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

May 21, 1999

Air Date: May 21, 1999


Europe and Bio-Tech Foods / Bob Carty

Bob Carty reports on opposition to genetically-altered foods in Europe. Bio-tech producers like Monsanto say protesters are using scare-tactics to urge grocers to pull products from shelves. But a new study from Scotland that suggests genetically-modified potatoes harmed the immune system of rats has added fuel to the debate. (12:05)

Makah Whaling

Host Steve Curwood talks with reporters Orlando de Guzman and Terry FitzPatrick about the taking of a whale this week by the Makah Indian tribe in waters off Washington state. They discuss the importance of the hunt for the tribe and its implications for a meeting this week of the International Whaling Commission. (06:05)

Listener Letters

This week, listeners respond to recent stories on the future of coal power, the cost of lumber, and roadkill in the classroom. (02:00)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Ansel Adams, the visionary photographer who died 15 years ago this month. His work spanned 70 years and shaped America's vision of its West. (01:30)

Environmental News Roundup

Living On Earth’s Washington observer Mark Hertsgaard briefs host Steve Curwood on the latest environmental news from Washington, D.C., including: new vehicle emissions standards, a courtroom defeat for the EPA, and anti-environmental riders in Congress. (06:45)

New York City Gardens / Amy Eddings

An eleventh-hour deal to save some New York City community gardens from the auction block the future of other urban plots in question. WNYC's Amy Eddings reports that Puerto Rican residents who frequent traditional garden plots known as "casitas" worry that these community gathering places will be demolished. (07:00)

Asbestos Legacy / John Rudolph

The carcinogen asbestos has been banned in the U.S. for decades; but as John Rudolph reports, deaths from the hazardous building material are likely to continue as cures remain illusive. Advances in gene therapy and laser treatments offer patients some hope. (10:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Amy Eddings, John Rudolph
GUESTS: Orlando de Guzman, Terry FitzPatrick, Mark Hertsgaard

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Many European consumers are rejecting genetically-modified crops, and controversy has erupted over a British study that suggests that bio-engineered foods can adversely affect the immune systems of laboratory animals. Many want these foods banned until they are proven safe.

GOODWIN: The public has now been alerted to the dangers of this, and the questions that people are asking are: is it worth taking these risks with this technology?

CURWOOD: But others say concerns about genetically-altered foods are overblown, and that opponents are using scare tactics.

MONTAGUE: Ultimately, as people learn more about the real value of the technology, and learn more about the real safety margins of the technology, the technology is adopted.

CURWOOD: Also this week, Native Americans resume whale hunting off the coast of Washington State. On Living on Earth; first this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Europe and Bio-Tech Foods

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There's a revolution going on at your dinner table. Whether you know it or not, most Americans are now eating genetically-modified foods, from crops like corn, potatoes, canola, and soybeans. Just 4 years ago no one was commercially growing these novel foods. But this year, agribusiness and farmers are planting more than 75 million acres with biotech-modified crops. Most Americans seem unaware that so many changes are happening to our food supply. But in Europe, 8 major grocery chains have banned what they call Frankenstein foods. And the public rejection has caught the biotech industry by surprise. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty reports on the roots of the European resistance.

(A crowd shouts: "Say no to GMOs! Say no to GMOs!")

CARTY: It's hard to say what the turning point was, the moment when in their hearts and heads so many Europeans decided they didn't want to eat genetically-modified foods.

(The crowd continues to shout)

CARTY: It is clear that Europeans started to take their concerns to the streets about a year ago. June 1998. About the time when the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, decided that royal diplomacy notwithstanding, he had something to say. He didn't like biotech foods. He wouldn't consume them, and he wouldn't serve them to his family or guests.



NEWSCASTER: The big American biotechnological company Monsanto has been defending itself against a strong attack from Prince Charles. He criticized the practice of genetically modifying food, saying he believed that the use of the technology took mankind into the realms that belonged to God and God alone.

(Cheering crowd)

WOMAN ON MICROPHONE: We don't want gentically engineered foods. We don't want gentically engineered food.

CARTY: Just days after that declaration by Prince Charles, protest groups began uprooting test fields of biotech crops. On one foggy night in Ireland, something called the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front attacked a Monsanto test plot of genetically-engineered sugar beets, and ceremoniously beheaded the plants.

MONSANTO SPOKESMAN: This is pure scare-mongering based on no facts, and of course farmers will still have the choice not to use these products if it's not economically of benefit to them to do so.

CARTY: It fell to officials of the Monsanto company, a leader in the industry, and certainly the most aggressive apostle of biotech foods, to try to dispel British fears. Monsanto launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign extolling the benign benefits of genetic engineering. But the campaign backfired.

(Music: "Coming through now. We're changing you now! The Mother Nature terminators of food and health and hope. 'Cause we're Monsanto! That's right, Monsanto!...")

CARTY: Across Europe, biotech foods became identified with Monsanto, and Monsanto with the specter of powerful American corporations disdainful of consumers and willing to risk human health for profits. Even members of Parliament were upset.

(Cheering crowds)

MAN: There's a hidden revolution going on in this country. This revolution's being driven by a small number of unelected, multinational companies largely based in America, at the expense of the environment, at the expense of farmers, and at the expense of consumers.

(Crowd cheers again)

CARTY: By the middle of last year, European shoppers were demanding labels on genetically altered foods. School districts in England began banning them from cafeterias. Then a major grocery store announced it would not carry any, and its sales went up. In England, 9 out of 10 consumers said that given the choice, they would avoid biotech foods. In the United States, meanwhile, one poll revealed a mere 3% of Americans were even aware that they were already eating genetically-altered food. And few had any problems with it. That had Peter Montague scratching his head. Montague is the director of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland. As he watched the growing European rejection of biotech food, he tried to understand its cultural roots.

MONTAGUE: Europeans are very concerned about this. They have fresh in their memories, at least fresh in the memories of older people, the Nazi experiments with eugenics to produce a super race by genetic selection. So they're not, they don't think of this as a benign technology. They think of it as evil. The experience in England and France with Mad Cow Disease has undercut the credibility of government. And in general, I think Europeans are more concerned about the taste and the nutritional quality of what they eat.

CARTY: European opposition to biotech food was not merely cultural. For months the press reported on the latest scientific studies, suggesting that genetically- modified crops could increase resistance in insects, increase pesticide use, promote the development of super-weeds, and possibly damage beneficial insects and birds. But the pot really started to boil with news reports of a scientist who said biotech foods could be harmful to humans.

NEWSCASTER: Today, there's a bit more evidence of the possible risks, the first evidence that GM food can actually damage our health. Researchers at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen fed rats with a new strain of potatoes that had been genetically altered to make them resistant to disease. The rats suffered from damage to their immune systems.

CARTY: The scientist who was experimenting with genetically-altered potatoes and rats was Arpad Pusztai. Arpad Pusztai had escaped Hungary during the 1956 Communist crackdown. He came to Scotland, became a chemist, and for 35 years he worked as a research scientist at the Rowett Institute, publishing 275 research papers and 3 books. He was anything but a naysayer of biotechnology. In fact, he got a $3 million research grant to explore genetic engineering. He thought it might even make him rich. He expected only positive results.

PUSZTAI: I expected the scientists working at Los Alamos during the Second World War were probably in the same situation. They were so heavily taken up and concentrating on the job at hand that they didn't have really much time to think about the implications. And I probably was in the same situation. Please don't think that I was hostile to this technology.

CARTY: But Arpad Pusztai came to the conclusion that people already eating genetically-modified foods were being used, without their consent, as guinea pigs in a mass experiment. And he said so in one brief television appearance. Well, that didn't go down well with the scientific establishment, and with politicians who had spent millions promoting biotech foods. Pusztai was forced into retirement. His scientific reputation was pilloried. But because of contract restrictions, he couldn't publish and he couldn't talk. Until now. In one of the few interviews he has given to the North American media, Pusztai explained that he was trying to find out if a certain kind of protein, called lectin, could be genetically added to crops to make them resistant to pests, without harming an animal like a rat. So he fed one group of rats potatoes laced with lectin. Other rats ate potatoes genetically engineered to make the same amount of lectin themselves. He thought that neither group would show adverse effects to such low levels of lectin. The surprise came in the group of rats eating transgenic potatoes.

PUSZTAI: Young, rapidly-growing rats, which are developing their internal organs, they are preparing for life. And the liver was depressed. Some problem with the immune system, totally surprising. We still don't know what the explanation for it. But I would stake my professional reputation on it that we do see these changes. You can only reject them at your own peril.

CARTY: The peril, according to Arpad Pusztai, is not the foreign gene inserted into the potato, but perhaps the way it is inserted. Most genetic engineering processes not only add an extra gene, they also add marker genes and virus DNA to promote or enhance the working of the new gene. Pusztai suspects that those promoters, or vectors, may be what injured the rats. Most genetically-altered foods already on the market use those vectors. It is important to point out that Pusztai's research has not yet been peer reviewed and published, and it remains to be replicated by other scientists. And so the media shouldn't jump to conclusions about the findings, according to Brian Fristensky, a plant geneticist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Fristensky suspects Pusztai's research may in some way be flawed, and he says that even if it isn't, the results don't mean a lot for the biotech industry.

FRISTENSKY: Maybe the best way to put it into perspective is to say that if you have a disaster like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, you don't see everyone giving up their cars. We don't eliminate an industry simply because we see one thing that we might not like. What we do is we work to improve it. Most of the people working in our field don't feel that there's any real intrinsic safety problem with genetically-modified plants that would be any different than you would get with traditional breeding.

CARTY: Nonetheless, Arpad Pusztai does have his supporters. Brian Goodwin is a theoretical geneticist at Shoemacker College in England.

GOODWIN: I think that Dr. Pusztai's results could well spell the death knoll of biotechnology in agriculture. Even if Pusztai's results turn out to be not as significant as we thought, the public has now been alerted to the dangers of this. And the questions that people are asking are: is it worth taking these risks with this technology? He showed that there weren't adequate tests done on the foods that were being produced by transgenic methods.


NEWSCASTER: There are more signs that consumers are turning against genetically-modified food, with the move by three fast food outlets to ban them from their menus.

WOMAN: We don't want to have genetically engineered foods...

NEWSCASTER: The owners of restaurants, cafes, and take-aways, and other caterers are to be fined up to 5,000 pounds if they fail to inform customers that the food they're buying contains certain genetically-modified ingredients.

(Cheering crowd)

WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]

CARTY: Communications strategists call what is happening in Europe a public relations meltdown for biotech foods. This week, the British Medical Association called for a moratorium on biotech food cultivation until more research determines if it could lead to allergies, antibiotic resistance, or other harm to humans. All of which is already affecting North Americans. U.S. corn farmers have seen their sales to Europe fall dramatically because the crop contains genetically-modified corn, which can't be separated from ordinary corn. Still, the biotech industry believes it can weather the storm. Mike Montague is the Director of Research Operations for the Monsanto Corporation in St. Louis.

MONTAGUE: The movement of genes from one organism to another certainly sounds scary even on the surface of it. Its interesting that virtually every new technology that has ever been introduced throughout the history of the world has met with resistance. Sometimes it comes from a perceived issue of safety. Ultimately, as people learn more about the real value of the technology, and learn more about the real safety margins of the technology, the technology is adopted.

CARTY: But others say the reverse is true: that the more people know about genetically-altered foods, the less they like them. Certainly in Europe, the acceptance of these products has been set back at least 5 years, maybe longer, according to some analysts. And slowly, in the U.S., farmers and food processors are beginning to debate the marketing merits, if not the scientific safety, of these new products. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: the Makah tribe slays its whale. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

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

(Men sing and drum)

Makah Whaling

CURWOOD: For the first time in 75 years, the Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest can call themselves whalers. A few days ago they harpooned their first migratory whale off the coast of Washington State, and towed it ashore to be butchered in a jubilant celebration.

(Singing, drumming, women's ululations)

CURWOOD: The hunt follows years of conflict pitting tribal rights against animal rights. Several anti-whaling protesters were arrested after risky attempts to disrupt the Makah on the high seas. The hunt also comes at a critical point for the International Whaling Commission, which this month is considering a dramatic change in the global ban on commercial whaling. Joining us are two reporters who have been following this, Orlando de Guzman of KUOW Public Radio in Seattle.

DE GUZMAN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: And Living on Earth's National Affairs correspondent, Terry FitzPatrick, also in Seattle.


CURWOOD: Let me turn to you first, Orlando. You were there as the Makah landed their first whale in seven decades. What was that like?

DE GUZMAN: Steve, this is certainly the biggest thing that's happened on this sleepy reservation. It was both a solemn and joyful moment as the cedar canoes paddled in, and you could clearly feel that the Makah accomplished what they set out to do, which is rekindle their cultural connection to the sea that dates back 15 centuries. The elders carefully buried the heart of the whale on the beach while singing traditional prayers, and the meat is being distributed throughout the reservation. This is the way things were until 1913, when the Makah suspended hunting because commercial whalers had nearly wiped out the gray whales. The Makah feel that resuming the hunt is a powerful assertion of what it means to be Native American.

CURWOOD: But the Makah were not out there alone. There were a number of protesters, and it must have been pretty tense there at sea.

DE GUZMAN: Quite tense, Steve. Animal rights activists had a small flotilla they used to prevent the Makah from getting close enough for a kill. And at one point protesters even ran over a surfacing whale to scare it away. They shot flares at the Makah and sprayed fire extinguishers at their faces. Now, the Coast Guard confiscated three boats and arrested about half a dozen activists. And after this intervention the Makah finally had a clear shot at the whale. And, Steve, all this happened on live TV. It was a helicopter coverage with play-by-play narration from local reporters.

CURWOOD: Those images went around the world. One could say that the protesters didn't come away from this completely defeated, did they?

DE GUZMAN: Correct, Steve. Many people were shocked to see the ocean tainted with blood and the whale writhing with a harpoon in its back. The graphic footage has tremendous propaganda value. So the animal rights groups didn't come away empty-handed. The unsettling images switched the focus away from native rights and onto animal rights.

FITZPATRICK: You know, and Steve, all of this stirs up the emotional side of the whaling debate, right on the eve of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the IWC. The timing couldn't have been more dramatic. And it's possible that this will land like a hand grenade just as the Commission begins a pretty delicate debate about relaxing the global moratorium on whaling, particularly commercial whaling.

CURWOOD: But Terry, the Makah hunt isn't a commercial operation, though. I mean, they don't plan to sell the whale meat.

FITZPATRICK: No, they don't. Correct. This was approved by the IWC as a rare exception to the moratorium for aboriginal subsistence and cultural reasons.

CURWOOD: So tell me about this proposal to relax the commercial whaling moratorium.

FITZPATRICK: Well, what's going on is there's a recognition that this moratorium hasn't stopped countries like Norway and Japan from going around the world and doing commercial whaling anyway. They just ignore the ban. And so, what's coming forward is an idea to try to reach a compromise with these countries, to contain their whaling operations. Under the proposal, Japan and Norway would be allowed to hunt inside their own territorial waters, where the fleet could be closely monitored, and there'll be rules so that whale meat could only be eaten in the country where it was harvested. And in return for legitimizing a domestic whale hunt, Japan and Norway would have to give up hunting on the high seas. Now, that would create a global sanctuary for whales in international waters, which is something that environmentalists have been pushing for, for years.

CURWOOD: Well, why is this proposal coming forward now? This whaling moratorium has been in place for what? The last 15 years?

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, 15 years. But its very name, a moratorium, implies something temporary. And in fact, the IWC was created to regulate whaling, not really to end it. And so, you know, even though the moratorium seems to have saved some types of whales from extinction at the hands of whalers, several species have recovered and could now survive some limited hunting pressure. So, what's happening is, the whaling debate is moving from a question of survival to a question of morals. And the IWC right now is taking a lot of heat for being hijacked, so to speak, by absolutists, such as the people who are opposing the Makah whaling hunt up here. By people who oppose any whaling, period. Now, some critics think that that is just an untenable position in the long run. Some go so far as to call it cultural imperialism. And they think that if the Commission sticks to the ban as it now exists, it just runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.

CURWOOD: Well, we're just about out of time. But quickly, Orlando, what's next for the Makah? They were after just the one whale?

DE GUZMAN: The Makah have a quota of about 20 whales through the year 2004. But it's unclear when the hunting will resume, and it's also unclear if the protesters will stick around.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you both, Orlando de Guzman of KUOW.

DE GUZMAN: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: And Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure, Steve.

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, comments, from you, our listeners.

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CURWOOD: Matt Donkin, a high school social studies teacher from West Frankfort, Illinois, responded to our story on the future of coal-generated power in the United States. Mr. Donkin writes, "It wasn't so long ago that 90% of the students in my classes would raise their hands to say their dad was a coal miner. Today, most of the mines have closed and the jobs are gone. Perhaps environmentally-friendly companies could relocate to coal country, so that we could give hope to the students who pass through my classroom each day."

Our interview about the idea of pricing lumber to reflect its true ecological value caught the ear of Mark Rehmar, who hears us on KSMF out of Ashland, Oregon. Mr. Rehmar says it's naive to expect consumers to volunteer to pay more for hardwoods like oak. He suggests that a more reliable way to reduce consumption is to live in more modest-sized homes. He writes, "In making decisions on the use of wood in our home construction and finishing, smaller truly is better."

Finally, Joseph Gathman, a listener to WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan, liked the idea of using roadkill as a classroom tool. But he was not impressed with the students' interests in reducing roadkill. An ecologist himself, Mr. Gathman writes, "Feral cats and suburb-adapted animals like squirrels, raccoons, and possum, definitely do not need human protection. These animals frequently reach nuisance densities because they adapt so well to human environments. After all, nobody advocates saving the cockroaches."

You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or e-mail us at LOE@NPR.ORG. Our mailing address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Tapes and transcripts are $15, although you can hear us any time on the World Wide Web. Just point your browser toward www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

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

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the 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: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; 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.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: The Ford Motor Company decides to make its pickup trucks and SUVs as pollution-free as its passenger cars. 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.

(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: Fifteen years ago this month, the visionary photographer Ansel Adams died at 84. Born in San Francisco, Mr. Adams took his first snapshots at age 14 while on vacation in Yosemite National Park. He would return to Yosemite every year for the rest of his life, and the park's landscape would become the subject of his most celebrated work. In 1924, Mr. Adams joined the Sierra Club and published his first photographs in their bulletin. He remained active in the organization for almost 50 years and consulted with several US Presidents. In 1930, Mr. Adams met the photographer Paul Strand in New Mexico. Mr. Adams was impressed by the clarity and detail of Strand's work, a style that contrasted with the soft, impressionistic photos then in vogue. Two years later, Mr. Adams helped found a group called F-64, which championed large-format cameras and small aperture settings to sharpen images and increase depth of field. In the years that followed, Ansel Adams' work would shape America's vision of its West. He taught a generation of photographers and left behind images so vivid that many viewers felt they could put their hands into the photographs and touch mountaintops, rivers, and trees. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Environmental News Roundup

CURWOOD: Here now to talk with us about the recent environmental news out of Washington is Living on Earth's Washington observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi there, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, there's been a lot of movement recently on the issue of emissions standards for personal vehicles, particularly light trucks and sport utility vehicles. The biggest news of late is the announcement from Ford Motor Company that as early as this fall, their pickup trucks and SUVs will be no more polluting than ordinary passenger cars. What do you make of this?

HERTSGAARD: I think that Ford has obviously seen what the German and Japanese companies already realize, which is that it pays to be seen as environmentally responsible. Essentially, what Ford is doing is beating the timetable that Carol Browner, the EPA Administrator, has already announced for cleaning up the smog emissions of the nation's automobile fleet. Ms. Browner has said that she wants all the cars in this country to be producing 89% less smog by the year 2004, 100% less by the year 2007, and that SUVs will be held to the same standards. And what Ford has decided with its recent announcement is that we're going to do that at Ford starting this year in the 2000 model year. What still remains to be seen, however, is whether Ford would do the same thing with its fuel efficiency. Whether it makes sport utility vehicles get as many miles a gallon as passenger cars. Then that would be a really significant advance in terms of air quality.

CURWOOD: They could market it as the guilt-free SUV.

HERTSGAARD: (Laughs) Well, we'll see.

CURWOOD: Now, we also have to consider whether or not agencies are going to be able to make rules to begin with. Can you walk us through this recent court case by the D.C. Court of Appeals, this ruling that blocks a whole set of Federal air quality regulations for smog and soot and ozone? What consequences will this have for Federal regulation of air quality?

HERTSGAARD: That court case, Steve, is extremely significant, and in fact the standards on passenger cars are just one of the areas that it could effect. EPA officials tell me, and environmentalists say it should not affect Ms. Browner's initiative in that area. Of course, the American Trucking Association, which brought the suit that was upheld recently, say yes it does. And industry in general is saying look, we have to revisit all of these questions. The basic finding of the court was that Congress did not properly delegate its authority in allowing the EPA to set those standards. In the case of this specific instance, it was standards about ground-level ozone and soot, basically the particulates that come out of our car and truck exhaust pipes. What's interesting about the case, is that the court did not hold that ozone is somehow not dangerous. It said that in fact it's very dangerous. Basically, it's much more of a constitutional argument, saying that EPA did not have the right to make those specific regulations without explaining them better. The reason this is important is that it essentially goes to the entire Constitutional basis of Federal regulatory branches. And this decision, taken to its logical extreme, would put many of the regulatory agencies out of business. It would essentially say that OSHA, food safety, you name it, cannot set these standards. That Congress has to do that.

CURWOOD: This is a pretty big deal. Is it likely to be upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court?

HERTSGAARD: It will certainly be appealed, and of course one can never predict what the court will do. However, it would seem certainly very plausible that it would be overturned. The reason being that this ruling essentially stands in the way of 50 years of legal precedent. The Supreme Court has been very clear on this, as recently as 1989. And essentially, it's what they call the Chevron Rule, in which the Court said, look, in today's complex society, it is simply impractical to expect the Congress to micro-manage the regulations that come out of all the Federal agencies. The average Congressperson cannot possibly decide whether ozone levels should be at 12 parts per million or 8 parts per million. That's what we pay our scientists and the EPA to do. So it seems very unlikely that this law will be sustained. But in the meantime, it does throw a monkey wrench into environmental regulation.

CURWOOD: Now, the other big story right now, of course, is the fate of the Emergency Spending Bills for Kosovo and for victims of Hurricane Mitch. There are some anti-environmental riders attached to these bills. And there was a time when President Clinton said he would automatically veto something like that, but recently he's changing his tune. What's at stake in these measures?

HERTSGAARD: There's three measures that are giving ire to the environmental community here in Washington. One has to do with oil and gas giveaways, and the other that really, really gets people going concerns mining laws. In fact, one of the activists at PIRG, the Public Interest Research Group, said that this -- she had a great line, that this is “legislative ambulance-chasing.” Big polluters are capitalizing on the suffering of people in Kosovo to get special favors. And what they point to there is the way that Senator Slade Gorton of Washington has introduced a rider that would essentially prevent the Department of Interior from enforcing the 1872 Mining Act. Now that might sound strange to some of your listeners who know what the 1872 Mining Act is, because that's one of the biggest giveaways here in Washington. It essentially allows mining companies to take minerals out of Federal lands in the West at the price of $2.50 an acre, which has been a bete noir to environmentalists for a very long time. The reason, though, that Slade Gorton and his backers in the mining industry don't like it, is that there's another part of that provision, which says that you only get 5 acres of waste site for your mine. That was fine in the 1870s, but with today's mining techniques it's not enough. So that's why the Department of Interior has tried to begin to enforce this, and this rider would prevent that.

CURWOOD: It's ironic, then, that the mining industry has said that they liked this legislation for so long, now would like to change it when it's being used to enforce the law against them.

HERTSGAARD: Hugely ironic. I mean, they've benefitted from this for a very long time, and one environmentalist told me this week, "Would you ever imagine that someone would try and weaken the 1872 Mining Act? It boggles the mind."

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Mark, for joining us. Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist and author and is Living on Earth's Washington observer. We'll talk to you again soon, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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New York City Gardens

CURWOOD: About 20 years ago, New York City officials began allowing residents to garden on abandoned city-owned lots, most of them in run-down neighborhoods. Gardeners got a chance to spruce up the community and enjoy fresh vegetables and flowers to boot, while the city maintained the right to sell the land at any time. Recently, the city tried to do just that, and began to auction off about 112 of its 700 gardens. In the process, the Mayor's Office unleashed an uproar. Two land conservancy groups stepped in and brokered a deal at the eleventh hour to buy the threatened properties. From member station WNYC, Amy Eddings reports on why the fight to save the gardens galvanized so many New Yorkers, and why the fight is still not over.

(A crowd shouts: "Save the gardens! Stop the auctions! Save the gardens! Stop the auctions!")

EDDINGS: For many New Yorkers, saving over 100 community gardens from the auction block was an easy issue to get behind. After all, they figured, what's not to love about a flower? Or a protester dressed like one? Demonstrations, like this sit-in in the middle of a busy Manhattan street, were often colorful, flower-filled, and costumed affairs. But the anger and concern were always present. This protester, arrested with 62 others for blocking traffic, voiced the frustrations of many.

WOMAN: This is what it's come to: volunteer gardeners being arrested!

EDDINGS: Hours before bidding was to start, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani struck a deal with two land conservation groups the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project, founded by singer Bette Midler. They bought more than 100 gardens for $4.2 million. Brooklyn City Councilman and garden advocate Steven DiBrienza says he's happy the gardens were saved, but no so happy about the way it was done.

DIBRIENZA: You have to be worried that good, well-meaning, not-for-profit, environmental-oriented groups had to spend time and money to save what this administration could have given its citizens for free.

EDDINGS: Although some politicians and garden advocates think Mayor Giuliani won't try to auction gardens off again, no one knows for sure. And even those gardens that aren't on the auction block have uncertain futures. Rincon Criollo is one of them. The garden stands on East 158th Street in the South Bronx. It's scheduled to be demolished to make way for low-income housing. The garden is a good example of how neighborhood institutions have grown out of a program that was intended to encourage temporary use of city land.

(Drumming and singing in Spanish)

EDDINGS: Three men and a young boy sing Plena, the folklore music of Puerto Rico. Garden members make the drums for Plena called panderitas, teach kids how to play them, and teach them how to dance and cook the traditional way. Spanish-speaking neighbors bring government documents here to get help filling them out or translating them. And member Luis Ramos says anyone can help themselves to the bounty of the garden, which he loves to show off.

RAMOS: This is Georgy Riveras' plot. The guy, you see him out here at 5 o'clock in the morning. He got peppers growing here. He got broccoli, eggplant, Yankee beans. See that green bush over there? That's medicinal. We call that in our culture yerba buena, good grass.

EDDINGS: The resourcefulness of the garden is evident everywhere you look. Old lumber forms the sides of raised beds. Bricks cleared from the once- abandoned lot are used in paths. Plastic PVC drain pipes make a fine arbor for grape vines. And in the middle of the garden, constructed out of cast-off wood, carpeting, and linoleum, is a little house, or casita, the center of any Puerto Rican garden in New York City. Carmen Serano says casitas bring back memories of her childhood.

SERANO: This is really good compared to where I was raised. So it just brings me back to my roots. My roots.

EDDINGS: Although designed to remind Puerto Ricans of home, casitas aren't meant to be lived in. Jane Weissman, a garden consultant and the former head of Operation Green Thumb, the city program that manages the community gardens, says they act like museums for the community.

WEISMAN: And when you go in, you'll see maps of Puerto Rico. You'll see newspaper articles about local politicians, or about baseball players. It's not to say that people don't sit in that casita. Of course they do. But the real life of a casita garden takes place in what is known as the batay, or the yard.

(Singing and drumming continues)

EDDINGS: In the batay, in front of the Rincon Criollo casita, the number of musicians has swelled and folks are helping themselves to cups of chicken soup steaming in an open pot set over coals. The irony of vibrant community gardens like Rincon Criollo is that in the process of sprucing up downtrodden neighborhoods, the gardens may be planting the seeds of their own doom by making the community more attractive to real estate developers. Rincon Criollo stands on the site where new houses are scheduled to be built. Jose Manuel Soto, another founder of the garden, is upset by this. He says he's not opposed to housing. He just wants to have a say in the matter.

SOTO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the community was looking ugly, he beautified it. Now that he's done all this work, why don't they collaborate with us? So we can continue beautifying the community, instead of trying to cut us off and not being part of the community.

EDDINGS: Similar concerns are being raised by gardeners whose plots were recently bought by the Trust for Public Land and the New York Restoration Project. These gardeners are angry they weren't part of the negotiations, and they fear the new owners will try to butt in and change the way gardens have been running themselves for years. The land conservation groups say that while some oversight is in order, they don't plan on being micro- managers. At Rincon Criollo, founder Jose Manuel Soto is more worried about losing a place where neighbors can relax, and Puerto Ricans can celebrate a culture they feel increasingly isolated from.

SOTO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: He feels not only himself, he feels bad, but also the community in general will suffer very much. Because if the government came here and saw the way we celebrate our culture and our traditions, they'll know that this is a place that's needed in the community.

EDDINGS: Rincon Criollo members say they'll go to court to try to keep their garden from being developed. Other garden sites that aren't slated for city assisted housing projects could be put up for sale in another auction this fall, but officials haven't decided whether to do that yet. Garden supporters vow to keep a watchful eye on the process, and they hope that in the meantime, the city, local politicians, and land conservation groups can come up with other ways to preserve community gardens than expensive last-minute deals. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.

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CURWOOD: Coming up: asbestos ever after. Living with the long-term health effects of environmental poisons. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Asbestos Legacy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Federal Government banned asbestos as a building material in the United States a decade ago, but health problems still remain. People exposed to what was once called the miracle building material are still battling disease. Each year, as many as 3,000 people in the United States die from mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by breathing in tiny asbestos fibers. Even though there are strict laws designed to protect people from asbestos exposure, medical researchers believe that waves of asbestos-related deaths will continue well into the 21st century. John Rudolph reports on the reasons for the ongoing threat.

(Humming; motors)

RUDOLPH: In a sterile white room at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, 67-year-old Don Hardy lies on a metal table. Overhead a CAT scan machine takes X-rays of Hardy's lungs and abdomen, as a mechanical voice coaches him to regulate his breathing.

VOICE: Breathe in. Hold your breath.

RUDOLPH: Hardy figures he's had this test performed about 20 times over the past 4 years.

HARDY: I was doing it on a monthly basis, then on a 2-month basis. And now it's been probably averaging about every 3 months.

RUDOLPH: Plus there have been countless chest X-rays, blood tests, and other medical procedures. All part of Don Hardy's battle against mesothelioma, a particularly dangerous type of cancer that surrounds the lungs with a thin, sheet-like tumor. Each time Hardy enters the hospital for a test, the same thoughts go through his mind.

HARDY: Hopefully the pictures come out well, and also that the results are good. But I'm thankful that they have the equipment to do this.

RUDOLPH: For 35 years Don Hardy worked in construction, first as an asbestos installer in factories and power plants, and later, after asbestos was banned as a building material, as an asbestos remover. Often, he was surrounded by clouds of asbestos dust. Unlike most of his coworkers, Hardy wore a homemade mask on the job because breathing the dust gave him headaches. But he says he had no idea of the cancer risk he faced from inhaling the tiny asbestos fibers.

HARDY: Not until the banning of the product came out in the 70s was any of us really aware of the hazard that it caused. I enjoyed the work. In fact asbestos cement was a great product to work with. You'd mix a slurry of that and it made your hands so soft and smooth. People, you know, that were exposed to it in our line of work early on never had a problem. We used to mix it with the bare hand because it was great, it was a great product.

RUDOLPH: It wasn't until 1994 that Hardy was told he had what some workers call "the big M." Mesothelioma, the disease that almost no one survives. Most people don't live more than 18 months after being diagnosed.

HARDY: The disease has been traumatic for everyone it's been kind of, you know, connected with it. You're always constantly reminded that it's not, you know, there's something wrong. It becomes a drain, and people have to be strong to, you know, to survive that. I know in my own case, my family is constantly worrying.

(Hospital machinery. Woman: "You just have surgery?")

RUDOLPH: At the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, doctors see a steady stream of patients with mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos. These patients hope not to join the estimated 171,000 American workers who have died from asbestos-related cancer over the past 30 years. Nearly 19 million American workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos during World War II and the postwar building boom. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral. It's fireproof, easy to apply, and virtually indestructible. Before it was banned, asbestos was used in huge quantities, mainly as an insulating material in buildings, in ships, and in many manufactured products. Researchers predict that the first years of the next century will see tens of thousands of mesothelioma deaths in the US. Even higher death rates are forecast for Europe, as well as many developing countries where asbestos is still mined and used as a building material. Dr. Daniel Sterman is a mesothelioma researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

STERMAN: Even if we, no one else in America was exposed to asbestos again, starting tomorrow, we would still have a marked increase in the number of cases over the next 10 to 15 years.

RUDOLPH: But why is this hazardous material still causing so many deaths? One reason is that diseases caused by asbestos usually don't occur until 20 or 30 years after a person is exposed. The microscopic fibers stay inside the body forever, causing slow changes over time. The 1960s and 70s saw the first major wave of mesotheliomas in the US. The victims were mainly shipyard workers exposed to asbestos during the massive shipbuilding effort of the second World War. The second mesothelioma wave includes factory employees and construction workers like Don Hardy, who worked with asbestos in the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Steven Levin is an authority on occupational safety and health at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital.

LEVIN: There was a huge wave of construction of schools, office buildings, other kinds of structures. And often by building code, those buildings had to have in them asbestos insulation, called for by code. The workers who installed those materials had very significant exposures, and that gave rise to much of the mesothelioma cases that we've seen, really, in the 1980s and continues through the current time.

RUDOLPH: And will there be a third wave of mesotheliomas? Definitely, says Dr. Levin. He says those at high risk include workers involved in removing old asbestos from buildings.

NASSRY: Okay. In New York, in order to do asbestos abatement, the first step is to construct worker decontamination chamber. What you're seeing is the skeleton, the structure of worker decontamination chamber. We're going to walk through this chamber right now...

RUDOLPH: At the Big Apple Occupational Safety Corporation in New York City, instructor Enayat Nassry trains a group of construction workers in the legally required methods for handling asbestos that's being torn out of a building.

NASSRY: So we try to control the dust. For centuries nations controlled the dust with spraying some water, so that's what we are doing. It's also required by the Federal and State and city government. And then all this waste...


RUDOLPH: Asbestos removal, or abatement, as it's called, is a multi-billion- dollar industry. New York City alone has dozens of asbestos abatement companies. Today's regulations contrast sharply with practices that were common years ago. Masks and protective clothing are required. Areas where asbestos is being removed must be sealed in plastic, and workers are required to shower each time they leave a contaminated site. New York City's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, Joel Miele, contends that the risk of asbestos exposure is now virtually nil.

MIELE: Clearly, the exposure of not any workman but people in the nearby area has been reduced to the point where I believe that the risk is absolutely minimal.

RUDOLPH: But while the threat has been reduced, Commissioner Miele admits his department lacks the resources to inspect many asbestos removal jobs. In fact, he says, 70% of the smaller asbestos removal projects in the city are never seen by a government inspector. In the view of Dr. Steven Levin, the lack of government oversight in New York and around the country creates a serious health threat for asbestos workers.

LEVIN: It is possible technically to protect them very well. And at times those removal workers are protected very well; they're not always protected very well. But the issue is not whether we know how to do it technically, but do we have the political will, and are we willing to devote the resources to making sure that those people are not placed at risk?

(Hospital sounds)

RUDOLPH: Equally pressing is the need to find a cure for mesothelioma. The usual cancer therapies, radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy, can't stop the disease. So far, victories have been rare, but they have occurred, and Don Hardy is one of them. Hardy has undergone 2 highly experimental treatments. The first, gene therapy, attempted to genetically alter the cancer cells in Hardy's body to make them appear as though they were infected with a virus. Hardy was then given an antiviral drug to hopefully kill the genetically- changed cells. In the second experiment, doctors used a laser to burn away the tumor around Hardy's lungs. A few hours after his latest CAT scan, Hardy's doctor, Joseph Fridberg, has good news. The X-ray shows the tumor has all but vanished.

FRIDBERG: So really, whatever it is is completely stable. We'll take it. I mean, this is -- it would be extremely uncharacteristic of mesothelioma to just --

HARDY:-- Lie back like that --

FRIDBERG: -- and not do anything.

HARDY: That's great news for me.

FRIEDBERG: It is -- controls --

HARDY: You know, my family's anxiously waiting for what kind of results did you get today? So I'll relay that to them.

FRIDBERG: All good news.

HARDY: It's worth a trip down in that traffic. (Fridberg laughs)

RUDOLPH: Unfortunately, Don Hardy's case is an exception. The majority of people who've undergone experimental mesothelioma treatments at the University of Pennsylvania have died. But Don Hardy has beaten the odds, surviving more than 3 years longer than most people diagnosed with the disease. No one can say, however, if a treatment will be discovered in time to save other workers already exposed to high levels of asbestos, and facing the threat of mesothelioma in the coming decades. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: How a little church just outside Albany, New York, kept from being swallowed up by the expansion of a huge shopping mall, and in the process changed the way an entire town dealt with suburban sprawl.

MAN: There was a basically a defeatist attitude in our town that it was a done deal. And apparently was just going to steamroll over the town. And then this little congregation of Methodists stood up and said no.

CURWOOD: The little congregation that could, next time on Living on Earth. Our staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepard, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Cynthia Graber, Chris Berdik, Paul Ahn, and Mahri Lowinger. And we bid a fond farewell to producer and reporter Dan Grossman, who is headed back to the university to better understand atmospheric change. Michael Aharon composed our 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. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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