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

April 30, 1999

Air Date: April 30, 1999


Just Transportation / Brenda Tremblay

When an upscale shopping mall opened in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, the mall operators refused to let the city bus line from the predominately African American ghetto have a stop on mall grounds, even though other buses were permitted. Cynthia Wiggins, a black teenage girl, was killed on her way to a job at the mall after she got off the bus and attempted to cross a seven lane highway from the bus stop. A law suit alleging discrimination has been filed. Issues of race, sprawl and public transportation combine in this story from WXXI's Brenda Tremblay. (16:20)

Eco Careers

As school lets out this spring, thousands of college graduates will be heading off to pursue environmental careers. But they'll be entering a very different marketplace than their predecessors. Guest Host Laura Knoy (kuh-NOY) talks with Kevin Doyle, the co-author of The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century, about changes in the environmental workforce. (04:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... tulips, their thousand year history and today's interest in the perfect "black" variety. (01:30)

Mercury in Sea Food: How Much is Too Much / Dan Grossman

Recent research shows that pregnant women who consume mercury tainted sea food could have children with subtle mental deficits. The federal FDA advises potential and actual moms to limit consumption of certain fish. But some health activists and state regulators say the federal agency is not doing enough. Living On Earth’s Dan Grossman reports. (07:50)

Raw Oysters Q&A

Deadly bacteria in raw oysters kill dozens of Americans each year and sicken hundreds more. Laura speaks with Darren Mitchell, a staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. His group is leading an effort to tighten the government's regulations on raw shellfish. (04:15)

Knowing What You Eat / Suzanne Elston

The FDA recently reopened the issue of labeling irradiated foods. That renewed debate misses the point according to commentator Suzanne Elston. She says we should be trying to learn more about our foods, not distance ourselves from them. (02:15)

Native American Perspectives / Richard Shiffman

Indigenous communities have long argued about how best to steward their resources, and their points of view are far from monolithic. Divisions intensified in recent decades when the federal government urged Indian tribes to form corporate bodies. Richard Schiffman looks at the deep divisions within the Klingit (KLING-it), Gwichen (GWI-chen), Hopi and other Native American communities. (09:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Brenda Tremblay, Dan Grossman, Richard Schiffman
GUESTS: Kevin Doyle, Darren Mitchell
COMMENTATOR: Suzanne Elston

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

This week, the story of Cynthia Wiggins, a teenager from the city who got a job in a suburban mall to chase an American dream.

ADAMS: They want the top of the line clothes, the fashionable shoes, and she liked the jewelry. And she just wanted to live independently.

KNOY: But one day Cynthia Wiggins didn't make it to work. She was one of 6,000 pedestrians who die in traffic accidents each year. But some say this one wouldn't have happened if the mall and the city were linked by a decent public transit system.

TAYLOR: They knew the transportation system didn't operate and didn’t function. They knew that blacks had trouble getting all over the place. And they thought that was okay. So they were responsible.

KNOY: Race, sprawl, and transportation, this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Just Transportation

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Public transportation is often touted by planners as a way to reduce sprawl and pollution. But most of the American public remains wedded to the automobile. Cars are certainly more convenient, and convenience and flexibility rank high in surveys on transportation matters. But there is another issue about public transportation: fairness. A car can help eliminate what some call discrimination against the poor and people of color. Today, much like the historic cases of Plessy vs. Ferguson and the Montgomery bus boycott, a lawsuit is being heard in a Buffalo, New York courtroom that shines a harsh light on the forces that link race and transportation. The case involves a suburban bus stop, and upscale mall, and the death of Cynthia Wiggins, a black teenager from the city. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester prepared our story.

(Traffic, sirens)

TREMBLAY: Buffalo's bus number 4 stops on Broadway Avenue in front of a stately marble bank. Only it's not a bank any more, it's a pawn shop. And nobody gets off here any more because there are no jobs in this part of town. If you want to make a living on Buffalo's East Side, you have to be pretty enterprising. Like Joe, a guy who's sitting on a big cement block selling hip-hop gear.

JOE: People come and they ride past. They see nice stuff. They like it, you know?

TREMBLAY: Joe points at the brightly colored sweatsuits flapping in the breeze behind him. He says that he makes good money sitting here selling this stuff. He lives close by so he doesn't have to commute. And best of all...

JOE: I come to work when I want to. Nobody tell me what to do. You know, I don't have nobody on my back, you know, sweatin' me, you know. I'm my own boss.

TREMBLAY: Very few people can get by this way in a neighborhood characterized by double-digit unemployment. Most people here are just scraping by. This is a story of how things got so bad, and how one person lost everything trying to make her life a little better.

(A phone rings)

WOMAN: Oh, I'll get it.

TREMBLAY: It starts around the corner, on Walts Avenue, where Cynthia Adams and her mother Florence are making sandwiches and getting ready to head out for work. Cynthia's sister watches her 3-year-old nephew Kilo play with a little plastic skeleton. Then she takes his hand and leads him into the kitchen.

KILO: Hello

SHALA: ... fruit. Come on.

TREMBLAY: Mrs. Adams eyes the clock. She and her mother have to catch the bus to get to work. A third of the families who live here on the East Side can't afford a car. Neither can this one. So Mrs. Adams walks past the junked cars and boarded-up houses lining her street to the bus stop at the corner, where she catches the bus to her job at a collection agency in the suburbs.

ADAMS: I do a lot of collections. That's where you call up the people on the phone and ask them about their car loan, when they're going to make their next payments. And I get some really bizarre stories sometimes (laughs).
TREMBLAY: Mrs. Adams has her own bizarre story to tell. She had 2 daughters, Cynthia and Shala. Four years ago her 17-year-old daughter Cynthia came to her and told her she wanted to apply for a job at a new mall in the suburbs.

ADAMS: She just wanted her own. She wanted her own money at the time. And like most teenagers, you know, they want the top of the line clothes, the fashionable shoes, and she liked the jewelry. And she just wanted to live independently. She wanted her own.

TREMBLAY: So, Mrs. Adams' daughter, Cynthia Wiggins, got a job running the cash register at Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, a take-out restaurant in the food court at the Walden Galleria Mall in a suburb of Buffalo.

ADAMS: Like I told her, but if this is what you really want to do, you know, then so be it.

[Ambient sounds in a mall]

WOMAN 1: Hi, can I help you?

WOMAN 2: [inaudible] one's free?

TREMBLAY: From her post at the Arthur Treacher's counter, Cynthia Wiggins could see the whole length of the food court with its pink gleaming tile floor and white sparkling pillars. By the time she began her lunch time shift, sunlight was streaming into the court from overhead skylights. Cynthia's mother says her daughter liked working at the mall.

ADAMS: Well, she was a people person. She followed directions, but she also wanted to become a manger there at one time.

TREMBLAY: The only problem with Cynthia's job was getting there. Like her mother and her grandmother, Cynthia Wiggins had to catch the bus to work, and the bus didn't quite bring her far enough.


GALLOWAY: It was bad here. It was bad here. So it was just an accident bound to happen.

TREMBLAY: Warren Galloway is the president of Buffalo's Operation Push. He points to the stop where every weekday morning Cynthia Wiggins got off Buffalo's bus number 6. It doesn't look like much of a bus stop to me. It's basically a metal pole stuck in the mud next to a 2-foot-wide cement slab. Hundreds of cars, buses, and semis thunder past as we talk.

(Much traffic in the background)

GALLOWAY: Well, at the time there wasn't a crosswalk. And everybody, you know, they came off the bus, you got to understand there was snow all the way up here. So you took the biggest span, you went straight across the street.

TREMBLAY: Straight across the street meant that Cynthia had to dash across 7 lanes of traffic to reach the mall parking lot. Then she had to make her way through a sea of parked vehicles, past all the minivans, sport utility vehicles, and station wagons, in order to reach the mall entrance.


TREMBLAY: On December 14, 1995, Cynthia Wiggins stepped off the bus here. The bus stop on the curb was covered by a snow drift. She could see the mall across the highway. The lines of traffic in front of her were stopped at an intersection 20 yards away. There was no pedestrian crosswalk, so Cynthia just went for it. She pulled the hood of her parka over her head and began to thread her way across the highway. She made it across 3 lanes. She was walking alongside a 10-ton dump truck when the light turned green. Cynthia slipped under the wheels and the driver never even noticed. Cynthia's mother was out at the time, and when she got home her husband broke the news.

ADAMS: He said, he called up on the phone and told me, "You better get to the hospital." He said, "There's been an accident." But they didn't exactly tell me that she was already gone, she was already dead.

TREMBLAY: At first, Cynthia Wiggins' death seemed like just another sad statistic. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety Records show that about 6,000 pedestrians die in accidents every year in the United States. But in the days that followed Cynthia's death, local reporters began to discover evidence that mall officials and the local bus company in Buffalo had made decisions that created a dangerous situation for passengers.

GALLOWAY: They were discriminating against poor black folks from the inner city.

TREMBLAY: Warren Galloway was angry when he heard that mall officials had denied permission for one bus, bus number 6 from the ghetto, that's Cynthia Wiggins' bus, to drive onto mall property. The mall welcomed buses from the suburbs. It even welcomed buses from Canada. But not bus number 6. After Cynthia's death, the bus company released documents showing that for 8 years it had tried to get the mall owners, the Pyramid Companies, to allow bus number 6 onto mall property.

GALLOWAY: To not allow that was a decision based on race. Not economics, just strictly on race.

TREMBLAY: And so, the Wiggins family has filed a lawsuit against 4 defendants, including the bus company that dropped Cynthia off at the side of the highway and the mall's owners who refused to grant passage to bus number 6. Albert DeQuino is a lawyer representing the mall's owners. He says that the decision to refuse bus number 6 was made before the Walden Galleria Mall was even open.

DE QUINO: There had been a disturbance at a mall one mile down the road, and that disturbance was so extensive that multiple police agencies responded. And it was reported in the press widely. The person from the mall who met with the NFTA at the time read the paper like other people in Buffalo and knew about this, and in the course of that very preliminary discussion a year before the mall opened, he said, "We're interested in bus service. One thing we're probably not interested in is whatever bus was involved a mile down the road at this other mall."

TREMBLAY: Mr. DeQuino says that the racial make-up of bus number 6's riders was never brought up by either party. Furthermore, he argues, Cynthia Wiggins had a choice. She took a risk and she paid for her recklessness with her life.

DE QUINO: Had she wanted to, she could have taken the mall shuttle bus tot he Galleria Mall at the mall bus stop on Galleria Drive, like a lot of other people in her position who worked at the mall did every day.

TREMBLAY: But instead Cynthia Wiggins wanted to avoid the hassle and save time.

(On board bus)

TREMBLAY: I was curious. I wanted to see what her options were like, so I stayed on bus number 6 to make the transfer Mr. DeQuino described. After waiting in the cold rain for 20 minutes, in this desolate transfer station, I could understand why Cynthia got off the bus when she did despite the danger. And I could understand why some people say that...

TAYLOR: Cynthia Wiggins lost her life because of quiet, sanitized racism.

TREMBLAY: That's Henry Louis Taylor, a professor at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. He says that every one who lives in the suburbs of Buffalo is to blame for Cynthia Wiggins' death.

TAYLOR: They knew the transportation system didn't operate and didn't function. They knew that blacks had trouble getting all over the place. And they thought that was okay. So they were responsible.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Taylor says that Cynthia Wiggins was caught up in bigger forces, historical and economic forces that have changed Buffalo and have created the circumstances, like poor bus service, that people like her have to face every day. And those changes began long before Cynthia Wiggins was even born.

(Man playing banjo and singing: "If you want to go to heaven, on the other shore...")

TREMBLAY: At the turn of the century 90% of black people lived in the rural South. Most were extremely poor. They began to hear about these good jobs available in northern cities: in the automobile plants of Detroit, in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Dr. Taylor says that in-between 1940 and 1970, 80,000 southern Blacks moved to the city of Buffalo.

TAYLOR: They came to Buffalo in search of jobs and opportunities, hoping to fulfill their dreams.

TREMBLAY: Buffalo was a hoppin' place back then, offering lots of well-paying industrial jobs. It was like the Seattle of today, with huge defense contracts to manufacture military planes. That was the good news.

TAYLOR: The bad news was that automation and cybernation were eliminating those industries as major sources of employment. And so, the jobs that they came searching for were disappearing almost as quickly as they got them.

TREMBLAY: At the same time, white residents were leaving the city of Buffalo in droves, and they could afford cars and new houses in the fast-growing suburbs. So the poor blacks coming to Buffalo in search of a better life inherited the oldest parts of the city. The whites who stayed there found their property was losing value as the population shifted.

TAYLOR: That period, in which there was an enormous amount of struggle over the living place, really created a culture of fear among whites in relationship to black neighbors, that I think carries with us to this day, where whites try to distance themselves from African-Americans.


TREMBLAY: And so the old neighborhoods of Buffalo are chopped up by elevated highways that rain garbage and exhaust on people that can't even afford cars to drive on them. The robbery rate here is 10 times higher than it is in the closest suburb. Most of the jobs have moved to the suburbs, so Dr. Taylor says it's just harder for blacks to get to work than it is for whites. One study shows that in Chicago, for example, black commuters have to drive an extra 20 minutes to get to work when compared to whites. Even here in Buffalo, a new light rail system that starts downtown stops short of the city's largest suburb, Amherst, home to one of the area's biggest employers. Dr. Taylor calls it racism, but not everyone thinks the issue is so simple.

KUNTSLER: I think that racism and the difficulty of different races getting together is a part of the picture, but it certainly doesn't explain the whole picture.

TREMBLAY: James H. Kuntsler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Manmade Landscape. Mr. Kuntsler says that the consequences of urban sprawl affect everybody. That highways and parking lots of suburbia, he says, are dangerous and awful for everyone, not just those who are trying to get there from the inner city. Furthermore, he says, people in the city commit more crimes. And people in the suburbs hear about it. So Americans are stuck in this vicious cycle, because...

KUNTSLER: The underclass left in the city does have behavior problems, but the official response to that, to cutting off bus service, is deplorable. And there end up being victims of this self-reinforcing negative feedback loop that exists in the whole culture.

TREMBLAY: And Cynthia Wiggins, he says, was a victim in that loop of violence, fear, and distrust.

(On the bus)

DRIVER: Need a transfer?

WOMAN: Uh, no.

TREMBLAY: I catch bus number 6 at the mall and we head back toward Buffalo's East Side. The bus is about half full and most of the passengers are black. I step over little pools of mud and find a seat next to a man named Luis, who says he's finished his shift as a janitor at the Walden Galleria Mall. As our bus crosses the highway and heads into the ghetto, Luis smiles and shows me a lottery card.

LUIS: I play the lottery every day (laughs), see if I can get some money to buy a car. I'd rather have a car so I won't have to, you know, go, you know, being in a crowd and stuff. And some days the buses don't smell too good, either.

TREMBLAY: In the very back of the bus, a tall white woman named Ronnie sits staring out at the rain. She's wearing jeans and a blue windbreaker with an L.L. Bean logo on it. Her red hair is pulled back from her face into a bun. Ronnie tells me that she sits at the back of the bus for a reason.

RONNIE: I don't like people too close to me. I'm afraid of germs. Some of them don't look too clean.

TREMBLAY: And as we pass by Cynthia Wiggins' street, Ronnie leans forward and hands me a bus token. She advises me to dress down the next time I take the bus.

RONNIE: See, I usually look much nicer than this. But I dress very, very plain when I'm on the bus, no jewelry, no nothing, so I'll just blend right in. Don't want to be mugged.

TREMBLAY: Ronnie says sometimes she feels outnumbered. And when I ask her what she means, she just purses her lips and looks out the window.

(The bus stops to discharge passengers)

TREMBLAY: After bus number 6 discharges its passengers, it will loop back to the Walden Galleria Mall in the suburbs. And it will pull right up to the mall's entrance. The mall owners have changed their policy, and now they allow this inner-city bus on their property. But it's too late for Cynthia Wiggins. She took her last bus ride on December 14, 1995. In Buffalo, New York, I'm Brenda Tremblay.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Eco Careers

KNOY: Colleges and universities are set to unleash this year's crop of graduates, sending thousands off to careers in various environmental fields. But the graduates will find a very different marketplace from the one that greeted their predecessors. Kevin Doyle is co-author of The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century, now in its third edition. He says the field has changed greatly since the first edition of the guide came out just a decade ago.

DOYLE: It's a revolution. In 1989, there was an exceptionally large growth rate. Environmental careers, for instance, were being touted as right up there with software engineering and bioengineering and so forth as one of the jobs of the future, just in terms of total numbers. A second thing you had in 1989 was really a focus on waste. We had more solid waste, we had more hazardous waste, we had waste of all types growing. And therefore, you had the idea of a field of waste management. That this was our charge, was to manage waste as opposed to prevent it. Now, the environmental industry is really struggling. It's trying to find its place in an era of less waste. People are calling for greater efficiencies, less cost, less regulation, and that means fewer jobs. It also means, however, a different kind of job.

KNOY: What sort of jobs are we talking about?

DOYLE: One of the things we talk about in the book is a need for people, for instance, who combine business and science, or law and engineering. What we call multi-track professionals. We didn't talk about that at all in 1989, when we were talking about people who were going to be very much in their silos: waste people, water people, air people. Now we talk about multi-media people.

KNOY: In their silos meaning their own particular specialty, never looking outside that silo at the rest of the world.

DOYLE: Exactly. Not only was the regulatory system set up that way, but therefore the people who were in those jobs also thought that way: I am a water quality person. Now we know that we have a full ecosystem, and the people who work in environmental work need to see things whole.

KNOY: In the book, you mention that the bulk of environmental careers are still with either government, federal, state, or local; or with nonprofits. But you also say that the private sector is now shaping the environmental job market.

DOYLE: There's always been huge numbers of private sector jobs. The shift is that the marketplace is now a driver in creating jobs. Until recently, it was very hard to understand why people would spend money on environmental protection and conservation, unless it was mandated by the government. Now we're imagining a world, and it's starting to come into shape, where the marketplace itself, the idea of ability to either save money or make money by making investments, will generate jobs.

KNOY: Can you give us some examples of what you call market-based environmental jobs?

DOYLE: Sure. As we deregulate our energy economy that's based on fossil fuels, we find that that deregulation is generating opportunities for entrepreneurs to get involved in solar, in wind, in other kinds of environmental energies. And they do that not because the government is requiring it, but more because there's an opportunity to make a profit. And that generates wonderful opportunities for new kinds of environmental professionals. On the saving money side, when you prevent pollution, and especially when you prevent pollution involving toxic substances, you save huge amounts of money. Not only do you save the obvious ways, that you're not going to get fined, but you don't have to treat things, you don't have to store them, you don't have to distribute them, you don't have to send them anywhere, you don't have to have lawyers watching over it. And all of that means huge, huge cost savings.

KNOY: Do the changes in environmental jobs reflect changing politics in the US?

DOYLE: Absolutely. You don't need me to tell you. Anybody can just pickup the paper and notice that the idea of using, especially the Federal government as a main engine of social change, meaning ever-higher levels of regulation, new kinds of legislation that are sweeping things that are going to invest billions of dollars, we're not having that kind of legislation. We are not having that kind of increase in regulation. And because of that, we're looking for other drivers as a method, not only of creating environmental protection and conservation but of creating the jobs that come as a result of that.

KNOY: Kevin Doyle is the National Director of Program Development at the Environmental Careers Organization and co-author of The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century. Kevin, thanks a lot for joining us.

DOYLE: Thank you.

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KNOY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. KNOY: What the government isn't telling you about the health risks of eating some popular seafood. Thought for food is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.

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KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

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The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Tulip. The world is believed to stem from the Turkish for "turban," because Turks would tuck the flower in their spiraling headdresses. Tulips were first cultivated more than 1,000 years ago and quickly became a precious agricultural commodity. During the 1600s, tulips were the Internet stocks of today. The Dutch were known to pay small fortunes for so-called "broken bulbs." Those are the ones that break into beautiful streaks of color. But when the government stepped in to regulate the market, prices plummeted and whole estates were lost. Later the tulip became a matter of life and death. In Holland and Ireland, people ate tulip bulbs during times of famine. Fried in a little oil and salted, they taste a bit like a potato. And in Japan people still mill tulip bulbs to make a special baking flower. There are thousands of varieties of tulips, but the one receiving the most attention these days is the coveted black tulip. It's actually a deep purple, which looks black from afar. Tulip growers are offering a$30,000 reward to the first person who successful cultivates a pure black tulip. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

Mercury in Sea Food: How Much is Too Much

KNOY: Most health experts will tell you that fish is a tasty low-fat source of protein that can help lower the risk of heart disease. They will also tell you that while most fish is safe, you may want to avoid eating some species, especially those which contain high levels of industrial pollutants, including mercury. Government advisories warn pregnant women and children to severely limit their consumption of contaminated species. But as Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports, some fish-eaters are still ingesting dangerous amount of mercury.

(Woman on guitar: "I've been walkin' in my sleep, countin' troubles 'stead of countin' sheep...")

GROSSMAN: Artist and amateur musician Marilyn Winston is singing a song of sorrows. The singer's had troubles of her own.

WINSTON: A couple years ago I thought something is happening to my energy. My muscle tone was getting worse instead of better. My workouts were getting harder instead of easier.

GROSSMAN: She developed a tremor, was losing hair, and was getting hard of hearing. Her doctors was perplexed at first. Then he analyzed as ample of Marilyn Winston's hair.

WINSTON: The hair analysis came back with these scary results, which showed that I was high in mercury.

GROSSMAN: A specialist told Ms. Winston the toxin was probably coming from fish, the leading source of mercury exposure. The silvery metal is released into the air by industrial smokestacks, primarily at coal-fired power plants and incinerators, and is washed into lakes and streams. The doctor said predator species at the top of the aquatic food chain, for example, freshwater large-mouth bass and ocean swordfish, are the most dangerous. Marilyn Winston was having about 4 fish meals a week, and swordfish was her favorite.

WINSTON: Then he said that a lot of this is reversible, maybe all of it is reversible. And as soon as I would stop eating the offending fish, it would start leaving my body.

(Doors open, shut)

GROSSMAN: On a recent evening, Marilyn Winston went out to eat Malaysian food.

(Milling voices, music)

WINSTON: And then, for the main dish, the hokan charmie.

GROSSMAN: She orders less fish now and has completely cut out the high-mercury species.

WINSTON: My hearing has gotten better. My energy levels have returned to, I would say, almost normal.

GROSSMAN: Others are not so fortunate. Dr. Philippe Grandjean is studying the effects of mercury on people who eat contaminated whale meat on the Fero Islands in the northern Atlantic. Dr. Grandjean is a professor of environmental medicine at Boston University. His research shows that the children of women who had the greatest mercury exposure developed subtle mental deficits. Compared with other kids, they had slower reaction time, trouble learning new words, and difficulty retrieving old ones.

GRANDJEAN: The doubling of mercury of exposure corresponds to a developmental delay of 1 to 2 months. And at age 6 or 7, when the brain develops very rapidly, a 1 to 2 month delay is quite substantial. And clearly, if you have a couple of doublings in mercury exposure, then that child may not be ready to start school at age 7. There's a definite risk that these kids are not capable of catching up.

GROSSMAN: This research is 1 of only 2 long-term studies of the health effects of mercury found in food. The other study has not confirmed Dr. Grandjean’s findings. Health experts are puzzled by the disparity, but many agree with Dr. Grandjean that it's better to be safe than sorry.

GRANDJEAN: The best advice is to refrain from eating contaminated fish during the whole of pregnancy. And any woman in the fertile age groups must be regarded as potentially pregnant.

GROSSMAN: Some of the most tainted species are freshwater fish, like large- mouth bass, walleye, and chain pickerel, though conditions vary from place to place. Nearly every state issues advisories warning freshwater anglers. But the Federal Food and Drug Administration oversees commercial fish. Most of these come from the ocean. The agency says 2 species, swordfish and shark, are tainted with enough mercury to be a concern. It advises women of childbearing age to eat these fish no more than once a month. But some think the FDA should do more.

HETTENBACH: We feel that the FDA has a lot of room for improvement.

GROSSMAN: Policy analyst Todd Hettenbach is writing an evaluation of Federal mercury policies for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC.

HETTENBACH: If people follow the FDA's advice alone, then they will still be taking a chance with the brains of their children.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Hettenbach says there are other problem seafoods, and he says the FDA's once a month advice is not restrictive enough. He prefers advice dispensed by New Jersey, one of several states bucking Federal policies. Alan Stern is a toxicologist in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

STERN: Women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant are advised that it's safe to eat up to 8 ounces of canned tuna per week, providing that they don't eat any other meals of high mercury-containing fish during that week. And we also advise them to eat shark and swordfish no more than once every 2 months during that high-risk period.

GROSSMAN: Tuna has only moderate amounts of mercury, but it's the nation’s favorite fish. And Americans consume about 3 pounds of the flaky meat each year. New Jersey has recommendations for children as well. Youngsters under 7 are advised not to eat any shark and swordfish, and to limit consumption of tuna to about 2 sandwiches a week. This advice makes David Birney, director of the US Tuna Foundation, bristle.

BIRNEY: Tuna is a very safe food product. And in regards to mercury, there is absolutely no concern.

GROSSMAN: Toxicologist Alan Stern is concerned. He says these fish maybe causing damage too subtle to detect. His case is bolstered by a recent Environmental Protection Agency analysis. It estimates that about 600,000 actual or potential moms in the US and nearly 1 million young children eat 3 times what's safe. FDA officials insist nobody in the US consumes too much mercury from fish, though they refused to be interviewed on the subject.

(Voices in a market)

GROSSMAN: Some mercury specialists complain that no one is telling women about the problem. My friend Laura, who's 8 months pregnant, offered to take me shopping at an open air market to see what fish mongers tell customers.

LAURA: This looks very good, too. I think I'll get a steak of swordfish.

MAN: Small steak?

GROSSMAN: And when it comes to health advice, Laura comes up empty-handed.

LAURA: I'm pregnant. I'm wondering, is this the kind of fish that I should be careful of?

MAN: I don't know very much about that.

GROSSMAN: The fish seller pleads ignorance. Laura's obstetrician likewise said nothing about avoiding mercury in fish. Nevertheless, FDA officials insist the agency's once a month recommendation for swordfish and shark is getting out. They say women with questions about fish can consult the FDA Internet site. Many health officials worry that people hearing about the mercury problem will overreact and cut fish from their diet completely. Fish is a nutritious source of protein which, among other things, reduces the risk of heart disease, and ironically aids in fetal brain development. Others argue women and children can get good nutrition with little mercury risk simply by learning about and avoiding the most contaminated species. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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Raw Oysters Q&A

KNOY: Mercury in fish isn't the only health worry when it comes to seafood. Deadly bacteria in raw oysters kill dozens of Americans each year and make hundreds more ill. And the Federal Food and Drug Administration isn't doing enough to protect consumers. That's the view of Darren Mitchell, a staff attorney for the Center for Science and the Public Interest. The group wants the government to tighten up regulations on raw shellfish because the seafood is vulnerable to infection.

MITCHELL: The bacteria are found in the water in which the oysters live. And as the oysters filter water to feed themselves, the bacteria become concentrated in their digestive system. Once harvested, they can sit on the boat decks for up to 10 hours in the very warm, warm temperatures, especially in the Gulf Coast where temperatures can reach, as you know, in the upper 90s, and it's often quite humid. These are perfect conditions for bacteria to multiply to very high levels.

KNOY: What oysters do I need to worry especially about, Darren?

MITCHELL: Well, the problem with the deadly bacterium is really a Gulf Coast problem.

KNOY: How about the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest?

MITCHELL: Well, the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest are a problem for a different reason, and it's not as severe a problem. There is a second bacterium, which isn't as deadly as the one that's found on the Gulf Coast but does cause major outbreaks of food-borne illness.

KNOY: Has oyster contamination increased in recent years?

MITCHELL: There does appear to be an increase. But we can't be sure whether that's due to increased reporting of those illnesses or whether it's a real effect. Part of the problem may be that waters from which oysters are harvested have been getting warmer and warmer, due to El Nino, global warming effects. And these bacteria that cause the illnesses really thrive in warm water conditions.

KNOY: So what do you think should be done about it, to make oysters safer?

MITCHELL: Well, my organization, Center for Science in the Public Interest, has petitioned FDA to create a standard under which the processors of oysters from the Gulf Coast will have to eliminate the bacteria from the oysters.

KNOY: How do they do that?

MITCHELL: Well, there are several methods that are under development and have been commercialized. The one that's gone furthest in commercialization is what's called a mild heat pasteurization process. Essentially, what happens to the oysters is they're heated for a short period of time and then cooled down. Other potential methods are irradiation, and in fact there's a petition before the FDA for approval of irradiation for raw shellfish.

KNOY: You know, many people are concerned about irradiation. How viable an alternative is that?

MITCHELL: Well, we think, although our organization also is concerned about irradiation and we don't see it as a panacea for the bacteria that cause food- borne illness, this may be one of those instances where irradiation makes sense.

KNOY: There's an old piece of wisdom, Darren, that I'm sure you've heard: Only eat raw oysters in months with Rs in their names, meaning September, October, November, December. What's behind that saying?

MITCHELL: Well, there's actually no more wisdom in that saying if there ever was. What's behind it is the fact that months with Rs in them tend to be cooler. And as we discussed earlier, the bacteria that infect raw shellfish and get people sick tend to enjoy the warmer water and grow to greater levels during the warmer months. Unfortunately, with global warming and other effects, even the R months now are months in which oysters contain high levels of the deadly bacteria.

KNOY: Do you eat raw oysters?

MITCHELL: I really think the question is whether people who are at high risk should eat raw oysters.

KNOY: Who's on that list of people who should not be eating raw shellfish?

MITCHELL: Well, the people who are at high risk for developing food-borne illness from raw oysters include those with liver disease, cirrhosis, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, AIDS. Those people, CSPI, my organization, FDA, and others are emphatic in saying those people should not eat raw oysters.

KNOY: Darren Mitchell is staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Darren, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much.

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Knowing What You Eat

KNOY: The Food and Drug Administration recently reopened the issue of labeling irradiated foods. The agency is considering whether it could forego identifying irradiated products with a special label and logo. Supporters of that option say irradiation is just another food process that can help make the food safe by killing potentially toxic bacteria. But others say irradiation robs food of nutritional value and should be labeled. The debate leaves commentator Suzanne Elston wondering how well we know our food.

ELSTON: There was a time not so long ago that if you didn't grow your own food, at least you knew the person who did. But over the last century, we've become so distanced from our food that we really don't know where it comes from any more.

A couple of years ago, my local municipality was looking at rezoning all the farm land around our home. My husband went to the town meeting and made an impassioned speech. He asked the council where they thought we would get our food if we paved all our farm land. Our local councilor stood up and told him not to worry. He said that it wasn't a problem. We could simply go to the grocery store and buy what we needed.

Unfortunately, the man was serious. We ought to know where our food comes from and what's being done to it along the way. I think we should label our food, just like they used to label old steamer trunks with stickers that would tell you where it had been. Imagine a tomato covered with stickers. One might say, "Grown in Farmer Brown's field." Another would read, "Sprayed with 10 different chemicals." A third sticker might tell us the tomato was "picked green and shipped 4 days via Joe's Trucking." Then, we would start to understand how our food ends up on our tables.

Every time we allow another process or another additive to come between us and our food, we distance ourselves from it and from its source. If we're going to continue along this road, then we should put up adequate road signs that at least let us know where the food's been, and where we're headed.

KNOY: Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living on the north shore of Lake Ontario. She comes to us by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium. For more information on irradiated foods, bacteria in oysters, and mercury in fish, turn to our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org.

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KNOY: Just ahead: the high wire some Native Americans must walk, trying to balance age-old concerns for the environment with life in the modern world. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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Native American Perspectives

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Recently, Native Americans from throughout North America gathered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to share their ecological concerns. They discovered that the same conflicts over environmental policy which exist in the greater society are also found within indigenous communities. But solving these problems presents a unique challenge for Native Americans, who say they struggle to strike a balance between ancient beliefs and the economic pressures of the modern world. Richard Schiffman has our report.

(Singing and drumming)

SCHIFFMAN: The rhythms of the sun dance seem to rise out of the depths of the Earth itself and out of the vast stretches of geological time. Native peoples say they've been in North America since the last ice age, perhaps longer. They tell us that rituals like this one on the grassy plains of South Dakota have generated mystical power for thousands of years. Sun dancers go without food and water for 3 days, and they pierce their skin so that the intensity of their prayers will be heard by the Creator. From the modern rationalistic point of view, it might be hard to understand how this blood sacrifice could have an impact on the environment. But sun dancers like Manny Two Feathers believe that prayer has the power to soften hearts and change minds.

(Singing and drumming continue)

TWO FEATHERS: The biggest thing that we do there is to pray for Mother Earth and what's happening to Her. And hoping that our prayers will reach the people that are digging her and cutting her and blowing her up just to make money.

(Singing and dancing continue)

SCHIFFMAN: Manny Two Feathers and other Native Americans believe that all of us here on Earth must learn to make a sacrifice. Perhaps not of our flesh and blood but of certain creature comforts and wasteful habits.

SENSMEYER: From the beginning of time we were always taught that in order to receive, we must first give.

SCHIFFMAN: Raymond Sensmeyer belongs to the Tlingit Nation of the Alaska Panhandle.

SENSMEYER: My mother and her father and those before were forced to go to school. And there you're taught that to become a success you've got to make money. And the more money you make, the more successful you are.

(Harmonic singing)

SCHIFFMAN: This haunting song was sung by Tlingit fishermen as they paddled their long wooden boats off the Alaska coast.

(Singing continues)

SCHIFFMAN: By the late 19th century the old ways were doomed. That’s when the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs started removing Tlingit children from their homes and immersing them in the English language at residential schools. Raymond Sensmeyer remembers how teachers punished children who spoke Tlingit in class. They forced them to stick their tongues on propane tanks during the winter until they froze on, and then they tore them painfully away. Along with the suppression of their language, Sensmeyer says, the old values of living in harmony with nature were dealt a blow as well. That process was accelerated, he believes, in 1971, when the Federal Government directed native communities in Alaska to form themselves into corporate bodies. Raymond Sensmeyer himself served on the board of one of these for-profit corporations.

SENSMEYER: We were thrust into this corporation mentality not by our choosing but because we had to. And once we were in it, to survive as a corporation you had to do these things. And one of them was logging. The logging interests came in and said, "The spruce beetle's killing off your trees. If we log this area out, it's going to save the rest of the forest." And so we believed that. But lo and behold, they started cutting more and more and more and pretty soon, you know, it fed on itself.

SCHIFFMAN: The division of indigenous people in Alaska into various land claim corporations has been highly controversial in native communities. Some see these corporations as necessary for the development of one of the nation's most economically depressed areas. While others, like Raymond Sensmeyer, view them as agents for the spread of materialistic values. Values which are corrupting their people and contributing to the over-exploitation of natural resources.

SENSMEYER: Since the inception of the land claims, the suicide rate of Alaska natives has risen. It's the highest in the nation. Sometimes there have been as many as 8 or 10 suicides in a small village in the winter. And we have the highest alcoholism rates, the highest unemployment rates. We're taught by the elders one thing, and yet in school you're taught another thing. And so, we know that a dichotomy exists, and we despair. And these are the results.

SCHIFFMAN: The Tlingit people are finding it increasingly difficult to follow their traditional culture of subsistence hunting and fishing. Elsewhere in Alaska, however, the ancient life ways are stronger.

(A woman sings, beats on a drum)

SCHIFFMAN: Sarah James is singing a Gwichen welcoming song. She's a resident of one of the few remaining native communities where people still get most of their food from subsistence hunting and fishing.

JAMES: The only way we survive with the cold and harsh weather up there is that caribou tend to come back and revive us again, and migrate through our country.

(Flowing water, bird song)

SCHIFFMAN: The Gwichen appointed Sarah James the Protector of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The summer spectacle of waves of tens of thousands of caribou flowing across the tundra is one of the great remaining natural wonders of North America. But the Gwichen fear that oil exploration in the coastal plain where the animals calve may imperil the herd.

JAMES: It's a sacred place, because if it wasn't for the caribou we won't be exist today.

SCHIFFMAN: The struggle over the future of the caribou calving grounds has pitted 2 indigenous communities against one another. The Arctic Slope Corporation of the Upik Eskimo people has been pushing for oil development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whereas the Gwichen have fought against it. The Gwichen in Sarah James's region south of Alaska's Brooks Range are one of the few indigenous groups in the state that chose not to set up a corporation, but to retain their status as a protected native people. The clash between native people with very different philosophies of life is not limited to Alaska. The Hopi mesas of northern Arizona are regarded even by other Native Americans as sacred ground. It may be the last place on the continent where indigenous people still observe in full their traditional cycle of prayers and ceremonies. Ceremonies like the yearly butterfly dance.

(Singing and drumming)

SCHIFFMAN: But despite their reputation as traditionalists, not all Hopis feel the same qualms as the Hopi elders about selling the land. The Federally- mandated Tribal Council has signed multi-million dollar contracts for the mining of coal and uranium on the reservation. These mining activities have been a source of bitter controversy since the early 60s. For indigenous environmental activists like Andrea Carmen, they are symptoms of a spiritual disease within the greater society.

CARMEN: The natural world does not belong to anybody. It's not a commodity.

SCHIFFMAN: Andrea Carmen is the head of the International Indian Treaty Council, a group which lobbies for indigenous issues at the United Nations and other international forums. She says one of the current concerns of the Council is the patenting of life.

CARMEN: Over the vehement protest of the Amazon Indian people, Iowasco, which is a sacred medicine to them, a plant medicine, has been patented. Other, even food grains that indigenous peoples have developed, have been patented by companies. And the way that patenting works is kind of like a mining claim. Doesn't matter who owned it before or who used it before; if you file that claim, that belongs to you.

SCHIFFMAN: For Carmen, the patenting, and even more, the manipulation of life through genetic engineering, are threats to the sacred order of the Creation. Critics object that Andrea Carmen's stand against the commodification of natural resources and the manipulation of life through genetic engineering is a relic of a pre-technological age. Our entire consumer economy, they say, is based upon bending the material world to our human will. And they argue that even in the past, native peoples exploited plants and animals for their own use. They also practiced a kind of primitive genetic engineering in the selection and breeding of their food crops. And there is evidence that they, too, degraded ecosystems in certain cases through over-hunting and practices like slash-and-burn agriculture. Native Americans counter that while all cultures have an impact on the natural world, it is possible to live in harmony with nature. Only our attitudes have to change. Raymond Sensmeyer.

SENSMEYER: The values of civilization on a global scale have got to change. Time is of the essence. There's not a whole lot of time left. The Mother Earth is on the verge of collapse, and She's sick.

SCHIFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman.

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KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

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KNOY: Next week: Air quality at the top of the world has hit bottom. In Nepal's capitol, Katmandu, car and factory emissions are out of control, causing a dramatic rise in respiratory problems.

MAN: I remember coming back and falling sick immediately: cough, sore throat. And I used to think something was wrong with me. But then I saw everyone around me was coughing as well.

KNOY: The smog of Shangri-La, next week on Living on Earth. Our program is produced by Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyke, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We also had help this week from Alison Dean, Aly Constine, Chris Burdick, Paul Ahn, Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. The executive producer is Steve Curwood. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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