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

February 27, 1998

Air Date: February 27, 1998


Mars Rocks: Interplanetary Contamination Risk? / Daniel Grossman

As evidence mounts that there may be life elsewhere in the solar system, the national space agency gears up to protect Earth from possible extraterrestrial contamination. For the first time, Apollo scientists are admitting publicly that efforts to protect Earth from extraterrestrial microbes were a failure. And they are warning that (the) NASA must do a better job with samples they plan to bring back from the planet Mars in the year 2003. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports. (10:00)

Lead Series; The Silent Epidemic: - Part One / Deirdre Kennedy

Even tiny amounts of lead can have devastating effects on the brains of young children, and there is evidence that millions of American children have been poisoned. While there are no obvious physical symptoms of low-level lead poisoning, research shows these youngsters have much higher rates of learning disabilities, are far more likely to drop out of school, and are more prone to get into trouble with the law. In the first of our series, Deirdre Kennedy reports on some of the latest research and how parents can help protect their children. (10:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Superbug! Superbug is the nickname for a synthetic microbe that may help solve the solid waste problem, clean the air, and help you get from here to there. (01:15)

Napa Valley Floods: Turning Water in to Wine?

California's Napa Valley is known around the world for its wines. But in California, it’s almost as famous for its floods. Napa valley is one of the most flood prone areas in the northern part of the state. But there’s a remedy in the works. Residents of Napa county will vote on a sales tax that would help fund a two hundred million dollar flood control project. The idea may be a national model for keeping people safe and dry while also restoring river systems. Cheryl Colopy reports from the Napa Valley. (06:00)

Listener Letters

Letters and clarifications. (02:00)

Mideast Troubled Waters Series: Green Dream of Zionism / Sandy Tolan

The founders of modern Israel believed it essential to harness Middle East waters to reconnect the Jewish immigrants with the land. And like the Arab farmers in old Palestine, Israelis now produce citrus and other crops for export. But 50 years later other demands especially from urban Israel may be carving into that Zionist vision. Sandy Tolan reports. (16:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Deirdre Kennedy, Cheryl Colopy, Sandy Tolan

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As evidence grows that there may be life elsewhere in the solar system, the national space agency gears up to protect us from possible extraterrestrial contamination.

NAILSON: In essence, we were doing what I would call an interplanetary environmental assessment. We tried and tried to dream up a worst-case scenario, and really couldn't come up with much.

CURWOOD: Also, the silent epidemic of lead poisoning continues among children, with research showing that lead is linked to learning disabilities and behavior problems.

NEEDLEMAN: Mothers have observed, I hear regularly in the clinic, that her child was an angel, got lead poison, and now she can't manage him.

CURWOOD: How you can protect your child. That and more on Living on Earth, but first news.

Back to top

(NPR news follows)

Mars Rocks: Interplanetary Contamination Risk?

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

[Children's yells, "You guys, there's dinosaur eggs over there!"]

CURWOOD: In a corner of Boston's Museum of Science, is a glass cabinet containing three specks of black rock. They're samples, scooped up from the surface of the Moon, during the first human expedition by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Few visitors stop to view the lunar display today, but there was a time when the rocks were considered fascinating, even dangerous. There were fears that lunar material could contain extraterrestrial microbes, and elaborate systems were designed to protect the Earth from potential infection. As NASA prepares to send a probe to bring back samples from Mars in the year 2008, concerns about contamination are resurfacing. Apollo scientists now admit that the safety systems for their missions were inadequate, and there are warnings that the space agency must do a better job with any material it brings back from the Red Planet. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has an update.

(An audience applauds)

MCKAY: I'm going to talk about how Mars compares to Earth, how it represents a second example, possibly, of life, and our understanding of it as a planet, and how we might investigate that, in particular where we would go.

GROSSMAN: A crowd of scientists packed into a lecture hall listening intently to Chris McKay.

[Lecture ongoing]

GROSSMAN: He's a NASA researcher and champion of the idea that the planet Mars may have once harbored life, and possibly may still.

MCKAY: On Earth, life is essentially little bags of water. And so, seeing that on Mars, in its past, it had liquid water, is the fundamental motivation to consider the question of life there.

GROSSMAN: Although there's no liquid water on the planet today, Mars does have polar ice caps. And space probes orbiting Earth's neighbor have beamed back photos showing what appear to be ancient river beds cut into the Martian surface. Last summer, the Pathfinder robot discovered rounded pebbles, erosion patterns, and other evidence that water once flowed over the Red Planet. If life took root, some researchers say fossil remains may be there. It's even possible tenacious microbes still inhabit underground rock deposits or undiscovered hot springs.

MCKAY: Let me answer a related question, which is, Earth and Mars started off so similar, why did they take such different trajectories? Why did Mars go bad? Is it, bad schools, bad neighborhoods--

GROSSMAN: Chris McKay says finding conclusive evidence of life on Mars would turn biology upside down.

MCKAY: All of life on Earth is a single phenomenon, is a single related system. It's all the same DNA, the same protein structure. The question is, is that unique? Is that a freak? Or is life wide-spread in the universe? Going to Mars and searching for even fossil evidence of life, will be, I think, a concrete way where we can actually get data to address the question.

GROSSMAN: The search for life elsewhere in the solar system is not just the pipe dream of a few scientists. It's captured the imagination of the nation. President Clinton endorsed the idea in a ceremony at the White House.

CLINTON: I am determined that the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars.

GROSSMAN: The space agency NASA is planning no fewer than 7 missions to Mars in the coming decade.

[Clinton speaking]

GROSSMAN: The first conclusive proof of extraterrestrial life could come as early as 2008, with a probe designed to bring Martian soil back to Earth. But what if the sample contains more than just live evidence of life? What if it harbors live or dormant organisms? Could they pose an ecological threat? Or even infect humans with a deadly disease, like in the science fiction thriller, "The Andromeda Strain?"

[Weird space music]

"ANDROMEDA STRAIN" ACTOR 1: No proteins, no enzymes, no nucleic acid? Impossible! No organism can maintain life without them!

"ANDROMEDA STRAIN" ACTOR 2: You mean no Earth organism. It must have evolved in a totally different way.

"ANDROMEDA STRAIN" ACTOR 3: You got it. It doesn't come from here.

GROSSMAN: Researchers say such threats are highly unlikely. The Martian surface is probably too inhospitable to harbor life today. It's drier than Earth's most barren desert, fried by intense ultraviolet radiation, and possibly coated with toxic soil. But no one is willing to say life there is impossible, which raises the question, is NASA up to the challenge of keeping an extraterrestrial sample isolated? A chapter in the agency's past raises troubling concerns.

KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

GROSSMAN: The year was 1961, the height of the cold war.

[Kennedy's announcement continues]

GROSSMAN: President Kennedy, eager to prove American superiority, unveiled the Apollo Project. The goal was ambitious, but NASA accomplished the feat in July, 1969.

ARMSTRONG: Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

GROSSMAN: To the public, the mission appeared flawless. But the agency stumbled when it came to isolating the lunar samples from the Earth's biosphere.

NEALSON: We heard an array of stories that would have boggled your mind.

GROSSMAN: Biologist Ken Nealson chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel that was briefed by Apollo scientists about the moon mission.

KLEIN: A huge amount of safeguards and other things were mostly just a facade.

GROSSMAN: Among the old-timers who spoke to the panel was Harold Klein. He was part of a group overseeing NASA's plans to avoid contaminating Earth in the unlikely event microorganisms were ferried home from the Moon.

KLEIN: We had recommended that the Apollo capsule land near an aircraft carrier, that the aircraft carrier would have a crane, which would then lift the entire spacecraft out of the water onto the deck.

GROSSMAN: The group told NASA to keep the astronauts and their cargo isolated until tests proved there was no hazard. But that's not what happened.

SHIP: Don't want to affect your splashdown area, over.

ASTRONAUT: I'll turn around, I'll splashdown here...

KLEIN: When the spacecraft landed in the water, the hatch was opened, it went right out to the open, and then we know, you know, that the inside of the Apollo spacecraft had a lot of lunar dust kicking around in it. And that's what we were trying to avoid, any of that dust getting out into the atmosphere. That was a clear breach.

GROSSMAN: There were other breaches, as well. When the capsule entered the Earth's atmosphere, a vent was opened to cool the interior. That released lunar dust. And at the Houston lab where moon rocks were studied and astronauts quarantined, rubber seals broke. The rocks turned out to be sterile, but that wasn't proven until months of exhaustive studies were completed. Harold Klein resigned from the committee in disgust. In a scathing postmortem of the lunar program in 1975, the group's co-chair, John Bagby, denounced what he called NASA's outright resistance to his committee's quarantining recommendations. "Many top managers considered the precautions unnecessary, and worried they would cause unacceptable delays," he wrote. NASA officials have pledged to do a better job when they bring a sample from Mars back to Earth. And they're already sketching out how the extraterrestrial payload will be tested.

WAINWRIGHT: This is a horseshoe crab. It's a primitive marine invertebrate, and the part of the organism we're very interested in is its immune system, its defense mechanisms.

GROSSMAN: At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Norman Wainwright pulls a fist-sized horseshoe crab from a shallow tank. For about 200,000,000 years, this creature has remained almost unchanged, a fact Dr. Wainwright says is due in part to the animal's striking ability to detect and contain microbial intruders. Dr. Wainwright is harnessing the animal's talents to make one of the most sensitive tests known for the presence of microbes.

WAINWRIGHT: Would you like to see what the actual test looks like? It's very simple.

GROSSMAN: Norman Wainwright strides to a black laboratory bench, where a rack of test tubes contain varying mixtures of horseshoe crab blood and fungal cells. Each tube is hooked to a detector. Even a tiny portion of a fungal cell is enough to cause the blood to clot and turn cloudy, a change the researcher monitors on a computer. Dr. Wainwright is exploring how sensitive the test is, and how many kinds of microbes he can detect.

WAINWRIGHT: This screen will show the information being collected from one tube, and will graph how turbid a sample is becoming over time. As you see, the graph just updated itself to show an increase. So this would, in fact, be a point which this sample has shown to be positive.

GROSSMAN: A test like this could sound the first warning that a sample brought back from Mars bears interplanetary stowaways. Last year, a National Academy of Science's panel issued a report recommending how NASA should protect Earth from Martian microbes.

NEALSON: In essence, we were doing what I would call an interplanetary environmental assessment.

GROSSMAN: Ken Nealson says the panel, which he headed, concluded that the risk posed by a Mars sample is exceedingly small.

NEALSON: We tried and tried to dream up a worst-case scenario, and really couldn't come up with much.

GROSSMAN: Couldn't come up with much, because they said anything that tolerates the harsh conditions of Mars would most likely find Earth unsuitable. Too warm, too wet, and so on, but just in case, they did recommend that any payload should be carried back in a sealed container and examined on Earth in a secure laboratory, the kind the Centers for Disease Control uses to contain Earth's most deadly microbes. Ken Nealson says, if these precautions are taken, there should be no threat.

NEALSON: We bring Ebola virus into this country to study, and we know that's dangerous. You know, so there shouldn't be any big qualm about bringing a Martian rock, which we suspect is not dangerous.

GROSSMAN: And since the Apollo project, laws have been passed, like the requirement for environmental impact statements. They make it more likely that when NASA brings Mars rocks home, the precautions will be handled better.

NEALSON: One should expect they'll be done better this time, because if you don't ensure that they're going to be done better, I don't think the mission will fly. I think there'll be a lawsuit filed, and one well-placed lawsuit will delay this entire enterprise for two years at a time.

GROSSMAN: And if there's one thing NASA fears more than alien microbes, it's a lawsuit. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You can reach Living on Earth by calling our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. The e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And our web site is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth that's all one word .org.

Lead poisoning. It's the silent epidemic, but there are ways to protect your children against it. That's just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Lead Series; The Silent Epidemic: - Part One

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. More than 20 years ago the United States banned the use of the metal lead in gasoline and household paint. While overall exposure to lead in this country does seem to be dropping, there is still plenty of lead dust on the ground from its previous use in fuels and paints. And many homes still have significant amounts of lead pipes and paint inside. Adults are relatively immune to small exposures. But even minute amounts of lead can have devastating effects on the brains of young children, and there is evidence that millions of American children have been so poisoned. There are no obvious symptoms of low-level lead poisoning, but research shows exposed youngsters have much higher rates of learning disabilities, are far more likely to drop out of school, and are more prone to become delinquent. In a rebroadcast of our series on the silent lead epidemic, Deirdre Kennedy reports on how parents can help protect their children.

(News music intro. News announcer: "A government report released today says the nation's playground equipment is too often covered in dangerous lead-based paint...")

KENNEDY: When the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported last year that it found high lead levels in playgrounds across the country, it made news headlines and alarmed many parents.

ANNOUNCER: Researchers came to that conclusion after testing 26 playgrounds. One of those playgrounds is in San Francisco. Rita Williams is in the city tonight with a live report for us.

WILLIAMS: Dennis, parents have so many things to worry about...

KENNEDY: Most people know that children can be exposed to lead paint when they live in dilapidated housing. But investigators found that playgrounds can be just as dangerous. They said even if a child is only exposed to a tiny amount of lead, if the exposure is repeated, it can lead to lead poisoning in a short period of time. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesperson Ann Brown.

BROWN: A child could have high blood lead levels by ingesting a paint chip about the size of the top of a pencil eraser for 15 to 30 days.

(Traffic in the background. A nail scrapes on metal)

STOERMER: That comes off pretty easily with a fingertip there.

KENNEDY: In San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Hillary Stoermer chips flecks of paint off a jungle gym where hundreds of tiny little hands have rubbed away the surface paint. She's an industrial hygienist for San Francisco, one of the cities named as a hot spot for playground lead.

(Children laughing and whooping)

STOERMER: Here's where the classic kid picking the paint chip and putting it in their mouth comes into play.

(Playground noises in the background)

KENNEDY: Experts say very small children are more likely to get lead poisoned than older children because they put everything in their mouths.

(Child: "Hey!" Shouts more, unintelligible)

KENNEDY: Lead is sweet, so children tend to keep eating it once they discover it. But Hillary Stoermer says a child doesn't actually have to eat the lead to get it into his system.

STOERMER: The paint deteriorates. It chalks, it flakes off. And it ends up as dust. And they play on it, they get it on their clothes. So here, what you're mostly worried about is the kids actually touching it, getting it on their hands, and then boom, the hands go right in the mouth.

KENNEDY: Children's health advocates say parents can do a lot to protect their children's health just by carrying wet wipes and washing their kids' hands often. They can also ask their local health department to test playgrounds and other public sites for lead. Hillary Stoermer says the flaking paint in this playground doesn't have lead in it. But, she says, just because paint is brand new, that doesn't mean it's lead free. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, there's no limit on the amount of lead used in the industrial paint used on most of the nation's roadways and bridges. And it's deteriorating and releasing a fine lead dust into the atmosphere every day.

(Children yelling, laughing, screaming)

KENNEDY: Playgrounds are just one of the many places where a child can come in contact with lead. The National Lead Task Force estimates that more than half of the homes built before 1978 contain some lead paint. Lead can also be hidden in soil, plumbing, and pottery, and even in some traditional home remedies. Over the past 30 years, standards for lead exposure have been made tougher. Today, a child is considered in danger at just a sixth of the blood lead level that would have prompted concern a generation ago. But nobody really knows at what level lead begins to interfere with children's ability to learn and to adapt to their surroundings.

(Blocks hitting a hard surface)

DIETRICH: Let's see how I made a train. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -- whoooo!

KENNEDY: Behavioral psychologist Ken Dietrich at the University of Cincinnati is testing a 2-year-old girl to see if she's developing normally.

DIETRICH: I like that train. I do.

KENNEDY: As she clumsily stacks blocks on top of each other, she looks like a normal shy toddler. But Dr. Dietrich says to a trained professional, she shows signs of severe lead poisoning.

DIETRICH: She showed very poor motor development. She had shown a decline in her cognitive development. And she also showed poor stability and balance on that day. Now, those sorts of changes in behavior aren't unique to lead. It could have been due to other factors. But her blood lead concentration was later found to be around 140 micrograms per deciliter when I tested her on that day, and we were dealing with a child that was neurobehaviorally symptomatic for lead poisoning.

KENNEDY: Such severe lead poisoning can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. This child was immediately hospitalized and treated with drugs to flush the lead out of her blood. But the effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and other organs, which becomes more severe depending on the length of exposure. Even in a rare severe case like this one, Dr. Dietrich says the only symptoms the girl's mother noticed were that she was walking into objects and complaining of a sore tummy. It turns out the child had been eating paint chips inside her home for several months.

BOY: Hysterical. Pedestrian, Mathe -- math --

KENNEDY: In Pittsburgh, a teenage boy reads a vocabulary list as part of a study by lead researcher Dr. Herbert Needleman.

BOY: Almanac --

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman has been studying the long-term effects of less severe lead poisoning on learning and social skills.

BOY: Instigator --

KENNEDY: He's found that children with moderate blood lead levels are seven times more likely to drop out of high school. Dr. Needleman is also studying a possible link between lead poisoning and delinquency in teenagers.

NEEDLEMAN: Mothers have observed, I hear regularly in the clinic, that her child was an angel, got lead poison, and now she can't manage him.

KENNEDY: To test his theory, Dr. Needleman x-rayed the bones of 301 12-year-old boys. Lead can be stored in the bones for decades, and can be an indicator of past exposure. Dr. Needleman found out that boys with high bone lead were more likely to have problems getting along in school and at home.

NEEDLEMAN: Children with higher lead in their bone had more attention disorders, had more aggressive behavior, and were more likely to be delinquent. So we think this means that our hunch was right. That lead is related to the amount of delinquency in our society.

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman believes that once lead gets into the brain it can affect a child's ability to tell right from wrong.

NEEDLEMAN: One of the essential functions of the brain is to mediate between the stimulus and the response. In other words, you see something that you want and the response would be go get it. But the human brain says no, that's not allowed by law or by custom. So that we have to learn to slow down our responses and think about the consequences and lead appears to interfere with that very important function.

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman's conclusions are still controversial among people who work in the field. And his results have yet to be replicated. Some lead experts say the group he tested was too small, and they question his definition of delinquency.

(Children shouting)

KENNEDY: But whether lead poisoning leads to delinquency or it just makes it harder for children to learn, childhood lead experts agree that it's one more factor that robs children of the opportunity to reach their full potential. Karen Cohen of San Francisco's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

COHEN: If you think back on your own school education, we have many people who failed schools. But those were just children who failed school. We didn't have any names for it. We didn't have any learning disabilities defined. They just didn't do well in school. Now we're at the era where we have labels for things, and children get diagnosed with different types of learning disabilities. And we know that lead has to be one of the contributing factors to that.

KENNEDY: The only way parents can really know if their children are being exposed to lead is to have them tested. Health experts recommend testing at 12 months and then at 2 years. Many city and county health departments provide free or low-cost blood testing, and they can also help parents track down the source of the lead exposure. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

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(Children continue shouting and laughing)

CURWOOD: Next week, our series on lead poisoning continues. We'll have a report on how children can be exposed to lead during home renovations, and what landlords and home sellers must tell you about potential lead hazards.

(Music up and under)

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

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; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and The Bullitt Foundation.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Stemming the floods in California's Napa Valley with a sales tax dedicated to restoring rivers to their natural state. That story is coming up. Stay tuned right here to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PROCOWS. (Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Seven years ago this week Superbug was born. Superbug is the nickname for a synthetic microbe that may help solve the solid waste problem, clean the air, and help you get from here to there. Superbug is a mixture of an E-coli bacterium and a strain of bacteria usually used to make tequila. Its inventor, a microbiologist named Lonnie Ingram, found that in the laboratory this combo converts solid wastes into ethanol, a fuel which burns cleaner than regular gasoline. If Superbug works in the real world it could cut our dependence on fossil fuels and revolutionize waste to energy technology. And not a moment too soon. Consider that America's CO2 emissions have increased fourfold, and we produce almost twice as much trash per person as we did 40 years ago. The patent for Superbug was the 5 millionth granted by the U-S Patent Office. Incidentally, the very first US patent, granted in 1790, also made environmental history. It was for the process used to make potash, a common ingredient in fertilizer. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Napa Valley Floods: Turning Water in to Wine?

CURWOOD: California's Napa Valley is known around the world for its wines. But in California, it's almost as famous for its floods. Napa Valley is one of the most flood-prone areas in the northern part of the state. But there's a remedy in the works. Residents of Napa County will vote on a sales tax that would help fund a $200 million flood control project. The idea may be a national model for keeping people safe and dry while also restoring river systems. Cheryl Colopy reports from the Napa Valley.

(Pouring rain)

COLOPY: The Napa Valley flooded last year and 2 years before that, and could again this year if the West Coast deluge continues as predicted. So now, when it rains, Bob Johnstone doesn't sleep at night. He paces, his stomach in a knot. His business, Napa Printing and Graphics, has been flooded 4 times. In 1995, muddy water rushed into his building. It ripped doors from their casings and toppled heavy printing presses.

(Press machinery running)

JOHNSTONE: One day I've got this great business with 17 employees and we're growing and we have a great reputation. And the next day it doesn't exist.

COLOPY: Bob Johnstone had to let his employees go, gut the building, and start over. Now, he has a system for warding off such heavy damage: a folding steel wall, combined with sump pumps and a generator.


JOHNSTONE: This is the system. And in the event of a flood warning, we come out and we unlock this. We take big steel angle irons and we bolt them...

COLOPY: The system cost Mr. Johnstone $60,000, but he hopes he can retire it soon. He hopes a voter referendum will help make regular flooding here a thing of the past.

JOHNSTONE: Measure A will prevent the 100-year flood and I'll be able to sleep during winters when it rains. These people are going to feel a lot more secure and a lot better about being here. It's 8 times more expensive not to do Measure A. To continue to pay for the damage, it costs around 8 times more than to prevent it forever.

COLOPY: Napa residents will vote in early March on Measure A. It would increase the local sales tax a half cent for the next 20 years to fund river restoration projects designed to provide long-term flood control.

(Ducks quacking)

BLOCH: This has worked. Every winter when the rains get heavy and there's any threat of flooding, the television cameras come to park and wait like vultures for a real flood to happen...

COLOPY: Moira Johnston-Bloch is president of Friends of the Napa River. She points out the low bridges in downtown Napa, which act like dams when the water is high. The new flood plan calls for raising these bridges, and for turning a nearby area now used only for parking into a river bypass. It would be a park most of the year, but a lowered gate would allow flood waters to inundate it when the river rises. Further downstream, dikes built in the last century to create farm lands would be removed to restore the river's natural channel and hundreds of acres of marsh lands. Moira Johnston-Bloch.

BLOCH: In today's world, you don't just put, dredge a river, put up levees and fill the sides with concrete. You have to respect the natural dynamics of the river, the natural health of the river. And what we've done is to let our river go back to its natural floodplain, but to design it such that where we create new floodplains we don't disrupt the people on its banks.

COLOPY: Ms. Johnston-Bloch says the new plan will also help the threatened steelhead trout by restoring spawning habitat. The Napa Plan is one of a number of flood plans being developed nationwide as federal, state, and regional agencies move toward working with rivers rather than fighting them. But river restoration experts are especially excited about the Napa Plan, because it grew out of the community itself, instead of being imposed from outside. Ann Riley is the executive director of the Waterways Restoration Institute in Berkeley.

RILEY: If plans originate from the bottom to the top, if they are community-based, and the members sitting around the table are co-equal partners, you greatly increase the chances of having a successful project.

(Ambient voices)

COLOPY: At the Measure A campaign headquarters, there's a pile of large signs that read “STOP FLOODING, YES ON A,” in bright yellow against a background of flood waters rising. Dave Dickson of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District hopes the Napa County vote will cap a 30-year effort to come up with a flood control plan. An earlier plan passed in the city of Napa, but failed county-wide. Mr. Dickson says the new plan should be much more attractive throughout the county, because it doesn't focus just on the most developed areas.

DICKSON: What's so important is that this is a watershed-wide approach. It's not just the city of Napa flood problems. Yes, the project is more developed in Napa, it's more expensive, they have the biggest problems, and they generate the most sales tax. But it truly is a valley-wide flood management and river restoration plan.

COLOPY: Dave Dickson says there's no organized opposition to the tax measure, although there's been grumbling from some of the land owners whose property would become part of the floodplain. Some others, who wanted to see a dam on the river to ensure a water supply, are also disappointed, but the chief obstacle is that in tax-averse California, tax hikes like this one need a two thirds majority to pass. And only a third of such measures have been successful. Still, Napa's Measure A is going to the voters when the economy is healthy, residents worry constantly about floods, and the forecast is... rain..... until April.

(Torrential rain continues)

COLOPY: For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in the Napa Valley.

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(Rain continues; fade to music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, it's time to hear from you, our listeners. Janine Perlman listens to Living on Earth on WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She thought our cat-eating bird interview with a researcher at the Mammal Society of London made the case for keeping cats inside all the time. Of the voracious felines, she writes, "It is indeed an unnatural massacre that threatens the existence of numerous species of birds and mammals. It is a myth, now utterly disproven, that cats need to go outside. They live on average over a decade longer if kept in."

Steve Bryant, who hears us on KMUW in Wichita, Kansas, writes to say he enjoys our perspective on the environment. "But," he continues, "I am often frustrated that many of the problem-solving approaches advocated by those whom you interview will be for naught unless world population trends are reversed. If we make marginal improvements to our consumption on a per capita basis, but the population growth soars, our species will strip the earth bare in a way that is irreversible. Please give this some consideration in planning future programs."

A listener from Cincinnati, Ohio, was one of many who wrote to thank us for our Valentine's Day interview with the author of a book on aphrodisiacs. He writes, "Having been married for 35 years now, we look forward to what it might do to put some sparkle into our relationship."

And finally, a correction and a clarification. First, in our story on the EPA's drive to regulate endocrine-disrupting chemicals, we should have said that among other problems, these chemicals have been linked to a lowered ability of children to cope with stress. And our introduction to our interview with Sandra Steingraber should have said most cancers are caused by something in the environment, although it is unclear exactly how many are caused by synthetic chemicals.

Let us know what you think, or what your story ideas might be. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG.

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CURWOOD: Picking fresh cucumbers straight out of the sand. The story behind Israel's dream to make the desert bloom is next right here on Living on Earth.

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

(Trickling water. Voices in the background)

Mideast Troubled Waters Series: Green Dream of Zionism

CURWOOD: In a tiny moist pocket of Israel's Negev Desert, a few miles from the Sinai Peninsula, there's a spring that bubbles out above a cliff and trickles down into a deep green pool in the valley of Zin. Israelis call it Ein Afdat, an ancient spring that provided respite to many an Arab nomad long before the creation of modern Israel, and may have even cooled Moses and the Israelites 2000 years ago.

(Trickling continues)

CURWOOD: This spring is one of the only natural sources of fresh water in the Negev, which covers more than half of the state of Israel. Yet today the Negev desert is dotted with green. Israel pumps water in from the Jordan river and from aquifers lying beneath Israel and the West Bank. The founders of modern Israel believed it essential to harness Middle East waters to reconnect the Jewish immigrants with the land. But 50 years later, other demands, especially from urban Israel, may be carving into that Zionist vision. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan examines the limits of this green expansion in a rebroadcast from our series Troubled Waters.

DE MALACH: Yes, I remember. We arrived in 1943. Forty-three was a crucial year for the Jewish people because to Israel arrived the first knowledge of what was going on in Europe.

TOLAN: He fled Mussolini in the middle of World War II and landed in a barren desert. But Youal de Malach and a few other Negev pioneers had a vision.

DE MALACH: In those days, with after the war, many survivors will arrive. And it was a must to find a place for them. We were very young and green and enthusiastic, and we thought in a few years all the desert will be green.

(A water sprinkler system)

TOLAN: They didn't turn everything green. But 54 years later Mr. de Malach and his wife live in a lush manmade oasis in Kibbutz Revevim. Walking through the kibbutz at night it feels like you're in a European village. Quiet paths, lush lawns, domed street lights, a way of life imported, not including the towering palms. The amount of water at their disposal is high by anyone's standards: nearly 700 liters per day per person, or about 180 gallons just for household use. The kibbutz's fields consume 7 times that amount, nearly half of it fresh water.

DE MALACH: We have to use our water for decoration and for gardening and for, to have we want them to live in parks. If this is not a park, people will not continue to live here. Because it's not easy to live in a desert.

(Sprinklers continue)

TOLAN: Greening the Negev is an important symbol of the Zionist quest to claim the land. David Ben Gurion, the founder of modern Israel, said the Negev will be the test of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. This effort will determine the fate of the state and the place of our people in the history of mankind. Israeli agriculture both in the Negev and elsewhere in Israel became a symbol of a new sovereign nation.

(Engines revving up)

TOLAN: But modern Israel is increasingly urban, and now many Israelis say Zionist dream or not, agriculture can't continue using 80% of the country's fresh water supply, especially when it represents only 3% of its economy.

BEN SHAUL: I think that the time is going to come, and Israel is going to understand that we cannot afford to grow cotton or any other such sort of garbage. These are water eating crops.

TOLAN: Devora Ben Shaul, born in Waxahatchee, Texas, has lived in Israel since 1959. She's an environmentalist and a writer living in the Galilee.

BEN SHAUL: Yeah, sure, we're attached to them, because these are dollar crops. But in the long run, they're not productive for us. We can't afford to grow oranges when oranges are so cheap from Spain or other Middle Eastern areas. We have to concentrate on using water for the things that it's worth using water for. There is this whole thing about making the desert bloom. Deserts are not support to be green, I'm sorry. Deserts are deserts. I know it's heretical to say it. But there is nowhere in the world where you have a dictum that says you've got to turn arid desert into green pastures.

BASKIN: It may be blasphemy but it's the truth. I lived on a kibbutz in the desert for a while picking cucumbers out of the sand. You'd think to yourself, this is amazing, how did they do it? But when you look behind the whole picture and you see it's no magic, you have to question whether or not this is what we should be doing.

TOLAN: Gershon Baskin is co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

BASKIN: I have a little garden to myself and right here in our office we have a little organic garden where we're growing cauliflower and parsley and some other things. I'm sentimental about the land but I'm realistic about what Israel is and what Israel, what places we should have in the world economy. I want us to build supercomputers and communication technology and lead the world in medical technology. And not be known for our sweet oranges.

TOLAN: Mr. Baskin represents a younger generation of Israelis who are no longer so captured by the Zionist vision of greening the desert.

BASKIN: There's no mysticism to make the desert bloom. All you need is water and chemicals, and anyone can do it.

TOLAN: Israelis have justified using all that fresh water because they've been isolated politically and economically from the Arab world. For food security they've wanted to grow all their own produce. But the days of agricultural self-sufficiency are gone, Mr. Baskin says, and the priority now should be in supplying water to a growing population, Israeli and Palestinian. In another generation, perhaps 15 million people will inhabit this land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, nearly twice the population today. And even the generation that grew up with the Zionist dream is beginning to see the implications of that growth. Meir ben Meir is Israel's water commissioner.

BEN MEIR: We in Israel already know that somewhere between the first and the second decade of the coming century, fresh water will not be enough in order to be used on agriculture. Meaning that fresh water will be consumed for one purpose only: for domestic purposes. Agriculture will have to be dependent almost thoroughly on treated sewage.

(Flowing sewage)

TOLAN: Sewage like this, which starts out raw, coming by pipe from the biggest town in the Negev.

ARON: The sewage from the city of Beersheba is come to this sewage treatment plant. Here we have the distribution pit. The raw sewage, raw raw sewage, is entering here, and then it is distributed into two settling ponds. We have another...

TOLAN: Gidon Aron wrote his doctoral dissertation on the bird habitat of natural sewage plants like this one, where human wastewater is pumped through a series of earthen ponds. Through natural filtration and photosynthesis it's converted to water for the fields. Israel already uses a lot of wastewater on its crops. A treated wastewater pipeline comes into the Negev from Tel Aviv. And Professor Aron says this kind of Israeli ingenuity can save agriculture.

ARON: And here we come with another solution by which we can solve the problem of efficient reuse of the effluent. A big problem to my opinion will be managing to convince all of them that this is the solution and we have to go in this direction.

(Traffic sounds; fade to flowing sewage)

TOLAN: Israelis have sharply increased their agricultural production over the years through these wastewater pipelines and through drip irrigation. Now, Dr. Aron and his colleagues have developed subsurface drip irrigation. It isn't healthy to use treated wastewater on crops like tomatoes or cucumbers, but now farmers with enough money can lay in the drip hoses and apply the recycled water directly to the roots. But farms are still heavily dependent on sweet water in Israel. They still suck up four fifths of the country's fresh water supply. That's because water is still cheap, subsidized by the government. And so farmers still produce cotton, citrus, and other water-guzzling crops for export. Some critics say Israel's biggest export is water. All this indicates that despite the changes forecast for the farm, the agricultural lobby in Israel remains strong.

ZAZLAVSKY: They kicked me out from the position of water commissioner, how do you call, the small time politicians did it.

TOLAN: Former water commissioner Dan Zazlavsky says he ran head-on into the agricultural lobby when he tried to introduce conservation measures back in 1991.

ZAZLOVSKY: In one year, despite the fact that the population increased tremendously, that this was the first big wave of Russian immigration, there was a considerable reduction in water use. We showed in several towns that we could reduce the water use by 20%. There was a national feeling: let's save it. Let's not waste it. And it worked.

TOLAN: But Zazlavsky says an emerging ethic of conservation was a threat to the farm lobby. Signs of shortage, he says, would have meant that agriculture might have had to cut back.

ZAZLAVSKY: There will be no lack of drinking water or industrial water. But agriculture is very questionable. Maybe I was a good technician but politically I was not very smart, and I was eventually kicked out. As soon as I [got] kicked out the main line was there's no lack of water, you can use as much as you need. Relax, there's no problem.

TOLAN: This short-term political victory, Zazlavsky charges, is already doing damage. Most of all to Israel's underground water reserves.

ZAZLAVSKY: We have been pumping about 150 million cubic meters more than the average annual recharge. This means that there's no way but to start desalinating right away. Or doing something. The alternative is terrible. Unless the policy with water changes, the farming is doomed.

TOLAN: The lack of a conservation ethic can be seen now all over Israel. Greenery lines the boulevards in many Israeli towns. Gardens abound, evoking not only the Zionist dream but European roots. My hotel in Haifa featured 2 high-powered shower heads. Across the country, it's hard to detect an urgency to conserve.

(Traffic sounds; milling people, honking horns)

MAN: I say that there is enough water in Tel Aviv. Everywhere there is enough water. For agriculture, to drink, to wash.

TOLAN: Salt floats on the wind at the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. It's a warm night on the Mediterranean. Old men play dominoes, hustlers deal a game of 3-card Monty. Families push babies in strollers.

WOMAN: They have too much water, for the car and for the house and for the garden (laughs). They use too much water. They don't save.

MAN: No, they don't try to save. Everybody don't care about it. They know but they don't care.

MAN 2: We are not limited with water, but if you use a lot of water you're throwing away a lot of money.

(Milling voices continue)

TOLAN: In Jordan water conservation is the top priority of the US aid program, because water supplies there are so tight. In Israel there are no such programs. The US simply writes a check to Israel each year. Feeling little pressure on this issue, the Israelis have pursued a hard line in regional water negotiations. They're holding firm against Palestinian claims for water lying beneath the West Bank. They've been forced into only modest concessions with Jordan. And Minister of Infrastructure Ariel Sharon recently announced Israel's intention to build a dam on the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967. Israel's strategy appears to be to hold on to what it has, use wastewater on the farms, shift fresh water to the cities, and augment supplies through new dams and eventually desalinization. Serious conservation is not on the agenda. Under this strategy, household use would remain the same, now about 3 times more per capita than the Palestinians and Jordanians. And agriculture, says former Israeli water negotiator Uri Shamir, would remain an important part of the Zionist dream.

SHAMIR: Agriculture is not strictly an economic activity. It's a way of life, it's a way of populating the land, of settling it. And furthermore, our society has essentially a pact with the agricultural community, which was the first to settle the land. And it is not possible nor desirable for us to say well, thank you very much, you have done your job, you can now move on.

(A car door slams. Footfalls.)

TOLAN: Yet there are changes coming to the kibbutz, the heart of Zionist agriculture.

DINSEN: This lock is about as old as I am.

TOLAN: Seymour Dinsen, farm manager for Kibbutz Revivim, opens a gate and walks to the pipeline that brings fresh water all the way to this place a few miles from the Egyptian border.

DINSEN: You could have snow falling in the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. It melts, flows into the Knerrret, the Sea of Galilee, and eventually is pumped here to Revivim, which is in the middle of the desert, the middle of the Negev Desert 270 miles away.

TOLAN: The fresh water that arrives in Kibbutz Revivim is still used to water crops. Seymour knows that may change. Already the kibbutz is using brackish groundwater for its strawberries and tomatoes.

DINSEN: And water, like everything else, is very, very political. There's less and less public support for farmers, things, water is becoming more and more expensive, and there are crops that are that just aren't worth growing any more.

TOLAN: Farming will become more focused here, emphasizing research to grow crops like melons, strawberries, and grapes in salty water. But agriculture's economic importance in the kibbutz is in decline. The biggest money maker in Revivim is a factory that produces molded plastic parts for GM cars. That doesn't mean the dream of greening the desert is dead. Kibbutz Revivim will continue to grow crops and soon they'll have new neighbors. Today Israeli planners, confident in their water future, are laying ambitious new plans in the desert. The Negev will be the source of Israel's next big wave of growth. Small factories, fish ponds, citrus groves, and whole new communities will sprout up, relying heavily on recycled water. All this will help realize David Ben Gurion's vision: to bloom the desolate land and convert the spacious Negev into a source of force and power. A blessing to the state of Israel. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

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CURWOOD: Next week, Sandy Tolan takes us to the Gaza Strip, where problems with water scarcity and quality threaten a social and environmental collapse.

MAN: If this situation prevails for much longer, the people here will not keep quiet. They cannot. They'll have to go out seeking food, seeking water. The Israelis are not even heeding this thing.

CURWOOD: To obtain a cassette copy of our series Troubled Waters, call toll-free 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.

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And for this week, that's Living On Earth. Our production team includes: Liz Lempert, George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick and Daniel Grossman; Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta DeAvila and Peter Shaw. We had help from Dana Campbell, Jeremy Jurgens, Vanessa Melendez and Miriam Landman. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau, Kim Motylewski is our associate editor. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky and Michael Aharon composed the theme . Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

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