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

June 4, 1999

Air Date: June 4, 1999


Brains and the Environment / Steve Curwood

The science is in the early stages, but doctors and other health researchers are becoming increasingly concerned that a wide range of synthetic chemicals and pollutants may be linked to brain disorders, ranging from attention deficit disorder to autism. Host Steve Curwood reports from a recent conference of health experts in New York. (07:30)

Lessons of Hurricane Mitch / Ingrid Lobet

Last fall Hurricane Mitch slammed into Honduras and devastated the nation's harvest, tearing away at small steep plots of corn and beans and burying valuable fruit and vegetable export farms. The storm exposed the long-term vulnerabilities of Honduran agriculture. And some say the priority given to export crops in the cleanup effort may be making the country's problems worse. Ingrid Lobet reports. (09:40)

The Dreaded Black Fly / Sy Montegomery

They’re bloodthirsty. They’re vicious. They are the tiny black flies that infest northern New England and torment tourists and natives alike for the weeks of early summer. Commentator Sy Montegomery delves into what makes black flies the eternal foe of New Englanders. (02:45)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the Gila (HEE-lah) National Wilderness and its native lizard, the Gila Monster. ()

Road Rage

A recent study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an anti-sprawl lobbying group in Washington, D.C., concludes that the lack of transportation alternatives contributes to aggressive driving. Steve Curwood talks with the executive director of the group, Roy Kienitz. (04:35)

Pedestrian Fatalities in NYC / Neal Rauch

In New York City, there are complaints that drivers get away with breaking the law -- going so far as injuring and killing people -- without even having to pay a fine. Neal Rauch reports. (04:45)

City Trees / Scott Allen

The century-old trees that grace many of our country's urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tail pipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Steve talks with Boston Globe environmental correspondent Scott Allen. (06:15)

Farmer George / Lex Gillespie

Another title George Washington can lay claim to is "Pioneer Farmer." In an era when most American farmers practiced the "slash and burn" farming techniques common in many developing countries today, Washington was on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Lex Gillespie has our report. (07:40)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Neal Rauch, Lex Gillespie
GUESTS: Roy Kienitz, Scott Allen
COMMENTATOR: Sy Montgomery

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.
The science is in the early stages, but doctors and other health researchers are becoming increasingly concerned that a wide range of synthetic chemicals and pollutants may be linked to brain disorders.

LANDRIGAN: I'd be willing to bet that if we were to reconvene here in 2025, we'd be able to present a chart on the wall that would indicate that specific factors in the environment probably are responsible
for two thirds or 80% of cases of mental deficit, learning disability, perhaps even autism in children.

CURWOOD: But until science proves these chemicals are dangerous, they can still be sold. Also, Honduran farmers deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch almost a year later. And the black flies are back. That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Brains and the Environment

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Milling crowd indoors)

CURWOOD: Hundreds of scientists have gathered here at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan to discuss threats to children's brain development. The conference is one of the first of its kind: a call for more research on the possible links between chemicals in the environment and many common but serious brain disorders. Attention deficit disorder, autism, and Parkinson's disease dominate the agenda, though there are also concerns about delinquency, crime, and cerebral palsy. The common denominator is a deep sense of frustration and the lack of hard data to confirm the suspicions of many participants.

(Audience applause)

MAN: You really take a hard look at what we know about this issue. And there's not a lot out there. The stakes are huge, and yet there's not a lot out there.

GOLDMAN: In commerce in the United States today, we have between 70,000 and 80,000 chemicals that have been manufactured in this country. And the extent of our ignorance about the toxic effects of these chemicals is truly appalling.

CURWOOD: Neurobehavioral disorders can range in severity from dyslexia to cerebral palsy and affect at least 3% of all Americans. While genetic components have been identified as a factor in some cases, three-quarters of these disorders are still of unknown origin. A slew of suspects were discussed at the conference, among them pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and heavy metals, including lead and manganese.

LANDRIGAN: It's hard to mount rational campaigns of prevention if you don't know what you're preventing.

CURWOOD: Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a sponsor of the conference, says researchers studying neurobehavioral disorders today are about where cancer researchers were in the early 1960s. At that time, there was a sense that the environment played a role in cancer, but the data weren't there. Since then, researchers have determined nearly 80% of all cancers are caused by preventable factors, such as smoking and other environmental toxins. Dr. Landrigan says the same process could be underway for neurological disorders.

LANDRIGAN: I'd be willing to bet that if we were to reconvene here in 2025, we'd be able to present a chart on the wall that would indicate that specific factors in the environment, again defined broadly, probably are responsible for two thirds or 80% of cases of mental deficit, learning disability, perhaps even autism in children.

CURWOOD: But today there is no chart. And according to Dr. Lynn Goldman, former assistant administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, without hard scientific evidence it will be difficult to protect the public from suspected hazards. Dr. Goldman says it reminds her of the debate in the 1970s over the health effects of lead, a debate which eventually led to the removal of lead from gasoline, but only after a fierce fight from the lead industry. She predicts the chemical industry today will be no less combative.

GOLDMAN: You know, there may be assertions by some that there are exposures, but the industry will come back and say, you know, where are the data? And the problem is that we just don't have the kind of information that is needed on the regulatory side.

CURWOOD: Lead is one pollutant that has been researched heavily. A number of studies show that even very low levels of lead are linked unequivocally to increases in developmental disorders, including a 6- to 7-fold increase in learning disabilities and high school dropout rates, as well as a doubling in delinquent behavior. The effects of removing lead from gasoline beginning in 1977 are clear: blood lead levels have decreased 95% since then. The sharp reduction in the nation's crime rate is also attributed by some to taking the lead out of gasoline. Among them, Roger Masters, retired professor at Dartmouth College. He studies statistics that link exposure to lead to violent crime and aggression, and is convinced that the connection between lower lead levels and lower crime rates is indisputable.

MASTERS: When you look at the curves, the decline is just plain extraordinary. It's a 15-year lag. That is, you have to take 15 years after the gas has no longer got lead in it, and look at those kids. Takes 15 years to grow a criminal.

CURWOOD: Dr. Masters says researchers tend to ignore these phenomena because they don't look long enough.

MASTERS: One of the problems with our social science is we have a memory span of about 15 milliseconds, not 15 years. So we don't go back and look at what is the effect 15 years later from taking the lead out of the gasoline? When we've done that, we find a very striking correlation between taking the lead out of gasoline and a reduction in the crime rate.

NEEDLEMAN: I wouldn't go so far as to say that. I don't have the evidence to say yes or no to that.

CURWOOD: Dr. Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh is one of the nation's preeminent researchers in the field of lead poisoning.

NEEDLEMAN: I think the data is pretty good that lead can cause impulsivity and aggression and attention deficit disorder and delinquency. But I wouldn't take it so far as to say it is the reason that crime is decreasing in this country. We just don't have the data to make that assertion.

CURWOOD: And that raises a critical question: what to do with suspected chemicals before there is clear and convincing evidence that they cause harm. Without definitive evidence, researchers including former EPA Assistant Administrator Dr. Lynn Goldman advocate a more cautious approach in allowing the public to be exposed to chemicals that may harm the developing brain.

GOLDMAN: The presumption is that they are safe until problems are identified, and there is a real issue with this: is that the appropriate assumption to make for chemicals to which children are exposed? I think there are some real concerns that the protections have not been strong enough in the laws for chemicals.

CURWOOD: Others add there is a strong economic argument in favor of taking the cautious approach, even though it could cut into short-term profits for chemical companies. Dr. Bernard Weiss of the University of Rochester School of Medicine coined a term, "econotoxicology," to suggest the economic implications of widespread neurobehavioral deficits as children grow up and enter the workforce.
Researchers and policy makers are beginning to take note. There's evidence that neurotoxins tend to lower intelligence by small amounts. But take a large group, and Dr. Weiss says the numbers add up.

WEISS: If you change the average IQ by 3 points, 3%, a very small amount, according to some calculations you've changed the number of males in jail by about 20%. You've changed the number of children who grow up in a home without a father by about the same amount. Public health really, in the end, is about small changes with big effects.

CURWOOD: Toward the end of the presentations the author of one unpublished study conducted in one southern county suggested that as many as 17% of children, or 1 in 6, have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. If that is at all reflective of national trends, finding and addressing the causes could reap huge benefits. The solution, say just about all the participants here, is more research done more quickly. Said one speaker, "If these suspected chemicals were physically deforming children like the drug thalidomide did, there would be a national outcry. But because they affect intelligence and behavior and are confounded by many other factors, far too little is being done."

(Milling conversation)

CURWOOD: This report was produced by Jesse Wegman.

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CURWOOD: Coming up, Hondurans consider some lessons of Hurricane Mitch. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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Lessons of Hurricane Mitch

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the wet season in Honduras, and for the farmers of this Central American country the rain is bringing back painful memories. Last fall Hurricane Mitch devastated the nation's harvest, tearing away at small, steep plots of corn and beans and burying valuable fruit and vegetable export farms. The storm exposed the long-term vulnerabilities of Honduran agriculture, and some say the priority given to export crops in the cleanup effort may be making the country's problems worse. Ingrid Lobet reports.

(Bird calls, footfalls)

LOBET: Honduras in Spanish means depths, and looking at a map you can see where this country got its name. It's a dramatic landscape of volcanic mountains plunging into hundreds of tiny creeks like this one, so small it's called the Rio Chiquito.

(Running stream)

LOBET: Last fall during Hurricane Mitch, this creek became a raging torrent, tearing up tree trunks as thick as oil drums. Ripping out not only hillside corn fields but the very soil they were planted in.

(Crunching rocks)

LOBET: The water washed the soil away and left a carpet of rocks where Marta Estela Saucedo Minense and her family used to farm.

MINENSE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: All this was a big corn field. The corn was high and the ears were already this big. But Hurricane Mitch wiped it all out, look. I watched as the water brought the electric poles crashing down. I could only look up at the sky and think: Lord, protect us. You have us here. You know what you're doing with us.

LOBET: People here are coping with whatever meager resources are available, joining together to pick the stones from each other's fields. If steep hillside plots like Marta Saucedo's were scoured away by creeks turned into rivers, what happened down below was slightly different. There, fertile lowland soils were in many places buried under sterile sand, as much as 6 feet of it. Maria Elena Filde's whole family farms on the Atlantic coast, and she returns to visit.

FIELDE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It used to be really good land for everything, for every culture. We planted rice, corn, beans, yuca. Whatever touched, the ground grew. But not any more. Whatever you plant dies. The leaves turn yellow and they die, all dried out. The soil is no good now; it's turned salty and bitter.

LOBET: Traditionally, Hondurans practiced two basic types of agriculture. Poorer farmers often grow corn and beans on the hillsides. Down below in the wider river valleys, exporters farm bananas, melons, and pineapples on large commercial plantations. Hurricane Mitch affected these export farms differently, depending upon their location. Up north on the Atlantic coast, flooding is frequent and sometimes even dumps fertile soil on the banana plantations. Ian Cherret, a geographer and advisor to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Honduras, says that's what happened with Mitch.

CHERRET: I know somebody who did some research who suggested that the banana companies received the soil that was deposited as worth at least $10 million in equivalent to fertilizer. Now, one of the representatives of a banana company said no, no, that was rubbish. But another representative said well, that is true; the only question is how it was deposited.

LOBET: On the south or Pacific coast, however, the flooding left exporters' fields buried under tons of boulders and stones. Some experts say more sustainable agricultural practices could have prevented some of this damage. International development groups have had their agronomists experimenting in Central America for decades, and by now they say they've found a number of ways to help keep Honduran soil in place on Honduran hillsides. Ian Cherret's work is with one such project. It's designed to protect hillside soils, in part by teaching small farmers alternatives to slash and burn agriculture, which leaves the soil exposed.

CHERRET: We need to ensure permanent coverage of the soil. Crops and systems of mulch, so you don't burn, you don't plough. You keep a permanent vegetative cover.

LOBET: Not just cover crops, says Cherret, but trees as well.

CHERRET: We have to leave the hillsides with a tree cover. And basically, large deciduous trees with deep roots. Often people here say that Honduras is 85% forest, it's the natural vegetation. I don't think we can talk about returning to the historical forest. But what you can create are systems of agro-forestry in which you can have at least 30% of your land covered with trees, and within that you can in fact farm.

LOBET: But the funding for projects like Cherret's and dozens of others in Honduras is limited. And this is where the wise use of the Honduran landscape runs head-on into the global economy. The big money for agricultural development in the country is aimed at increasing export crops. Large international funding organizations have historically preferred these projects because they generate income that can pay off debts quickly, and the foreign exchange they produce goes a long way in the Honduran economy. But Mayra Falck, an economist with the private bank Bahncafe in Tegucigalpa says focusing on these pressing short-term priorities makes funding longer- term development, including post-Mitch sustainable agriculture, almost impossible.

FALCK: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The international organizations ask you how's you're exchange rate doing? How are your interest rates? These are the questions every 6 months. What this means is that every 6 months, we have no idea what is going to happen. I can't lend money for a project for more than 6 months because I don't know whether the interest rates are going to change.

LOBET: Falck, Cherret, and some scholars, say ultimately this agricultural policy, which emphasizes high-value crops and short-term reward, is influenced by funders like the US Agency for International Development and international lenders like The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Dr. Lori Ann Thrupp is a political economist who's written extensively on agricultural policy in Latin America.

THRUPP: The international agencies really do have a significant amount of influence on the national government's decision making processes, because they depend on those agencies for loans and for funding. So, they really have a very profound effect on the strategies that are chosen.

LOBET: Thrupp says there are people working inside the international agencies who are committed to sustainable agriculture, but their ideas are not yet in broad practice on the ground.

THRUPP: If you look at agencies like The World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID, they all have environmental programs. But their environment programs are much more dealing with forestry or with protected areas or climate change. But they are less effective at becoming integrated with agriculture.

LOBET: The Agency for International Development disagrees, saying it does have a commitment to hillside agriculture. Officials point to the 15-year-long Lupe Program in Honduras, in which extension agents taught some 30,000 small farmers to improve soil fertility by planting trees among the crops and to reduce runoff with contour terracing. Honduran officials say funding for that program has ended. But John McMahon, a natural resource specialist with AID, says after last year's storm there's more recognition that lessons from projects like Lupe need wider application.

McMAHON: There is a very strong focus on trying to see what can be done to reduce the vulnerability to future events, even at a much lower scale than Hurricane Mitch. And a lot of that does get at small farmer, hillside agriculture, and watershed protection. And so I think you will see both the US government as well as other donors increasingly supporting those types of programs.

(Flowing stream)

LOBET: Weather watchers are predicting this will be an unusually wet rainy season in Central America. Up above Tegucigalpa, on the Rio Chiquito, Marta Estela Saucedo eyes the gurgling creek that became a roaring river 7 months ago.

MINENSE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the rainy season comes, who knows what kind of water will rise here again? Because in winter this creek really swells. And now with this huge beach it left here? No, it's going to be terrible.

LOBET: Ian Cherret says tropical storms on the order of Mitch are likely to keep coming at shorter and shorter intervals. Hondurans are hoping their government will seize the moment and stem the degradation of the country's land. Cherret says if Honduras does not take the long view and address issues like deforestation and soil erosion, he predicts in 10 years it will be another Haiti, a desert devoid of trees where once forested hills and fertile valleys flourished. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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The Dreaded Black Fly

CURWOOD: If you don't live in the northeastern part of North America, then you may well have been spared the black fly. So you might then wonder at the bizarre behavior that some residents of the region exhibit this time of year. Commentator Sy Montgomery explains.

MONTGOMERY: Some of us call it the New Hampshire salute. It looks like we're always trying to hail a cab. Actually, we're just flailing at the clouds of black flies around our faces. Some brave souls try to deter the bugs by wearing mesh-covered suits and hats called bug bafflers, which makes you look like an alien in an ill-fitting spacesuit. The insect's worm-like larvae live only in clean, fast-flowing streams and rivers, the very waterways that draw tourists to northern villages, mountain resorts, and fishing lodges. What the travel brochures don't report is that more than 40 species of black flies begin to emerge from these scenic waterways in late April, reaching a silent crescendo in late May or early June, and lasting into the summer. Just how bad are they? So bad that some historians think black flies might have caused the spring migrations of many tribes of Native Americans. And we're not the only continent afflicted. In Eastern Europe in 1923, the flies were so vicious that 20,000 horses, cattle, sheep, and goats actually died from their attacks. If you look at a black fly under a microscope, you can see this is one tough cookie. Only the females bite. Like the mosquito she needs blood to lay her eggs. First, she hovers. Then she alights, pats your skin with her front legs, where she has sensors to help her pick the right spot, and then the fly clamps onto you with a set of teeth in the front of her mouth. Two rows of teeth behind those saw through your skin to create a little pool of blood. As the insect sucks that up, she lowers another set of mouth parts to the wound to drool into it. That's why black fly bites bleed so much. Their drool contains a complex cocktail of chemicals that prevent blood from clotting. Ready for more bad news? They're getting worse. Used to be they're only out for a month or so in the spring, but now in some areas they're around all summer long. The reason? We've cleaned up our rivers. Pollution and industry drove many species of black flies away. Cleaner rivers mean better habitat for more species of black flies to reclaim their former range. And alas, I found nothing that really repels them. So I'm destined to a lifetime of outdoor summer weddings with my face swelled up like Quasimodo. There is, though, one feature of their behavior I can appreciate. At least they have the courtesy to stand still while you squash them. And in this, there is great heartlifting joy.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is the author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries.

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

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: 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.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: making the roads safe for drivers and walkers. 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, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: This month marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Gila National Wilderness. The Rocky Mountains in the Sierra Madre range terminate in the Gila, and parts of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts lie in it. Set aside in 1924, the Gila was the first area to receive the wilderness designation, ensuring that it would remain roadless and undeveloped. Among its flora and fauna are elk, aspen trees, and the prickly pear cactus. But its most novel species is probably the Gila monster. The Gila monster is one of two known venomous lizards. Its cousin, the Mexican beaded lizard, is the other. Striking in appearance, Gila monsters are pink with yellow and black shading, sporting dark bands on the tail. Adults may reach nearly two feet in length, making them the largest lizard in the US. They generally aren't aggressive. But if you do happen to see one, don't get too close. If they feel cornered they can turn and bite very quickly. A Gila's venom, while less toxic than most rattlesnakes, is potentially lethal, and their bites are plenty painful. See, Gila monsters don't release their victims immediately after they bite. They prefer instead to chew for a while. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Road Rage

CURWOOD: Each year in the US more than 20,000 people are killed by reckless drivers. Many people have speculated on what causes aggressive driving, and often traffic congestion gets blamed. But in a recent study, crowded roadways and fatally aggressive driving were not linked. The study was conducted by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an anti-sprawl lobbying group in Washington, DC. Executive Director Roy Kienitz says road rage is misunderstood.

KIENITZ: When you say aggressive driving, what people think of is: face turning red, pounding on the steering wheel, hitting the horn, and then doing something crazy. What we're finding is that a large number of the terrible accidents that lead to death are not caused by that so much. What they are caused by is the small aggressive incidents. Is: I'm in a hurry, I'm going to follow too close. This person in front of me is going too slow; I'm just going to zip around him on the right even though they might not see me doing it. It's not that there are these evil people out here who are doing it. This is one of these things where it's all of us. And if you put people in a system which doesn't allow them to get what they need, which is they have to drive 45 minutes every morning, the traffic is terrible, they're trying to get to home on time, and they just cut corners, that's really the type of thing that unfortunately leads to a lot of this.

CURWOOD: Now, you found that Boston has the lowest aggressive driving death rate in the country. I've got to admit, I'm surprised about this one. The Living on Earth studios are just across the river from Boston and drivers around here, I think they pride themselves on being the worst in the nation. I mean, how could Boston drivers be the safest?

KIENITZ: It's not because they're the nicest drivers. Everybody who knows Boston knows that it has a reputation for, let's say, some creative driving habits (Curwood laughs). But the city is built in such a way that that doesn't lead to the terrible consequences that it leads to in other places. There's a lot of people who are getting to work without being in their car, because they can walk, they can ride their bike, they can take public transportation. And the people who are in their cars are driving in a system which is much more oriented around the sharing the road space. And it's not only 60- and 70-mile an hour freeways and high-speed arterials in which one small mistake can lead to terrible consequences.

CURWOOD: Now, what did the cities with the most deadly aggressive drivers have in common?

KIENITZ: A total lack of alternatives to driving. I mean, these are places like Riverside, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Tampa, Florida. These are places where the car is king, where there's very little in the way of opportunity to walk, no sidewalks in half the communities, no place to walk to that's within a reasonable distance, and very little in the way of public transportation service. And that, of all the different factors we tested to try to explain the huge variation between cities, that is the one that had really the largest effect on the ultimate outcome.

CURWOOD: Isn't it part of the reason that places with better transit systems have fewer auto deaths simply because residents spend less time driving?

KIENITZ: Well, that's interesting. We looked at that question. Residents of the Boston area drive about 12% less than the average resident in the US. And that's because both people who just aren't in their cars because of public transit, and also because trip distances are shorter because it's a less sprawling, sort of more centralized community. But the aggressive driving death rate is 60% lower. A part of it is explained by simply fewer people on the road. But it's much more than that; it's really a structural thing about the nature of the community, that it promotes safe behavior.

CURWOOD: Now, even in Boston, where public transportation is pretty ample, most commuters, they do choose to drive. Why do you suppose that is?

KIENITZ: Well, we're swimming against the tide here to some degree. The budget for automobile advertising just on television and radio is more than the budget of every public transportation system in the United States put together. The more people who are sold on the freedom of the car, then the roads are more crowded. There's more demand to build new roads. The more new roads you build, there's more demand to build new subdivisions at the end of the new road. The more people live in the new subdivision, the harder it is to get them to do something else and use some other forms of transportation. And we've been going through this vicious cycle now for 50 years. There's a lot of places that are starting to go back in the other direction and realize the value of the older communities, core downtowns, there's a lot more development going there. So, I really see room for optimism here. But we're swimming against a very strong tide.

CURWOOD: Roy Kienitz is Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. Thanks for joining us.

KIENITZ: Thank you, Steve. It was my pleasure.

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Pedestrian Fatalities in NYC

CURWOOD: In New York City, pedestrians far outnumber cars. Yet even here, walkers feel they have to take a back seat to drivers. Now, by some measures, New York is safer than it used to be. The murder rate has dropped substantially over the last several years, and police are tough on even petty crimes. But don't step off the curb. Drivers can still get away with hitting pedestrians, without even having to pay a fine. Neal Rauch reports from New York.


RAUCH: Regina Auto Repair sits at this busy corner in the SoHo section of lower Manhattan. Marianna Regina's father owned this shop until he met a tragic end here in August of 1996.

REGINA: He returned to the shop from across the street. And as he was just about to reach the curb, a car backed up at high speed and hit him, throwing him about 10 or 15 feet in the air, causing him to land on his head, breaking several of his ribs, and causing brain damage, massive head trauma, and ultimately he died in the hospital 9 days later.

RAUCH: This is a one-way street, so Michael Regina never expected a car to be coming from the wrong direction. What happened to this guy?

REGINA: Nothing. After a year and a half, we finally got his license revoked. But basically this guy has, you can almost say, committed the perfect crime. He didn't even get a parking ticket, a summons. He's never seen a day in a courtroom.

RAUCH: What especially irks Marianna Regina is that the license of the man who killed her father had been suspended several times in the past, and he's received speeding tickets since the accident. District attorneys say this kind of accident is the most difficult to prosecute, with victims charging criminal recklessness, while drivers claim an unavoidable accident. And at least two traffic laws have to be broken before any criminal charges can be brought against the driver. Cars killed about 250 pedestrians and cyclists in New York City each year from 1994 to 1997, according to an advocacy group Right of Way. Right of Way member Charles Komanoff explains from a site where a fatality once occurred.


KOMANOFF: The majority of cases, the driver was largely at fault. By turning aggressively through a crosswalk, not yielding the right of way, at an unsignalized crosswalk, going through a red light, speeding, backing up, driving on the sidewalk, driving while intoxicated, etc. If you're a senior in New York City, you're more than twice as likely to be killed by a driver as by a murderer.

RAUCH: Right of Way has brought attention to what they call car violence by periodically painting street memorials to mowed down pedestrians.

KOMONOFF: A painted body outline in the street, a kind of police chalk outline that's life-sized. Six feet for an adult, three or four feet for a child, with the name of the victim, the date the person was killed, and the words, "Killed by Automobile."

RAUCH: Since 1996 they have painted some 250 memorials. City officials consider this graffiti, and last winter they arrested Charles Komanoff.

KOMANOFF: We painted a memorial to a 9-year-old kid on the sidewalk in front of the Queens Criminal Court Building, to protest the Queens District Attorney's failure to indict a driver who was unlicensed, who was fleeing the scene of two previous collisions, and who was speeding when he struck and killed a 9-year-old boy in a crosswalk on a sunny Sunday afternoon two days after Christmas.

RAUCH: The driver was only charged with traffic violations, but Charles Komanoff was jailed for 28 hours and fined for disorderly conduct. Komonoff wants to see the city's priorities changed. While he supports tough new sanctions against drunk drivers whose vehicles are seized upon arrest, he says driving while intoxicated only ranked 12th as the cause of pedestrian fatalities. The city, he says, must crack down on all forms of dangerous driving.

KOMANOFF: One way to do that is to charge drivers who kill. Another is to summons drivers for every time they intimidate or threaten or abridge the right of way of a lawfully-proceeding pedestrian.

RAUCH: And what about unlawfully-proceeding pedestrians? Does New Yorkers' famous tendency to jaywalk contribute to accidents? Right of Way's study found that aggressive turning through crosswalks is the single biggest known cause of pedestrian deaths. So the group says, ironically, careful jaywalking may often be the better way to cross in New York City. It's unlikely that city officials would endorse this view, though they declined to be interviewed for this story. City Hall claims that the number of pedestrian traffic deaths declined last year, but it refuses to release the figures. Right of Way has sued under the Freedom of Information Act to see if walking the streets of New York is indeed becoming less hazardous. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.

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CURWOOD: Okay, now's the time for you to tell us your story as a driver or as a pedestrian. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800- 218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. Urban pedestrians aren't the only ones under siege. Coming up: city trees in trouble. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

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City Trees

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The century-old trees that grace many of our countries urban centers are under assault. Development, with its encroaching asphalt, is an obvious danger. But so are more urban threats, like tailpipe exhaust, diverted water flows, and declining city budgets for tree maintenance. Scott Allen covers the environment for the Boston Globe. He says city trees didn't always have it so touch.

ALLEN: There was a huge explosion of tree planting, especially in the eastern United States and in the Midwest, in the late 19th century. It was the golden age of park building. We had very ugly cities back then, and landscape architects just went to town in our cities. And we here in New England, we benefit from it today. You know, the Emerald Necklace of parks around Boston, like the Boston Common. But 100 years is a long time for a city tree to live, period. And during that last 100 years the life that they have has really deteriorated a lot. These trees were planted at a time when we had cobblestone streets and now it's all paved. And horses were the way of transportation; now it's cars. They live with just astronomical stress compared to the years when they were first planted.

CURWOOD: So our older cities, then, in the East have this problem. What about the rest of the country, with some newer cities?

ALLEN: Well, newer cities, their problems tend to be a little bit different. They tend to have the problem of development. Newer cities are still developing. Washington and Baltimore are not new per se, but look at the sprawl and development down there. And in the past 25 years, their tree cover has dropped from 55% of the land area to just 38%. That's a loss of two million acres of urban forest due to development and urban sprawl.

CURWOOD: Now, Scott, I like to see trees in the city. But are they more important than me just enjoying them aesthetically?

ALLEN: Well, I don't want to underestimate aesthetic enjoyment, but I think that there's a lot of quantitative information that lets us know trees are even better than we used to think they were. It's not just a beauty question. Trees are marvelous at reducing temperatures. They call it the heat island effect. You go from a rural area to a city and you can feel the temperature rising. And that's the heat bouncing off buildings and asphalt. You put trees in there and you can knock temperatures down three to five degrees. That translates directly into energy savings in the summer time, and we all like it better. Trees are also terrific at preventing floods. They suck up the water that would otherwise be in people's basements. So trees do a terrific job in that regard. They also swallow carbon dioxide, our great emerging enemy of the 21st century. So trees are giving us all these benefits, and they look great doing it.

CURWOOD: Okay. So, what's happened, then, to the commitment to trees? You say Boston, cities like Boston in the East 100 years ago, they were running around planting trees. Why not today?

ALLEN: Well, I think there's been an awful lot of resting on our laurels. Today, it's popular to buy new pieces of land, it's popular to preserve historic buildings. But the whole issue of trees getting into their old age is not getting very much attention. The maintenance of a tree is not a sexy thing. It's a man with the pruning shears, it's fertilizer, it's water. And we are not investing in those in the way that we used to.

CURWOOD: Now, if you look around the United States, which US cities do you think are doing better investing in trees than others?

ALLEN: Well, Milwaukee stands out from everybody else, and arborists around the country will point to Milwaukee as the best example, at least in terms of how much money they spend on keeping their trees. Milwaukee spends about $30 per resident to take care of their trees. By comparison, the city of Boston spends $2.23, and that does not buy you proper pruning, proper watering, fertilization, and other things. It's just, the tree's on its own for all intensive purposes.

CURWOOD: So, how are we doing about planning for trees in cities?

ALLEN: Well, there is, I guess you'd say a tree movement that has picked up in the last few years. Maybe now that we've gotten so prosperous in this country, we can now start turning our attention a little bit to these other sort of less life-threatening issues. But there are people all across the country that are starting to take more responsibilities for the trees themselves. You're seeing people taking a greater interest and willing to actually pay, you know, $200, $300, $400 to get a tree put in front of their house by the Public Works Department and then maintained so that it safely reaches its maturity. And there's also an increasing amount of research going into, how can we grow trees under the harsh conditions of city living and not have them die in 12 years?

CURWOOD: So if anyone who's listening to us now has some new trees that were planted outside their house, any quick advice for them?

ALLEN: Well, unfortunately, once you've put the tree in the ground, you've sort of made the commitment. You really, the first priority is, is there enough room for the roots to spread out? And a lot of arborists would say in an urban setting, don't bother with those sidewalk trees. Get your tree back into more of an open space where the roots can spread and it can get proper water and it can grow appropriately. Once you've put the tree in the ground, I guess the best thing I can say is, stick with your tree. Go out there, water it -- it really does need water, it can't get too much in those early years, and hope for the best.

CURWOOD: What's the hope for the future of our city trees?

ALLEN: I think that the thing that made me most encouraged when I was reporting this story is that over the last four or five years citizens have begun to feel like you can't just take trees for granted and expect those men with their pruning trucks to come around and save the day. And people are beginning to take responsibility, beginning to form organizations like Trees Atlanta, or here in Boston it's called The Boston Tree Party. People are basically banding together and they're coming to their city councils and saying our trees look bad, we need to invest in them and we need to do it now for future generations. And interestingly, trees, once they're made into a political issue, they become very much like mom and apple pie. So I think the fact that people are starting to care and identify it as an issue and not just part of the landscape may be the thing that makes me most hopeful.

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

ALLEN: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Scott Allen reports for the Boston Globe.

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Farmer George

CURWOOD: George Washington is best remembered as the founding President of the United States. But he can also claim another title: pioneer farmer. In this year that marks the 200th anniversary of his death, Washington is being praised for his leadership in agriculture as well as the military and politics. In an era when most American farmers practice the slash and burn farming techniques common in many developing countries today, President Washington was on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Lex Gillespie has our report.

(Bird song; fife and drums)

GILLESPIE: At Mount Vernon, George Washington's stately Virginia home, a fife and drum band complete with tricorner hats and Colonial garb greets visitors with a familiar tune. (Fife and drums play Yankee Doodle)

GILLESPIE: Washington made Mount Vernon his home from 1754 to his death in 1799. The white mansion sits on top of a verdant bend of the Potomac River, 16 miles south of the nation's Capitol. But Mount Vernon was more than just a residence. It was also a highly productive farm.

NARRATOR: You're standing in the center of one of the most delicious spots on the entire Mount Vernon estate. For six months of the year, George Washington's fruit garden provided ripe, juicy fruit for his family and friends. Washington started this orchard just before he became President, and by the time he returned home from Philadelphia eight years later, he could enjoy cherries in June, peaches and plums in the summer, and apples and pears throughout the fall.

(Bird song)

GILLESPIE: Fruits, flowers, grains, and vegetables grew on 3,000 acres of farmland on this spacious estate. In his boyhood, as legend has it, George may have chopped down a cherry tree, but as an adult he had a green thumb. His success as a farmer comes in part from his many innovations at Mount Vernon, where he pioneered sustainable farming methods, like modern soil conservation, crop rotation, and diversification.

QUINN: The famous eulogy of Washington is, "First in war and first in peace." Now, we also feel like he was first in composting.

GILLESPIE: Michael Quinn is Deputy Director of Programs at Mount Vernon.

QUINN: Because Washington is so intent on returning nutrients to the soil. He is reclaiming the manure out of the stable, composting that and spreading it on the fields. He's taking the waste from the agricultural products, you know, whether it's the straw from the wheat, and he's again returning that to the field. He's growing green manures like buckwheat and clover and plowing them under so they rot and return their nutrients to the field. So, in every aspect of his farming, he's using compost. He used that as the Midas touch. In fact, he uses that term to make a farm yield its produce.

GILLESPIE: Of course, Washington, like most of the rich Southern farmers of his day, relied on slave labor to work on his plantation. The first President owned a total of 316 slaves at his death. When he began farming, Washington raised tobacco, the principle cash crop of the Colonial era, which required large amounts of slave labor. But he, unlike most of his contemporaries, abandoned tobacco when he noticed how much this leafy plant damaged the soil.

QUINN: I mean, to begin with, tobacco farming just gobbles up land. It lays waste to the fields, and the only way to continue is to move on to new land. And Washington just inherently was repelled by that. It was too wasteful. So he began experimenting with oat, barley, wheat, and he very quickly transformed this into a farm that grew staples: wheat primarily, but also corn and potatoes. And this was a crop that was not only kinder and gentler to the land, but it was a crop he could sell locally as well as overseas in England.


GILLESPIE: Down the hill from the mansion, Dave Moore turns over reddish- colored soil with a hoe in a patch of buckwheat. Moore, a retired agriculture teacher, is a historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, and he's dressed the part, with a floppy black hat, white shirt, and breeches. Moore is standing amidst plots of wheat, corn, cotton, potatoes, and alfalfa. In the 1750s, when Washington substituted these plants for tobacco, Moore says he experimented with novel forms of crop rotation.

MOORE: I think what made him a pioneer was the fact that he truly wanted to protect his land from eroding. I think if we look at the bottom line about Washington, we look at the erosion problem that existed back 200 years ago, and it was so severe that it was causing a lot of land to be lost. And Washington could see this. And many farmers in that time period couldn't see it. And when he saw this, he decided to do something about it, and this is when he put his seven-year rotation in. Of course, he uses the fertilizers to help improve that.

GILLESPIE: Local tobacco planters thought Washington was foolish to give up on the lucrative crop, but he continued to turn Mount Vernon into a veritable laboratory for agricultural experiments. Washington tested new varieties of wheat and special grasses for his pastures. Searching for the best fertilizer, he tried fish heads, silt from the Potomac, and even plaster of Paris. Washington also designed several unique buildings for his estate, including a brick repository for storing dung. And he ground wheat using horses in a barn with 16 sides.

QUINN. The 16-sided barn, which we have just reconstructed here at Mount Vernon, is the hallmark of Washington's creative approach to farming.

GILLESPIE: Michael Quinn.

(Threshing sounds)

QUINN: It is in fact a machine rather than a building. And its sole purpose is to improve the processing of this wheat. He originally intended for his wheat to be threshed by having the slaves beat it with flails. Well, that's horrible work. And he would come home and find instead that his slaves had put the wheat on the open ground and were trotting a horse in a circle over it. Well, he decided to stop beating his head against the wall and simply build a building that would bring inside exactly what the slaves were doing anyway. So the reason it's 16-sided is it accommodates a horse trotting in a circle. It's as close to a round building as he could build.

GILLESPIE: Washington designed the top floor of his two-story barn with open slats, so the kernels of wheat fell below to the first floor while the chaff and dung were held on the second. But not everything on Washington's farm worked out as well. He used one machine he dubbed "the spiky roller," which was supposed to break up the soil. Drawn by a horse or a mule, it's a giant wooden cylinder with dozens of spikes jutting out. But the spiky roller gave such a bumpy ride that it could damage the user's internal organs. And for shooing away pests, Washington tried other schemes.

NARRATOR: Washington thought that some combination of thick hedges, fences, and ditches, would keep deer from feasting on his fruit and vegetables. Did it work? No way. But Washington never stopped trying.

GILLESPIE: For the most part, Washington's innovations allowed him to prosper as a farmer. He exported grain as far away as the West Indies, in wooden barrels stamped GW. But farming was more than a livelihood for Washington. The first President viewed sustainable agriculture as vital to the success of the new country he led, perhaps more important than politicing or soldiering. For Living on Earth, I'm Lex Gillespie in Washington.

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, in Prince William Sound, flora and fauna aren't alone in their struggle to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill 10 years ago. The region's native fishing villages are also having trouble bouncing back.

(Surf and gulls)

WOMAN: We look out and we see that the land looks fine, but we don't feel secure any more. We keep waiting, you know, when is the next one going to happen? And will there be anything left? Once your life has been turned so upside down, it's always in the back of your mind.

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CURWOOD: An Alaskan native community copes with its loss, next week on Living on Earth. Our production staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Sheperd, Bree Horwitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Cynthia Graber, Chris Bertick, Paul Ahn, Maggie Vilagger, and Mahri Lowenger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is the technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. And congratulations to our senior editor, Joyce Hackel, and her husband Robin, on the birth of their son David. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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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; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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