NPR's 'Living on Earth' series launches new segments on environmental research

May 07, 2003

Arlington, Va.--Tony is a young man of color who was raised in an impoverished section of Cincinnati. Troubles dominate his life. Unable to hold a job or a relationship, his only consistent pattern is difficulties with the law.

Though it may be easy for some to assume Tony's problems stem from his background, scientists have been working on a more basic theory--exposure to lead. Researchers believe effects of lead exposure may have become a significant factor in Tony's long-term behavior.

Starting the week of May 9, National Public Radio's (NPR) environment program, "Living on Earth," will launch a series of special reports over 36 months that will follow cutting-edge research on many environmental topics. The first hour-long documentary, "The Secret Life of Lead," will highlight the results of long-term research on lead-exposed Cincinnati youth. Studies funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering, will be highlighted in future programs and shorter segments.

The radio series is funded by a $1.1 million NSF grant to the World Media Foundation, which produces the segments. The series is designed to look at serious environmental issues within local communities. It also provides the general public with a scientific view of how researchers develop theories, structure their inquiries, monitor ongoing processes and analyze the expected and unexpected results of their research. Nine one-hour programs and nine additional hours of shorter segments will be produced, some of which update the initial full-hour documentaries.

In this first program, listeners come to know Tony and his difficulties with the law, but they also learn he is part of a 20-year study of the effects of lead on human development in his Cincinnati home town. Kim Dietrich, a neuropsychologist at the Children's Environmental Health Center in Cincinnati, heads the study. His initial belief that ethnicity and income as factors in some of the poor human outcomes linked to lead poisoning were overturned by his research team. The team has learned over the years of its study that there is a larger association between childhood exposure to lead paint and patterns of delinquency and crime among the nearly 300 people studied since birth.

Scientists have associated damage to developing brains with problems such as lower IQs, poor learning ability, increased impulsivity, and a lack of ability to pay attention or plan ahead. Scientists in Cincinnati and elsewhere are now reporting that elevated childhood blood lead levels within Dietrich's study group have led to a higher chance of these adolescents being involved in juvenile crime. Dietrich emphasizes in the radio program that lead continues to poison new generations around the country.

"Our aim is to not only tell the facts of this research but also tell the story of how research is conducted, and what life is like as a scientist seeking answers in an area where much is at stake in terms of public policy," says series host and executive producer, Steve Curwood.

Later this year, "Living on Earth" will air two more hour-long documentaries. In the fall, a segment is scheduled on global warming. Another segment will follow on biodiversity. Follow-up segments for the series on lead exposure will air monthly.

"Living on Earth" is produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts in cooperation with Harvard University. The show airs on 300 National Public Radio stations, as well as on the World Radio Network and the Armed Forces Radio Network. Check local radio programming guides for air times.
Living on Earth Media Contact: Susan Shepherd, (617) 520-6861,

NSF Program Officer: Hyman Field, (703) 292-5333,

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NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Receive official NSF news electronically through the e-mail delivery system, NSFnews. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to In the body of the message, type "subscribe nsfnews" and then type your name. (Ex.: "subscribe nsfnews John Smith")

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