Accessibility links

Breaking News

Our World Transcript — 23 September 2006

This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... 'Safe' levels of lead aren't ... A three-million year old skeleton ... and an unlikely environment story

ADELMANN: "Tall grass prairie remnants, oak savanna. Some of our wetland communities and so forth are extraordinarily rare, rarer than the tropical rainforest."

And that's the big city of Chicago he's talking about. Those stories, voices from the past on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The Space Shuttle Atlantis ended an almost 12-day-long mission to the International Space Station on Thursday. Both launch and landing were delayed by weather and technical issues. Shuttle astronauts delivered and installed construction supplies for the space station.

The next mission is scheduled for mid-December, when shuttle Discovery will deliver more components to the space station.

NASA describes the space shuttle as the most complex machine ever built. Among the vast array of materials that go into the shuttle are elements known as heavy metals.

The heavy metal group include some highly toxic substances. One of the most common is lead, which has been used as a motor fuel additive, a paint whitener, and in plumbing connections. It can cause a host of medical problems, including brain damage. Some scholars even suggest that the toxic lead glaze ancient Romans used on their ceramic wine and water pitchers was responsible, at least in part, for the fall of the Roman Empire.

This week, a new study indicates that people whose bodies contain lead at levels considered 'safe' by current standards, are in fact at a higher risk of death and disease. Co-author Paul Muntner of Tulane University says a study of almost 14,000 adult Americans found that the more lead, the greater the risk.

MUNTNER: "What we found was, we found a graded dose response relationship between higher lead levels and a higher risk of mortality, or dying, as well as a higher risk, especially of having a stroke."

The blood samples that were tested for lead came from a national sample of Americans who were then followed-up for as much as 12 years. He says there is really nothing comparable in other countries, including those where more lead remains in the environment.

MUNTNER: "There have been studies in Europe with similar findings to the current study, but those weren't national studies. And similarly, in China there have been big studies like this one, but they didn't measure lead. So it'd be very interesting to look at what we found in other countries, such as China, where lead exposure is much more common."

Even before this study, there were different standards on what is a "safe" level of lead in the blood. The World Health Organization has one standard. Even U.S. government agencies can't agree. Muntner contends there may be no safe level of lead.

MUNTNER: "I would say simply that the evidence shows that there isn't. And there may be a need for the government to re-look at what levels of lead exposure are considered safe, as well as to develop policy guidelines for reducing the amount of lead that's currently in our environment."

Paul Muntner's paper came out this week in the peer-reviewed journal Circulation, which is published by the American Heart Association.

As classes resume this month at schools across the United States, eight American universities are launching the largest U.S. diabetes study ever. Forty middle schools will participate in the program, which is being supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Eleven-year-olds in some schools will get healthier meals and a more rigorous physical education program. The other schools will act as a control group, and students there will get their usual meals and gym activities. Kristian Foden-Vencil reports from Portland, Oregon.

FODEN-VENCIL: In a medical building with a sweeping view of downtown Portland, Doctor Lynn DeBar prepares herself for three years of intensive study. She says the nationwide scope of this investigation shows just how big a problem childhood diabetes has become in the United States.

DeBAR: "The rates of obesity have increased several fold to the point where at least a third of the population we're worried either have problems of overweight in this age range or at risk for problems."

FODEN-VENCIL: DeBar says that 20 years ago, type-two diabetes was really only a problem for middle aged people who'd enjoyed a lifetime of over eating and under exercising.

That's not true anymore, she says, which is why things at dozens of schools around the country are going to start changing.

McCORMICK: "Hi, do you have a sixth grader?"
McCORMICK: "Oh great. Have you heard about our Healthy Study?"
REDFORD: "Yes we already filled it out."

FODEN-VENCIL: As parents arrive for the annual 'ice cream social' at Portland's Reynolds Middle School, medical staff let them know that there will be more fiber and fruit in school lunches this year, along with less sugary drinks and fewer fatty snacks. The parents are then ushered into the main hall where Melissa Durham, of Oregon Health and Science University, explains that in order to determine how much of a difference the change in diet and exercise makes, researchers need the height, weight and waist circumference of their children. Because a blood sample is needed too, there are incentives:

DURHAM: "The child that participates also gets a $50 gift card for participating in the blood draw. And that is because it is a little scary to get a blood draw and they will be fasting from midnight the night before."

FODEN-VENCIL: The kids will be offered another $10 for being measured again next year, in seventh grade. And if they stick with the program through the eighth grade, they get another $60. As a further incentive, kids who choose to take part get a chance to win a new bike.

THRASH: "I was kind of wondering why they were going to pay?"

FODEN-VENCIL: Parent Michael Thrash says he was skeptical before the presentation:

THRASH: "But what I really didn't understand was how are they doing to know what was different. And now I understand this school gets a little better nutrition, a little more exercise. The other school just stays as they are and does the normal thing."
FODEN-VENCIL: "You were worried they were going to make your kid sit and watch four hours of television and eat three bags of chips every night, right?"
THRASH: "Ha ha ha … Well I was concerned about that. Yeah. We want good things, we don't want anything worse you know."

FODEN-VENCIL: As sixth graders ruminated over the benefits of gift certificates versus less soda and chips, this reporter didn't notice any groundswell of opposition. Eleven-year-old McKenzie Gunter summed up the general feeling:

GUNTER: "I think they're really good ideas because then we will grow healthier and we'll be taller and we won't have any problems."
FODEN-VENCIL: "Are those ideas something that your Mum and Dad talk to you about?"
GUNTER: "They tell me to eat all my meat and green beans and everything."

FODEN-VENCIL: McKenzie and most Americans already know that healthy food and plenty of exercise is good for you - whether you're tackling diabetes or the common cold.

So back in the office of Dr. Lynn DeBar the question is: Do we need another study?

DeBAR: "A lot of schools are making a lot of these important changes on their own. And we want to know if you put in an organized program, that has all the pieces that are coordinated, so it's not just doing the PE [physical education] programs, it's not just putting healthier things in the soda machine, it's not just teaching kids in health class about this. But you coordinate all those things together, and you figure out ways that you can take that message home and make sure the families are really aware of it … is that another step that really makes a difference in long-term health?"

FODEN-VENCIL: The hope is that before McKenzie and her friends graduate from high school, Dr. DeBar and her fellow researchers will be able to hand schools a complete nutrition and exercise curriculum. With such a program, the nation could begin to reverse the obesity epidemic and all its associated health problems. For Our World, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland, Oregon.

Scientists digging in the Ethiopian desert have found the most complete skeleton yet of a prehistoric ape-man species thought to be a forerunner of humans. The skeleton belonged to a very young female who died more than three million years ago. As we hear from VOA's David McAlary, her bones fill an important gap in our understanding of this particular species and its place in human evolution.

McALARY: The rare skeleton is of a three-year-old female from the primitive pre-human species called Australopithecus afarensis. The first specimen of this group is the famous fossil named Lucy, a three-point-two million year old adult female discovered nearby in 1974. The baby skeleton is about 150,000 years older than Lucy and far more complete, with fingers, a foot, and a torso in addition to a skull.

ALEMSEGED: "This discovery is making an enormous contribution to our understanding of the biology of Australopithecus afarensis as a species as well as other early hominids."

This is one of the discoverers, Zeresenay Alemseged, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, speaking to the journal Nature, which published the research.

The skeleton offers new clues about how the afarensis species blurs the line between ape and human. The angle of the thigh bone from knee to hip is very human, implying she walked on two legs. But her torso is ape-like, as noted by another co-author of the research, Fred Spoor of University College London.

SPOOR: "My best bet would be that it's largely a chimp. There are very few hints that it's actually more human in the way it would grow up."

Spoor says this group of pre-humans were basically walking chimps. Zeresenay Alemseged points out that brain size of his specimen is that of a chimp, her neck is short and thick, her fingers are curved, and her shoulder blades are like a gorilla's.

Alemseged's personal view is that afarensis was basically a ground forager that climbed trees when necessary.

But anthropologist Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University, who did not take part in the discovery, says these beings were purely terrestrial. He argues that some traits suggestive of tree climbing are actually non-functioning genetic vestiges, such as the curved fingers.

LOVEJOY: "This is a really young skeleton. The finger bones are already curved, which tells us this is a genetic adaptation and it's not a signal that this animal was actually in the trees. So what we have in this skeleton are a lot of clear adaptations to terrestrial walking. They are so substantial that it implies that this is an animal that spent virtually all of its life on the ground."

In a Nature magazine commentary, George Washington University anthropologist Bernard Wood says that whatever the answer to this question is, the infant skeleton has the potential to provide a wealth of information about the growth and function of this apeman species and its place in the human lineage. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations. This week, it's a site where you can listen to more than a century's worth of historic spoken-word recordings.

SHAW: "The Vincent Voice Library is an academic collection of sound recordings dating back to about 1888. Think of it as a famous voices museum."

John Shaw is a librarian at Michigan State University, the home of the Vincent Voice Library, at The library has some 15,000 digitized items in its collection, though for copyright reasons only a fraction of the total is online. But those online recordings include many significant moments in history. For example, here is President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking to the American people in 1940 in one of his famous fireside radio chats.

ROOSEVELT: "This is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security. ..."

SHAW: "The voice, in and of itself, provides an incredible source of information about a person. The Voice Library is about voices and about people that are sharing the events. Current events have become history. The idea is that, when you listen to FDR delivering this speech, whether you can see him or not, you get a lot of information from the voice, and really maybe for the purist that's really the way to understand that person, is by the sound of his voice.

John Shaw says the man who originated the collection, G. Robert Vincent, started it when, as a boy, he made a recording of the first President Roosevelt, Theodore, in 1912. He later donated his private collection to Michigan State, and the university has added to it since then.

Today, you can listen to the voices of Soviet Union founder, V.I. Lenin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, British statesman David Lloyd George, and many others.

The Vincent Voice Library is a good example of how academic institutions are sharing their treasures with the world. It's also, of course, a good example of how intellectual property rights can sometimes limit that sharing. But if you can't listen to the entire archive, there is still plenty to educate, inform and maybe even entertain you at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC - "Happy Days are Here Again" - Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra

And you're listening to VOA's archival-quality science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Studies in recent years have confirmed that the onset of the brain-wasting malady known as Alzheimers Disease is preceded by weight loss. Now, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis say new data show that the rate of weight loss doubles in the year before dementia becomes apparent.

JOHNSON: "What we noticed that when they were healthy, most people were loosing about half a pound a year, but then as they got closer to the onset of clinical symptoms, it went from about a half a pound [0.23 kilos] to a little over a pound a year [0.45 kilos]."

SKIRBLE: David Johnson with the university medical school and Alzheimers Disease Research Center is lead author of the study. He says while age-related weight loss is considered normal, accelerated loss is a clue to the progression of the disease.

JOHNSON: "So that we know, or at least we think that there is something about a metabolic change that is occurring and that that metabolic change we can look into for further research."

SKIRBLE: Johnson says the study factored out other conditions like depression, hypertension, and history of heart disease or stroke.

JOHNSON: "In other words no matter what we did to control for extraneous medical factors, none of them impacted the strong relationship between weight loss and the onset of alzheimers disease."

SKIRBLE: Washington University researchers followed 499 older men and women, all of whom were cognitively healthy at the beginning of the study. One hundred twenty five went on to develop dementia. Johnson says the weight of that group was 3.6 kilos lower than those who did not develop dementia.

JOHNSON: "And that suggests that the Alzheimers disease has been at play for many years, maybe a decade or more and this is impacting people's weight over the long run."

SKIRBLE: Johnson says more research of this pre-clinical stage of Alzheimers may yield answers for slowing down or preventing the disease. The study is published in the September issue of Archives of Neurology. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

And thanks to Rosanne for filling in for me last week.

I took the week to travel around Pennslyvania, the state that is home to two of America's great cities — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — and also some of the most impressive natural beauty in this part of the country.

Working in Washington, it's easy to forget about the natural world out past the subdivisions and suburban sprawl that surround most American cities. Well, one of this country's biggest cities is trying out a new approach to protect the natural areas inside the municipal boundaries. Rebecca Williams reports that in Chicago, they're mapping out the hidden little places that get overlooked:

WILLIAMS: You might forget you're in Chicago as you walk up the path to the Magic Hedge. It's a big honeysuckle hedge planted as screening for a missile base on this land that juts out into Lake Michigan like a crooked finger. When the Army left in the 70's, the hedge grew wilder. Migrating birds have been going nuts over this little area ever since.

ADELMANN: "It's kind of like a bird motel, where on their trips they can stop and rest and re-energize before they take off again. So it's just a wonderful natural oasis within this very dense urban city."

WILLIAMS: Jerry Adelmann's been a fan of green space in the city for decades. He's the chair of Mayor Richard Daleys Nature and Wildlife Committee. Two years back, Adelmann suggested making a comprehensive inventory of Chicago's last remaining scraps of habitat.

ADELMANN: "We have some of the rarest ecosystems on the globe - tall grass prairie remnants, oak savanna, some of our wetland communities are extraordinarily rare, rarer than the tropical rainforest, and yet they're here in our forest preserves and our parks, and in some cases, unprotected."

WILLIAMS: The city recently unveiled a new plan to protect these little places in the city. The Nature and Wildlife Plan highlights 100 sites. Most of the sites are already part of city parks or forest lands, but until recently, they didn't have special protection.

Kathy Dickhut is with Chicago's planning department. She says before Chicago's recent zoning reform, these sites the city wanted to protect were zoned as residential or commercial areas. Now they're zoned as natural areas.

DICKHUT: "Buildings aren't allowed, parking lots aren't allowed. This area is not going to be zoned for any other active use whereas other parts of the parks we have field houses, zoos, ball fields, but in these areas we're not going to have structures."

WILLIAMS: Dickhut says even though land's at a premium in the city, the planning department hasn't run into a lot of opposition with the new habitat plan. Local officials were surprised the city wanted these small pockets of land.

And that actually worked in the city's favor. The city's been able to acquire new lands for habitat that no one else wanted.

DICKHUT: "Habitat lands work well where other things won't work well. If you've got a road and a river and a very skinny piece of land that won't fit anything else, that's good for habitat, because anywhere where land meets water is good for habitat."

WILLIAMS: The city's also turning an old parking lot back into sand dunes and elevated train embankments into strips of green space. And though some of this land isn't exactly prime real estate, the city does get donations with a little more charisma.

In Chicago's industrial southeast side, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered bald eagles nesting in the area for the first time in a century. The birds were nesting on a 16-acre plot owned by Mittal Steel USA. The city got the company to donate the land.

Lou Schorsch is a CEO of the steel company:

SCHORSCH: "We had no immediate plans for it and I think when the city approached us, given this unique circumstance of eagles returning to nest there, frankly it was a relatively easy decision for us."

WILLIAMS: Surplus land and a symbolic bird helped the city's cause in this case. But the city's Nature and Wildlife Chair Jerry Adelmann hopes this can be the beginning of a national trend.

Adelmann says preserving remnants of habitat on industrial lands fits into Mayor Daley's larger green vision for the city. It's a vision Jerry Adelmann thinks doesn't have to be at odds with the city's industrial past.

ADELMANN: "I've had friends come visit and they think of Chicago as this industrial center, City of Big Shoulders, gangsters and whatever and then they suddenly see this physical city that's so beautiful. Our architecture is world-famous, but also our public spaces, our natural areas, our parks I think are becoming world-famous as well."

WILLIAMS: But Adelmann admits it's early yet. It's too soon to know how well these remnants of land will function as habitat and what the city might need to do to make them better. He says while it's important to provide green spaces for birds and bugs, these places are even more important for the people who live in Chicago. Especially people whose only contact with wildlife might be in the city. For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.

The Environment Report is a production of Michigan Radio, with support from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the USDA Cooperative Extension Service. Learn more at

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.