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

June 20, 1997

Air Date: June 20, 1997



It's been twenty years since lead was removed from household paint and gasoline, but millions of children in America are still living with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Public health officials say it doesn't have to be that way because lead poisoning is one of the most preventable of childhood illnesses. In the fourth and final part of our series. "The Silent Epidemic", Deirdre Kennedy reports on the hidden sources of lead, and community efforts to protect children from exposure. (09:30)


Steve Curwood says, whether it's cost effectiveness, fear of violent crime or compassion and concern for the quality of life, confronting the hazards of childhood lead poisoning can bring us big dividends, if we're willing to look at the details and act. (02:10)


Students in Fleming County, Kentucky help to operate a farm themselves where they learn about agriculture and try to develop cost-effective ways to protect farm run-off water quality. John Gregory has our report. (08:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... Midsummer's day. (01:15)


Devastating floods in the midwest; a catastrophic tornado in Texas; paralyzing snow-falls in the Dakotas. These are only a few of the recent weather disasters we’ve seen this past year. And now scientists are telling us to get ready for another spate of powerful and costly hurricanes. Climate researchers say these weather extremes are becoming more common; and that they may be caused by human induced global climate change. Insurance firms, which pick up the tab for storm damage are taking notice, as Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports. (11:08)


The flood that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the midwest this spring also displaced some non-human inhabitants. Scores of animals were marooned on islands or stranded in treetops. But for most wildlife, the flood was not catastrophic since many species are well adapted to survive natural disasters. Mary Losure reports from Minnesota's Red River Valley. (06:45)


Making the desert bloom can have a high ecological cost. Steve Curwood spoke with John Else, executive producer of the PBS series about the California Central Valley's giant water project, which is airing on PBS television stations this month. (07:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Miranda Daniloff
REPORTERS: Peter Hadfield, Steve Frenkel, Maura Howe, Deirdre Kennedy,
John Gregory, Frank Koller, Mary Losure
GUEST: John Else

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
Lead is a silent hazard to millions of children in this country, and exposure to even tiny amounts has been linked to learning disabilities and poor performance in school.

CARMEN: The kids are, like, distracted, don't focus well. And then later on I found out they have lead in the blood.

CURWOOD: Researchers have also tied low levels of childhood lead exposure to delinquency and violent crime when these kids grow up. We'll have some tips on how you can protect your child. Also, school children in Kentucky are helping dairy farmers clean up waterways by confronting pollution down on the farm.

VICE: This was typical of the waste (laughs) control systems that you found along Fleming Creek here in Fleming County, was you got your barn close to the creek and your waste ran over the hill into the creek and the creek got rid of it for you.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth. But first the news.

Environmental News

DANILOFF: From Living on Earth, I'm Miranda Daniloff.
Financial support for developing countries is emerging as a key issue at Earth Summit II, a follow-up to the United Nations' first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 5 years ago. Developing nations promised financial assistance at that first conference have yet to receive it. So environmental groups and several governments want to create an international panel that would help developing countries define their needs for foreign aid. Delegates at the Earth Summit will consider the finance issue, along with the future of oceans, forests, pollution, poverty, energy use, and climate change.

The US Supreme Court has ruled Alaska does not have the right to drill for oil and gas off the shore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ruling was part of a larger decision about ownership of submerged lands along the Arctic coast of Alaska. Alaska said it was entitled to drill under terms of its Statehood Act and the Submerged Lands Act. But the Court sided with the Federal Government, which argued it owns the rights. Environmental groups feared Alaska would have begun an active oil leasing program if it was given title to the area.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in Tokyo recently to protest the destruction of one of Japan's largest wetlands. The tidal flats at Isahaya, near Nagasaki, are being dried out by a reclamation scheme that critics say serves no purpose. Peter Hadfield reports from Tokyo.

HADFIELD: The demonstrators are calling on the government to open the floodgates in a dike that was finished in April. The dike has cut off eight and a half thousand acres of wetlands from their supply of sea water. The wetlands used to support hundreds of species of crustacea and fish. Migratory birds used them as a stopping off point and feeding ground. Now, they're drying out. The original purpose of the dike was to create land for rice farming, but when Japan began cutting back on rice production in the 1980s, the purpose of the project was changed. Government bureaucrats now say it will be used for flood control. Opponents of the project say the real reason the reclamation scheme is going ahead is that Japanese bureaucrats never like to admit they're wrong, and abandon large-scale projects even if that means destroying a valuable ecosystem. For Living on Earth, this is Peter Hadfield in Tokyo.

DANILOFF: Cockroaches and the pesticides used to kill them have been linked to asthma and other health problems. Low-income people suffer the most. But residents of one Chicago public housing development pushed for a safer way to attack the cockroach problem, and succeeded. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Steve Frenkel reports.

FRENKEL: Until recently, cockroaches were part of daily life for residents of the Henry Horner housing development on Chicago's West Side. But they have found a way to get rid of roaches without using a lot of insecticides. Residents sealed cracks in their apartments with caulk, fixed leaky plumbing, and removed any food that might attract roaches. Jill Viehweg is the director of the Safer Pest Control Project in Chicago, and works with the residents at Horner. She says spraying pesticides alone can be both futile and dangerous.

VIEHWEG: So you can spray and bomb and you can kill some roaches. But a lot of times they're living between layers of drywall or, you know, underneath a cabinet. And when you spray, you're really exposing yourself and your family to more poisons than the roaches themselves in most cases.

FRENKEL: Several common household insecticides have been linked to immune and neurological disorders as well as asthma. Since the success at Henry Horner, the program is being used at several Chicago public schools. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel in Chicago.

DANILOFF: Southern California is gearing up for a new network of filling stations. But instead of distributing gasoline, or even ethanol, these stations will supply electricity to power vehicles. From Los Angeles, Maura Howe reports.

HOWE: While electric cars are gaining the interest of would be buyers, one problem has been clear to everyone looking at the zero-emission form of transportation. What happens if drivers run out of their electrical charge some time during their commute? The Quick Charge LA Program promises to ease that concern by installing nearly 200 charging stations throughout the city. Under the project, the County Department of Water and Power will build facilities which look sort of like gas stations, only with big plugs that rejuvenate electric vehicles in 1 to 4 hours. Charging stations are to be built at both private businesses and public centers. For Living on Earth, I'm Maura Howe in Los Angeles.

DANILOFF: Starting next month, New York City will begin trucking more than 1,700 tons of its trash from the Bronx to a landfill in southeastern Virginia each day. It's the first step in a plan to close the 50-year-old Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island by the end of 2001. Fresh Kills processes more than 13,000 tons of garbage every day, making it the nation's largest landfill. At just under $52 a ton, the 3-year contract with the Virginia dump will cost New York City $86 million.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Miranda Daniloff.

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's been more than 20 years since lead was first removed from household paint and gasoline in America, but millions of children still live with dangerous levels of lead in their blood today. Public health officials say it doesn't have to be this way. Lead poisoning is one of the most preventable of childhood illnesses. In the fourth and final part of our series, "The Silent Epidemic," Deirdre Kennedy reports on the hidden sources of lead and community efforts to protect children from exposure.

(Milling voices; a trolley bell)

KENNEDY: In San Francisco's Chinatown, tourists and residents pack into a crowded weekend market to buy authentic Asian foods and household wares. One popular item is table ware from China. It's attractive, colorful, and inexpensive. But what most of these shoppers don't realize is that it's often covered in dangerous lead glaze.

(A phone rings)

KENNEDY: A few blocks away, Carolyn Mitchell with the group Consumer Action demonstrates just how much lead can be found on imported table ware from Latin America and Asia.

MITCHELL: So all you do is you take a lead check swab, shake it up (shaking sounds), and you rub it on there (rubbing metallic sounds) for about 30 seconds. And if it turns red, then there's lead. And there's so much lead in this one that it turns red pretty instantly.

KENNEDY: Heating or serving foods in such table ware can release large amounts of lead into food. For children, who absorb about half the lead they ingest, that can lead to dangerous lead poisoning over time. It's illegal in California to sell products containing toxins like lead without a warning label, but Consumer Action's Neil Gendel says government agencies just can't keep up with the illegal merchandise.

GENDEL: It comes in in all kinds of ways. It comes in through Mexico. It can come through Seattle, or it may come through the docks here. And the tourists come in from all over the country that shop in Chinatown and like this Asian ware and take it home with them.

KENNEDY: Consumer Action is one of many groups in San Francisco that are trying to educate people about the sources of lead in their homes and communities. They say some imported canned foods, toys, and candies sold in ethnic neighborhoods can contain high amounts of lead. Health workers have even found imported home remedies for stomachache containing nearly 100% lead tincture. Even products like Venetian blinds and calcium supplements have been found to contain trace amounts of lead.

(Traffic sounds)

KENNEDY: But these consumer products are far from the only problem. Millions of tons of lead remain in the environment from decades of commercial use. Karen Florini is a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

FLORINI: Well, lead is a naturally occurring element. In fact, it's the 38th most common element in the Earth's crust. So there is going to be some amount of lead naturally present in the environment. The trouble is that over the last decades and centuries, in fact, humans have dug up a lot of that lead, concentrated it, refined it, and put it into products that have been pretty effective in scattering it all around the environment.

KENNEDY: Ms. Florini says even though leaded paint and gasoline are no longer used in this country, their legacy is still with us.

FLORINI: So, along heavily traveled streets and highways, you can have a pretty heavy accumulation of lead in those soils. In addition, lead paint that deteriorated on the outsides of buildings, not just ordinary buildings but bridges and other kinds of steel structures, often had a very high content of lead, and so this all has been contaminated as a result of those uses of lead as well.

KENNEDY: And, she says, there's still no limit on the amount of lead that's used in industrial paint.

(Salsa music plays)

KENNEDY: San Francisco's Mission District has an unusually bad lead problem. Most of the buildings are very old. It has a major highway running through it, and a large immigrant population. Children in neighborhoods like this one are 4 times more likely to be lead poisoned than kids in more affluent areas.

CARMEN: ... I taught, and the kids are, like, distracted, don't focus well. And then, later, on I found out they have lead in the blood.

KENNEDY: Carmen is one of several teachers and residents attending Saturday workshops organized by the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG. Lead educator Memo Tabuso talks to them about the dangers of lead.

TABUSO: It affects the nervous system, and the brain is a part of the nervous system, and that can lead to learning disabilities, problems with hearing, problems with speech, problems with the ability to pay attention and to concentrate.

KENNEDY: It can also lead to fatigue, anemia, and hyperactivity. And in severe cases kidney failure or even coma. The gardener's group advises residents not to eat vegetables grown in high-leaded soil. They say it's important to contain the soil with plants and sometimes even concrete, to avoid children getting the lead dust on their hands and then into their mouths. And lead educator Kevin Tennyson says diet is a particularly important factor.

TENNYSON: The body goes after calcium and the body goes after iron. And if there's lead in there and less of the other 2, then it's going to substitute that lead for the calcium, for the iron, and that's where you end up with child poisoning.

KENNEDY: Children's health experts say that's why it's especially important for children with other high-risk factors to get the right nutrition.

(Children laughing, playing, screaming)

KENNEDY: While soil is still a big problem in some neighborhoods, by far the most common lead problem for young children is dust from exposed leaded paint in dilapidated housing. A handful of states, including Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and California, have programs giving landlords financial help to control lead paint hazards. The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is also spending several million dollars on emergency lead paint programs in 60 US cities.

TOMASIC: You know what you can do in the meantime to keep the risk really
low? Is ...

KENNEDY: In San Francisco, HUD money is enabling small community groups to clean up some of the city's worst lead hazards. In this apartment building in the rundown tenderloin district, Michelle Tomasik and Michael Noon drop in on tenants with young children to look for lead hazards.

TOMASIK: It's very rare that I walk into an apartment and say oh this looks great, because there are just not, you know, very well kept up buildings. They're very, very old, and the friction points, the windows and the doorjambs, always find peeling paint there.

(Asks resident) Is there lead in there? Do you know?

MAN: Oh, yeah, we can -- on the lower levels...

KENNEDY: Michelle and Michael take samples of the dust and paint chips and send them to a lab for tests. If there is a lead problem, a city contracted crew will come in and repaint the unit. In the meantime...

TOMASIK: I tell them things that they can do, which is cover the chipping and cracked areas with either, like, shelf paper or tape, just something that contains it. And also wet wiping the areas down, and then throwing the sponge away.

KENNEDY: This program costs the landlords nothing, but Federal funding for the clean-up runs out this summer, and Michelle says without proper maintenance, these units may fall into disrepair again and the lead hazard will be back. Environmental attorney Karen Florini says in many poor areas across the country, properties are so run down that it would cost more for the landlords to fix the lead problem than the building is worth. It's a billion dollar problem, she says, that no one's made a commitment to handle.

FLORINI: So either the landlord has to go into the hole on the property, which most landlords aren't willing to do, or there have got to be governmental subsidies. The free market just can't take care of this problem on its own.

KENNEDY: But, she says, even when landlords and parents can't completely get rid of the lead hazard, there are still some basic steps they can take to minimize the risk to children.

WOMAN: No, don't eat her shoes.

(A baby gurgles)

WOMAN: It's not nice to eat shoes...

KENNEDY: Parents can cut down on the amount of lead dust children get in their mouths just by washing their hands often, especially after play and before they eat.

WOMAN: You're okay.

(Baby makes distressed sounds)

KENNEDY: And by improving their children's diet, they will automatically cut down on the amount of lead the child absorbs. They can also get test kits for paint, water, and soil from most hardware stores. And all parents should have the blood of their children tested if they're under age 6. Several states, including California, Massachusetts, and New York, require such testing. But it's estimated that still only a quarter of the nation's children are ever tested for lead poisoning. Karen Cohn of San Francisco's Health Department says the more parents know about the sources of lead, the more they can do to guard their children's health.

COHN: Health workers need to keep that in mind, that our job is not to scare parents. Our job is to make parents feel that they can keep their child healthy. There's things within their means, and that this is something that even if some damage has already been done, the child's already been diagnosed, that the important thing is that now we've found out about it. Now we can reverse those conditions and help this child recover.

MAN: Make sure the paint throughout most of the apartment is monitored...

KENNEDY: There are hundreds of community groups and health agencies across the country that can help parents get their kids tested and track down the sources of lead poisoning. Karen Cohn and other childhood lead experts say parents shouldn't wait for their child to get sick to take action. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

TOMASIC: Don't ever, ever, ever peel it off.

WOMAN 2: Really? We've been peeling it off.

TOMASIK: No. Because what happens is, the lead is a dust that we worry about. And when you peel it you're going to stir that dust up, it's going to land on the floor. You can't even see it...

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CURWOOD: For the past 4 weeks Living on Earth has brought you this special series on lead poisoning because we've become increasingly concerned about the toll lead is taking on society, as well as its effects on personal health. The hazard to us all is something we've been slow to recognize, even as we've learned more about how lead affects individual behavior. We know large amounts of lead cause serious illness or death, and even small exposures are especially dangerous to children.

But at that point, many of us seem to close our eyes to the devil in the details. Tiny microtoxic doses of lead in children have been linked to lowered intelligence, and a 6-fold increase in learning disabilities later on in life. Now, not only is that a heavy personal burden, it's also an enormous social burden. Consider that special education costs billions in this country, perhaps $30 billion or more a year in public funds, not to mention private efforts at helping Johnny and Jane cope with hyperactivity, dyslexia, and the like.

Obviously, not every child who needs special education is a victim of lead poisoning. But even if only 1 such child in 10 is hurt this way, spending the $30 billion or so it would take to clean up the household lead hazard in America once and for all would pay for itself soon enough. It would also give us a smarter and safer society. Safer because those same minuscule doses of lead in youngsters are also linked to elevated violent crime and delinquency rates when these kids grow up. Two or three times higher, regardless of race, income, or population density. Smarter, because we'll avoid spending billions for remediation, this time for police, prisons, and security systems, when cutting household lead exposure would reduce crime. In fact, there's already some fascinating evidence showing that the elimination of lead from gasoline is linked to the current dip in crime rates.

So, take your pick. Whether it's cost effectiveness, fear of violent crime, or compassion and concern for the quality of life, confronting the hazards of childhood lead poisoning can bring us big dividends if we're willing to look at the details and act.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Youngsters in Kentucky find a way to clean up a local creek by working with and for farmers. That's next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
If you travel to Fleming County in the northeast corner of Kentucky, you'll find a rural area where the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains begin to blend into the flatlands of the Bluegrass region. You'll also find dairy cows, lots of dairy cows. Though small in size, Fleming County produces much of Kentucky's fresh milk. Unfortunately, waste from many of the herds has ended up fouling the county's creeks and streams. A few years ago, some students and their teachers noted the high level of pollution in county waterways. But instead of leaving it up to the farmers to solve the problem on their own, the students decided to pitch in and help. Today, not only is the water in Fleming County cleaner, the students now help to operate a farm where they learn about agriculture and try to develop cost-effective ways to protect water quality. John Gregory has our report.

(Footfalls, voices)

GREGORY: On a blustery spring day, 3 teenagers climb a grassy hillside in Fleming County, Kentucky, to survey the student farm. They see a mixture of flat bottom land surrounded by rolling hills of open pasture and trees. Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Woods stops and ponders what could be grown on one long stretch of hilltop.

WOODS: We can always put in hay and you can, I guess you can really grow tobacco up here. It might erode a little bit, it wouldn't be really that bad. The soil isn't exactly perfect for tobacco, but it would still grow there.

GREGORY: What crops to plant, which pesticides to use, and how to provide water for the dairy cows, are just some of the decisions facing the 10 students working on the Fleming County Farm Project. The trick is that their actions must not pollute the slow-moving waters of Fleming Creek and a smaller tributary called Crane Town Branch, which border the 80-acre student farm on 3 sides. To prevent the fertile topsoil from washing into the river, the students decided to play corn in the bottom, using a no-till method, which means sowing seed into unplowed ground. Because the cows were spending so much time in the creek, drinking and fouling the water, the students chose to install a water trough for the cattle away from the creek.

VICE: It cost $3,000 just to set up a $500 water fountain over there.

GREGORY: Fleming County farmer Tribby Vice laughs as he recalls how difficult it was to install the fountain, but says it was a good decision because his cows prefer the supply of fresh, clean water. Mr. Vice conceived the Farm Project, and he provides the land to the students, offers advice, and takes some of theirs. Tribby Vice owns about 400 acres of land in Fleming County and runs the family's dairy operation with his brother and father. They milk about 90 cows in a barn that sits on a hill overlooking the river.

VICE: And this was typical of the waste (laughs) control systems that you found along Fleming Creek here in Fleming County, was you got your barn close to the creek and your waste ran over the hill into the creek and the creek got rid of it for you.

GREGORY: About 10 years ago, when Tribby Vice was building a pit to contain his dairy waste, a massive amount of manure spilled into the creek, causing a fish kill along a half-mile stretch of the river. State environmental officials fined Mr. Vice more than $5,000. The incident inspired him to learn more about water issues. He found that Fleming Creek was one of the most polluted waterways in Kentucky. In addition to improving his own operation, Tribby Vice decided to develop a program to teach kids about the connection between water quality and farming.

(Milling voices)

MAN: It's handy to start with dissolved oxygen because that's the first thing on the sheet, but you don't have to. And then somebody else can be doing nitrates, because that takes the longest.

GREGORY: Tribby Vice's idea became the Fleming Creek Water Quality Project. Every month for the past 3 years, junior and senior high school students like Amy Coleman have waded through weeds and mud to collect samples of river water at 4 locations.

COLEMAN: We test for dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, hardness, iron, chlorine...

GREGORY: With the support of the local school board and the Community Farm Alliance, a Kentucky-based family farm organization, the students have compiled a database of water quality information on Fleming Creek. They've presented their findings to local civic and agricultural groups and in newspaper articles, each time emphasizing what individuals can do to protect the river. They've encouraged farmers to reduce the amount of animal and chemical wastes reaching the water. And they've told homeowners about the importance of proper septic systems. Sophomore Amber Dillon and her sister Dinetta say people in the community have been receptive to their message.

A. DILLON: People want to know. They want to know what's happening. So we present them with the data, the information, and they --

D. DILLON: And we try to give them solutions for the problem. (Laughs)

GREGORY: Charlie Masters is a science teacher in the Fleming County Schools, and coordinator of the water quality project. He says the increased public awareness has had a positive impact on the creek.

MASTERS: We have seen water quality improve in this creek in the past 3 years. Maybe not as much as a lot of people would like, but it's trending int he right direction. And I caution people, too. If it took people 50 years to have a negative impact on the watershed, then 5 years is not going to clean it up.

GREGORY: The students have been recognized for their work in Fleming County and at farm and conservation conferences across the country. But even with the success of the river monitoring program, farmer Tribby Vice felt there was still something missing.

VICE: They need to learn what it's like to make a decision. Making a decision on the way you're going to handle a water quality problem.

GREGORY: So Mr. Vice created the Farm Project, by loaning 80 acres of his land to the students. The ground rules were simple: maintain the quality of Fleming Creek and make at least enough profit to cover the loan payments on the land. Fifteen-year-old Cameron Wallingford says the students now had to practice what they had been preaching.

WALLINGFORD: I didn't really know how much planning and thought it took to really kind of sit down and think about what you'd want to put on a certain field. It's kind of showed us what you've been doing wrong, and how you can fix it.

GREGORY: Tribby Vice says most of the student recommendations have been good, although an attempt to try a more environmentally friendly mix of herbicides ended up costing more money and didn't kill weeds any better than did the standard application. The farm is breaking even, but junior Whitney Barker says even when they want to institute a best management practice to prevent some kind of pollution, they always have to look at the bottom line.

BARKER: If it's going to cost the farmer a major amount of money and that he's just going to have to keep pouring money in it, and it's going to be a burden, so to speak, then it's not a best management practice. Because all it is is just something he's pouring money into, to conserve something. And so, really, cost is a major consideration.

GREGORY: To help pay for some of their ideas, the students got state financial aid available to farmers for conservation projects. Even with the time they've invested, the economics of agriculture have led many of the students to consider other occupations. Freshman Cameron Wallingford says he's thinking about a career in engineering or medicine.

WALLINGFORD: Everybody's going to have to find something else to do sooner or later, because there's big farms that's putting little farms out of business.

GREGORY: But even if they don't go into agriculture, project organizer Tribby Vice hopes this experience will make the students strong advocates for family farms. In the meantime, Mr. Vice says he's preparing to implement another of the students' suggestions: installing a fence to keep his dairy cows out of the creek.

VICE: The day the fence goes in, you won't be able to measure the dollars and cents that it saves us all by not having 8 or 10 cows standing in there defecating. There won't be a dollar figure, never will be a dollar figure on that. But we'll be able to say that was that much of a contribution we made to the environment. And that may be worth a few thousand dollars, you know? And it seems it's worth it to the kids, so, you know, I'll go along with them. (Laughs)

GREGORY: Tribby Vice says the Farm Project is still in its infancy. He hopes it can grow into an established program where students own their own land, and young people from across Kentucky can come work on the farm. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory in Fleming County, Kentucky.

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CURWOOD: We're always interested in what you have to say about our program. Call our listener line any time at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

(Music up and under)

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CURWOOD: You may or may not believe that human activity is changing the world's climate and leading to more storms, but many insurance companies are saying they can't afford not to protect themselves from such risks. That story is next on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: June 21st marks the summer solstice, according to our solar calendar. But down here on Earth, there's a slightly different schedule. So, 3 days after the official start of summer, get ready to celebrate midsummer day. This ancient holiday is one of the quarter days on the Celtic calendar. Farming communities would mark the midpoint of the growing season with festivals. In Ireland, bonfires were lit on hilltops and men would try to jump over them. In Lithuania, girls would place wreaths in rivers. The farther her wreath floated, the sooner she would be married. People washed their face in the morning dew to become more beautiful, and anyone who could find the elusive fern blossom would become wise, rich, and happy. But as Shakespeare reminds us, the real action took place just before dawn. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus, the duke of Athens, asked his master of the revels, Philostrate, "What abridgement have you for this evening? What mask? What music? How shall we beguile the lazy time, if not with some delight?" And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: Devastating floods in the midwest. A catastrophic tornado in Texas. Paralyzing snowfalls in the Dakotas. These are only a few of the recent weather disasters we've seen, and now scientists are telling us to get ready for another spate of powerful and costly hurricanes. Climate researchers say these weather extremes are becoming more common, and that they may be caused by human-induced global climate change. Insurance firms, which pick up the tab for storm damage, are taking note, as Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

(Motors -- vents?)

NEALIS: Jeff, whereabouts was the water initially coming in, and when did you notice it coming in?

RABB: Ten o'clock two weeks ago, and the water was coming in; if you come down here, Kevin, I'll take you. There's a crack in the wall, and the water was in fact coming in through that crack in the wall...

KOLLER: In the underground parking garage of a 20-story apartment building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jeff Rabb shows his insurance agent Kevin Nealis the damage floodwaters caused last May.

RABB: It was coming out through this stressed joint in the floor, and it was also pouring up through the sewer...

KOLLER: This is Kevin Nealis's second visit to the garage to settle a claim for structural damages that nearly forced a complete evacuation of the building. Luckily for this insurance company, the building manager was able to keep most of the floodwaters out. So the damage, and the claim, will be limited. But Kevin Nealis says that as claims for damage from floods and other severe weather events grow more frequent, his industry faces tough decisions.

(Motors continue)

NEALIS: As far as insurers are concerned, the repetitive occurrence of flood events and whatnot is probably going to result in the total elimination of the availability of that coverage, and the insurance industry has to react in certain ways to make sure we do whatever we can to prevent the effects of a major loss like this.


REPORTER 1: The hurricane sounded like an artillery barrage as it hit the Florida coast with awesome power.

REPORTER 2: Millions of Bangladeshes along the southeast coast had nowhere to hide when the cyclone swept in from the Bay of Bengal. It whipped up tidal waves.

REPORTER 3: In central Saskatchewan, they're calling it one of the worst storms in years. Heavy rain and strong winds...

KOLLER: Storms, hurricanes, and floods. Killing thousands and costing billions annually. Normal? It's not. It's getting worse. And it's costing insurance companies more each year. Gerhard Berz is head of climatology for Munich Reinsurance in Germany. Reinsurance firms are companies that insure insurance companies, and Munich Re is the world's largest. Gerhard Berz.

BERZ: Just to give you an idea of the, of the size of the trend, if you compare the disaster losses of the last 10 years, from '87 to '96, with the 60s, we find that the number of disasters has increased by a factor of 4. The economic losses increased by a factor of 8, and the insured losses by a factor of 15. So this is really dramatic.

KOLLER: Here in North America it's a similar story. More hurricanes, hail storms, tornados, late snows, causing more and more damage that the insurance industry has to pay out in claims. Over the past decade, climatologists in the insurance industry have been searching for an explanation why weather-related disasters have become more frequent. Gerhard Berz, head climatologist for the world's biggest reinsurance firm, has seen enough to believe that global warming is to blame, and that the world's weather is going to get a lot worse as a result.

BERZ: Up to now I think we have no real proof that the environment has become already more dangerous. But in my opinion, there is no doubt that we will see a dramatic increase in the future for us as an industry. We cannot wait for any final proof whatsoever.

KOLLER: The insurance industry, unlike many others, doesn't need proof. It operates on risk and probability. Problem is, the industry's finding it harder and harder to predict when bad weather may strike, or how bad it might be. That makes it hard to set premiums, and it threatens the industry with expensive surprises. So if curbing global warming might help cut costs, it's understandable the insurance industry is very interested. During the past 15 years, the relationship between global warming, climate change, and greenhouse gases, has spawned often bitter debate in scientific journals and international meetings. The 1992 Rio environment conference, for example. The fossil fuel industry, especially coal and oil, says there is no proof the Earth's temperature is on the rise, that extreme weather is increasing, or that the 2 might be related. The insurance industry argues that skyrocketing damage claims are all the proof its needs. Angus Ross heads the Canadian office of SOREMA, a huge French reinsurance company.

ROSS: As an industry we're probably in the front line of paying for any damages which arise out of these extreme events. So we believe we cannot quite simply sit back and wait till absolute proof is there, otherwise you'll be in the same position as we're seeing with the tobacco industry and cancer.

KOLLER: Earth scientist Jeremy Leggett says changing weather threatens to topple the insurance industry.

LEGGETT: If a bad hurricane hit Miami, if a typhoon hit Tokyo, if one of these drought-related wildfires made it into an urban center in California, say, that would wipe out the entire global reserve of the industry.

KOLLER: Jeremy Leggett, who once worked in the oil industry, spent 6 years at Greenpeace trying to convince insurance executives that global warming threatened their survival.

LEGGETT: The entire global property catastrophe industry keeps just over $200 billion in reserves for all payouts, catastrophe payouts, in one year. Now in principle, we could wipe that out with 2, maybe 3 events.

KOLLER: For insurance executives, the possibility of a global collapse of their industry is frightening. Some of those executives, such as SOREMA Canada's Angus Ross, say it's time to take action to prevent weather-related disasters by curbing greenhouse gases. That means stepping into the political limelight, where the industry has 2 areas of influence.

ROSS: One of them is the public. And if premiums go up or coverage reduces, and it all comes out of the individual's pocket, then I think the impact of climate change is going to come home very, very clearly to the public. And they will start putting pressure on governments. We also have a worldwide possibility of putting pressure on governments. In Rio, the developed nations made a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Canada is going to fall short of that by some 9 to 13%. That, quite frankly, is unacceptable.

(Dramatic music)

KOLLER: But it's not as if every insurance company accepts that global warming is a problem.

(Dramatic music continues)

LEGGETT: When you go to Florida and you see still, even after the lessons of Hurricane Andrew, houses being built right on the beach with pretty dismal adherence to building codes, you wonder what's going wrong. It's as though society's setting itself up for a major disaster, and a spectacular denial, really.

KOLLER: Most American firms still act as if nothing new is happening and certainly are not speaking out in public. Jeremy Leggett argues that's because of the influence of the coal and oil lobby in the US. This spring in Florida, Jeremy Leggett spoke at a conference organized by Employers Re, the largest American reinsurance firm. Employers Re is owned by GE Capitol, a company manufacturing equipment that burns coal and oil.

LEGGETT: At least 50% of the people on the speakers list were the worst kind of skeptic scientists on the payroll of the oil industry and the coal industry. This couldn't happen in Europe. I mean if that had been a European conference, we would have spent the entire day talking about how to build markets in the clean energy technologies. There in Florida it was some kind of weird tennis match, with US government scientists and others saying we have a big problem here on the one hand, and on the other hand people from the coal industry saying this is not a problem and we should -- to quote one speaker -- "get down on our knees and thank the Lord that America has 200 years worth of coal to burn." This is lunacy.

KOLLER: The fossil fuel industries, the sectors most threatened by talk of conservation, insist that until more research is done it's a waste of everyone's money to cut back greenhouse gases. And according to Henry Hengeveld, they've used a lot of their own money and their substantial political clout to block efforts to stop global warming. Henry Hengeveld is chief science advisor on climate change for Canada's Ministry of the Environment. And now, says Henry Hengeveld, the powerful voice of big European reinsurance companies could finally make a difference.

HENGEVELD: We haven't really until recently had a key player to defend the position of the future generations.

KOLLER: Is that what the insurance industry might become?

HINGEVELD: They're risk management experts. And they've said, on the basis of what we're seeing, we cannot afford to take the risk. This is climate change, and hence they have introduced I think a very key and legitimate part into the debate, which would tend to discount, if we don't have an advocacy group like that.

KOLLER: In the end it's important to remember why insurance companies are now getting interested in global warming. SOREMA Canada's Angus Ross says it all comes down to profits.

ROSS: The insurance industry is not a charitable institution. If the claims go up, then either we have to move up the premiums, or else we reduce the coverage. It all comes back to the public, the policyholder. When we explain to them why the costs are going up, they will then be able to put pressure on the government and something actually will be done regarding the greenhouse gas emissions. And it will benefit both of us.

KOLLER: Of course, even the most concerned industry executives admit that it will be years before greenhouse trends will be reversed. For Living on Earth, I'm Frank Koller in Ottawa.

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CURWOOD: The flood that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the Midwest this spring also displaced some non-human inhabitants. Many animals were marooned on islands or stranded in treetops. Fortunately for most wildlife, the flood was not catastrophic. Many species are well-adapted to survive natural disasters. But human-related changes are another matter. Mary Losure reports from Minnesota's Red River Valley.

(A boat motors)

LOSURE: On the Red River at Grand Forks, University of North Dakota biologist Steve Kelsh and 2 of his students head their boat upstream into the muddy current. Logs and debris rest high up in the branches of the big cottonwoods along the bank. Their bark is deeply gauged form ice floes driven by flood waters this spring.

KELSH: We've seen ice scars up in a lot of the trees, and some of them have broken. See these up here? That looks like a healed ice scar, and maybe just above it is a fresher one.

LOSURE: Smaller trees along the bank all lean downstream, their branches still muddy and leafless from being submerged for so long. But all this disturbance hasn't necessarily been bad for wildlife. Swallows swoop through the air, building their mud nests on bridge pilings that a few weeks ago were underwater. Kelsh slows the boat at a downed tree to check for channel catfish, a species that, unlike humans, may have benefitted from the flood.

(Motor is cut, knocking sounds)

LOSURE: Catfish like to feed in the deep pools created by submerged logs. Kelsh says the flood created new snags for catfish. The high waters may also have helped them swim over dams that normally block the expansion of their breeding grounds. It's not clear how many catfish may have died in the flood, but Kelsh says in any case the population can bounce back.

KELSH: Certainly, water is good for fish and there's plenty of that. Long as the water's down, now, I think they should be able to recover, and they can recover very rapidly, even if the population numbers had declined because of the flood. They have -- they lay so many eggs that they can come back in numbers pretty fast. So yeah, I think it will be a pretty good year.

(Bird calls)

LOSURE: Fifty miles northeast of Grand Forks, the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge supports a vast array of bird species.

(Bird calls continue)

LOSURE: This spring, when flooding threatened cities along the Red River, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to hold back and temporarily store hundreds of millions of gallons of water in the refuge's shallow pools and marshlands. Refuge biologist Gary Huschle says water levels in the refuge did not return to normal till early June, a month later than usual.

HUSCHLE: Most of our water fowl species and these marsh and water birds start initiating nests some time during the month of May. Well, this year, you know, we were still up 3 feet too high. You see a lot of these cattails that are out here in front of us now, just the very tops of those cattails would have been sticking out of the water.

LOSURE: Birds that normally would have nested in the cattail marshes moved to higher ground where the water wasn't so deep. When the waters receded, the nests were stranded on dry ground. But Huschle doesn't expect to see long-term damage to bird populations in the refuge. He says the birds are well-adapted to survive floods and droughts and other natural occurrences.

HUSCHLE: Fortunately, most of these birds are fairly resilient and they do just like people. They get displaced, and then they rebuild or re-nest.

LOSURE: But Huschle points out the key to the birds' ability to rebound from natural disasters is having enough habitat to choose from.

HUSCHLE: If you're out in an isolated wetland that's, say, surrounded by agricultural fields, and they get -- if that wetland fills up and so all their nesting cover in that wetland is not usable, those birds can't just shift over to higher ground and then find a suitable cover, you know, that's newly flooded. They're surrounded by the farm fields.

LOSURE: Many scientists say loss of habitat, not a natural occurrence like flooding, is the real threat to wildlife. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager Ross Heir says the Red River Valley was once home to vast numbers of prairie and wetland species that now are gone from the valley floor. He points to a stuffed specimen of a handsome, long-legged prairie bird.

HEIR: That's a marbled Godwit on our one bookshelf there. Well, that's a species that has certainly suffered from grassland loss. And if you go out in the Red River Valley proper, I guarantee you won't see many of those now standing, because they just can't do it there any more.

LOSURE: Heir says adaptable species like deer and beaver still thrive in the thin line of cover along the rivers and streams of the Red River Valley, where they have been surviving floods and droughts for decades. The species facing an uncertain future are those hanging on in small prairie and wetland remnants on the far edges of the valley. Species like the bobolink, which still lives in places like a state refuge southeast of Grand Forks. Heir points out the bird in a field guide.

HEIR: This is the male right here.


HEIR: So if you walk out there you'll certainly see him. If you see a male on the ground, just walk toward him and that will trigger him to go into his little flight display. And they move their wings very shallowly and rapidly and then eventually they kind of close them almost tip to tip as they kind of just descend onto the ground. Meanwhile doing this little bubbly song that they do.

(Bobolink calls)

LOSURE: The refuge is wet and rocky, a patch of prairie surrounded by potato and beet fields. Bobolinks in their yellow and black suits perch on the swaying grass tops and rise singing into the air. Prairie wildflowers, blue-eyed grass, Indian paintbrush and prairie smoke, still grow in this refuge. It's like a little Noah's Ark, its plants and animals safe not from the devastation of this spring's flooding, but from the sea of civilization all around. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Losure.

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(Bird calls continue; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Making the desert bloom at a high ecological cost. PBS brings its series on the giant water project in California's Central Valley to television this month. We'll meet the filmmaker of Cadillac Desert just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


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

(Traffic sounds; background string music)

REISNER: When you drive down Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you see cotton fields, miles and miles of cotton fields. And you see row crops and you see orchards. And you think oh, there's some cotton, there's some orchards, there's some row crops. This just wouldn't have been possible within the pre-existing natural order. The water is coming from hundreds of miles away, through concrete rivers. You know, it just couldn't have happened without these fantastic water works that we built, which are all but invisible. Somewhere off in the distance is a huge aqueduct carrying water that sustains all of this. But if it, somehow the water stopped flowing, you'd have a desert again overnight.

CURWOOD: That was a clip from Cadillac Desert, a 4-part TV series about water in the west, based on the book by Mark Reisner. John Else is the producer and he joins us now on the line from San Francisco. Hello, sir.

ELSE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, much of the nation's food is grown in California's Central Valley. But as we just heard Mark Reisner tell us, the area is actually a desert. Now why did people start farming there in the first place if it's so barren?

ELSE: Well, people first tried to farm without irrigation, and they quickly found that there was a limit to how much they could grow. And it was not very long before people looked to the east and saw the Sierra Nevada with the deepest snow packs in the world, and realized that this deep, deep, rich soil they were standing on, if it could simply be watered with imported snow melt, you know, the desert would bloom. There would be fantastic bounty. The Federal Government got involved because of a law that few Americans had ever heard of. It's the Reclamation Act of 1902. And the Reclamation Act said we will build great dams and canals and the point of building these is to bring thousands of small farmers onto this arid land in the west. Well, it sounded good in principle, but what in fact happened was that in many cases the recipients of that water were not the small 160-acre farms. They were giant farms, farms of 50,000 acres or 100,000 acres, owned by people like the Southern Pacific Railroad.

CURWOOD: And this water came to them at a price of what? A tenth, a twentieth of what it cost the government to bring it to them.

ELSE: Yeah. Yeah, this was highly, highly subsidized water that they got for decades. You and I paid for it. You and I benefitted from it. That area grows about a quarter of the nation's food. But there were tradeoffs that were made. We as a nation and the Congress decided that we would let the large growers slip by. We decided that we would not look at the environment as all this was happening. (Laughs) You know, we chose cotton underwear over salmon, frankly.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could describe for us how the water gets from the Sierra Nevada down into the Central Valley project, the aqueduct system for people who perhaps have never seen these.

ELSE: Sure. If you fly over California, you can look down from the window of your plane, and you can see the aqueducts. Now, the aqueducts often pass dry riverbeds, that's how you have an aqueduct and a river lying side by side with water flowing in one and not in the other. There are a series of dams throughout the Sierras. There is one dam that is nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower. And they are magnificent engineering structures. Mark Reisner calls them giant thumbnails of concrete plugging the rivers and holding back, in some cases, several years of the river's flow. It's a giant, giant, giant system of plumbing.

CURWOOD: There's just one hitch with this plumbing system. It needs a supply, and what happens when the snow pack is weak? What happens when you have a drought?

ELSE: Those of us who live in the arid west I think forget how fragile this system is. If we have an extended drought, as we had in the mid-70s, or if you have a drought that can last 30 or 40 or 100 years, or 200 years, as has happened in the last couple of thousand years -- I mean, it is a part of the normal course of events to have very, very long, extended droughts in the western United States --

CURWOOD: You're scaring, you're scaring our California listeners right now.

ELSE: Well, I think our California listeners should be scared. Because we have built our civilization on a very slender thread. We have in all the reservoirs in the western United States about a 4-year reserve supply of water. And if that's gone, it's gone, and we simply cannot support the agriculture and the urban populations that are in the western United States without this system of water works. You know, these water works are also in California vulnerable to earthquake. And if there is a major earthquake that cuts off the California state aqueduct system, we have the potential for serious problems.

CURWOOD: In the 1970s President Jimmy Carter decided he should recommend cutting the funding from a long list of water projects. Carter's challenge was really the beginning of the end, wasn't it?

ELSE: Well, it was the beginning of the end of building big dams in America. Carter blew the whistle on dam building at the right time, at a time when people were beginning to notice that we have very, very few rivers left. People were beginning to notice that the costs of these projects were astronomical, and at a time when Federal budgets began to shrink. I mean, we just simply cannot afford to build these dams now. There is not the political will to spend the money on them. So Carter himself was sort of martyred by trying to stop all these projects. But the legacy of that is that in fact there have been no major authorizations for major new dams in the west since then.

CURWOOD: You get to the end of your program, and it's actually pretty optimistic. You talk about how farmers in the Central Valley are now among the most efficient water users in the country. But what about the salinity? Each year that you irrigate this soil and you add water, but you don't have the natural flooding system. You're adding poisons to your soil. Sooner or later you can't farm it any more.

ELSE: Yeah. I mean, there is -- there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over all irrigated farming in the western United States, and that is the accumulation of salts in the earth, both by fertilizer and pesticide, but largely simply the leaching of natural salts in the earth up into the root zones of the plants. Now, there are many people who argue that salting of the soil was in fact what brought down the civilizations, the irrigated civilizations of Mesopotamia and even Egypt, and we may be headed that direction all over the western United States. No one that I know of has come up with a solution for that, and it's quite -- you know, you can drive through the Central Valley of California and you can see areas along Interstate 5 where the ground in fact is white with salt. We have had to close some game refuges that took irrigation water because of tremendous toxicity, particularly from selenium that accumulated in the waters. At least now we're aware of these problems. I mean, the thing that astonished me doing this film series was to look back to the 1960s and 1970s and see that when these great projects were being built, people either did not notice the consequences to nature, or those consequences were predicted and everyone decided that was a legitimate tradeoff. That has now changed, and at least we are aware that there are problems, and at least people are trying to solve them. That's a big change.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. John Else is a producer of Cadillac Desert, a 4-part series on water in the west. It will air over the Public Broadcasting System starting on June 24th. Thank you.

ELSE: Thank you.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Kim Motylewski, Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Jesse Wegman, Susan Shepherd, Daniel Grossman, Liz Lempert, and Peter Shaw. We had help from Jill Hecht and Tom Kuo. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with WBUR, Boston, and Harvard University. Our engineers are Mark Navin at WBUR and Jeff Martini at Harvard. Michael Aharon composed our theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental economics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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