and the Republican Contract With America. And if Ms. Seastrand's record and Mr. Capp's criticisms of her have motivated the Congresswoman's opponents, Professor Wyner says they've also worked to Ms. Seastrand's advantage.

WYNER: In parts of this district she has solidified her support, and probably will cause some people who maybe didn't even vote in the last election to come out in her favor.

O'NEILL: And it seems even some Republicans who don't support her environmental position may be willing to give Ms. Seastrand another try. Among them Sherri Clark of Santa Maria.

CLARK: I would probably vote for the lady because she does some good things. Not all good things, but some good things. But if they don't go right I'll vote Democrat or something else.

O'NEILL: Keeping Republicans like Ms. Clark in the fold is Congresswoman Seastrand's biggest challenge. Professor Al Wyner says Ms. Seastrand may face a little more difficulty this time around, and in such a hotly contested race a little more difficulty may make all the difference. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Santa Barbara, California.

CURWOOD: A live worth living in of all places a nursing home. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

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(Music up and under)

East of Eden

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For most of us, the mere thought of a nursing home draws a shiver. Many doctors hate working in them. They're trained to cure diseases and if one thinks of old age as a disease then treating it is a frustrating losing battle. Most of the more than 2 million residents of America's nursing homes hate them, too. They're stuck in sterile places with little stimulation, and where the only living creatures are medical staff and other elderly people in poor health. To cut down on restlessness and complaints, many residents are drugged. But it doesn't have to be that way. Outside of nursing homes in the natural world, humans are surrounded by all kinds of life: plants, birds, mammals and people of different ages. So why not, thought Dr. William Thomas a few years ago, create an inviting human habitat for our ailing seniors? Dr. Thomas ran the Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York. In 1991 he started bringing birds, dogs, and cats, plants and even children into his workplace. Many of the staff quit. But those who have stayed have witnessed an amazing turnaround. Dr. Thomas called his approach the Eden Alternative, and he's written about it in his new book A Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home. He says his dream is to change every nursing home in America from a place that merely treats patients into a haven for elderly human beings.

THOMAS: Really, there's 3 plagues, I call them, that rage in every nursing home. And they're the plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. And it's kind of interesting from a doctor's point of view, there just is no medical treatment for loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. Those problems can only be addressed in an environmental or an ecological way. I can only treat loneliness by providing companionship. When I first started out I looked at the possibility of hiring a person to be a companion for every nursing home resident.


THOMAS: And I -- well, I did a budget up. It was going to cost $7 million a year.

CURWOOD: Ho, ho, I guess so.

THOMAS: And that just wasn't feasible. The next step was, we just stopped and said you know, people get all kinds of terrific companionship from animals. So that's where the idea of creating a human habitat inside the nursing home started to take shape.

CURWOOD: Human habitat. What do you mean?

THOMAS: Well, I came to realize that if I took a polar bear and dropped him off in the Amazon jungle, he would die. If I took a songbird from the Amazon jungle and dropped him off at the North Pole, could never survive. When I think about taking a sick, old, frail person and putting them in a nursing home, I'm putting that person into an environment or a habitat that's not good for them. So the answer is not prescribing more drugs or giving more treatments or doing more surgery. The answer is in re-inventing the nursing home and making it into a habitat that nourishes and supports the people who live there and work there.

CURWOOD: What does it look like when you come into a patient's room where you have the Eden Alternative?

THOMAS: Well, I think you can go through it by the senses. The sight is of a rich array of green growing plants placed around the room, and they make a very dramatic presence there. The smell can often come from flowers or herbs that are part of that green plant life in the room. The sound often will come from the parakeets, often up to 4 parakeets living in a single room chirping and reacting to each other and to the people who live there. The sound might also include the sound of kids tumbling into the room for a visit. Edenizing nursing homes really focus on having on-site child care, after-school programs, summer camps for kids. Anything you can do to have kids there in the nursing home regularly.

CURWOOD: So you're saying the present model for a nursing home is really like a desert, an emotional and a spiritual desert?

THOMAS: [Sighs] It makes a desert, it makes a desert look great.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Really.

THOMAS: [Laughs] Oh yes. I mean, if you were to go into a nursing home and do sort of an ecological survey, it would be an ecological disaster area. You've got one species running rampant, homo sapiens. And maybe you've got a dead chrysanthemum over in the corner and that's it. It's the most unnatural environment we could almost possibly create. And that's what's the irony in this. You're creating a universe. For the people who live there, that nursing home is their entire world. And to choose to create an entire world for someone that is as sterile, stark, medically oriented, unnatural -- it's a tragedy.

CURWOOD: The prescription for loneliness, helplessness, and boredom --


CURWOOD: -- is your approach. And you found that by incorporating animals and kids and plants into nursing homes, you solve these problems?

THOMAS: That's right.

CURWOOD: What happens?

THOMAS: Well, we get people to connect with the living things around them and participate in the care of those living things. So people become not just recipients of care, but caregivers as well. That's one of the problems that conventional nursing homes is so terrible, is you're saying to people, "You're not connected any more. You don't belong any more. You're going to be here and we're going to treat your diseases and we're going to do everything for you." That's terribly, terribly unnatural and very damaging to the spirits of the people who live there.

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example of how this helps an individual?

THOMAS: Well, I mean, I'm going to tell you a story about a parakeet that saved a woman's life. You know, we got started with the Eden Alternative, and there was a woman who I was taking care of at the time who'd had a stroke and wasn't able to speak. And she was kind of withdrawn and not doing well from a number of perspectives medically. But she agreed to take on the care of a small parakeet in her room. And she really started to enjoy that and it became a really important part of her daily work. Her daily life became to include the well-being of this parakeet. Well one day, I was making rounds and I was called down to see her; she was not feeling well, had a high fever, terrible pain in her abdomen. We sent her out to the hospital. She was evaluated by the surgeon and taken to the operating room and had really a major operation. When she came back to the hospital floor she got very agitated and was trying to communicate something to the nurses and they couldn't figure out what it was. Finally a family member came in to see her and could sort of figure out, it's her bird, it's her bird. She wants to know who's taking care of her bird. And we had a flurry of phone calls between the hospital and the nursing home where we began to, we reassured her oh yes, we'll make sure that your Tweety is taken care of. And absolutely, she'll be safe, we'll watch over him for you while you're gone. And she settled right down. She recovered really very quickly from the operation and came back to the nursing home, and immediately her very number one concern was checking in on Tweety and making sure that he was okay and he had been properly cared for in her absence. I think that bird saved that person's life because her love for that animal gave her a reason to fight through a terrible illness and come back and recover and be stronger than she ever was. I could never have given her a drug that would have caused that reaction; it had to come from her heart.

CURWOOD: Now, you've been talking about these wonderful beneficial effects of the Eden Alternative. Can you quantify some results?

THOMAS: Yeah. You know, we did a research project where we looked at a couple of factors that I think are really important.


THOMAS: We looked first at use of drugs in the nursing home, or medication use. And we compared ourselves to a control nursing home that was same size and matched to us statistically speaking. Over the Eden Alternative period the controlled nursing home drug costs continued to rise like they are in nursing homes all across America. In the Eden home the utilization of drugs dropped sharply. By the end of the study the nursing home that did the initial Eden project was saving $75,000 a year on drug costs, and I'll tell you that's a lot of bird seed.

CURWOOD: And that's out of how big a budget? [Laughs] That is a lot of bird seed.

THOMAS: Yes. The drug costs had been cut in half. The second thing we looked at was the infection rate. Our hypothesis or idea was that people who have a reason to live are going to be more resistant to infection. And again we compared ourselves to a control, and we found that the infection rate dropped 50%.

CURWOOD: Medications in half and infections in half?

THOMAS: Yes, that's true. And as a physician let me tell you, there's no way -- even if I went to that nursing home every single day and saw every patient every day, I could not get that kind of preventive impact with regular medical treatment. It came from the human habitat. And the last thing, and I think probably the most important, is that we looked at the death rate. In the first year of the Eden Alternative the death rate dropped 15% and in the second year of the Eden Alternative it dropped 25% compared to control. You have to imagine sort of walking through this nursing home and realizing that given the size of the nursing home, at the end of that year there were 8 people alive who would have been dead in a conventional nursing home. And if I had been tinkering in my basement and had come up with a drug that could do that, it would be unbelievable. It would be front page news in the New York Times. But it's not a drug. It's a taste of the natural world brought back to the lives of people who really need this.

CURWOOD: Now you've gotten this started in upstate New York. Is the idea spreading?

THOMAS: Our latest count is that there are over 100 homes around the country that are in the act of Edenizing process.

CURWOOD: A hundred homes.

THOMAS: And one of the exciting things is, nearly every day now we get word from another home that is starting up on the process and wants more information from us or wants some advice. And it is absolutely delightful.

CURWOOD: Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: My guest has been Dr. Bill Thomas, author of Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home. Thanks for taking the time with us.

THOMAS: You betcha.

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(Music up and under: Beatles: "When I'm 64.")

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: "When I'm 64" continues)

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.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Some people call it the shakes. But Parkinson's Disease is a lot worse than that. It causes violent tremors, and its victims lose their ability to control their limbs. The cause of Parkinson's disease is unknown, but new research suggests that environmental toxins may be the culprits. That's coming up in the second half of Living on Earth.

(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: If you missed this summer's meteor showers or are disappointed that last spring's comet Hyakutake barely looked like a smudge in the sky, you're not alone. Stargazing has become harder and harder in much of the US. Of the 2,500 or so stars once visible to the naked eye, many Americans nowadays can only see a few hundred. The problem isn't their eyes, it's light pollution. Roadways, parking lots and sports stadiums fill the night sky with light and much of it is wasted. By one estimate, 30% of night lighting illuminates nothing but the sky at a cost of a billion dollars a year in electricity. Professional stargazers have been hit hard by light pollution. The effectiveness of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, for instance, has been cut by 10% by the sprawling luminescence of nearby Los Angeles. It can now study only bright stars. But some cities are tightening up on light pollution. In booming Tucson, Arizona, innovative controls and careful positioning of lamps mean that residents can stroll downtown at night and still gaze up at a star-filled sky. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Parkinson's: An Industrial Age Disease

CURWOOD: One of the most touching moments of this summer's Olympic Games came when Mohammed Ali's trembling hand lit the Olympic torch. Many may have thought that the great boxing champion was shaking because he'd taken too many blows to his head. But like US Attorney General Janet Reno and hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Mohammed Ali suffers from Parkinson's Disease. It's a progressive brain disorder that causes violent tremors and the loss of the ability to control one's limbs. Medicine can't say for certain what causes Parkinson's, but as Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman discovered, there is a growing consensus that at least some of the blame lies with industrial age chemicals.

(Footfalls, water from a shower)

BELLIVEAU: As you can see I have one of these special showers.

GROSSMAN: Fred Belliveau is a sick man. But thinking back he has much to be thankful for. As an editor and author of medical books, he was well paid and respected, and he raised a family. But sitting in a darkened room overlooking Boston's Charles River, he says fate played tricks on him.

BELLIVEAU: I had a perfect kind of life, a good job, a nice family, and a house in the country, very nice house. So everything was kind of going my way. And then bam, right in the middle of everything, comes the shocking news.

GROSSMAN: He had Parkinson's Disease, an incurable brain disorder his doctor said would slowly but surely deny him control over his own body. Many sufferers walk with a shuffling gait, lose the ability to make facial expressions, or move their limbs with the jerky motions of a wind-up toy. Today, 17 years after he was diagnosed, Mr. Belliveau keeps his symptoms in check with medication. But even so, during this interview, his hands were in constant motion. His balding head rolled from side to side. He says at other times the illness becomes nearly unbearable.

BELLIVEAU: I get just kinetic, which means I start shaking and -- more than tremor. I can't pick up a book, for example. It would just -- I would shake violently and the book would go flying out of my hand. Of course you can figure the ramifications of that if you wanted to have dinner. You can't pick up a dish and have it go flying and your food go flying. That has happened to me.

GROSSMAN: About half a million mostly elderly Americans suffer from Parkinson's, including about one of every 50 people over the age of 60. Around the globe, millions are afflicted in a process well understood by medical researchers.

STANDAERT: Parkinson's is a disease where a very specific population of neurons have been lost.

GROSSMAN: Dr. David Standaert is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

STANDAERT: These are neurons which make dopamine. But only those in the particular part of the brain which is involved in the control of movement are affected. These are in an area called the substantia nigra pars compacta, pars compacta meaning tightly packed. And what's tightly packed there are a cluster of cells which make dopamine and send projections up into the part of the brain known as the neostriatum, which has a very critical role in the regulation of movement.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Standaert says once scientists realized how the illness works they came up with drugs to help the brain overcome the loss of dopamine, the most effective being L-dopa. But science has been less helpful explaining why the brain cells die in the first place. That's left Fred Belliveau and others like him groping for answers.

BELLIVEAU: It's -- it's tough going. It is tough going. As much as you want to be upbeat and you can't always do it, you simply can't -- and then I think all of us have a tendency to say why me?

GROSSMAN: Mr. Belliveau's doctors have told him what doesn't cause the disease. It's not a viral or bacterial infection and it doesn't generally run in families. So far they're less certain what does cause it. But Dr. William Langston, President of California's Parkinson Institute, says he thinks the culprit may be a synthetic chemical. A conjecture supported, he says, by the great works of literature.

LANGSTON: Now, with many neurological diseases such as seizures and stroke, you can find writings in the very early literature, Biblical writings, the Greeks, where clearly that disease existed centuries if not much longer ago than that. With Parkinson's the first clear-cut, unequivocal description of that disease is actually James Parkinson's description in 1817, and it raises the very interesting question, because that's around the time of the Industrial Revolution: could it be a true manmade disease? A disease that was the result of something we introduced into our environment?

GROSSMAN: The Industrial Revolution was fueled by coal, which releases innumerable toxic byproducts when burned. Dr. Langston says this and other staples of the machine age, like the neurotoxic metals lead and mercury, are all suspect. The toxic compound theory got a major boost in 1983 when Dr. Langston solved a bizarre medical mystery. It began when a handful of young heroin addicts with unusual symptoms appeared in California hospitals.

LANGSTON: And when they came into the emergency rooms here in northern California, they looked for all the world like they had developed instant Parkinson's Disease, yet they weren't old and this had come on rapidly.

GROSSMAN: A team of scientists led by Dr. Langston discovered the drug users had all injected a designer drug made by underground chemists intended to mimic the properties of heroin.

LANGSTON: And it turned out by accident instead of making a heroin-like compound, they made probably one of the most selective brain toxins ever, ever known.

GROSSMAN: The toxin was called MPTP, a particularly nasty member of the common pyridine class of industrial chemicals. Further research confirmed the compound not only brought on the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease but struck the same area of the brain. Today more than a decade later, these addicts still suffer from the symptoms of Parkinson's. Dr. Langston says it was a tragedy for the drug users but a boon for medicine.

LANGSTON: And the immediate question everyone asked was my gosh, if a simple chemical in this heroin can cause Parkinson's, could there be something in the environment that also causes Parkinson's?

GROSSMAN: Researchers began searching for a previously undetected source of exposure to the chemical or a close relative. They found 2 that were in common use: the pesticides rotenone and paraquat. But neither could be linked to Parkinson's. Still, pesticides in general remain a source of concern. Many are neurotoxic by design, and exposure to them is widespread. Parkinson's sufferer Fred Belliveau used to spray pesticides on a small orchard at his country home.

BELLIVEAU: I'm sure that it was not good to do this, but I was not knowledgeable enough to protect myself accordingly, and I frequently would wear shorts and no shirt. And I would get up there with my little tank and I would spray around on these trees. So I'd get this solution on me and I did that many, many years, and of course I don't know what effect that could possibly have had.

GROSSMAN: But he does wonder if it played a role in his illness. Researchers have tested scores of pesticides and other chemicals, so far to no avail. Dr. Langston of the Parkinson's Institute now believes he knows why the search has proved fruitless. He thinks the disease may be caused by two or more separate factors operating together; for instance, a toxic agent might only strike individuals with the genetic inability to protect themselves. To overcome all these complexities, researchers are turning to epidemiology, the branch of science that tries to determine the cause of a disease from who it strikes.

(Woman: "Okay. Sit in the chair here." Scraping sounds.)

GROSSMAN: Kathy Taylor, a researcher at Boston University, sits across a table from Stanley Wirthheimer, a tan, muscular man. He's one of nearly 300 volunteers involved in an epidemiology study at BU's Department of Neurology. Half of them suffer from Parkinson's Disease. At 61, he's been living with the illness for about a decade.

TAYLOR: So as I explained to you over the phone what this is about is, it's a study designed to look at what might be causing Parkinson's Disease.


GROSSMAN: For more than hour, Kathy Taylor carefully notes down the most minute details of the subject's medical history and that of his family. She also asks him to list everywhere he's ever lived and worked.

WIRTHHEIMER: I started working when I was 13, for my uncle, oh, 10, 15 hours a week. We made what are called solder rings.

GROSSMAN: Later this year a statistician will electronically shuffle the thousands of facts Ms. Taylor has collected from Stanley Wirthheimer and the other subjects.

WIRTHHEIMER: I made many millions of these.

TAYLOR: Mm hm.

WIRTHHEIMER: That's lead.

TAYLOR: And what -- lead, okay.

WIRTHHEIMER: Lead and tin.

GROSSMAN: Many other epidemiological studies have already drawn relationships between Parkinson's Disease and exposure to industrial or agricultural chemicals. For instance, research in the US and Canada has uncovered 2 intriguing correlations. People who live in agricultural regions where pesticides are used, or who drink water from shallow wells which are often polluted with chemical runoff, are more likely to be afflicted with the illness than city dwellers and customers of cleaner public water supplies. Studies abroad like one in China by Dr. Carolyn Tanner of the Parkinson's Institute also link the disease to exposure to synthetic chemicals.

TANNER: People who had worked in settings where they had exposure to chemicals, working in chemical plants or in industrial settings, had a higher risk of getting Parkinson's Disease than people who did not. And it was about, between a 2- and 3-fold increase.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Tanner says the evidence that some environmental toxin or toxins play a role in causing Parkinson's is nearly unassailable. It's a conclusion that doesn't surprise University of Missouri biologist Fred Vom Saal. He's recently been involved in some groundbreaking research studying the effects of chemicals on other parts of the body and the brain.

VOM SAAL: We already know that there are environmental chemicals that can damage brain development and lead to permanent changes in the functioning of the brain systems that in fact are involved in certain types of human diseases.

GROSSMAN: Dr. Vom Saal is referring to hormone disrupters. Synthetic chemicals like dioxin and PCBs that can upset the development and growth of humans and animals. Recent research including a study of the children of women who consumed contaminated fish from the Great Lakes show these chemicals can cause behavioral abnormalities like reduced intelligence and increased aggression. Dr. Vom Saal wonders if the same poisons might cause Parkinson's Disease as well.

VOM SAAL: The interesting thing we know about these chemicals is that they can interfere with thyroid hormone, which is a major regulator of brain development. And one of the consequences of this is you also have abnormal dopamine levels. Which is exactly what you see later on in life in Parkinson's Disease.

GROSSMAN: Disrupting the thyroid is only one of many ways these chemicals might be implicated in Parkinson's. Researchers at New York State's Department of Public Health recently discovered that rats fed certain PCBs exhibit dramatic dopamine reductions in the same part of the brain, the substantia nigra, as people with Parkinson's. And Dr. Richard Seegal, who directed the research, says recent other new findings make him wonder if the effect is multiplied if more than one chemical is involved. Scientists at Tulane University announced last spring that a mixture of pesticides subjected to cells in the laboratory are hundreds of times more toxic than any one acting alone. Dr. Segal says the research is a call to arms. If a similar, synergistic mechanism is at work in Parkinson's Disease, that may explain why researchers who have been testing compounds one at a time have been stymied for so long.

(Pills spilling)

BELLIVEAU: Lots of pills in this business.

GROSSMAN: Like most people, Fred Belliveau was exposed to many synthetic chemicals in his life. Experts estimate about 70,000 different synthetic compounds are sold in the US. Sitting in his Boston apartment holding a handful of tablets, he says he doubts he'll live to learn which if any chemicals caused his ailment.

BELLIVEAU: I've been asked in the past on various surveys, were you ever exposed to or around insecticides? Another question that was asked is, did your drinking water come from a dug well, and ours did. I mean there are so many exposures that one has in life, whether those 2 things or other things played a part I simply don't know. I don't know.

GROSSMAN: No matter what the answer, it's too late to make a difference for George Belliveau. So he focuses on how to cope with his condition, not what caused it. But if the research underway in search of a specific pollutant or pollutants is successful, if the quest for the cause of Parkinson's bears fruit, ways could be found to prevent others from being stricken with this crippling illness. For Living on Earth I'm Daniel Grossman.

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CURWOOD: And a special thanks to Emma Hayes for research that led to Dan's report. As summer tips into fall the harvest baskets are overflowing. Writer Jane Brox takes us to her family farm stand. That's ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

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

(A motor runs)

Montana: The Treasure State

CURWOOD: Montana is known as the treasure state, and for generations the treasure was metals mined from the ground, especially gold and silver. The state seal reads, "Oro y Plata."

(Running water)

CURWOOD: But for many in the state today their treasure is its environment, especially its rivers and streams which draw thousands of rafters and sport fishers. These 2 conflicting visions of Montana's riches are behind a bitter referendum battle in the state this fall. After being strengthened in the 1970s, Montana's water quality laws were severely weakened last year, in part to help hard rock mining companies. Now a ballot drive is underway to toughen some of the standards again. Producer Mary Boyle explains.

BOYLE: In 1994, Montana voters put Republicans in charge of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 13 years. And when the legislature convened in early 1995, it weakened the state's water quality standards. In some cases by as much as 1,000 times, allowing industry and agriculture to increase the amounts of toxins and cancer-causing chemicals they disposed into state waterways. Industry said the new standards were less onerous. Others saw it differently.

BUCHANAN: I think the last legislature put Montana in a position to be treated like a Third World country, and I think that's not in the tradition of good Montana public policy.

BOYLE: That's Gary Buchanan, co-chair of Montanans for Clean Water. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans, ranchers, environmentalists, and business folks backing a ballot initiative to repeal what they see as the worst of the 1995 reforms. Their efforts specifically target hard rock mining operations which under the '95 law can now dump untreated wastewater into groundwater and rivers. Mr. Buchanan says mining discharges some of the most toxic and difficult pollutants to clean up. It threatens drinking water and local fish populations.

BUCHANAN: Montana went from the top or near the top of water quality requirements for the Rocky Mountain region, and then after one session we ended up near the bottom on things like arsenic and cyanide. And I am not a chemist but I've been around long enough to know that arsenic and cyanide are not vitamins and can be quite harmful and deadly if misused.

BOYLE: This fall's initiative would force all new and expanding mines that use cyanide to treat and remove 80% of the pollution from their wastewater. The measure would not affect existing mines, and it does not make overall water quality laws any stricter. Backers say it's a moderate approach. But the mining industry fiercely opposes it. Jerome Anderson is a mining lobbyist and the campaign director for Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws.

ANDERSON: It's the opinion of a substantial majority of people in the mining industry that there probably is not technology available to meet this initiative. And of course the result of that would be that the development of those new projects that are in the mill today and the expansion of any of the existing mines would also be in jeopardy.

BOYLE: Specifically, the mining industry says 2 big projects could be threatened. A proposed mine along the Blackfoot River and the expansion of another in the northeastern part of the state. Jerome Anderson says the current standards are sufficient to protect water quality and that the initiative is a ploy to stop mining altogether.

ANDERSON: If it's simply to deal with water issues, then why didn't they file an initiative proposal that applies to all of the water dischargers in Montana?

BOYLE: The answer, says Dan Fraser, former chief of Montana's Water Quality Bureau and backer of the initiative, is that the current law gives mining special exemptions. So the industry needs special attention from the voters.

FRASER: The next industry that comes in and gets exclusions to treatment requirements I think should be next. But right now these treatment requirement exclusions are to benefit nobody other than the mining industry.

BOYLE: But many argue that mining benefits the entire state by providing well-paying jobs. Tammy Johnson directs a wise use group in the town of Whitehall, outside Butte. Her husband works at a nearby mine. Over a pop at a local pizza shop, she says a healthy environment requires a healthy economy.

JOHNSON: When people are financially able to care for themselves and their family, then they'll start thinking about what else they can do in terms of their community, in terms of their environment, in terms of their fellow human beings. But not until then. How do we reach that point? I don't know, but I think that we need to have very reasonable, scientifically-based laws and regulations that deal with our environment.

BOYLE: But mining doesn't have the presence it once had in the Treasure State, accounting today for about 2% of the economy. Agriculture and tourism lead the way.

(A fishing line is reeled. Man: "Fifty, 70 yards of this stuff takes a long time.")

BOYLE: At his sporting goods shop in Gardner, on the edge of Yellowstone Park, Richard Parks threads a fishing reel. He does not oppose mining but his business depends on clean water. Mr. Parks hopes the water initiative will send a message that polluters cannot sacrifice water for short-term profits.

PARKS: Certainly there's an effort on the part of the polluters to give the impression that there's a bandwagon out there for saying we should trade today's pot of porridge and never mind that tomorrow it's inedible. And I think people are watching, and they should be watching. And when we win, that should say very clearly the day of that policy is numbered.

BOYLE: The latest polls show that 67% of Montanans are in favor of the initiative. However, the mining industry plans to spend millions to block it. So far it's outspent supporters 10 to 1. As Mark Twain said, whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting. And in Montana, this looks to be one heck of a fight. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle.

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(Music up and under)

Summer at the Farm Stand

CURWOOD: It's the end of the season for Living on Earth commentator Jane Brox, who writes about the year's ebb and flow on her family farm in Dracut, Massachusetts. With summer now winding down, Ms. Brox says she's spending less time out in the fields and more time at the farm stand.

BROX: It's September now, and our farm stand bears the weight of the whole summer.

(A door closes)

BROX: Twenty-pound boxes of canning tomatoes hold open the door. There are baskets of pickling cukes stashed under the shelves. Jars of honey catch the afternoon light.

(A motor runs; corn is husked)

BROX: We're deep into the corn season. It's piled high on the table. The bins of eggplant, beans, cukes, and peppers are over-full. A few blueberries are left and the last of the peaches. There's also the first of the butternut squash and apples: Macouns, Macintosh, Cortlands soon. For these brief September weeks summer and fall crops share this space, and there isn't room for more.


BROX: Even the voices crowd in. Neighbor catching up with neighbor, talking of their trips to the mountains or the coast and where their children are heading for school. Younger people still nerved with summer rush in for a quick dozen corn on their way to one last evening at the beach. Just one more barbecue.

(Conversation continues)

BROX: Older folks shop more deliberately. They've waited all week for a neighbor to bring them out from the city. Coming here may be their only outing for the day, so they take a long time to choose their few tomatoes. One frail, white-haired woman asks if she can buy just 3 ears of corn. When she's told yes, of course, she's more grateful than you'd want, thanking you again and again, saying, "You don't need much when you live alone."

(A cash register runs. Woman: "Is that going to be it, ma'am?")

BROX: Now that the crops are running over, there are those who come to buy tomatoes, peppers and cukes by the box and bushel. Maybe they no longer own the strength of the space to grow things themselves, but they remember their old gardens and want to put up some tomatoes or make some picallily.

(Woman: "This is the correct size. You want something that's going to make a nice presentation. You don't want something that's curved too much because then it's hard to take the core out.")

BROX: Voices go on long into the afternoon, while beyond the farm stand the leaves on the weaker trees, the ones near the road, already sound a little raspy in the afternoon wind.

(Wind in the leaves)

BROX: Apples are dropping in the laden orchard. In the coming weeks they'll be twisted off the branches one by one until the last bushel of Northern Spies goes into the apple cellar. Butternuts, pumpkins, and blue hubbards, some weigh upwards of 30 pounds, still have to be cut from their vines and stored away. Whoever works here is tired now.

(Woman: "This is not a good bunch. I don't like this bunch.")

BROX: What felt like pure devotion in the first warm spring days became a job of work, and then a hall of work, with the pests and too little rain or too much and the plantings running together.

(Woman: "Okay." Woman: "You okay?" Woman: "I'm going down to get the other pail now." Woman: "Okay.")

BROX: The frost may be only weeks away, and times I've dreamt of it. Because afterwards, when the vines have died back and the corn stalks dried up, what remains of our day is more orderly, steeped in the sharper fragrance of stored things. And then I think again and I can't believe what I've been wishing for. It's September, and you realize a hundred days is all you have to make the most of the year. Dusk is no longer that lingering time.

(Geese honk)

BROX: Canada geese land to feed in a field of harrowed-down corn. I am afraid of wasted minutes. Deep in our night as we sleep, the bright stars of winter are rising.

(Geese honk)

CURWOOD: Jane Brox is a writer and farmer in Dracut, Massachusetts. Her latest book Here and Nowhere Else won this year's L.L. Winship Pen New England Award. Her essays are produced by Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our senior producer is Chris Ballman. The senior editor is Peter Thomson and our production team also includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Susan Shepherd, Liz Lempert, Julia Madeson, and Peter Shaw. We also had help from Jennifer Sinkler. Our engineers are Frank DeAngelis and Mark Navin at WBUR, Jane Pipik at WGBH, and Jeff Martini at Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme. We welcome 3 new members to the Living on Earth family this week. Congratulations to our director on leave Deborah Stavro and her husband Murray Lapidus for the birth of their daughter Alexandra. And we're ringing the wedding bells for 2 members of our staff. Kim Motylewski has tied the knot with Frank Gillette, and Peter Thomson jumped the broom with Caroline Klees. Living on Earth is produced in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University by the World Media Foundation. Company weddings are performed by the Reverend Jan Nunley. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; 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.


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