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

August 1, 1997

Air Date: August 1, 1997



Just over a year ago, a research team at Tulane University in new Orleans published some startling results. The group reported that pesticides were hundreds of times more toxic in pairs than one at a time. Such synergistic effects had been reported before, but the staggering magnitude reported caught researchers around the world by surprise. Then last month Professor McLachlin withdrew the study, saying he could not replicate the results. Steve talks with Living on Earth's Dan Grossman about what happened. ()


Trying to determine the danger of certain chemicals is difficult. Steve talks with Frederick Vom Saal, one of the leading toxicologists, who has found some interesting... and troubling effects... after subjecting pregnant mice to extremely low doses of natural and synthetic estrogens like Diethylstilbestrol or DES. ()


During the recent Presidential forum at Lake Taho, Clinton pledged money to preserve the ecosystem of the basin. He also promised to return some land to the Washoe Indians who lay claim to the whole lake. Cheryl Colopy reports. (02:30)

CAVE ROCK / Willie Albright

One issue the Washoe will continue to press with the President in the coming months is Cave Rock. This picturesque outcrop on the edge of Lake Tahoe is the tribe’s most sacred site in the Basin. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbers. The Washoe say climbing Cave Rock is sacrilegious, but the climbers defend their right to access the cliffs. Willie Albright reports. (04:30)


For politicans who want to seem green, tree planting is an easy pasttime. But those politically inspired projects; don't impress commentator, Robert Leo Heilman. (02:20)

The Living on Earth Almanc

Facts about... Garbage Disposals in Jasper, Indiana. (01:15)


Dzerzhinsk (der- JZINSK), a once-secret city 300 miles east of Moscow once housed the Soviet Union's chemical industry. Today, it manufactures consumer goods -- including soaps, car parts and plastics in factories that are still dumping massive amounts of pollution into the air, land and water. Beth Knobel reports. (06:55)

Listener Letters



In the next installment of his occasional series, Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan spends time with the town mothers and fathers as they prepare for their annual ritual, the St. Peter's Fiesta in this depressed fishing community. (16:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Margo Melnicove
REPORTERS: Charlotte Renner, Steve Frenkel, James Jones,
Dan Grossman, Willie Albright, Beth Knobel, Sandy Tolan,
GUEST: Frederick Vom Saal
COMMENTATOR: Robert Leo Heilman

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found a link between enlarged prostate glands, and minute amounts of chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen. But they also say that larger amounts of the same chemicals have an opposite reaction.

VOM SAAL: So a very low dose enlarged the prostate, a very high dose shrank the prostate.

CURWOOD: The stickler: current government regulations don't consider such low-dose effects when setting toxic limits. Also, at Lake Tahoe, a backlash against Native American efforts to prevent rock-climbers from using an historically sacred site.

HERBERT: If the Indians, or another group say, "This is sacred to me, you cannot climb here," and it works, well, what's next? "That lake's sacred to me, don't swim in it." Where does that stop?

CURWOOD: We'll have that and more on Living on Earth this week, but first, this news.

Environmental News

MELNICOVE: From Living on Earth, I'm Margot Melnicove. Environmental groups are split over the US Senate's recent decision to lift a 7-year embargo on tuna caught with purse-sein nets. Currently, only tuna caught with other methods may be labeled "dolphin-safe," and sold in the US. The new act allows the use of purse-sein nets, but only if an observer is on board to make sure no dolphins are killed or seriously injured. The government will also conduct a 3-year study to see how the nets affect the dolphins. Supporters say the act is good for dolphins and fishermen, but opponents argue, one observer is inadequate to oversee an entire catch.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is calling for the removal of a controversial dam on a river in Maine, where wildlife officials hope to restore endangered fish species. Charlotte Renner reports.

RENNER: The privately-owned Edwards dam blocks the passage of fish that swim from the ocean up the Kennebec River to spawn. The staff of the Regulatory Commission says it's cheaper to tear down the dam than to build passageways for the migratory fish. Brownie Carson, who heads the Natural Resources Council of Maine, cheered this week's unprecedented recommendation to overrule the dam owner's wishes.

CARSON: Until the Edwards Dam is removed, the river will never again experience the millions of short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered species; Atlantic sturgeon; striped bass; and shad; that once swam past these banks.

RENNER: The hydropower company that operates the dam vows to fight the federal agency's recommendation, but even if the Regulatory Commission follows its staff's advice, questions still remain, about who will pay to destroy the dam, and to restore the dwindling fish stocks. For Living on Earth, I'm Charlotte Renner, in Portland Maine.

MELNICOVE: A high-speed rail network linking major Midwestern cities, may be closer to reality. A recent study, by Wisconsin and Illinois, found that connecting Chicago and Milwaukee by high-speed passenger train, could reduce travel times without burdening taxpayers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Steve Frenkel has more.

FRENKEL: The study found that passenger fares would bring in enough revenue to cover nearly all of the lines' operating costs. And the faster trains would cut the commute between Chicago and Milwaukee by 30 minutes. The proposed high-speed rail system would also link Chicago with St. Louis and Detroit. Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, says high- speed rail makes sense, because it's cheaper than building more highways.

BRUBAKER: One can build the entire Chicago-hub high-speed rail network for a little over a billion dollars. When one considers that a single highway interchange can cost up to half a billion dollars, this makes tremendous sense.

FRENKEL: Brubaker says, faster trains, with more frequent service, would boost ridership on Amtrak. He estimates that the system would carry nearly 3 million people every year. Proponents of high-speed rail hope the study will bolster congressional support for the proposal, when funding decisions are made this fall. But high-speed rail faces stiff opposition from the highway lobby. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel, in Chicago.

MELNICOVE: The Department of Energy's strategy to cut costs, by privatizing nuclear waste cleanup, may have hit a snag. Congress has called the Department's test case, a 1-acre radioactive dump in Idaho, a failure. Work there is more than 2 years behind schedule, and could cost more than 3 times the original estimate. Congress wants to know what went wrong, since the Department has already requested a billion dollars to fund other privately- contracted cleanups next year.

Congress has adjourned for August recess, but opponents of the Clinton Administration's new air pollution regulations, vow to fight the standards, come September. From Washington, James Jones reports.

JONES: Nearly a hundred representatives from both parties have rallied behind a bill that would delay the regulations for 5 years. The bill, authored by Pennsylvania Democrat Ron Klink also provides money for more pollution monitoring, and calls for more health studies on smog and soot.

KLINK: I don't want dirty air. I want clean air. And I think that when people understand where I'm coming from, people will ignore that some environmentalist, wacko, way out on the extreme, has decided that they're going to attack me, because I want there to be adequate science.

JONES: Even if it does pass, it would likely face a veto from President Clinton. But Representative Klink says, he thinks the public will support his effort. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones, in Washington.

MELNICOVE: Japan's most notorious case of industrial pollution is over, according to officials there. Thirty years after Minamata Bay was closed to fishing because of mercury contamination from a nearby chemical plant, tests indicate that mercury levels in the bay are no longer a health threat. Starting in the 1950s, thousands of people in the area suffered brain damage, and women had babies with birth defects, after eating fish caught in Minamata Bay. Now the government plans to remove a 1.3-mile long net that has enclosed the bay since 1974, and will monitor the area for 3 more years. That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Margot Melnicove.

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just over a year ago, a research team at Tulane University, in New Orleans, published some startling results in the journal Science. The group, based in the laboratory of endocrinologist John McLachlan, reported that pesticides were hundreds of times more toxic to cells when tested in pairs, that at one at a time. Such synergistic effects have been reported before, but the staggering magnitude caught researchers around the world by surprise. Then, last month, Professor McLachlan surprised the world again, this time by retracting the study, saying he could not replicate the results. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has our report.

GROSSMAN: John McLachlan and his team at Tulane University, were trying to put to rest a puzzle bedeviling environmental scientists. It's believed some pesticides and plastics that mimic estrogen and other hormones, have a number of effects. Among other things, they've been linked to lower sperm counts, and reproductive cancers in humans; and altered sexual development in wildlife. But in the laboratory, these chemicals seem too weak to be the culprits. But Tulane researchers thought maybe combinations of the substances would be more potent. Chemicals are usually tested for toxicity one at a time, even though humans and animals encounter them in complex arrangements. But previous studies of fish cells, turtle eggs, and human breast cells, demonstrated that the effects of these chemicals, are magnified in mixtures, up to 10-fold. McLachlan's experiment used a yeast cell, modified with human genes, and it found an apparently whopping synergistic effect. Four pesticides, tested in pairs, seemed to be up to 1600 times more potent than would be expected if the effects of two were simply added together. The discovery attracted the attention of Federal regulators scrambling to figure out how to screen chemicals, for their ability to disrupt the endocrine system. Such gigantic synergistic effects could vastly complicate their task. The research also caught the eye of many scientists, who set out to replicate the surprising results. At least five research teams joined the fray. And so far, they've all come up empty-handed. Donald McDonnell is a pharmacologist at Duke University.

MCDONNELL: What we were able to show was, if these compounds were very, very weak estrogens, these compounds that McLachlan had tested, and when tested together, their activity's no more than additive, and not the synergistic. And so there was no surprises.

GROSSMAN: Meanwhile, McLachlan himself discovered he couldn't repeat the experiment, so last month, he published a letter in "Science," retracting his original findings. His letter left a lot of researchers scratching their heads, wondering how such a mistake could occur in the lab of a respected scientist like John McLachlan, who formerly directed a federal research program. Some scientists wonder if some contaminant fouled up the original experiment. Others speculate that maybe the synergy effect really did occur, but some critical factor that no one knows about, changed in the laboratory. The big question is, what to do next. Some researchers now dismiss synergy as an important effect, and say the traditional, one at a time method of testing compounds, is vindicated. But others, like Tufts University biologist Ana Soto, disagree. Professor Soto herself has found that certain synthetic chemicals affect human breast cells 10 times more powerfully in mixtures.

SOTO: This hasn't changed anything, the fact that the paper was retracted. There are several other publications that show more than additive effects. They are not 1000 times higher than expected from simply additive, but they are none the less synergistic.

GROSSMAN: Meanwhile, Dr. Malathy Shekar of Wayne State University is reporting that she's seen large synergistic effects, more than 100-fold, in her experiments on breast cells. But her research hasn't been published yet, so it's a little too early to give it much weight. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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CURWOOD: Other new research into hormone-mimicking chemicals is finding out that certain substances seem to have paradoxical effects, depending on the amount of exposure. In certain cases, it seems, small doses may be more disruptive to organisms than large ones. Much of the earlier efforts to measure the toxicity of these chemicals was done with the premise that smaller doses would be less toxic. One of the leading researchers in this area is Frederick Vom Saal at the University of Missouri. His research team gave pregnant mice extremely low doses of natural and synthetic estrogens, like diethylstilbestrol, or DES. I asked Professor Vom Saal about his results.

VOM SAAL: What we had found is that, an amount of the natural hormone estradiol, the most potent of our natural estrogens, an increase of less than 1/10 of a trillionth of a gram in a milliliter of blood, was enough in a male fetus, to permanently enlarge the prostate and make the prostate abnormal, essentially for the rest of the animal's life.

CURWOOD: You say you give these mice tiny amounts of estrogen, but something else happened when you gave them larger amounts.


CURWOOD: What did you get when you gave them high doses?

VOM SAAL: Well, when we gave a very high dose of diethylstilbestrol, we in fact shrank the prostate in the male offspring. So a very low dose enlarged the prostate, a very high dose shrank the prostate.

CURWOOD: One might then extrapolate from what you're saying is that the present epidemic of prostate enlargement and cancer in this society might well be related to these chemicals?

VOM SAAL: Yes. I think it really looks, if you look at a number of hormone dependent diseases, such as breast cancer, and prostate cancer, and testicular cancer, and abnormal reproductive system being observed in newborn children, the incidents of all of these things have been steadily increasing over the last 20 to 30 years.

CURWOOD: Can you explain why there's such a radical difference in response to the doses here?

VOM SAAL: We do not have all of the mechanistic information to provide an answer to that question, however, we have some pieces of the puzzle, that we understand. You can think of a port as having a number of docks in it, that are open to have ships moved into, and what happens is, as you occupy those sites, you can unload things and products can move in. And that's the way that hormones move into cells, into docking sites, and they cause things to happen in the cells. If there are no docking sites, if there are no receptors, then the cells can't respond. If there were no docks, no ships could come in, and nothing would move from the ships. And so, there can be lots of hormone present, but if there are no receptors in the cells for those hormones, then the cells can't respond. It looks like an overloading safety valve effect, where, if you get too much of a stimulation, the system compensates by shutting down. And it means that all studies that are done at very high doses have to now be rethought in terms of the consequences of just looking at very high doses, and think of, "My goodness, hormones operate at very low levels, maybe we need to now retest chemicals that have only been tested at very high doses, to see if in fact, exactly opposite effects of these chemicals will be found at very low doses," which is what the studies that we've conducted suggest may be in fact the case.

CURWOOD: Well, if such infinitesimal amounts could be responsible for this, then it would stand to reason that an awful lot of people are being exposed to these amounts.

VOM SAAL: Yes. Let me give you an example. And this concerns a chemical that's present in polycarbonate plastic, that people store their foods in. It's also a chemical used to make the plastic lining of all food and beverage cans. And it's a chemical used as a dental sealant, that people are having applied to their children's teeth. It's called bisphenol-A. In all of these situations, this chemical is getting into our food, and after application of dental sealants, it's being swallowed because it comes out of the plastic. People had thought that the amounts of the chemical that everybody is consuming would be safe. But we've fed it to pregnant mice, and we looked at the consequences of this, in their offspring. Now, we were hoping that the body's protective system might actually be operating to reduce the potency of some of these chemicals, such as bisphenol-A. Instead, what our studies showed is that, in fact, it's bypassing protective systems, and instead, bisphenol-A turned out to be much more potent an estrogen than anybody had considered. The previous dose that was thought to not produce an effect, when only malformations and gross abnormalities were looked at in response to prenatal exposure to this chemical, is actually 25 million times higher than the amount that, based on our findings, would be calculated to be a safe amount to consume on a daily basis.

CURWOOD: Twenty-five million times higher?

VOM SAAL: That's right. Because in that prior study, that was done on bis-phenol-A, they weren't looking for this chemical to act as a hormone. They were just studying very high doses, and looking for gross abnormalities. Endocrine disrupting chemicals don't produce gross observable abnormalities. You have to do much more detailed functional analysis of tissues, to find adverse outcomes. So you can't find what you don't look for.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

VOM SAAL: Thank you very much for the interview.

CURWOOD: Frederick Vom Saal is Professor at the University of Missouri. His latest article appears in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

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CURWOOD: Native Americans call it hallowed ground. Rock climbers say the spot is special to them, as well. The clash at Lake Tahoe's Cave Rock, is just ahead, right here on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Every year, thousands of tourists and seasonal residents flock to the shores of Lake Tahoe, nestled in the Sierra Nevada. Tahoe can take your breath away, with its deep, clear waters and luxuriant forests. But as more and more people come to Lake Tahoe, it has begun to change. And not everyone has agreed with the development and tourism practices. Zoning, building codes, even water skiing have been contentious issues there. The Tahoe Basin, at the border of California and Nevada, consists mainly of government lands. Recently, President Clinton held a forum at the lake. He promised to double federal assistance to the region, with 50 million more dollars over the next 2 years, to help restore the basin's ecosystem. A little-reported feature of the President's pledge, is a special land permit, for Lake Tahoe's original stewards, the Washoe. Tribal leaders there hope this is just a beginning of their return to the lake. Cheryl Colopy reports.

COLOPY: For the Washoe tribe of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is both a lost home and a sacred place, and for 150 years, they have dreamt of returning to it, even though all the land was held by private owners and the federal government. Brian Wallace, the Chairman of the tribe, sat in a circle at a lakeside retreat with Vice-President Gore and other government officials, to receive the promise of about 400 acres, that President Clinton announce Sunday. Wallis says the 1600-member Washoe Tribe will try to do some of the things their ancestors did on this land.

WALLACE: We don't come here as developers, and what we're interested in doing is, just be able to touch and walk with the land, once again. And the more the others work the land, the more they remember. So with this land present, comes the reintroduction of Washoe resource stewardship.

COLOPY: The US Forest Service, which now manages the federal land, will issue a 30-year permit to the tribe. The land the Washoe will manage includes a 350-acre meadow, along with smaller parcels, which give the Washoe lake access. The tribe will not be able to live on the land, but the agreement guarantees freedom to use the land during the summer months, when the tribe traditionally lived here. The land will also remain open to the public, but Chairman Wallace says, the Washoe are happy to share the land. Wallis says there are 8 other such parcels of land the tribe would like, and talks with the Forest Service will continue. President Clinton is the 6th President since 1877 the Washoe have asked to return some of their lands. President Clinton said the mail will travel faster from now on. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.

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CURWOOD: One issue the Washoe will continue to press with the President in the coming months, is Cave Rock. This picturesque outcrop on the edge of Lake Tahoe is the tribe's most sacred site in the basin. It's also a popular spot for rock climbers. The Washoe say, climbing Cave Rock is sacrilegious, but the climbers defend their right to access the cliffs. Similar conflicts between recreationists and keepers of tribal traditions dot the West, and as Producer Willie Albright reports, a meeting of the minds for the two sides in this particular controversy, seems very far away.

JAMES: (Speaks in Washoe language)

ALLBRIGHT: Washoe elder Adele James invokes a prayer of blessing at a workshop that was part of the runup to the presidential forum at Lake Tahoe. She's saying the Tahoe is sacred to the Washoe, that her people were forced out by the white man, who has ruined the Lake, and that the tribe would like some of its land back. Adele James recalls the time when the tribe spent its summers here and migrated to the desert in winter. With President Clinton's promise to return land to the tribe, the Washoe may spend their summers here again. For generations, the Washoe have been living in a colony 70 miles away from the lake, but the tribe still considers the lake its homeland, and Cave Rock the center of its spiritual life. (Wave washes up on lakeshore.)

WALLACE: Cave Rock still holds as much power to members of the tribe, as it did in historic and prehistoric times.

ALLBRIGHT: Brian Wallace is Chairman of the Washoe tribe. Standing inside a traditional willow hut by the lake, he says Cave Rock is not named for the 4-lane highway tunnel blasted through its base, but for the caves higher up, that his people have held sacred for 10,000 years. Chairman Wallace says Cave Rock has come to represent the tribe's continuing struggle to return to Lake Tahoe.

WALLACE: The site may have been significantly diminished or desecrated over time, but it still hasn't lost the power that it represents, that stirs our souls and is why we come to Lake Tahoe and always have longed to return.

ALLBRIGHT: But Cave Rock is also special to members of the international rock climbing community, who say it is one of the most unique and difficult climbs in North America.

(Tinkling of climbing gear)

ALBRIGHT: To scale the 45-degree overhangs, climbers have sunk hundreds of steel bolts into the rock and poured concrete in some of the caves.

(Man: All this rock--)

ALBRIGHT: The Washoe call this desecration. Tom Herbert is an internationally renowned rock climber, who has pioneered many of Cave Rock's most difficult ascents. Today, Herbert and his partner are free-climbing an impressive rock face high above the lake.

HERBERT: If the Indians, or another group say, "This is sacred to me, you cannot climb here," and it works, well, what's next? Now you'll hear, "That area's sacred to me--you can't climb there either. And--Ok, Mike, I gotcha--and that lake's sacred to me, don't swim in it." Where does that stop?

ALBRIGHT: Tom Herbert says rock climbing is a spiritual experience for him that is as valid as the Washoe's beliefs. He also questions the argument that climbing desecrates Cave Rock, when there is already a highway running through it.

HERBERT: I suspect that there's not much they can do about it, so they're trying to win a small victory, win a small battle, I should say, when it's nothing. It's nothing compared to what's going on there.

(Birds in the distance)

WALLACE: Ongoing desecration in any form is something that's objectionable to the tribe, and that's not to say that Washoes didn't protest the blasting of the tunnels through the rock.

ALBRIGHT: And, says Chairman Wallace, the tribe's concerns are finally being heard. In February, the tribe got the US Forest Service to institute a climbing ban, backed up by a $5,000 fine. Faced with similar bans across the country, 7,000 climbers formed the Access Fund, to protest the Cave Rock closure. The group says climbers have proven their good will by hauling away garbage and cleaning up the graffiti on Cave Rock. They want their interests considered, too. In May, the Forest Service then rescinded its ban until the end of the year. The Access Fund has offered to stop bolting on Cave Rock, and other concessions, but Chairman Wallace says he will continue to push for a complete climbing ban.

WALLACE: We've been compromising for the last 172 years here in the Basin, and that option hasn't worked very well for us in the past, and so we don't think it's going to do anything more for us in the future.

ALBRIGHT: The Forest Service expects to issue a management plan for Cave Rock by the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Allbright, at Lake Tahoe.

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(Eerie, spiritual music and drums up and under)


CURWOOD: For politicians who want to seem green, tree-planting is an easy pass-time. But those politically-inspired projects don't impress our commentator, Robert Leo Heilman.

HEILMAN: A while back, the local television news ran a piece showing some folks in suits and government uniform standing around watching a tree get planted with a gold-painted shovel. This particular seedling, it seems, was the one-millionth tree to be planted as part of a government program. Some kind of volunteer thing, mostly for city folks, it seems. Planting 1,000,000 trees sounds like a bigger deal than it actually amounts to. Reforestation crews generally plant about 500 seedling trees to the acre. So a million trees only covers 2,000 acres of land. The news piece got me to thinking about an old friend named Billy the Weasel, and I got to wondering about when and where he planted his one-millionth tree. The Weasel isn't exactly the sort of guy you'd see in a TV commercial. He's not the square-jawed, handsome woodsman type the corporations like to show, nor the soft, caring sort who serve as poster children for Arbor Day committees. He's a small, wiry, snaggle-toothed guy who chews tobacco and drinks his whiskey straight from the bottle. If you saw him on a city street, you'd probably try your best to walk past him, without making eye contact. He's not much of a hero, but when it comes to tree-planting, he's the genuine article. A steady 1,000 good trees every day, 5 days per week, 20 to 30 weeks per year, for the last 20 years. It's a tough way to earn a paycheck, pumping up and down mountains all winter, but he's used to it. I saw Billy last week. He was busy, stealing firewood off some timber company land at the time, and tossing the rounds into his pickup to haul back to the tarpapered shack he lives in. I was on my way into town, and we howdied, but didn't stop to talk, so it didn't occur to me to ask him about it. Come to think of it, he probably wouldn't remember that one millionth tree of his anyway. It might have been planted in Oregon, or Washington, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, Alaska, Arizona, or Colorado. It was probably a lot like the 20,000 others he planted that month, and I'm sure that nobody handed him a golden shovel, or took his picture for the occasion.

CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Leo Heilman lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to 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 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.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: One of the least desirable legacies of Soviet Communism was wide-spread contamination of the land. The city of Dzerzhinsk was perhaps hit the hardest, and it's still trying to recover. That story is coming up on Living on Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanc

CURWOOD: August 1 marks the 47th anniversary of one small town's unprecedented response to its big garbage problem. When polio and hog cholera began spreading through Jasper, Indiana, health officials blamed it on food waste. Poor sanitation and open garbage cans were attracting disease-carrying pests to residential neighborhoods. While struggling to find a solution, Jasper's mayor happened to walk into a department store selling a new-fangled device called a garbage disposal. At first, he experimented by throwing all sorts of kitchen waste into the machine. Then he pitched the idea to the public. Soon citizens, with the help of the city, were installing disposals. Curb-side pickup of food waste was outlawed. Jasper became the first garbage-free city in the world. Today, Jasper still enforces its no-garbage rule, by requiring that disposals be installed in all homes, ensuring that all garbage goes down the drain and not out to the curbside. And yes, composting is illegal in Jasper, Indiana, although so far, police say there have been no arrests. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: Most Russians have probably never heard of Dzerzhinsk, a once-secret city 300 miles east of Moscow, that housed the Soviet Union's chemical industry. During the Soviet days, Dzerzhinsk produced chemical weapons. Today, it manufactures consumer goods, including soaps, car parts, and plastics. Seventy percent of the city's 300,000 residents still work in the chemical plants, and those factories are still dumping massive amounts of pollution into the air, land, and water. Outside scientists are getting into Dzerzhinsk for the first time. They say that decades of chemical production have left the city coated with toxic wastes. Beth Knobel has our report.

(High-speed machinery whining)

KNOBEL: Block Number 42 in the massive Orgsteklo plastics factory looks like it hasn't been painted in decades. Inside the rundown warehouse, little plastic beads are formed into sheets of plexiglass, which are cut and then sold around Russia. In the process, the factory creates a putrid, burning smell, spewing toxins into the atmosphere, blanketing the whole town with pollution. Plant managers of the 60-year-old factory know they're destroying the air and water in Dzerzhinsk, but their main concern is keeping the factory's 6,000 workers on the job. Konstantin Varov is the company's general director.

VAROV: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: What can I say? The biggest problem is the age of our equipment. Economic times are so tough, we can't buy much modern equipment. That's the root of our problem.

KNOBEL: The Orgsteklo plastics plant illustrates the paradox of Dzerzhinsk. Industry keeps the city alive, but it's also slowly, quietly poisoning its inhabitants. Unregulated dumping of chemicals and waste water has littered the ground with toxic pollution, which has leaked into the ground water, and seeped into the crops. Researcher Alexei Kislov of the Russian office of Greenpeace estimates that the pollution, especially dioxins, is cutting the average lifespan of people in Dzerzhinsk by 15 years.

KISLOV: We've never seen in Russia such polluted soil, water, and air like in Dzerzhinsk.

(Walking on clinkers)

KNOBEL: Outside the plastics plant, my nostrils start to burn as I approach a chemical pond hidden in some reeds. The size of 2 city blocks, the pond's water is an eerie shade of orange, with thick slicks of oily black chemicals on top. The mix is so dense, that rocks I throw in--


KNOBEL:--linger on the surface before sliding into the murky ooze. Dozens of rusted metals barrels sit in and around the chemical lake. They're partially decomposed, and one disintegrates when I touch it lightly with my boot.

(Rattle of rust crumbling)

KNOBEL: What is, or was in them, nobody knows.

(Rumble of wind)

KNOBEL: A few miles away, I find another lake. The locals call it the "White Sea." Dust blown up by the strong winds quickly coats me as I approach it. About 100 acres in size, it's ringed with icebergs of dry chlorine. Most of the water is gone, leaving a 3-foot thick blanket of chemical waste. While the toxic layer looks hard as cement, it's soft to the touch, and blows off in a strong breeze. From sites like these, dioxins and other toxic chemicals contaminate the air, water, and local food supply. Over the decades, 3 generations of Dzerzhinsk residents have been exposed to the pollution, and doctors say the effects are starting to show.

(Infant cries amid concerned adult voices beyond)

KNOBEL: At Dzerzhinsk's second maternity hospital, about 2 dozen infants, swaddled tight in blankets, cry themselves to sleep. The staff here has noticed a increasing amount of what they say are dioxin-related problems in the city's children. They say the rate of birth defects here is 3 times the already high national average in Russia. Many are born with weak immune systems. The hospital's head doctor, Grachya Muradyan, has been delivering babies here for 30 years.

MURADYAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: What we see here among women is gross hormonal imbalance, uterus disruption, problems in childbirth, and the outward signs of this include hair growth on the stomach and the breasts. It's showing up in the second or third generation of women born in Dzerzhinsk.

KNOBEL: Residents of the city know about the pollution-related health problems, but for most of them, like this pregnant woman, there's no emotional or economic incentive to leave.

WOMAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: Our city it is horrible. The ecological situation is very bad, but I don't want to leave this city. It's my home.

KNOBEL: Nearby, a man carrying his infant son says he'd leave Dzerzhinsk if he could. But, trained to work in a plastics factory, he has nowhere else to go.

MAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: We have an ocean of problems, and they're getting worse. I hope my little son won't grow up in Dzerzhinsk. It's my dream that he'll move somewhere else.

KNOBEL: City officials try to play down the pollution problem, repeating, like a mantra, that the problems of Dzerzhinsk parallel those of other cities with heavy industry in America and Europe. But when pressed, officials like Mayor Aleksander Romanov admit the dioxin problem is serious. Still, he says, unemployment is rising, and in the short term, his constituents must work, regardless of the environmental cost.

ROMANOV: (speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: The fact of the matter is that ecology and economics are different sides of the same coin. The problem of ecology can't be solved without addressing the economy, and vice versa. So these two problems must be addressed in tandem. A plan has already be worked out, so we here look at the future with optimism, and I'm sure we'll find a way to conquer both problems.

KNOBEL: There is one long-term solution. Mayor Romanov and his team have drafted plans to try to attract foreign investors to the area, with their new, cleaner methods of production. Part of the plan calls for federal tax breaks for clean businesses that move into Dzerzhinsk. To get those tax breaks, officials are trying to get the Dzerzhinsk declared an environmental disaster zone. But Dzerzhinsk has yet to submit its application for disaster status to the federal government. The city worker preparing it has been out ill for 2 months. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Knobel in Dzerzhinsk, Russia.

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(Accordion music in a minor key)

CURWOOD: With commercial fishing restricted, and tourism in the cards as an economic alternative, the hard-pressed seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts wrestles with its future. That story is coming up on Living on Earth, but first, your letters.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: Our recent story about the control of water resources in the West Bank drew criticism from Ebie Ayal, who listens to WBEZ in Chicago. He says it was peppered with anti-Israeli sloganeering, and disingenuous Arab claims that they are being forced to conserve water. Palestinians, Mr. Ayal writes, have more water today than they had under the Jordanian Arab rule, and their standard of living has risen greatly under Israeli control, which has increased their demand for water.

Our report on Hudson River cleanup efforts sparked memories for former West Point cadet Michael Hunter, who hears us on WHYY in Philadelphia. He reports that a favorite activity of cadets in the 19th century was swimming across the Hudson. He writes, "Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at West Point, the river had become so dangerously polluted that regulations prohibited swimming."

And after our profile of New York's Wetlands Nightclub, Steven Gilmore, a listener to WFAE in Charlotte, called the owners hypocritical. How can a bar consider itself environmentally friendly, he writes, when it can't even stop people congregating in its vicinity, from spoiling the landscape with trash they throw on the ground.

Send your comments to us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02138. Our listener line is 800-218-9988. And the e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Once it seemed there were plenty of fish in the sea. That was before high-tech fish-finders and tax breaks for new boat captains, sent hundreds of vessels out to drag George's Bank in the North Atlantic. A combination of over-fishing and poor government management led to a collapse of these stocks, and now strict federal regulations designed to help the cod and haddock recover are in place. But when a resource crashes like that, communities which base their livelihood on the sea are hard hit. In his continuing series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads," Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan takes another look at his adopted home of Gloucester, Massachusetts, as the town mothers and fathers prepare for their annual ritual, the St. Peter's Fiesta.

(Women's voices, singing in Italian)

TOLAN: For 9 nights, each summer, the Italian women of Gloucester gather upstairs at the St. Peter's Club. They sit in folding chairs, and sing from old music sheets, praise for the patron saint of the fishermen. This novina is a ritual their grandmothers and great-grandmothers began in the 1920s, when Italian fisher families were new to America. Lured from Sicily by the bounty off the Gloucester shore, they sailed wooden boats into rough Atlantic waters to harvest haddock and cod. Now, the major fishing grounds are closed, fished out. Many fishermen are down to a legal limit of 88 days at sea a year, and the federal government wants to buy back their boats and retire them.

ROMEO: I asked my husband and his friends, "When you were younger, didn't you ever dream, you know how--"

TOLAN: Sefatia Romeo, vice-president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, came to her first novina at age 5.

ROMEO: This is rot. I got up, my father had a fishing family boat. At 7:00 in the morning, I was 7 years old, we'd get up, we'd do, we'd go out fishing, then go to school, come back, do that--He says, "This was in all our dreams." I say, "well, don't you have a dream now?" He says, "I'm so confused now, I don't know what it is to have a dream." That's sad. Everyone has a dream. When you ask these fishermen, they look at you, and say, "Dream? The dream is to be fishing. The dream is gone."

(Sound of singing fades. Marching beat of drum starts)

TOLAN: On Friday, at dusk, gentle hands remove St. Peter from his window looking out at Main Street. Young men hoist the 5- foot statue onto a platform, and lead a slow procession. Everyone lights candles and follows solemnly, one hand shielding the flame.

(Drum beats and trumpet blares a marching tune)

TOLAN: St. Peter wobbles ever so slightly, a basket of fish at his feet, his halo gold in the fading light.

(Trumpet and shouts, fading)

TOLAN: Most of the year, St. Peter's Square is a parking lot. Tonight it's an altar on the waterfront. Red walls, lined with white lights, make a replica of the basilica in Rome. As St. Peter is set in place, Tom Brancleone, chair of the fiesta committee, takes the podium.

(Whistles and clapping)

BRANCLIONI: Viva San Pedro!

TOLAN: Tom is captain of the "Paul and Dominick [phrase?]." The government has offered to buy back his boat. At first, Tom thought he would cash in, pay off his debts, and retire. Now he's having second thoughts.

BRANCLEONE: You see now, the tradition here, in Gloucester. And this, it's a tradition we all, I owe to you people forever. The longer we have Peter here, and we have it--Italian people are people with heart. What people look forward to all this tradition.

(Clapping, then "One, two, three," and crowd sings in unison, "It's the most wonderful time of the year! We give thanks to St. Peter and sing the novina, a time we hold dear! It's the hap, happiest time, of the year!)

TOLAN: For all of Gloucester's fishing community, the fiesta is a respite, a time to put aside the hard choices ahead. With the fish stocks depleted and strict, new conservation laws in place, the industry is shrinking. The Gloucester fleet is an estimated 10% of what it was in the high-rolling days of the '80s. When the government buy-back is over, the Gloucester off-shore fleet of big boats will be reduced to about 12. Many fishermen are out of work, some speak little English and have no other skills. If they're young enough, they may try to scrape by, a little herring, a little yellowtail, some tuna, until the lucrative cod and haddock stocks recover, perhaps in 10 years. But city officials already are turning to new options.

(Amphibious captain:"--to be on board the Moby Duck. My name is Frank. If you have any questions, feel free--")

TOLAN: Every summer, the Moby Duck, an amphibious vehicle converted from duty in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, cuts through Gloucester's streets.

(Amphibious captain: "And this is St. Peter's Park, back here. This is where they have the Festival every year, the big St. Peter's festival for fishermen--")

TOLAN: And then plows into the harbor, smiley duck face bobbing above the water.

(Amphibious captain: "If you don't quack for the duck, it sometimes gets a little down. Come on! Quack!" at which the captive audience of passengers gleefully quacks in rhythm and shouts as the boat/car zooms head.

FITTING: If there's going to be tourism, what kind of tourism is it going to be. There's a lot of concern that our kind of tourism not turn into sort of plastic, trinkets, trivializing, sort of cutesy stuff.

TOLAN: The Reverend Wendy Fitting, upstairs at the Independent Christian Church, a block from St. Peter's Square. Reverend Fitting is part of Gloucester Initiatives, a grass-roots group grappling with the town's shifting identity.

GIAMBANCO: Much of it boils down to, how do people make their living? Can you make enough money to live here in a way that's honorable, and puts money back into the community. Can you live here, or is it owners living in some other state or country, draining the money out and giving you a crummy job. 'Cause if that's the case, then the traditions will go. Then the St. Peter's Fiesta will be another sort of relic trinket show that people say, "I wonder what this was, once. I wonder if it really meant something to people at one time." When you can't find that anymore, then the soul of the place is lost. That's our real choice here. Are we going to have marine industry that's based on fish products, or are we going to create a quaint walk-through fishing village, you know, turn it into the nostalgia industry.

GIAMBANCO: What we're trying to do is not become a Disney World or a T-shirt shop. I don't think that Gloucester will benefit from just a facade.

TOLAN: Grace Giambanco is in charge of tourism for the city of Gloucester. She grew up here in a fishing family. Her sister is Sefatia, the Fishermen's Wives vice president. Grace says the city has no intention of replacing fishing with tourism. For example, there are rules against hotels or condos on the main waterfront. Most tourism in Gloucester, Grace says, will be based not on smiling amphibians, but on Gloucester's living history.

GIAMBANCO: People come here because there are real fishermen. It is not a picture-perfect town. It is a working blue-collar town. You really do see the catch of the day being taken out. When I was younger we used to drive down towards the beach, and you could smell the fish processing plants. And it was awful, and I remember saying, "Oh, that's terrible!" and my mother would look at me and say, "No, that's money." I mean, the entire waterfront was full of businesses, and now they're slowly, slowly becoming these big, empty spaces that now will never be filled again the way it was. We need to market Gloucester as a destination. We already have the tourists. They come anyway. We might as well maximize the benefit from them.

(Tour guide on whale watch: "...one of these whales is actually drifting in closer and closer to us. Watch her dive, a very high arc to the back from one of these whales, and just lifting her tail fins out of the water. That's the typical way a humpback whale goes down for a dive..." Oohs and aahs from the audience.)

TOLAN: The whale watch 10 miles out of Gloucester harbor. On deck, the naturalist guides visitors in shorts and sunblock. In the wheel house, Captain Sebastian LoBosco, Jr., stares out at a flat slate gray sea. He sits in the captain's chair, his arms folded, steering with his feet.

LO BOSCO: This is my tenth year as captain of the Privateer. I've lived in Gloucester all my life. Before that I was captain of our family's fishing boat. The name of that boat was the St. Jude. It was in my family for 22 years, co-owned by my father and my uncle. I started fulltime fishing about a year after I got out of high school. We pulled in all kinds of fish depending on what time of the year it was. Codfish, whiting, shrimp, crawber.

TOLAN: Are there any regrets that you're not out there making a living off the sea as you were?

LO BOSCO: Yes, there are some regrets. We had a lot of good times when we had our boat. My father and I all became very close. That's the part of the fishing that I miss the most.

(Oohs and aahs from the audience)

LO BOSCO: Gloucester fishing will never be what it was. It used to be hundreds of boats. Now no one wants to build a boat. No one wants to do that kind of work any more.

(A clergyman sings, backdropped by an organ: "Forever and ever." Congregation: "A-men. A-aaaaa-men.")

TOLAN: Fiesta, Sunday morning. High mass at St. Peter's Square.

(Brass instruments play)

TOLAN: Communion. Cardinal Bernard Law stands in red vestments in brilliant sunshine, placing small wafers in cupped hands and on tongues. St. Peter stands on the altar behind him.

(Brass instruments continue)

ROMEO: You know when the sadness? Is when the Cardinal goes to bless the fleet.

TOLAN: Sefatia Romeo, one of the fishermen's wives.

ROMEO: When he needed 3 hours just to get from one end of the wharf to the other just to bless all those boats, and when it now just takes a short period of time, that's the devastation. I say in a half an hour he'd be done, where it would take a 3-hour procession, you know? And all the fishing boats would be all painted brand new, and they'd have all their different colored flags all over the place. It was a wonderful wall full of beautiful. And each year saw it decline, decline, decline, where some people can't even afford to paint their boats. You know, some of them don't even have the spirit to put the flags. You see, we don't blame St. Peter. See, the Italian culture, the Italian fishermen don't blame God, they don't blame the saints. We're just thankful for what we have left.

(A choir sings)

TOLAN: If there is blame to be laid, many biologists say, the fishermen must have their share. For they took too much. In some cases more than the legal limit. Some say the stocks crashed in part because of greed. But this weekend is not the time for blame, or at the moment, for a whole lot of self- reflection.

(A man shouts [in Italian?], answered by a shouting crowd of men)

TOLAN: At least not for Sefatia's brother, piling out of a stretch limousine in front of his mom's house with 10 friends dressed in drag.

(The men continue shouting and cheering)

TOLAN: Compared to his friends Anthony Giambanco is dressed modestly: no falsies, no wig, no stockings, not even a dress. Just head to toe in gold sequins. He is the enforcer, the sheriff of the main Fiesta event, the greasy pole. The idea is to walk out there on a 42-foot long grease-coated log above the harbor and be the first one to grab the flag and the greasy pole championship.

A. GIAMBANCO: You have to walk up there. There's no shimmying. You can't win, you've got to be out on your feet or diving at it to win.

TOLAN: Anthony stands, glittering, picking roses from a bush at his mother's front lawn: good luck for the pole walkers. Inside his sisters Grace and Sefatia keep the pasta coming.

WOMAN: Where did the meatballs go?

MAN: The limo driver wants a piece of lobster.

G. GIAMBANCO: They start like a ritual at my mother's house on middle street to get all excited and all ramped. And I have the biggest mouth so I (shouts in Italian) Viva St. Pedro! You know screamin', it's like oh, big mouth again, you know, and screamin' and hollerin'. It's fantastic, and it's like you can be a kid again.

(Horns blare; people shout and cheer)

MAN 1: Guys all set?

MAN 2: Do it, do it, do it.

MAN 1: Shawn Pauper's first. Just listen to who's before you, okay? Listen to who goes before you. Shawn Pauper, Rich Hopkins, John Paresi...

TOLAN: On the beach, a thousand people stand and watch the 35 men poised and ready atop the pier.

MAN 1: ... Peter Tartiero, Niko Fraglioni! (Horns blare) Cusumano! Johnny Karol!

TOLAN: Anthony Giambanco looks out at the long pole covered with 6 inches of blue axle grease glinting in the afternoon light. Summer boats surround the pole, bobbing in the water. It is the moment of coexistence: the locals and the tourists fused in ceremony and tradition, all focused on a flag at the end of a grease-coated pole. Some locals grumble that the whole thing has become a crazy spectacle. Anthony says he's got a feeling he can't quite express.

A. GIAMBANCO: It's just it's just hard, you know what I mean? It's hard to explain. If you wasn't born an Italian or a Portuguese. It comes from the heart. That's what it is.

(A man speaks into a bullhorn in the background, amidst cheering and whooping)

A. GIAMBANCO: What this is all about is, though, it's it's the fishermen. That's where it all comes from. And it's a prayer of St. Peter because he is the fisherman's saint. And that's what it's all about. That's what it was first based on. Everything else is secondary.

TOLAN: And then it's Anthony's turn.

A. GIAMBANCO: What a rush. What a rush! Watch my jacket, guy.

MAN 1: Anthony Massa Giambanco!

(The crowd cheers)

TOLAN: He walks swiftly under the pole, hits a patch of grease, slips, regains his balance, slips again, and it's into the water.

(A big splash; a horn blats)

TOLAN: The other men follow, grease dripping off the pole, their drag costumes floating in the water. Until finally enough grease has come off, and one competitor darts his way out, grabs the flag, and splashes into the water.

(Tumultuous cheers and shouting from the crowd)

TOLAN: And then all the men jump into the water and swim to shore, their bodies glinting in that yellow light of a perfect late afternoon.

(Shouting and cheering, horns blaring; fade to a woman singing an Italian song)

TOLAN: That evening, as St. Peter watches, the victor stands waiting to take his trophy as an old Italian song sets the stage.

MAN: A big inspiration today was my uncle Frank, and he come out and he walk the pole today, and when I see him climbing up the ladder I was like I just couldn't believe it. And I'd just like to thank my family. I love my family...

TOLAN: This song was popular many years ago when Sicilian fishermen first left their shores to come to Gloucester. Look at the sea, the song goes, how beautiful. It inspires so many feelings.

(Singing continues)

G. GIAMBANCO: Four days of happiness and thankfulness and friendship and everything else stops at Sunday night at midnight. They return St. Peter in the St. Peter's Club. And then at 12:01 everyone goes home, and they start taking down the altar and taking everything out, and by the time you get up in the morning it's gone. It's like it never existed. People are waking up Monday morning, face the music, going back to work, and it's reality, and it's just so hard. Because then you see these boats are gone. You can see these men, and it's in their faces and it's like, where do I go now?

(Singing continues)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our report on Gloucester's St. Peter's fiesta was produced with help from Elizabeth Gammons and special thanks to Kathleen Adams. Our projection team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, and Peter Shaw. This week we bid a fond farewell to Susan Shepherd. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. Peter Thomson heads our western bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. Living on Earth produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Jeff Martini engineered the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. 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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