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

August 27, 1999

Air Date: August 27, 1999


Trumpeter Swans: Of Lead, Whirligigs, and E.B. White / Bob Carty

Compassion and creativity can be powerful together, especially when you add in some persistence and a sense of urgency about an endangered species. Bob Carty has this story of a device used to scoop gun-shot out of waters where the bullet lead is poisoning Trumpeter Swans. Author E.B. White reads from his book, "The Trumpet of the Swan." and the music in the piece is by Jane Sibbery. (14:10)

Green Roofs

In heavily-paved urban areas, a good downpour can quickly overwhelm a municipal sewer system. But an ancient building technique that's popular in Europe suggests a way to alleviate the problem: add a touch of green to the roof. Roof-top vegetation provides insulation, cooling and waterproofing; and it can help prevent runoff, too. Here in the U.S., the idea is just catching on. Steve talks with Tom Liptan, a storm water specialist for Portland, Oregon. Two years ago Mr. Liptan built a green roof on top of his garage. (05:35)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the passenger pigeon, 85 years gone. (01:30)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Positive Developments / Peter Thomson

There are new technologies and new community-based efforts that are helping clean up water at its source and keep it clean. In the final installment of our series, Living On Earth’s senior correspondent Peter Thomson looks at some of the positive developments in "The Thirst For Safe Water." (16:05)

Human Gardens

Steve talks with gerontologist William Thomas about his new book Lessons from Hannah: Secrets to a Life Worth Living. Dr. Thomas explains the importance of the environment in the lives of the elderly, and how, with the addition of plants and animals, nursing homes can become vibrant, living places, or "human gardens." (07:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Peter Thomson
GUESTS: Tom Lipton, William Thomas

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

CAMERON: If you're interested in the inside works of a swan, they have an extra loop in their windpipe. And that's what gives them the trumpet sound. (Swans trumpet in the background) Almost like a French horn, sort of thing. (More and louder trumpets)
The trumpet of the swan may be threatened by lead, lead leaching from shotgun pellets in waters near hunting areas. One Canadian couple has a way to get the lead out.

FOXHOLE: We call it the whirligig. (Clanking sounds)

CURWOOD: Also, grass roofs: a unique solution to controlling the problems and pollution of storm runoff.

LIPTON: These roof tops actually hold a lot of water, and the water that does flow off them is dramatically slowed down. Its runoff rate is much slower than just a regular roof.

CURWOOD: We'll have those stories and more this week on Living on Earth. But first, the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Trumpeter Swans: Of Lead, Whirligigs, and E.B. White

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Compassion and creativity are powerful forces. They can become even more powerful together, especially when you add in some persistence and a sense of urgency about an endangered species.Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty has our lead story this week. It's the story of a book, a bird, and some bullets.

CARTY: I remember some years ago introducing my son to his first chapter book. It was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Three full weeks of delightful nightly bedtime reading. Which is why, when I heard a story about trumpeter swans, I decided to drive out to a swamp in the middle of southern Ontario to see some people who are trying to make that book come alive.

(Guitar and E.B. White narration: "They all swam downwind to the end of the pond. They pumped their necks up and down. There was a tremendous commotion: wings beating, feet racing, water churned to a froth. And presently, wonder of wonders, there were 7 swans in the air." Fade to a running brook or stream)

CAMERON: Look right over there. You see 5 birds coming in? That's the prettiest sight you've ever seen. These free-flying birds, man, coming in, and they just come right over top, like a concord and they're calling.

(Swans trumpeting)

CAMERON: Listen to this, you'll hear sounds coming now.

(Trumpeting continues)

CARTY: That's beautiful.

CAMERON: Unreal, eh?

CARTY: Mary Cameron is the swan keeper at the Y-Marsh Wildlife Center, about an hour and a half north of Toronto. And beside her is a trumpeter swan named Sidekick. Sidekick has deep black eyes, a black bill, and snow white feathers everywhere else, and she almost comes up to Mary's face. This is North America's largest water fowl: 5 feet tall with a wingspan of almost 7 feet. Wings that are so powerful that an angry trumpeter swan can beat a man to death. But the bird beside Mary is gentle and playful. Mary nods her head. Sidekick bobs her 3-foot-long neck. Mary makes a noise and the bird imitates.

(Sidekick blurts)

CAMERON: If you're interested in the inside works of a swan, they have an extra loop in their windpipe and that's what gives them the trumpet sound. Almost like a French Horn sort of thing.


CAMERON: They have a great repertoire of sounds and everything and everything has a meaning. And I just wish I understood it all.


CARTY: The author E.B. White wrote his book about trumpeter swans in 1970, in part because at the time they had almost disappeared. The Y-Marsh is one of several locations where conservationists like Don Foxhole and Kim Gavin are trying to reintroduce the bird.

GAVIN: Y-Marsh is a cattail marsh. You can easily see muskrat, beaver, blue-wing teals, mallard ducks, snapping turtles, a whole array of wildlife. Traditionally, both the Huron and the Iroquois Indians were in this area. One of the reasons we got into the trumpeter swan reintroduction program was archaeological studies had shown that there was bones from trumpeter swans, and that perhaps that may have been one of the main diet sources for the Huron Indians.

CARTY: Native people may have hunted trumpeter swans, but they didn't threaten the species. Trumpeter swans have been known to be able to fly even with an arrow stuck in their bodies. So until 200 years ago, the North American population of trumpeter swans numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But then, as Don Foxhole explains, a new weapon came to the marshes.

FOXHOLE: They declined primarily because of the advent or the introduction of firearms, and a trade in their skins. And that would include the large primary feathers and the down. By 1937 trumpeter swans were considered on their way out, because they could find less than 100 in North America. The gene pool was so low they felt that they weren't going to survive.

CARTY: Trumpeter swans were put on the Endangered Species List, and they might have gone the way of the carrier pigeon. But then, a separate population of trumpeter swans, previously unknown, was discovered in Alaska. Since the 1950s conservationists have been breeding those Alaskan swans with the remaining stock in central North America.

FOXHOLE: Y-Marsh got into the trumpeter swan reintroduction program in 1989. We first released trumpeter swans in 1991; in Œ93 we had the first wild nesting swan in Ontario in over 200 years. That's a free nest. That was a big day for us when we had wild-produced trumpeter swans.

CARTY: But then things went terribly wrong. The trumpeter swans were sick and dying.

FOXHOLE: They weren't flying. They're not eating and they're very lethargic and they gape a lot, like their bill's opening and closing a lot. We would take them over to the local vet service and they would subsequently X-ray them. And it became obvious on the X-ray plates that they had ingested lead. There was lead in their gizzards and you could actually see the pulse on the X- rays.

CARTY: Where's the lead from?

FOXHOLE: This is a hunting area, and lead was, is from spent shotgun shells.

CARTY: Shotgun shells. Before the wildlife area was created, the Y-Marsh was a favorite spot for duck hunters. Every shotgun shell contains up to 260 lead pellets. And most of those pellets don't hit their target but fall into the swamp and settle on the bottom. And lead kills. Ironically, all of this was foreseen by the author E.B. White. In his book The Trumpet of the Swan, the father Cobb introduces his young cygnets to the swamp and to its hazards.

(Guitar and E.B. White narration: "Welcome to the pond and the swamp adjacent," he said. "Welcome to water. Welcome to danger, which you must guard against. Beware of lead pellets that lie on the bottom of all ponds, that's there by the guns of hunters. Don't eat them. They'll poison you." Fade to gurgling water.)

CARTY: But the trumpeter swans of Y-Marsh haven't read E.B. White, and Kim Gavin says his warnings have proven all too true.

GAVIN: During the spring there's obviously not a lot of plant material available, so the swans will dig for things such as fingernail clams.And a lot of times they'll also pick up pellets, mistaking it for grit to help aid in the digestion of their food. Consequently, this goes into their gizzard, where it's broken down and moves into their bloodstream, causing neurological damage, not eating at all, and eventually going into secluded areas where they will fall prey to either scavengers or die.

CARTY: The trumpeter swan reintroduction program was in trouble. Forty percent of the birds were dying because of lead poisoning. Hunters had been prohibited from using lead gunshot in the area for years, but decades of earlier hunting had left maybe millions of lead pellets in the swamp sediment. It was a problem that defied simple solutions. Kim Gavin.

GAVIN: People obviously set out first to excavate the lead pellets. You can't go into a wetland and start excavating large areas. The environmental damage to that is just too large to even imagine. The other recommendation was that you use a large magnet to pull the pellets out. Well, lead is not magnetic, so therefore we had to rule that option out as well. We had to find a solution that was going to be the least environmental damage to the surrounding wetland.

CARTY: Kim Gavin and Don Foxhole began scouring the Internet, looking around the world to see how others had solved the lead pellet problem. And they found ÷ nothing. So they began their own experiments. If they couldn't take the lead pellets out of the swamp, they wondered if it was possible to make them sink deeper. Trumpeter swans usually feed in only the top 2 inches of the sediment. If the pellets sank below 4 inches, the birds couldn't get at them. At first they experimented with a system of air injection but that disturbed the sediment too much. And then they came up with a totally novel idea.

(Loud engine)

CARTY: To see the way they solved the problem, Don and Kim took me for a 20-minute motorboat ride out to the far end of the Y- Marshwhere, floating on top of the water, beside the cattails, was a small barge. And on top of it, a very odd-looking machine. The only one of its kind in the world.

FOXHOLE: We call it the whirligig, after an aquatic beetle that screws around on the surface of the water, is specially adapted to live at the water's surface. On the end of the barge there's a mini-excavator arm mounted. And at the end of the excavator arm there's a device we call ÷ it's a lead-sinking device, and it's a vibrator. It's 3 feet wide and approximately 5 feet long and it has a series of tempered metal rods 28 inches long. It looks similar to a hairbrush, with very wide tines.

CARTY: For a very big head.

FOXHOLE: For a very big head, yeah. (Laughs) It would be kind of brutal combing your hair with it. (Laughs with Kim)

CARTY: Can you show me how it works?

FOXHOLE: Yeah. (Engine revs up) We're just repositioning the vibrator device. We'll put it down into the sediment. The vibrator for probably 8 seconds, lift it back up, move it over, and treat the area in an arc at the end of this boom. (Engine continues) And our research and testing has proven that this device and the technique that we're using is extremely effective in moving lead pellets below the reach of trumpeter swans. (Clanking sounds along with the engine sounds)

CARTY: Kim, you have a big smile.

GAVIN: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about this, actually. This is the first time I've had a chance to come out and actually see it remediating a site. We've been working on this project since 1994, and to think that something so simplistic is doing something that hopefully will be beneficial in the long run, for the health of marshes.

CARTY: So, what do your friends say when you tell them that you're out in a swamp with a vibrator?

GAVIN: (Laughs) I get it all the time. That's what I mean, that's why we like to use the word whirligigs for the vibrator. (Laughs)

(Engine and clanking sounds)

CARTY: The vibrator, or the lead pellet sinking device, is slowly covering the hot spots in the swamp: the places where the swans nest and where there used to be a lot of hunting. So far it seems to be a great success. Some birds still have low levels of lead in their blood, but the number of lead poisoning deaths is down from 40% to 5%. And the company that developed the vibrator has taken out a patent and is hoping to use it in remediating other wetlands across North America. A story with a happy ending, almost. As an independent charity, the Y-Marsh Wildlife Center has had some financial difficulties. It had to lay off many of its staff. There will still be some funds to continue the lead sinking program, but the people who have come to know and love the swans have received layoff notices. Mary Cameron is finished in 30 days. She's thinking a lot about her birds, and the experiences she has had with them: experiences right out of a children's book.

CAMERON: When you sit on the shore and have an adult male sit beside you, and you're sitting watching his cygnets hatch out in the nest, and you're accepted 2 days later when the little babies are off the nest, and you walk in and sit amongst the family, and they just sit there and watch the babies and watch you and you're totally accepted. And (sighs) yeah, next month I'm done.

(A swan trumpets)

CAMERON: But that's okay, as long as the birds are looked after. That's all that matters. If I ever come back to Y-Marsh again, I hope to see 6- and 7-generation swans living here at marsh or around the area. I'd like to come back here and I would like to see thousands of birds flying over giving this call. That's what I would like to see happen.

Back to top

(Guitar and singing: "Neck white and eager, my trumpeter swan. Gliding through the first of fronds..." Fade to E.B. White narration: "And if you had looked up you would have seen, high overhead, 2 great white birds. They flew swiftly, their legs stretched out straight behind, their long white necks stretched out ahead. Their powerful wings beating steady and strong. A thrilling noise in the sky, a sound like the sound of trumpets." Fade to singing: "We feel your love, oh trumpeter swan. Oh, live on. Oh, live on." Fade to swans trumpeting.)

CURWOOD: Our report on trumpeter swans was produced by Bob Carty. The late author E.B. White was recorded reading from his bookThe Trumpet of the Swan. The music is by Jane Sibbery.

(Music up and under, with trumpet solo.)

CURWOOD: Coming up: grass roofs, a colorful and efficient Old World solution to the modern problems of storm runoff. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Green Roofs

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When it rains, the saying goes, it pours. And in cities it usually pours off the roof. In heavily-paved urban areas, a good downpour can quickly overwhelm a municipal sewer system. But an ancient building technique that's popular in Europe suggests a way to alleviate the problem: add a touch of green to the roof. Rooftop vegetation provides insulation, cooling, and waterproofing, and it can help prevent runoff, too. Several German cities already require so-called green roofs on all new commercial buildings. Here in the US, the idea is just catching on, and we found one of its proponents. Tom Lipton is a storm water specialist for Portland, Oregon, a city where sewer overflows are common. Two years ago Mr. Lipton built a green roof on the top of his garage. He told me he got the idea one evening standing at his kitchen sink.

LIPTON: One day my wife and I were washing the dishes, and I picked up this new soap, dishwashing soap that she had purchased and I was looking at the label. It was a really nice label, and it was from Belgium. And as I read it, down at the bottom it said that this Belgian factory had the largest grass roof in the world. And it had an 800 number on it, and I thought well why don't I call it? And then something clicked in my mind and I thought: roof gardens and storm water. So I made a phone call to the company representative who was in California, and they sent me some information, and that's where I first started seeing information that said yes, these roof tops actually hold a lot of water, and the water that does flow off them is dramatically slowed down. Its runoff rate is much slower than just a regular roof.

CURWOOD: So what exactly does this thing look like?

LIPTON: Right now, from the sidewalk, you would see the dried flowers from the plants when they bloomed back in April, May, and June, it was blooming. And so, those flower stalks are still on the plants. I'm trying not to garden this roof top, I'm trying to let it go and see what happens. And it changes. It's a very dynamic roof system in the sense that it changes with the seasons. The plants turn different colors, sort of a mosaic of color with the different types of seed and with red and yellow and green. And this time of year is when it gets a little bit brown, which sort of represents this characteristic we have in the west of the dry summers. And that's beautiful, too.

CURWOOD: Now, this roof is really a research project for you, right?

LIPTON: Yes, it is, right.

CURWOOD: And so, what kind of data have you gotten so far?

LIPTON: Two pieces of information. One is that I've been monitoring the amount of water that has -- the amount of rainfall we've had. So I have a rain gauge. And then I just literally measure the total volume of water that has run off, and then I subtract the difference, and that's the amount that stays on the roof.

CURWOOD: Okay, so tell us: how much stays on the roof?

LIPTON: Well, it varies. And to give you an idea, I actually have a chart that I've been keeping. So, for instance, last August we had about an inch and a half of rainfall and it held about 95% of that rainfall.

CURWOOD: Because it's pretty dry in August.

LIPTON: Right. Then in October, we had about 6-1/2 inches of rainfall and it held, percentage-wise, about 30% of that. So then it started dropping off dramatically as we -- because once we hit October, November, December, January, and February, it was so wet, and we did have a higher than normal rainfall. But it was down at around 30, as low as 15% in January.

CURWOOD: Now, Europeans do this. In some cases on a large industrial
scale, you've discovered. Now, why do you think it's taking so long for it to catch on in this country?

LIPTON: I guess because it seems like a wild idea. It doesn't seem like it's practical. But yet, what I found now is that it appears more and more practical every day. And the other is, I don't think we in the United States considered this building technique as a storm water management tool, and that's probably the key, I think. Because in Europe it appears from most of the literature that they were definitely looking at this as a means of holding water and keeping it out of their combined sewer systems. For instance, in Europe they will, in many cities, give you a discount on your sewer bill. So you pay less sewage fee than the person who doesn't have this type of roof system. As a matter of fact, we're thinking if that's something we might try to develop here for the city is a way to compensate for that, if the owner has this type of roof.

CURWOOD: Let's say someone listening to us now says, "Okay, I think I'll build myself one of these." How do they go about it?

LIPTON: Well, I have a book at the office that is -- it's a do-it-yourself, small-scale roof gardening book. It's written in German so I can't read any of it (Curwood laughs) but it has a lot of pictures.


LIPTON: I think it would be -- I would encourage people to one, definitely look at the structure of their building and get some professional advice. I know a little bit about structural -- structures on a small scale, so I felt very comfortable in looking at doing the work on mine. But they should check with someone who knows structure. They need to either know about plants themselves and soil, or have someone help them with that. So there's a whole range of issues with plant materials, soils, the structure of the building that they might be interested in doing this to.

CURWOOD: Tom Lipton is a storm water specialist for the city of Portland, Oregon. Thank you so much for taking this time with us.

LIPTON: Well, thank you, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And visit our Web page at www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.
You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; 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.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Coming up: When it comes to getting a glass of clean water, some people reach for a bottle or filter their tap. But others say: stop pollution at the source and provide clean drinking water for all. Our series The Thirst for Safe Water continues in just a few minutes, here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Barrett Communications, delivering strategic marketing communications and design for business worldwide: www.barrett.com.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Eighty-five years ago, passenger pigeons went the way of the dodo when Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Wild passenger pigeons used to migrate in huge flocks, by some accounts in the billions up and down the eastern part of North America, foraging for acorns and beech nuts. When roosting they could cover hundreds of square miles of forest. The flocks were reported the darken the sky when flying overhead, and their flapping wings created a din that one observer described this way: "Imagine a thousand threshing machines, accompanied by as many steamboats, with an equal quota of railroad trains passing through covered bridges, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they pass in rapid flight." That roar was often accompanied by the sound of gunfire, as the pigeons were a favorite target for hunters. The pigeons were shot for sustenance, for sport, and for sale. Roasted passenger pigeons were a delicacy in fine restaurants in the 1800s, and back in the 1700s colonists couldn't get enough of pigeon pot pie. As for Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon, you can still take a gander at her if you like. She was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice right after she died on September 1, 1914, and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where she remains on display today. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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(Music up and under)

The Thirst for Safe Water: Positive Developments

CURWOOD: The days of catastrophic epidemics of water-borne diseases are long gone in the U.S. But, millions of Americans still get sick from microbes and chemicals in their water supply. Fear and uncertainty have led many to look for solutions in their own households, such as buying bottled water and filters. But not everyone can afford these amenities, and there's no guarantee they're absolutely pure. But, there may be a solution in broader community efforts. In the final installment of our series, Living on Earth's senior correspondent Peter Thomson looks at some of the positive developments in "The Thirst for Safe Water."

(Sounds of a container being filled from a running tap)

THOMSON: In the kitchen of her modest Philadelphia home, Alice Ginsberg
sticks a clear plastic container under her faucet and turns on the tap. (Sound of running water)

GINSBERG: I use a water filter that we just put in the refrigerator and fill it up with tap water and change the filter every few months. We really hate the way Philadelphia water tastes without the filter, and also cause, ya know, we've heard a lot of stories about contaminants in the water. In fact, there was one time when there was so much in it, in the newspaper, that we wouldn't even drink water in a restaurant.

THOMSON: What were the contaminants they were talking about?

GINSBERG: I haven't the faintest idea. I just know they're bad and I don't want them in my body or my son's body.

THOMSON: Do you know that this gets rid of them?

GINSBERG: I know its better than nothing.

THOMSON: Alice Ginsberg is able to pay for that extra measure of security. And she has good reason to worry. Recent research suggests a link between elevated levels of murkiness in Philadelphia's water and the numbers of people who visit city hospitals for gastrointestinal problems. The city disputes that research. It says its water is as good as any in the country. But that may be faint praise, because nation-wide, microbes and chemicals in drinking water are making many people sick.

OLSON: We probably have something in the neighborhood of seven million people every year getting sick in the U.S. each year from drinking their tap water. But that's just on the microbial side.

THOMSON: Erik Olson is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

OLSON: For the chemicals, estimates have ranged in the neighborhood of nine, ten thousand cancers per year.

THOMSON: Mr. Olson says one of the main reasons for these illnesses is antiquated treatment systems. Most of the country's large watersystems, including Philadelphia's, disinfect their water with chlorine, then filter it through sand and coal. It's old technology, and Erik Olson says its not up to today's challenges.

OLSON: What we now know is there are a lot of organisms, like cryptosporidium, other germs, that can get right through those treatment plants. And there are also many chemicals, like synthetic organic chemicals, industrial chemicals, pesticides, that can slip right past the existing treatment technology.

THOMSON: But there are alternatives.

(Sounds of waves lapping, birds, motor boat)

THOMSON: Ten miles north of Philadelphia, the Delaware River is a broad expanse of murky brown water. It carries effluent from upstream factories, runoff from farms, and treated sewage from scores of towns within its watershed. On the river's west bank, sits one of Philadelphia's stately old brick and stone pump houses. It draws Delaware River water into the city's treatment system. On the other side of the river there's a drab concrete and steel pump house. It also draws water from the Delaware, but its treatment system is far more advanced.

DIXON: We built the plant with an eye toward the future.

THOMSON: Kevin Dixon is responsible for water quality at the New Jersey-American Water Company. When three rural southern New Jersey counties began draining their underground aquifer a few years ago, Mr. Dixon says they had no choice but to turn to the polluted Delaware. But they did have a choice of treatment technology. Instead of the chlorine disinfectant used in conventional treatment, this plant uses ozone gas. And in place of sand and coal filters, it uses granular activated carbon; like the stuff you'd find in a fish tank.

DIXON: Between the combination of the ozone and the granular carbon, we feel we can deal with any threat that would be present on the water.

(Sounds of whoosh and whir of vacuum pump)

THOMSON: Inside the New Jersey-American plant, partially-treated water
surges through a labyrinth of pumps, pipes and pools. One of its first stops is an ozone chamber.

DIXON: Ozone is the most powerful disinfectant in the world today. It's very effective at destroying bacteria and viruses, and it's also very useful in damaging the shell that protects organisms such as cryptosporidium.

THOMSON: The parasite cryptosporidium is a major new threat to drinking water. In 1993, it killed more than 70 people in Milwaukee and made hundreds of thousands sick. Cryptosporidium is one of the hardest microbes to get rid of. Even chlorine doesn't work very well against it. But Kevin Dixon says the combination of ozone and granular activated carbon does.

DIXON: The ozone is able to soften that shell and actually crack it, so that the rest of our treatment process can really cause it to be destroyed and removed in the treatment plant.

THOMSON: He says the ozone and granular carbon also do a better job of removing chemical pollutants. Finally, Kevin Dixon says, the system reduces an additional problem known as disinfection byproducts, which many conventional treatment plants actually create.

DIXON: In a conventional plant, chlorine added to water causes the formation of organic chemicals, one group of which is the trihalomethanes.

THOMSON: These have been linked to cancer, and to miscarriages in humans.

DIXON: The level of compounds that we create through the treatment process is a mere fraction of the compounds that are created by a more conventional facility. If you can attribute health effects to those compounds, by virtue of the fact that they're not present in the supply that we produce, obviously then the water would be safer.

OLSON: This plant represents the next wave of how water is going to be treated in the United States and really in much of the industrialized world.

THOMSON: That's Erik Olson again, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group usually plays the critic, not the booster. But Mr. Olson says the technology at the New Jersey-American plant is revolutionary. He calls it a third breakthrough in water delivery.

OLSON: The first was when the Romans started to pipe water into people's houses. The second was around World War One, when we started treating the water by filtering it through sand and using chlorine to treat it. And we are right now on the cusp of a shift to advanced water treatment technology.

THOMSON: Erik Olson says this kind of technology isn't needed everywhere, but he says more and more water systems will have to switch to ozone, activated carbon, or both. as the federal government tightens rules for contaminants like cryptosporidium and disinfection byproducts. But new technology isn't the whole answer. Just about everyone agrees these days that its just as important to clean up the sources of drinking water, and to keep them from getting polluted in the first place. So dozens of watershed protection efforts are springing up around the country.

BOLE: This is a model of a watershed. It has houses, it has farms, it has industries, it has forest. Now, what that we're gonna call this Flint Creek? Do y'all know where Flint Creek is?

CHILD: Isn't it over there by the Tennessee River?

THOMSON: At the Austinville Elementary School in Decatur, Alabama, a group of fourth graders crowds around a brightly colored plastic model of a small town. They're listening to Brad Bole, head of the Flint Creek Watershed Project.

BOLE: Why would we need Flint Creek? Why is Flint Creek important to us? What do we use water for?

STUDENT: To drink.

BOLE: To drink, that would be the main source wouldn't it?

THOMSON: Brad Bole finds out what the kids know about water quality in their community. Then he dusts his plastic model town with brown cinnamon and uses a plant sprayer to show how rain carries different substances from farms, factories and homes into the local river.

BOLE: What does he put on the grass to make it grow?

STUDENTS: Fertilizer!

BOLE: Fertilizer, yeah.

STUDENTS: Chemicals!

BOLE: Chemicals, that's right.

BOLE: The next night, a big rain comes.

(Sound of sprayer squirting)

BOLE: Uh, oh.


BOLE: What happened to all his fertilizer and chemicals?

STUDENTS: Oh! Pollution!

BOLE: It's pollution isn't it? Where does it go?

STUDENTS: The creek!

BOLE: Which creek is that?

STUDENTS: Flint Creek!!

BOLE: Flint Creek! So, what can he do to prevent that from happening?

STUDENT: Measure it.

BOLE All right, we can measure it. How do we know how much to put on there? And where do we find that information?

(Sounds of creek; birds, cicadas)

THOMSON: The Flint Creek Watershed spans three, thickly-forested Alabama counties on the south side of the Tennessee river. Much of its 150 miles of streams are a chalky, cocoa brown, so choked with nutrients from agricultural runoff and treated sewage that they support few fish. The small town of Hartselle used to get its drinking water from the creek, but a few years ago it had to shut down its pumps, it had just gotten too expensive to treat the water.

BOLE: When we first began, some people knew there was pollution going into the creek but didn't realize that what they were actually doing was contributing to that and what they don't know they can't fix.

THOMSON: It's Brad Bole's job to help people here understand their watershed, and help them get the information, the tools and money they need to start to fix it. He works in the watershed's urban and rural areas, with everyone from school kids to developers to farmers.

(Sounds of bugs, birds)

SUMMERFORD: My name is Jack Summerford, I've lived on this farm all my life. I'm 55 years old. I raise cattle and chickens.

THOMSON: Jack Summerford's pastures are exuberantly green. His oak and sweet gum trees a metropolis of songbirds and 13-year cicadas. But its not quite as idyllic as it seems.

SUMMERFORD: Ya know, I used to pollute as much as anybody, I guess. You know not intentionally, nobody else does it intentionally, they just do things the way they've always done, and they don't realize really what they are doing.

THOMSON: A few years ago, Jack Summerford had a revelation. He started hearing about what's called non-point pollution: stuff that doesn't come out of a factory pipe or a sewage treatment plant. It turned out that his simple, 150-acre farm was one of those non-point sources. Every day his hundred or so cows would wander down to the creek to drink and to cool off under big drooping trees. And they'd do what every creature does.

(Sound of cow manure plopping)
... they'd answer nature's call... leaving their waste on the stream bank, or even in the stream itself. The manure coming off this farm and dozens of others here was overloading Flint Creek with nutrients and bacteria. Then, Mr. Summerford heard about Brad Bole's watershed project. He got the know-how and the money he needed to keep the cattle away from the creek using what's called rotational grazing.

(Footfalls walking through grass)

SUMMERFORD: We'll split this into 3 different pastures, and have water
troughs. We'll have alternative shade and there'll be very little pollution then.

THOMSON: The new grazing system helps keep the manure on Jack Summerford's fields, where its nutrients make the grass grow taller and fuller, and away from the creek. The watershed project also helps him and other farmers cut stream bank erosion, and learn how to manage chicken waste and other fertilizers they spread on their fields, so less of it runs off during rainstorms.

SUMMERFORD: Ya know everybody's working for the future, to see what we need to do for the future ya know.

(sound of dog splashing in water, snorting and shaking)

THOMSON: Jack's shaggy black dog Dixie wallows in the muddy creek. His neighbor John Tanner says he can already see a difference in the water.

TANNER: That creek, if you'd been on it two years ago you could see a difference from what it is today. It's not near as bad, I don't think. It don't look as bad anyway. The fellers that fish in it say the fish is better in it than it was two years ago, so evidently it's gonna be a long project but evidently we're gaining some ground.

THOMSON: And there are hard numbers to back up this casual observation.
Project leader Brad Bole says a key indicator of water quality, known as dissolved oxygen, has improved substantially in the last year. And the project has brought other changes, too. Concern over water quality was partly behind a decision to start regular trash pickup in one county, and to impose some of the area's first zoning restrictions, around part of Flint Creek long known as the "nasty branch." Jack Summerford says the locally-run watershed effort has helped change the way people here think about their environment in general.

SUMMERFORD: A lot of people are aware of it and not throwing their bottles out the windows and in the creeks and all that. I don't believe that God wanted us to destroy the Earth, we supposed to leave it like we found it. I believe that there's some scripture talking about the ones that pollute the earth will be destroyed.

(Sounds of water flowing)

THOMSON: The changes rippling through this small Alabama watershed are inspiring. But this small-scale effort also has its limitations. In five years, the Flint Creek project has drawn up conservation plans for only about 200 of the watershed's 1,000 farms. It's partly a matter of money, and partly one of willingness to get involved. Like most other watershed projects, this is a voluntary effort, and many people who are part of the problem just aren't volunteering. Also, compared to the scale of the problem, voluntary watershed projects in general can only make a small dent. The federal government says non-point pollution and agricultural runoff in particular, is the biggest threat to the nation's waterways. The EPA plans to start imposing mandatory changes on some of the worst offenders, but the problem is immense. Every square inch of land in the U.S. is part of a watershed or ground water system. And it involves just about every type of human activity. So change is coming only very slowly. But there are things that people concerned about pollution in their watersheds, and contaminants coming out of their taps, can do to try to speed things up.

OLSON: Citizens have an array of options under the law. First of all, they can demand a change from their water system and from their government to try to persuade their state representatives, their members of Congress to fix the problem.

THOMSON: That's Erik Olson again, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

OLSON: If that doesn't seem to be working, the law authorizes a lawsuit against the water utility that's violating the law.

THOMSON: In fact, federal water protection laws provide a number of powerful levers with which to pursue better water quality, such as citizen lawsuits against government agencies which they feel have been too lax. There are also little-known parts of the laws that could have a big impact if they were more broadly enforced.

OLSON: States are supposed to issue these rules called total maximum daily loads. They say how much of a particular pollutant is allowed to be dumped into a large stream or river. And the states have not been very good about issuing these controls. What's resulted from this is very recently citizens groups have started suing states all over the country, trying to force these total maximum daily loads to be issued. And I do think that over the long term, this is going to yield real benefits for drinking water protection.

THOMSON: Ultimately, we'll only get the quality of water that we're willing to fight for and to pay for. Better safeguards will cost more money. And we'll all have to decide whether to make an investment for the benefit of everyone, or to try to quench our thirst for safe water one tap at a time.

(Kitchen tap being turned on )
Back in her kitchen in Philadelphia, Alice Ginsberg says she'd gladly pay more than she already spends on water filters to get better water straight out of her tap.

GINSBERG: I would much rather just think that anytime we drank a glass of water it was better. Actually, one year I went Christmas shopping with a friend of mine and she just went to Macy's and bought like 20 Britas. I said "why are you giving everyone a Brita?" and she said "I'm tired of going to everyones house and not being able to drink their water. So I'm just giving everyone a Brita and then I know I'll be able to drink the water wherever I go." So, I think I'd much rather just have a cleaner water supply.

THOMSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: We go back to the garden with the man who's out to make nursing homes more hospitable. Dr. William Thomas and the Eden Alternative is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Human Gardens

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thoughts of nursing homes often evoke images of sterile, inhospitable places. But it doesn't have to be that way. For the past few years, gerontologist Dr. William Thomas has dedicated his life to creating vibrant, living environments for the elderly. Plants, animals, and children are bound in what he calls his Eden Alternatives. And studies have shown that the quality of life for the residents in these facilities jumps in comparison to a standard nursing home. Dr. Thomas works with hundreds of these human gardens across the US and Canada. He is currently traveling around the country, promoting his second book about improving the quality of life for nursing home residents. It's called Lessons from Hannah: Secrets to a Live Worth Living. I asked Dr. Thomas to explain the importance of the environment in the lives of the elderly.

THOMAS: There is a deep-seated, indeed I would say fundamental need for
human beings to connect to the world around them. For thousands of generations, human beings, particularly elders, have lived their days close to plants and animals and children, in harmony with those things. And it's only very recently that we've come up with the notion that somehow these things can be dispensed with. That a sterile medical institutional environment will somehow suffice.

CURWOOD: You've dedicated your career to building these human gardens in nursing homes.


CURWOOD: Briefly describe what you mean.

THOMAS: Let's imagine you have in your community maybe a nursing home. Maybe there's 80 people living there. We would help people who run that nursing home take it and turn it into a garden. For example, in that 80-bed nursing home there might be 180 birds: parakeets, love birds, finches, cockatiels. There might be 1,000 green, growing plants. Not the plastic plants, and not the plants that are maintained by the professional gardeners in the lobby. I mean green, growing plants right next to the elders in their rooms. Oh, there might be 10 or 12 cats. There might be 5 or 6 dogs. There will probably be a couple of chinchillas, maybe some rabbits.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Chinchillas!

THOMAS: Oh, yes, chinchillas -- they're wonderful animals. And there will be children in the building and in and among the elders every day.

CURWOOD: And what are some of the changes, differences, that you've seen?

THOMAS: Well, I think a couple of things. First off, the elderly there have a better quality of life. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean, literally we've been able to measure that they're healthier, require fewer medications, live longer. They have less depression, less agitation or kind of calling out or striking out.

CURWOOD: Can you throw some numbers on those?

THOMAS: Sure. For example, we did a study in upstate New York where we found a 25% reduction in the death rate, a 75% reduction in the use of medication over a 2-year period of time. And indeed, a 50% reduction in the infection rate. And this was all compared to a control nursing home. And really, what those numbers demonstrate is that people who are living in a rich, green, natural environment are more resistant to disease, less likely to die, and require fewer medications, than people living in a sterile institutional environment.

CURWOOD: I'd like to turn now to your book. And you have to tell me: is this a novel, or is this autobiography, this Learning from Hannah?

THOMAS: It's an autobiographical novel. It weaves together magic and fantasy with reality.

CURWOOD: So, this book is really a folk tale, then. It's about you and a woman named Jude, and your wife's name is Judith. So I guess you're talking about the same person here.


CURWOOD: And it's a classic kind of tale. You're shipwrecked. You're thrown on an island called --

THOMAS: Calamos

CURWOOD: Calamos. And on this island you learn, essentially, the secrets
of life. And you have put them together in 10 rules. And I'm wondering if you could read to us those rules that you --

THOMAS: I would be happy to. In this land of Calamos, the elders there live at the heart of society. Indeed, the elders of Calamos are the beating heart of society. And I'm actually, in the book I'm a big shot smart geriatrician, who supposedly knows everything about aging. And in Calamos I become the student of an older woman. And she teaches me the following lessons.
The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom, account for the bulk of suffering in a human community. Life in a human community revolves around close and continuing contact with children, plants, and animals. Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. In a human community we must provide easy access to human and animal companionship. To give care to another makes us stronger. To receive care gracefully is a pleasure and an art. A healthy human community promotes both of these virtues in its daily life, seeking always to balance one with another. Trust in each other allows us the pleasure of answering the needs of the moment. When we fill our lives with variety and spontaneity, we honor the world and our place in it. Meaning is the food and water that nourishes the human spirit. It strengthens us. The counterfeits of meaning tempt us with hollow promises. In the end they always leave us empty and alone. Medical treatment should be the servant of genuine care, never its master. In a human community, the wisdom of the elders grows in direct proportion to the honor and respect accorded to them. Human growth must never be separated from human life. And then, finally, wise leadership is the life blood of any struggle against the three plagues. In short, there can be no substitute.

CURWOOD: And the three plagues again are?

THOMAS: Loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.

CURWOOD: And boredom. So, what are the changes we need to make?

THOMAS: Well, actually, I'll tell you. I think that we're standing at the beginning of an incredible era of transformation and change in the field of aging. The baby boom generation, I can say as a geriatrician, is beginning to look at aging. And they don't like what they see. They see an institutional model of long-term care that is not serving people well. And they're going to want more natural alternatives. And quickly, I think you're going to see changes in long-term care institutions. They're going to become elder gardens. Human habitats where we can nurture and sustain our elders, not long-term treatment facilities. I think you're going to see a very much increased reliance on herbal remedies and treatments for elders, because they're so much more gentle and have so much fewer side effects. And then finally, I think you're going to see a flowering in our society that is going to bring aging into our consciousness, and we're going to begin to see more honor accorded to our elders.

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

THOMAS: Yes, Steve.

CURWOOD: Bill Thomas's new book is called Learning from Hannah: Secrets for a Life Worth Living. Thank you.

THOMAS: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. We're produced by the
World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon Greenbaum, Cynthia Graeber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alison Dean, Maggie Villeger, and Maury Lowenger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the 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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