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

March 21, 1997

Air Date: March 21, 1997



An investigation into the safety and effectiveness of anti-bacterial toys, soaps, and kitchen equipment. Hasbro Toys recently released a line of anti-microbial toys and has been marketing them as a way to protect children from germs. Living On Earth reporter Bruce Gellerman takes a deeper look at these consumer products and the fears they play upon. He also talks with government scientists at the Food and Drug Administration who say Hasbro's health claims are unproven, and the pesticide used to treat the toys could even be harmful to infants. (12:30)

Good Ole Fashioned Eco-Tax / Julia King

Commentator Julia King expresses her opinion on a proposed new tax with the bill footed by nature lovers; and it's to go back to the drawing board. (02:39)

Windmill Powered School

Guest host John Rudolph talks with school principal and energy innovator Harold Overman about his school's use of turbine power in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The school is saving twenty thousand dollars in electric bills this year that it will put towards other school projects, and plans are being drawn to use wind power in two more of the district's schools. (04:34)

The Living On Earth Almanac

Facts about... Jell-O! (01:15)

Brain Eating Diseases / Steve Curwood

Richard Rhodes is author of a new book called Deadly Feasts that discusses the class of diseases known as spongiform encephalapothies. Steve Curwood spoke with Rhodes and asked what his research revealed about how the recent outbreak of Mad Cow disease might have spread. (08:00)

Midwestern Salmon Adapt / Steve Frenkel

Every year, Lake Michigan is stocked with thousands of farm-raised Chinook salmon where the fish are a favorite among sportfishermen Recently, some of these salmon have started to naturally reproduce in a most unlikely place. As Steve Frenkel of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports, they've found ideal spawning grounds in the wastewater of a sewage treatment plant. (05:12)

Catholic Earth Sprituality / Richard Schiffman

- Spring is the season when life mysteriously remerges out of the cold winter soil. For Christians around the world, spring also means Easter: the celebration of Jesus' ressurection. A growing number of Roman Catholics are making conscious connections between these two events--linking their faith and their concern for the earth. But as Richard Schiffman reports it's not always easy to reconcile age-old religious traditions and a new environmental consciousness. (12:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright c 1997 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.


GUEST HOST: John Rudolph
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Ley Garnett, Kelly Griffin, Bruce Gellerman,
Steve Frenkel, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Harold Overman, Richard Rhodes

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

RUDOLPH: I'm John Rudolph.
There's a new line of germ-resistant toys on the market. They're being advertised by the toy maker Hasbro as a major breakthrough.

SERBEY: You remember Weebles? Weebles wobble but they don't fall down, and now they've got antibacterial protection. You have to love technology. But so far the government isn't playing along. It's investigating the toy maker and raising some serious concerns about bacteria-busting playthings.

LUMKINS: We don't really know if we can classify the active ingredient as generally recognized and safe and effective. We don't at this point, haven't seen the data that convinces us of that.

RUDOLPH: The case of anti-microbial toys. Also, a windmill-powered school coming up on this week's Living on Earth. First this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The Supreme Court has ruled for the first time that people have the right to sue the government for over-enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. The ruling came in a case in which ranchers sued over a recovery plan for endangered sucker fish. Ley Garnett reports from Oregon.

GARNETT: The ranchers say they suffered $75 million in crop and cattle losses in 1992, when their irrigation water was limited during a drought. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was acting to save the lost river sucker and the short nose sucker, 2 endangered species important to Native American tribes. Private property rights groups are hailing the Supreme Court decision. Michael Blum, a scholar of the Endangered Species law, says the ruling itself doesn't diminish the scope of the act, but he says it does open a new avenue for natural resource industries to challenge species recovery plans.

BLUM: I really don't think that this is going to affect the way the Act is implemented. Maybe subsequent court cases that get to the merits will. And this allows for those cases to proceed.

GARNETT: The Supreme Court decision sends the ranchers' lawsuit back to Federal District Court where the facts of the case may be heard. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund says it doesn't believe the ranchers' arguments will prevail. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.

MULLINS: The National Park Service in the state of Montana can continue shipping bison to slaughterhouses. A Federal Appeals Court ruled in favor of a government plan to kill the buffalo if they roam outside Yellowstone National Park. The Sierra Club, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the American Buffalo Foundation, and other conservation groups sued the State and Federal Governments last September to stop the bison slaughter. But the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals denied the group's plea, saying the herd as a whole was not threatened by the government program. The court said the park's bison population numbered 3,400, or 1,000 more than the park could sustain, and questioned whether a ban on future capture and slaughter operations would help the buffalo. Officials have since reported that the herd has dwindled to 1,500 because of the killings and the severe winter. Under a joint State and Federal management plan that took effect last fall, more than 1,000 buffalo have been killed out of fear that they have been exposed to brusilosis and could infect cattle. Brusilosis causes cows to abort their calves and causes infertility and reduced milk production. No transmission of the disease between cattle and bison has ever been proved.

Ultraviolet rays penetrating Antarctica's depleted stratospheric ozone layer are damaging the DNA of higher animals. Scientists report that during the period when the ozone hole was the largest, they found extensive DNA damage in the eggs and larvae of ice fish. This is the first time researchers had found this phenomenon among a large species. Previously, investigators had found that Antarctic algae had suffered reduced reproduction rates during the periods of ozone depletion. Algae are one of the first links in the food chain and they're vital to the survival of marine animals. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People who are physically unable to hike on Forest Service trails in Colorado are arguing that they should be allowed to drive off-road vehicles instead. They're charging that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the Forest Service to grant them motorized access. From Colorado, Kelly Griffin has this report.

GRIFFIN: Under a new management plan the Forest Service blocked access to more than half the trails once open to off-road motorized vehicles in the Rio Grande National Forest. The plan seeks to restore habitat on hundreds of acres, but rancher Jane Ann Willett, who's paraplegic and gets around the back country on an all-terrain vehicle, says that denies disabled citizens equal access to public lands. Attorney Jim Witwer of Denver says the Forest Service plan violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Witwer filed an appeal of the plan on behalf of Willett and 3 off-road vehicle groups in Colorado. Witwer says the Forest Service must accommodate people with disabilities on all trails available to the general public. That could mean accommodating people who simply lack the endurance to hike. The Forest Service says it already allows exceptions for disabled hunters and others to use motorized vehicles. The Agency has until April 17th to rule on the appeal. It also must weigh appeals from environmentalists who say the new plan allows too much access to motorized vehicles. For Living on Earth I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.

MULLINS: A winning science fair project has been tossed out of a regional competition because it's cruel to flies. Ari Hoffman won the Marin County, California, science fair with his experiment showing the effect of radiation on the reproduction of fruit flies. But he's been disqualified from the Bay Area science fair for supposedly violating rules against cruelty to animals. The 15 year old sophomore admits that some of the flies died, but he says that may have been due to natural causes. Hoffman notes that his bugs were pampered. He says they had a good life for flies: plenty of food and tropical temperatures.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph, sitting in this week for Steve Curwood. One of the hottest new product lines in the toy business these days isn't dolls or computer games. It's toys that supposedly kill germs. The giant toy maker Hasbro recently debuted a new line of anti-microbial plastic toys. The active ingredient in the toys is similar to that found in many popular anti-bacterial soaps. But an investigation by reporter Bruce Gellerman reveals that Federal officials are looking into the health claims Hasbro is making, and are also considering banning the active ingredient.

(A baby gurgles)

GELLERMAN: My 8-month old son is developing, right on target.

(Gurgling continues)

GELLERMAN: Perched in his high chair, my son puts everything into his mouth. With his tiny hands he grabs teething rings, rattles, and toys, peers over the edge of his tray and with a sly smile and a quick flick of the wrist...

(Numerous objects clatter to the floor)

GELLERMAN: After each toss my son's paranoid first-time parents pick up the plastic projectiles, run them under hot water with a squish of anti-microbial soft soap, and return them to eager fingers --

(More gurgling, more clattering)

GELLERMAN: -- where the process (more clattering) begins again. Parenthood changes you. It makes you hyper-aware of the invisible microscopic dangers lurking by the billions in nooks and crannies, waiting to attack and overwhelm your defenseless child. Striking fear deep within your heart. What's a parent to do?

SERBEY: People are becoming aware that there are some weapons in the fight against the germs.

GELLERMAN: Gary Serbey, a spokesman for Hasbro Toys, says his company has an answer. The Rhode Island toy maker recently introduced a new line of playthings made with a high-tech plastic. The plastic is embedded with an anti-bacterial chemical. The germ-killing agent never wears off, is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.

SERBEY: Do you remember Weebles? Weebles wobble but they don't fall down, and now they've got antibacterial protection. You have to love technology.

(Electronic sounds, followed by numerous varied toy sounds)

GELLERMAN: At the recent toy fair in New York, the largest trade show in the business, Hasbro debuted its bacteria-busting Playskool toys. They cost 10% more than toys built with conventional plastic, but spokesman Gary Serbey says it's a small price to pay for parental piece of mind.

SERBEY: I think that anti-bacterial protection in toys is a major breakthrough in the toy industry. And the reaction that we have received from buyers and from consumers and from the media has just been astounding, and we are really excited about this new technology and this benefit that we will be providing to children and their parents.

GELLERMAN: Hasbro is pitching its anti-bacterial toys as a way to protect newborns, infants, and toddlers from germs and bacteria.

(Commercial: man's voice-over: "The Hasbro toy company's Playskool division has decided to add something to a line of toddler toys: anti-bacterial protection. Microban, an anti-bacterial protection, which is built right into the plastic...")

GELLERMAN: Hasbro's new toys get their germ-fighting ability from the chemical triclosan. Ten years ago, a North Carolina firm, Microban Products, discovered a way to put triclosan into plastic. Henry Richbourg is co-founder of the firm.

RICHBOURG: The active ingredient in Microban is similar to that used in anti-bacterial soaps and shampoos. When a bacterial cell or a fungal cell contacts Microban, the cell becomes unable to function, grow, or reproduce.

GELLERMAN: Richbourg cites laboratory tests that demonstrate that Microban plastic infused with triclosan, kills 99.9% of the bacteria on it. The chemical destroys a broad spectrum of bugs, including staph, strep, and salmonella, microbes that cause pneumonia, dysentery, food poisoning, and skin infections.

RICHBOURG: The key for the Microban is that we prevent this uncontrolled bacterial growth so products don't turn into sources of contamination.

GELLERMAN: Microban plastic was first used in hospital pillows, mattresses, and surgical drapes. Dental instrument trays and industrial carpeting. Now it's finding its way into a variety of household consumer products as well.

MAN (in commercial): These towels are impregnated with a fiber called Microban, which is --

WOMAN (in commercial): The Micro-ban protection is in the fiber of the fabric of the towel --

GELLERMAN: The Microban Company is touting its products on TV as the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, there are cutting boards with Microban along with a shopping list of other products like shower curtains, toilet seats, mops, and sponges, promising to keep all of them germ-free.

WOMAN (in commercial): All that yucky kitchen bacteria, the salmonella, the E-coli, and it's just, it's one step closer to creating a cleaner kitchen environment.

GELLERMAN: Did you get that? Here, listen again.

WOMAN (in commercial): It's one step closer to creating a cleaner kitchen environment.

GELLERMAN: Now listen carefully to this next claim.

MAN (in commercial): This is the next step closer to making our kitchen safer.

WOMAN (in commercial): That's right.

GELLERMAN: Cleaner is a nondescript, vague term. But claiming something is safer has health and legal implications. Safer suggests that using Microban products will help prevent disease. It's an important distinction. Microban is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, so you'd think the EPA would have the answer to an obvious question. Do products made with the germ-busting Microban create a safer environment?

JORDAN: The EPA doesn't have data that lets us evaluate and answer that specific question.

GELLERMAN: Bill Jordan is the head of the anti-microbial division at the EPA. He says the Agency has no idea if Microban makes the environment safer. The reason the EPA has registered the product is because it considers the active ingredient, triclosan, a pesticide. In fact, it approved Microban to protect not people but plastics. Microban was first registered with the EPA as a product to keep bacteria from eating away at plastic reinforcement rods in concrete. What benefits it has in children's toys Bill Jordan can't say. And he says, neither can Hasbro.

JORDAN: Hasbro has made representations in Microban that they have data but those data haven't been sent to EPA for evaluation, so I'm unable to tell you what those data indicate.

(Commercial music)

GELLERMAN: The EPA recently sent a letter to Hasbro demanding that the company back up the health claims it's making in its ads.

(Music continues. Woman: "Only Playskool toys like the Roll and Rattle are made with Microban anti-bacterial plastic. It helps control the growth of germs for the life of the toy. And that's good news. Considering how things get passed around.)

GELLERMAN: Again, Habro spokesman Gary Serbey.

SERBY: We're not making medical claims. What we're saying is, this is an important added benefit. It's an extra tool in the arsenal in the fight against germs.

GELLERMAN: So, are toys with Microban safe? Well, the EPA thinks so but it's not sure. The Agency registers pesticides only on the basis of risks and benefits, not safety and effectiveness. That's the job and responsibility of another Federal regulator. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating Microban's active ingredient triclosan for 25 years. And so you'd think by now the government scientists would know if triclosan meets Federal standards. Debby Lumkins is an FDA microbiologist.

LUMKINS: And we don't really know if we can classify the active ingredient as generally recognized and safe and effective. We don't at this point, haven't seen the data that convinces us of that.

GELLERMAN: Now that's a remarkable statement, considering that people have been using anti-bacterial soaps and shampoos containing triclosan for more than a quarter of a century. In fact, back in 1974, a panel of FDA scientists concluded there was no evidence triclosan prevents infections. In other words, triclosan may kill bugs, but it doesn't do much for you. And it may not even be safe. As far back as 1978 the FDA was sounding alarms about triclosan. The FDA commissioner at the time concluded that anti-microbial soaps with triclosan should not be used on newborns. The FDA even considered a warning label: Do not use this product on infants under 6 months of age.

LUMKINS: The Agency's recommendation for that still stands, that it should bear a warning.

GELLERMAN: FDA microbiologist Debby Lumkin says the Agency continues to believe the companies that use triclosan in their products should alert consumers to its possible dangers.

LUMKINS: But until we finalize, you know, they're not required to use that warning.

GELLERMAN: The FDA feels so strongly that triclosan is neither safe nor effective that without further evidence to the contrary, the Agency wants to ban triclosan. Ciba Specialty Chemicals, the company that invented and makes virtually all the triclosan on the market today, says such a move is completely unwarranted. Company spokesman Keith Hosteler says Ciba recently sent the FDA the proof it's requested.

HOSTELER: There's a well-documented collection of safety data that we stand behind and feel very comfortable with that the material is being -- when it's being used appropriately and under the types of applications that we approve of, that it's safe and effective and it's a value-added ingredient.

GELLERMAN: Ciba has licensed triclosan for use in underarm deodorants, anti-bacterial soaps, and Microban plastic products including Hasbro toys. But the company hasn't always been so confident that the chemical is safe for children. Twenty years ago Ciba issued a voluntary warning about triclosan: Do not use for baby diaper laundry. Again, Ciba's Keith Hosteler

HOSTELER: Certainly there's justifiable concern for exposing infants less than 6 months of age to anything.

GELLERMAN: Hosteler says the company has new evidence that demonstrates that the diaper warning is no longer needed. Still, the company continues to voluntarily warn manufacturers not to put triclosan in products used to wash diapers. Hosteler says people need to use common sense when using triclosan. After all, it is a pesticide. And while he insists it's safe, it may not be appropriate for all uses.

HOSTELER: What's the benefit? Do you want to have a deodorant soap for an infant? Does an infant need a deodorant soap? What we're faced with is the fact that we sell to a market where people will use a soap bar for family uses, and we have to say is it safe? And we've done data, and the tests that we've done, and again an independent panel has concluded that the material's safe for applications where it's put directly in the oral cavity.

GELLERMAN: But even if triclosan proves to be perfectly safe the FDA has other worries. It's afraid that because triclosan does not kill every kind of bacteria, it could upset the natural balance of germs on the skin and lead to a proliferation of some bugs. And even those germs triclosan is effective against, it doesn't kill 100% of them. Some survive. And FDA scientists are fearful that those that do will evolve into triclosan-resistant bacteria. Recent evidence now suggests this may be exactly what's happening. A team of British scientists have announced the discovery of new strains of staph bacteria that are resistant to triclosan. Still, the makers of triclosan say there's no need to worry, because the chemical is not being over-used. But the sales data they cite as proof that use is down is 20 years old. Today the triclosan business is booming. Last year the number of products claiming anti-bacterial effects doubled, and Microban, which uses it in its plastic for cutting boards, toilet seats, and toys, says its sales are exploding, and expects them to triple this year alone. That's a prospect that the FDA's Debby Lumkins finds unsettling.

LUMKINS: Well, I'm telling you we haven't finished our evaluation. And yes, it may not be safe and effective.

GELLERMAN: When people hear this, to be honest with you, Debby, they're going to say I don't get it.

LUMKINS: Yeah, now what?

GELLERMAN: Yeah, what do I do?

LUMKINS: Mm hm. Well, if it were me, and I can only speak for what I do, I believe that there are real benefits to the judicious use of anti-microbials. You know, if you're comfortable with using an anti-microbial, do so. But the biggest thing that the consumer can do to prevent infection is to wash their hands. Very simple. And they don't necessarily need an anti-microbial.

GELLERMAN: Turns out your mother was right. Wash your hands. Wash your baby's hands and toys. And don't forget to brush your teeth. Colgate-Palmolive has asked the FDA for permission to put triclosan into toothpaste for sale here. The Food and Drug Administration and the company are now working on the exact wording for a warning label. For Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

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RUDOLPH: A school that's gaining new power from the wind. Just ahead on Living on Earth.

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Good Ole Fashioned Eco-Tax

RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. Because of a shortage of funds for environmental programs, many states have turned to voluntary tax check-offs as a way of raising additional money. Now a national coalition of environmental groups and businesses is looking for new ways to raise revenue. Commentator Julia King thinks they're looking in the wrong place.

KING: Taxing polluters is passe. It's boring. It does nothing to challenge the imagination. Toxic fumes billow from smokestacks and what do we do? We demand monetary compensation for the damage done to our air. A reasonable response at first glance, but wholly lacking in terms of ingenuity. Such strategies also add to the growing perception that government regulators are picking on big business.

So, a 1,500-member national coalition of businesses and environmental organizations is working on more creative solutions to the same old problems. They want Congress to enact user fees to raise money for wildlife programs. Their idea is to tax outdoor recreational gear. The logic behind this proposal seems to be that the people buying tents, backpacks, bird feeders and the like are the only ones using wildlife. If they want to hang out with pesky raccoons they should pay for it.

If Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms had dreamed up this idea I'd be less confused, but this is supported by the National Wildlife Federation. According to them, we're willing to pay the price because we love the land. Real environmentalists should welcome fees on field guides, wildlife books, and photography equipment.

Not so fast. I do love the land. I am willing to pay. But creating user fees for low-impact activities such as hiking and bird watching is the wrong way to go. The approach fosters a perception that a select few can and will take responsibility for the health of our forests and wildlife. It reinforces the environment as a special interest. And where is the wisdom or justice in charging people extra money to do things that demonstrate and nurture respect for the planet? Is a composting fee on the way? Am I going to be taxed on my pathetic human-powered push mower that barely cuts grass? Should I trade in my cross-country skis for a snowmobile? There's actually something almost sweet about environmentalists that would support such a bad idea. It's love that does it.

But it's desperate love, like when you type your boyfriend's term paper or do his laundry. Real love demands respect and cooperation. Real love recognizes that work, like a feather duster, needs to be spread around a bit. Everybody has to do their fair share. I admire a fresh approach to long-running problems, but taxing a gentle walk through the woods is using a little too much imagination. My advice to the well-intentioned coalition: back to the drawing board and to those boring smokestacks.

RUDOLPH: Commentator Julia King lives in Goshen, Indiana. She comes to us by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.

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Windmill Powered School

RUDOLPH: Education requires a lot of energy. Not just the kind that comes from students and teachers, but also electric energy to light classrooms, run computers and laboratories, and operate athletic facilities and cafeterias. In the town of Spirit Lake Iowa, the electric bill for the local elementary school used to run more than $20,000 a year. But that was before the school built a windmill to generate power. Now, a turbine perched atop a 140-foot tower generates enough electricity to supply the school with power to spare. Harold Overman is the superintendent of schools in Spirit Lake. Mr. Overman, who came up with the idea to build a windmill?

OVERMAN: Well, a board member and I were attending a Little League football game when it was terrifically windy, and we made the comment, or somebody made the comment, wouldn't it be great if we could harness this wind for some use? And that sort of started the discussion and then we spent about a year developing an information base before we decided to move in that direction.

RUDOLPH: Tell me a little bit about how the school actually first made the commitment to energy efficiency.

OVERMAN: Okay. What really, I could go back to about 5 or 6 years ago. I was addressing a high school biology class on Earth Day, and talking about conservation and natural resources and so on. And the students really challenged me and they said you know, if we're so concerned about it, why are we doing some things in our school like continue to use Styrofoam cups in our lunchroom program? Why are we hauling so much material from the school to the landfill? Why are we not using more renewable sources of energy? And I went back and I thought about that and I thought you know, we say one thing and do another. And I talked to the school board about it and the staff, and we just made the commitment that that's got to be a priority. Because that, it's very important to the young people. They're concerned about the Earth they're going to inherit.

RUDOLPH: What's the relationship between this windmill generating electricity and the curriculum at the school? I mean, do you teach kids about energy efficiency?

OVERMAN: A lot of people, when they talk to us about our wind turbine here at school, of course are interested in the economic payback. But really that was the third reason, actually, that we went into it. First of all for education purposes, secondly for environmental factors, and thirdly for economics. But in education, we monitor the turbine in our math classes and our technology classes and they do comparability studies and correlation studies between the amount of wind and the amount produced.

RUDOLPH: Now, you sell the excess electricity to the local power company. What does the school department do with the revenue that you generate?

OVERMAN: For the first 4 and a half years here we will be paying back the loan. When we purchased the turbine we had no money up front. We had a grant, a Federal grant for half of it because it was the only one in the nation at that time for schools, and they wanted to see if it would really pay out. And the other half, we took out a loan. We've got 2 more payments to make and then we'll have it paid off. And then we will be taking that money and putting it into our technology program. And $24,000 will almost equip one lab per year.

RUDOLPH: Now I understand that you have plans to build an additional windmill?

OVERMAN: Yes, we've taken bids on our second turbine, a much larger one than this one.

RUDOLPH: And what school would that help?

OVERMAN: That would provide the electricity for our middle school and our high school, and we would sell the excess electricity.

RUDOLPH: Now, have these windmills inspired any kind of, say, change in the school mascot or something like that? I mean, do you have the Spirit Lake Turbines playing on the football field?

OVERMAN: (Laughs) No, but they did come out, we are the Spirit Lake Indians, and they did come out with a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, that says "Spirit Lake Indians: The First to Run With the Wind." (Laughs)

RUDOLPH: Harold Overman is the superintendent of schools in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Mr. Overman, thank you very much.

OVERMAN: Well, thank you.

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RUDOLPH: If you, your school, your church, or your business has an environmental story to tell, give us a call. The Living on Earth listener line is 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And while you're connected to the Internet, you should check out our web page at www.loe.org.

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RUDOLPH: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PRO-COWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

RUDOLPH: Mad cow disease. A new book looks at its history and the scandal it's caused in Britain. I'm John Rudolph. That story is next on Living on Earth.

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The Living On Earth Almanac

RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph.

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RUDOLPH: It jiggles, it wriggles, it's fun to eat and it's 100 years old. This year marks the centennial of Jell-O. Now putt your Jell-O down for a minute. The gelatin needed to manufacture all those wiggly green, yellow, and red cubes is made by soaking cowhides and pigskins in an alkaline solution. The gelatin is extracted by boiling the swollen skins. In 1989 environmentalists filed suit against the Jell-O plant in Woburn, Massachusetts, claiming tons of byproduct being dumped each day exceeded legal limits by 500%. Those byproducts, animal fat, grease, and oil, polluted Boston Harbor. The company eventually agreed to pay a quarter million dollar fine. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Brain Eating Diseases

RUDOLPH: In the 1950s a strange illness was discovered by scientist Carlton Guy du Scheck in the cannibalistic New Guinea Foray tribe. The disease, called Kuru, eats holes in the brain, much like the extremely rare disease Kreutzfeld-Jakob. They're both part of a class of diseases called spongiform encephalopathies. In the case of Kuru, the disease is spread by eating infected human flesh. This would be just a fascinating scientific anecdote if it weren't for mad cow disease, an illness that's now turning up in cattle that are fed slaughterhouse byproducts. Richard Rhodes is the author of a new book called Deadly Feasts. Living on Earth's Steve Curwood spoke with Rhodes and asked him how mad cow disease might have spread.

RHODES: About half the weight of a steer isn't made into meat that we eat, but is left as waste and has to be dealt with. The way we deal with that, the way the British deal with that, is to cook up the waste bones and blood and heads and entrails and whatever is left over from slaughtering, cook it up, skim off the fat, dry it, and press it into pellets, and feed it back to the animals as a protein supplement to boost their growth, or, in the case of dairy cattle, to boost their milk production.

CURWOOD: You say that Britain changed its machinery with recycling its offal, or whatever you want to call it.

RHODES: Right.

CURWOOD: What do you think happened?

RHODES: Actually, later studies have indicated that the process would never have been sufficient to kill the disease agent. This stuff can be baked in an oven at 700 degrees for an hour and still be infectious. So the normal processing that involved boiling and steam pressure cooking simply was never enough. Now, where the spongiform disease originally came from, the British thought that it probably was from scrapie from their sheep. That lulled them into a false sense of security, because scrapie's been around for hundreds of years and human beings don't get scrapie from eating lamb and mutton. So they thought well, we've got a problem with our cattle business but we don't necessarily have a public health problem. And they waited two or three years before they installed a ban on the feeding of cattle and sheep waste back to cattle and sheep. That gave the disease agent time to infect the beef that they ate. And that led, presumably, last year, to this sudden and shocking announcement by the British Minister of Health that a cluster of some 10 Kreutzfeld-Jakob cases, deaths, in young people -- Kreutzfeld-Jakob only affects people over 40 normally; it's extremely rare in young people. Suddenly the British had 10 young people between the ages of 18 and 36, as I recall, who had died of Kreutzfeld-Jakob. And when they did the autopsies they found that the brain damage looked exactly like the brain damage in their cattle.

CURWOOD: Do we know that mad cow disease causes Kreutzfeld-Jakob disease in people?

RHODES: Dr. Guy der Scheck and many others in the field believe that the disease in its normal form, Kreutzfeld-Jakob disease, arises spontaneously. The reason they believe that is that it turns up around the world at about the rate of one per million people annually, with no evident pattern of food toxicity or anything else that might give them a reason to think it comes from anywhere else. However, it's also known that these diseases can be transmitted. There was a woman in New York City who had a corneal transplant in 1974, and who died 2 years later of Kreutzfeld-Jakob induced, probably, from the infected cornea. The cornea came from a man who had died of Krueutzfeld-Jakob disease.

CURWOOD: How much did the British government know about this risk before it warned the general public against eating beef?

RHODES: I think there's considerable evidence of at least willful ignorance if not deliberate cover-up on the part of the British government in this whole terrible

CURWOOD: A pretty serious charge.

RHODES: Well, the first thing that seems to have happened when the British government faced this problem is that some of the people who had been researching in the field for years were simply shunted aside. The government veterinarians took over, men who really had not done any research at all on their own, who only knew what they'd read in the textbooks. There was a conflict of interest. The government was worried about its cattle industry. Understandably; it was decimated. People stopped buying British beef in England as well as abroad. On the other hand, there were early signs that this might be a problem that affected more species simply than cattle. Animals at the zoo in England, various zoos in England, began dying of what was clearly a spongiform disease, probably because they were fed the same materials as the cattle. Cats, some 60 cats, from eating pet food that was contaminated. These were disturbing early signs that this was a disease that easily jumped the species barrier. And yet, there was constant reassurance on the part of high government officials in England that this disease did not affect humans, that we didn't have anything to worry about. Until the day when they found the cluster of human cases and realized that it did. The British performed, the British government really, performed a terrible natural experiment non its population, allowing these disease agents to circulate in the meat supply long enough for who knows how many people to have been infected. Given the long, silent incubation period of this disease, it remains to be seen whether there will be only these 15 or so cases that have already turned up. The British government itself, in one estimate, has put the potential for the epidemic as high as 35,000 deaths, so the word plague that I use in the book and that has been questioned at least by 1 or 2 reviewers is a valid term to describe the potential for this epidemic.

CURWOOD: Are there signs of any other Kreutzfeld-Jakob clusters of disease in other countries?

RHODES: Two French patients have died of this new variant form of Kreutzfeld-Jakob disease. British beef was shipped all over Europe. British protein supplement was shipped all over Europe. In fact, when the British government banned the feeding of protein supplement to cattle in England, they shipped the stuff abroad to France and other countries in Europe. One of the government officials was quoted as saying, "I said this is immoral and I was told in no uncertain terms that that was those other countries' problem, not ours." So yes, the disease -- mad cow disease, first of all, has turned up in various European countries, including Switzerland.

CURWOOD: The United States?

RHODES: No. The CDC very carefully looked at the record of Kreutzfeld-Jakob in the United States recently, going back to 1979, and they found no new pattern other than the standard pattern of about 1 in a million seemingly at random around the world. So there's no evidence that we have had the new form of Kreutzfeld-Jakob disease over here. There is, however, compelling evidence that we have a native form of mad cow disease in our cattle at a low level, and we wouldn't really have much to worry about from that low level of disease, but we also recycle slaughterhouse wastes and feed them to our animals. So the mechanism is in place here, as it was in England, to amplify a low level of the disease into a major epidemic.

RUDOLPH: Richard Rhodes is the author of Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Terrifying Secrets of a New Plague. He spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

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(Music up and under)

Midwestern Salmon Adapt

RUDOLPH: Every year, Lake Michigan is stocked with thousands of farm-raised Chinook salmon. The fish are a favorite among sport fishermen. Recently, some of these salmon have started to naturally reproduce in a most unlikely place. As Steve Frenkel of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports, they found ideal spawning grounds in the wastewater of a sewage treatment plant.

(Running water)

FRENKEL: Chemical plants, steel mills and refineries line the south shore of Lake Michigan. But among all this industry is a small, tranquil stream. Rushes and young trees crowd the banks, and although the waterway seems natural it's not. The stream is manmade and the clear water coursing through it out to Lake Michigan is actually treated outflow from the filtering pools at the East Chicago sewage treatment plant. Christie Waldschmidt is an aquatic researcher at the plant. Recently, on a visit to the stream, she was surprised to find 2 Chinook salmon swimming in the clear shallow water.

WALDSCHMIDT: Every single day I come out here and I look for this kind of stuff. I track it in my field notebook and this is great. See, they're going up the pipe. That's exactly what we're looking for. That's amazing; I think it's amazing.

FRENKEL: Salmon need clean water to spawn. Some scientists say the fish are attracted to the sewage treatment plant because the water flowing from it is nearly as pure as a pristine stream. Roger Klocek is the conservation curator with Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

KLOCEK: Here they've stumbled onto this springlike water. Even though it's manmade it's very much like a natural spring in the sense that the water quality is really good and the salmon sense this and know it and spawn successfully.

FRENKEL: Water quality at the East Chicago facility vastly improved in 1989 when new equipment was installed to meet stricter Environmental Protection Agency standards. Tim Early, director of the Aquatic Research Center in nearby Hammond, Indiana, says salmon began spawning in the treatment pools within a year after the plant stopped using chemicals.

EARLY: This plant disinfects with ultraviolet radiation rather than with chlorine or with ozone, which are chemicals that disinfect the water very, very effectively. But they produce a residual which is toxic. The ultraviolet light, in contrast to that, destroys harmful bacteria, and there's no toxic residual to be carried downstream.

FRENKEL: The absence of chlorine is important because even tiny traces of it can repel salmon.

(Gushing water)

FRENKEL: Salmon are legendary for battling fierce currents in their biologically programmed search for good spawning waters. To reach the plant, operations manager Peter Bararnyai says the salmon must swim up miles of polluted rivers. Their final hurdle is an enclosed manmade waterfall, or weir.

BARARNYAI: Salmon will come up from Lake Michigan, up the US Ship Canal, the Grand Calumet River, up 200 feet of our 60-inch discharge pipe, come to this weir that we're at now, and leap up 4 to 4 and a half feet into the disinfection content chambers.

FRENKEL: Inside the concrete pools where the water is disinfected, the salmon feed on dead bacteria and lay their eggs among the snail shells and freshwater sponges, possibly brought by other fish attracted to the plant. However, not all scientists credit East Chicago's treatment process for luring the salmon. Jim Francis is a fisheries biologist with Indiana's Department of Natural Resources.

FRANCIS: The salmon spawning is not necessarily due to clean water being produced by the treatment plant. What the sanitary district is doing is eliminating the sedimentation, which is allowing the salmon to spawn. It's not necessarily a water quality issue.

FRENKEL: But aquatic researcher Tim Early says if such skeptics are right, salmon would spawn in other streams that are free of sediment, and that's not the case.

EARLY: You can have an area that's totally free of sediment but has low dissolved oxygen. You can have an area that's free of sediment and has high dissolved oxygen but the water is toxic. This is very deadly to salmon eggs and to baby salmon. So you have to look at all the conditions and not just one.

FRENKEL: The treatment plant's manmade stream has created a wildlife habitat that's attracted more than salmon. Beaver, fox, rare migratory birds, and other species of fish have been spotted in or near the stream. Tim Early says other wastewater treatment plants could produce cleaner water and restore wildlife habitats if they follow East Chicago's lead and purify without chlorine.

EARLY: We can take this process and reproduce it elsewhere. And this becomes very important when you're dealing with other areas that discharge water to impaired or damaged environments. Because now we have the model by which we can take those damaged environments and start to reclaim them, bring them back to their good state of health.

(Flowing water)

FRENKEL: Meanwhile, the staff in East Chicago will be watching their waters closely. They began tagging young salmon born at the plant in 1995, and are hoping some of those fish will return to their birthplace to spawn as early as next fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel.

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(Flowing water)

RUDOLPH: Some Catholics are looking to the Earth for spiritual meaning. That story just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Catholic Earth Sprituality

RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. Spring is the season when life mysterious re-emerges out of the cold winter soil. For Christians around the world, Spring also means Easter, the celebration of Jesus's resurrection. Now a growing number of Roman Catholics are making conscious connections between these 2 events, linking their faith and their concern for the Earth. But as Richard Schiffman reports, it's not always easy to reconcile age-old religious traditions and a new environmental consciousness.

(Church bells ring)

WOMAN: We confess, O God, that we have not kept your laws, but have abused your gift of creation. (Congregation murmurs a reply) We confess, O God, that we have risked permanent damage to your handiwork...

SCHIFFMAN: At St. Mary's Roman Catholic church in Islip, Long Island, about 50 people gather to discuss a recent leak of radiation from the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratories, a nuclear research facility.

(People milling)

MANISCALCO: Recently, myself, Bill McNulty and a few others, have been having a vigil in front of the Brookhaven Laboratory, and it's kind of interesting...

SCHIFFMAN: Pete Maniscalco is a city planner turned environmental activist who goes weekly to Brookhaven to protest high levels of radiation discovered in nearby groundwater. He tells the audience that his Friday vigil is for him a religious act.

MANISCALCO:... service for us, my going to vigil, and I don't claim that I'm all right. But this is my way of defending and protecting what I see as sacred. Long Island as my sacred mother.

SCHIFFMAN: Brookhaven physicist Mike O'Brien, a Roman Catholic, has been invited to the meeting to give the lab's position.

O'BRIEN: Let me start out by saying that I personally feel very offended by being accused of being an immoral person and crucifying the Earth by participating in the nuclear program. And I'm offended by that because...

SCHIFFMAN: O'Brien feels that Brookhaven's research has been, in his words, a moral boon to humanity, leading to medical breakthroughs which have saved thousands of lives. But it's clear that not everyone in this audience agrees with him.

WOMAN: We're saying that this water that we have is from God. It's a gift, and all life stems from that water. And you're willing to risk it because you think that somehow you're doing more good. And we don't believe that.

SCHIFFMAN: In many ways tonight's forum is similar to environmental debates all over the country. What sets this discussion apart is that it's framed largely in religious terms. The meeting was organized by the environmental prayer group of St. Mary's Parish, a group of Catholics who thought a lot about the ties between religion and the environment. For the last 2 years they've combined political action with prayer for the healing of the Earth. They meet weekly over dinner.

(Wind and clinking utensils)

WOMAN: We're grateful for the wonderful gifts of Earth that we're being offered to eat, and we pray for the grace to be willing to be food for others. Amen.

GROUP: Amen.

SCHIFFMAN: Tonight, group members talk about their sometimes ambivalent relationship to the church.

WOMAN: I find church difficult. I don't attend all the time. They don't preach that the Earth is spiritual. They don't preach that everything living has a spirituality.

WOMAN 2: You went to the church for sacred things. And then the world was where all the other bad stuff happened.

SCHIFFMAN: But these Catholic environmentalists say they now believe that God and the world are not completely separate, as they once were taught. In their study group they've been learning about a new Earth-based spirituality, which says that the natural world is the primary revelation of God. And Ferrara says it's revolutionized the way she understands her religion.

FERRARA: The idea that the universe is the primary revelation. That for many of us was shattering. It was shattering because we were so focused on the Bible, on the Gospel. In other words, that was for us the word of God. One of the suggestions Thomas Berry makes is that we put Scripture and the dictionary on the shelf for 20 years.

SCHIFFMAN: This suggestion is all the more surprising because it's being made by a Roman Catholic priest. Father Thomas Berry is regarded as a modern-day prophet by some and as a maverick by other Catholics. He doesn't reject the Bible or the Church traditions, but he says that the universe itself is telling a story every bit as profound as the account in Scriptures. Only, 20th century humans don't seem to have the ears to hear it.

BERRY: I say that my generation has been autistic. An autistic child is locked into themselves, they cannot get out and the outer world cannot get in. They cannot receive affection, cannot give affection. And this is, I think, a very appropriate way of identifying the generation that's lived through the 20th century in relationship to the natural world. We have no feeling for the natural world. We'd as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut down for wood, for timber, for board feed. We don't see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.

SCHIFFMAN: Father Berry's call for a new creation affirming spirituality has struck a responsive chord with a group of Dominican sisters in Amityville, New York.

(Geese honk)

SCHIFFMAN: There's a flock of geese on the park-like grounds of the mother house: a green refuge within the suburban sprawl of Long Island's South Shore.

CLARK: We've planted garlic, which you can see coming up here. It's doing very, very well.

SCHIFFMAN: Sister Jean Clark points to some newly plowed ground with a few green shoots poking through the late winter soil. Growing an organic garden is just one of the ways the Amityville sisters are reconnecting with nature. They perform outdoor rituals on the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes: ancient Earth festivals which some Catholics still regard as Pagan. And recently, they passed a resolution which expands the definition of their religious community to include the land and its nonhuman inhabitants.

CLARK: It's really the thought of Thomas Berry, where I first heard about thinking of the other members of the community. The human community is not the only sacred community, but the sacred community really is the community of all of life, including these geese here, the birds you hear singing. The insects. Animals.

SCHIFFMAN: Sister Jean and her fellow nuns are part of a growing chorus of Catholic voices: lay, religious, and ordained, calling for ecological responsibility. The US Bishops' Catholic Conference has started an environmental justice program for parishes, including a video exhorting viewers to become good stewards of the earth.

(Music and dove calls. Child: "We didn't have, like, anything to do with making it, so I think it's the Lord's Earth." Woman: "The Lord's Earth. A beautiful and mysterious environment. Called in a special way to cultivate and care for the Lord's Earth, men and women bear a unique responsibility before God to protect this world, and by their creative labor...")

SCHIFFMAN: Father Kenneth Himes is a professor of moral theology at the Washington Theological Union.

HIMES: The papacy, the American bishops, have all issued important statements on the environment. Probably in just about every parish by now at some point or another in a homily, reference has been made to an environmental issue or an environmental problem. It may not be a steady drum beat every Sunday, but I suspect people are beginning to see that there is or there ought to be a connection between their faith life and environmental awareness in the same way that there ought to be a connection between their faith life and their work place or their faith life and family life.

SCHIFFMAN: Exactly what that connection should be is the subject of dispute among Catholics. Some conservative thinkers, like Robert Royal of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, warn against the dangers of nature worship.

ROYAL: There are no ways to go back to a kind of a divinization of nature that will solve the difficulties that we living in modern 20th century industrialized societies have. I think it's a pipe dream to think that there's going to be a rollback of industry and technologies. And I think that the very spiritualization of nature that many people call up for not only is ineffective but is quite dangerous, because it distracts people from the really hard thinking and self-examination that they would have to do if they truly want to engage what are going to be the environmental problems over the next 40 or 50 years.

SCHIFFMAN: Royal also feels that in their love for the natural world, Catholic environmentalists sometimes give short shrift to human needs like jobs and economic development. The US Catholic conference talks about putting humans back into the environmental picture. They've been especially aggressive in advocating for poor Americans who suffer disproportionately from pollution and other ecological abuses. Their environmental justice program makes seed grants to local projects throughout the country, which address a wide range of environmental ills.

(Paul Winter Consort's Missa Gaia opening: wolf howls, man echoes: "Kyrie Eleison")

SCHIFFMAN: Ritual forms are changing, too, as Catholics make then connections between their environmental work and the ways they pray and worship. The legendary friend of wolves and birds, St. Francis of Assisi, has been declared patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II. St. Francis's feast day in October is a kind of religious Earth Day in many churches, including a yearly ecumenical celebration at New York's huge Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine. Here, Episcopal and Roman Catholic bishops in their finery, ochre-robed Hinduswamis, and Zen Buddhist monks parade down the aisle with the real stars: a veritable Noah's ark of elephants, llamas, chimpanzees, even bluegreen algae, marching or lovingly carried past the great stone altar to be blessed.

(Missa Gaia continues)

SCHIFFMAN: The mood in the world's largest cathedral is exalted during the soaring Kyrie of Paul Winter's Earth Mass. Religious environmentalists say that how we worship has a big impact on how we think and how we act in the world. And they hope that the moral force of church teachings together with the power of new life-affirming rituals like this one will help inspire the faithful to cherish and protect the Earth. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

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(Missa Gaia up and under)

RUDOLPH: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Constantine Von Hoffman, Susan Shepherd, and Peter Shaw. Jennifer Schmidt edited and Liz Lempert directed this week's program. We also had help from Colin Studds. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Michael Aharon composed our theme.
By the way, our senior producer, Chris Ballman, had nothing to do with this week's show. He's taking some time off to welcome his new 7-pound baby boy Rowan into the world. I'm John Rudolph. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; and the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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