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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Clearing the Air

Aired January 3, 2000 - 6:14 a.m. ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: Turn out your lights, hold the butterflies, put away the snowmobile and walk: Pollution isn't just litter anymore.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: The pollution of our planet: It is a pesky problem that, to some, seem impossible to solve. It's a problem to which there is no simple answer.

MCEDWARDS: Some industries that notoriously pollute may be the only source of income for some parts of the world, and it's not just industry doing the pollution.

HARRIS: That's right. Let's start now down under, where pollution is threatening the Great Barrier Reef.


(voice-over): From the silent waters of the Pacific, a subtle warning: The world's colorful coral reefs are slowly dying. Undersea, on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, divers can now see white, dead zones. It is called coral bleaching, and its cause is a mystery. A slow warming of the oceans is suspected, as is drifting bands of water pollution. The small animals who build up the coral reefs are sensitive to both.

Why do we care? One-fourth of the fish that live in the ocean make coral reefs their home, and countries like Australia rely on these reefs to attract billions of tourist dollars.

MCEDWARDS (voice-over): In Malaysia and Indonesia, it was a burning season like no other. Farmers clearing land and logging companies torching underbrush unleashed an environmental disaster in 1997. The thick smoke settled over southeast Asia. On the island state of Sarawak, a state of emergency forced authorities to buy masks for 300,000 people. The visibility was so bad flights had to be canceled. Still, one plane crash was blamed on the acrid smoke.

By the time the fires were put out, more than 70 million people in the region had been effected. Some lost just a few days of school, others were sick for weeks and months. Late rains and slow government action shared the blame for the disaster.

HARRIS: Lanzhou, China. Residents of one of the world's most- polluted cities tackle their air quality problem one chip, one rock, one mountain at a time.

The smog-choked, railway hub is surrounded by mountains, and an environmental entrepreneur hopes that leveling one of them will free trapped pollution and sweep clean air through the valley. Two years after the project started, one-fifth of Big Green Mountain is gone, but the money ran out before the mountain did, and the work has come to a halt. Skeptics were never sure the fresh air would flow once the mountain was demolished, but, with the project on hold, they may never find out.

Meanwhile, Lanzhou is trying more traditional ways to deal with its pollution problems. The local government says it has clamped down on polluting factories and air quality is beginning to improve.

MCEDWARDS: Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on earth, has become a junkyard. This is the base camp of Mt. Everest as you've probably never seen it. More then 700 people have now reached the summit, and each one has left behind a mountain of garbage. Everest is littered with tin cans and discarded equipment. But now people are climbing 17,000 feet to the base camp just to take out the trash. Last year, it cost an expedition $350,000 just to haul out 8,300 pounds of garbage. This year's clean-up was canceled because there wasn't enough money.

HARRIS: Jerusalem. Muslim clerics watch the skies for the new moon to signal that the holy month of Ramadan is to begin the next day, but each year the glare from the ground is making it more difficult to detect the faint outline of the crescent moon. In fact, Ramadan began on different days in different Arab countries, last month, because clerics could not agree on the day the moon first appeared.

Long considered a problem for star gazers in urban areas, light pollution is creeping into even more remote areas of the planet. The International Astronomical Union has asked the United Nations to classify light sources as global pollutants and push for solutions that will help clear up our view of the cosmos.

MCEDWARDS: Athens, Greece. Can one of Europe's most-polluted cities clean up its act by the 2004 Olympic games? Greenpeace calls Athens the ozone capital of Europe, and residents have nicknamed the smog hanging over city Nephos (ph), which means "cloud."

Smog mixed with rain forms an acid liquid which for decades has eaten away the surface of ancient marble monuments. But today, government officials say Athens is making progress in its battle to clean up the air, a promise it made to the International Olympic Committee. The Environment Ministry says carbon monoxide levels have dropped 30 percent in the last decade, and the ministry hopes the completion of a metro system will help get cars off the road and further improve the quality of Athens' air.

HARRIS: Curitiba, Brazil. Residents are trading bags of trash for bags of food. In 1991, the city launched a unique program to clean up the streets while helping feed the poor. Instead of spending money on waste collection and slums, the city spends it on food from local farms. Low-income families collect the waste themselves, take it to a collection site and exchange it for a bag of fruits and vegetables.

MCEDWARDS: West Yellowstone, Montana. From the roar of a snowmobile, from the wail of a car alarm, the World Health Organization says noise pollution may be harming your health. In 1996, the WHO declared noise to be a significant health threat, saying it could cause both psychological and physiological damage. Sustained exposure to 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. The interior of a car registers at 80 decibels. Loud or constant noise can also cause stress, raise your blood pressure and lower your work productivity.

Organizations like the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are hoping to turn noise control into a civil liberties issues. They want the public protected from noise in the same way they're protected from second-hand smoke.

HARRIS: San Francisco, California. A butterfly release sets dozens of monarchs free. Nature's showiest insect is the newest star at grand openings, weddings and even funerals, but biologists warn butterfly releases can be a form of environmental pollution. The freed butterflies can introduce disease and may compete with native species for shrinking habitat. The released insects may also lack natural predators which help keep the population in check.

That scenario led to environmental disaster in the 19th century. gypsy moths were introduced to Massachusetts in hope of starting a silk industry. Instead, the moths destroyed forests, which eventually led to wide-spread use of pesticides. Today, some states are trying to head off potential damage by requiring permits for butterfly releases. Arizona and Alaska prohibit releases all together.

So, if not butterflies, how to mark a special occasion? One biologist recommends that celebrants sprinkle flower pedals instead.


MCEDWARDS: And coming up after a break, we'll hear from a government official in Europe who has to deal with pollution problems every day. From Athens, Greece, the mayor, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Stay with us.


MCEDWARDS: Our "Millennium 2000" theme, this hour: the threat of pollution. And joining us to talk about that, from Athens, Greece, Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Thank you very much, Mr. Mayor, for joining us.


MAYOR DIMITRIS AVRAMOPOULOS, ATHENS, GREECE: The pleasure is mine. First of all, allow me to extend to you and to all the people around the world a very warm message from the city of Athens for a happy millennium dedicated to mankind and nature.

MCEDWARDS: That's very, very kind of you, thank you, and we'll send the same to you.

Describe what the air is like in Athens on a bad pollution day.

AVRAMOPOULOS: First of all, I must tell you that all these pictures we have from the past do not represent the reality of today in our city. During the last five years, we have managed to reduce down the pollution to 35 percent, thanks to a number of projects we have implemented in order to make this city more humane. Now, of course in view of the Olympics of 2004 there are more projects to be implemented. Let's hope that by this date Athens will be one of the cleanest cities all around the world.

MCEDWARDS: So, how did you do it over the last five years? How did you bring that pollution rate down by 35 percent?

AVRAMOPOULOS: As you maybe know, first of all we have a new metro system that's going to be operational by the end of this month. In the meantime, we have convinced the citizens of our city to replace their cars with new ones equipped with carborators (ph). We have sent away all the industrial units that had been sublet (ph) in our area. In the meantime, we have replaced all the busses that are circulating in the center of the city with new ones equipped with protective mechanisms for the environment, and of course we have enhanced the green zones around the city, and we have implemented new systems in order to clean the waters all around the area of Attica.

So, with all these measures and with more to come, we believe, as I said in the beginning, that Athens will be an example in the beginning of the next century of how we can change a city that was very well known around the world for being polluted to a clean city.

HARRIS: Mayor Avramopoulos, Leon Harris, here, in Atlanta. I'd like to ask you...

AVRAMOPOULOS: Good morning.

HARRIS: Good morning.

I'd like to ask you what you did to change the minds of people, there, in Athens. You changed a lot of the equipment and the cars and the machinery, but what did you do to get the people to get behind this effort?

AVRAMOPOULOS: It's a very good question, because if you are not helped by your co-citizens then you can do nothing. And one of the first things we did, years ago, was to force the environment and ecological consciousness of the citizens, and the response was very, very positive, believe me; otherwise, nothing would have been done in our city.

And of course, we have one more reason. As I said in the beginning, we are in view of the Olympics of 2004. This city must be ready to welcome more than 15 million people who are going to visit us. They must find a clean and friendly and humane city.

So, helped by the people and by all institutions, including a very good and good-faith cooperation among local governments, regional governments and central government, we gave this spectacular result. Nobody would ever believe in the beginning of the last decade, that Athens would become, as I said before, a good example for the whole world. And we are on the good track, and we hope more for the future.

MCEDWARDS: Would the city have done all this, honestly, if the Olympics weren't coming in 2004?

AVRAMOPOULOS: Sorry, can you repeat your question, because the sound's not good?

MCEDWARDS: Would the city have taken all of these steps it weren't for the coming of the Olympics in 2004.

AVRAMOPOULOS: Absolutely. Don't forget that all these measures had been taken before we decide to bid for the Olympics, including the infrastructure for the Olympics -- for the Olympic games themselves. So, what we had done was done for the city as a token of respect to our heritage, to our culture and our rights to life.

The fact that it coincides with the Olympics is one more very convincing and dynamic motivation in order to change the city as soon as possible. In other words, the projects we had implemented now follow a faster way in the field of implementation.

MCEDWARDS: All right, how much has all of this cost?

AVRAMOPOULOS: Well, a lot of money, it is true. But, you know, for us, the values of life do not have price.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Mayor Avramopoulos, thank you very much for you time, today.

AVRAMOPOULOS: The pleasure was ours. Thank you for hosting Athens. And we wish you a happy millennium.

MCEDWARDS: You, too.

HARRIS: All right, happy new year and a happy millennium to you as well.


MCEDWARDS: All right, there is still more to tell you on this subject, including a look at a fragile spot, and this is it: Mother Earth. But sometimes the stuff we send into outer space comes back to haunt us. That's just ahead.


MCEDWARDS: We continue our focus on pollution with a look at the hazards of energy sources. In the 19th century, coal was king, but by the middle of the 20th century we thought that nuclear power would be the future. Most potential energy sources have draw backs, and as we start the 21st century we are still trying to deal with them.


(voice-over): Chernobyl, Ukraine. The world's worst nuclear accident has left behind a deadly legacy. In 1986, Chernobyl's nuclear reactor exploded, spewing radiation over the best farmland in Ukraine and Belarus. Four years ago, doctors started seeing hundreds of sick children. The World Health Organization says thyroid cancer in children has skyrocketed in the towns closest to the accident. Few of those children have died, but workers who struggled to contain the radiation have not been so lucky. Officially, the death toll from the accident is 32, but the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists disagree. They claim that by 1990, 5,000 clean-up workers had died. They also say the world will probably never know how many of those deaths were because of radiation.

Along the La Grande River in Quebec, a massive hydro project is being blamed for releasing toxic mercury from the soil. These dams are designed in part to power America's huge appetite for cheap electricity. But even as the kilowatts flow downstream, the stagnant waters allowed mercury to build up in the fish. Many of those fish are eaten by the Cree Indians. The reservoir has flooded what was once their hunting land, and there are no grocery stores. One 1984 survey found 64 percent of the Cree in one village had unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies. Concerns like these forced the company to stop an expansion of the project, and the local people have been told to stop eating the fish.

Forty years ago, Mexico City was known for its clean mountain air. No one can say that now. Those who track the pollution say the air is satisfactory just 30 days of the year. Old (ph) cars, fires, dust and factories combine to create the toxic soup. One study showed more infants die in Mexico City on bad air days. The government has struggled to solve the problem for 20 years. For example, you can no longer buy leaded gasoline. But 70 percent of all auto pollution is still caused by cars made before 1985. There are many possible solutions, but putting giant fans on the mountains sounded better than it worked. Tiny air filters have been installed on thousands of light posts. Says one scientist, it's a start.


MCEDWARDS: And now to other toxic pollutants. Man's carelessness has fouled rivers and oceans, dirtied our air and littered our ground. It has even extended beyond the confines of Earth. Now the potential remedies are equally far-reaching, from the most primordial of nature to the most sophisticated of man.


(voice-over): The Earth's orbit. The European Space Agency says more than 150,000 pieces of space junk are orbiting the Earth. From derelict satellites to discarded rocket motors, the agency says space pollution can be hazardous to both satellites and spacecraft. It says a half-inch piece of junk can destroy a satellite, and a four-inch piece can demolish a shuttle. In fact, the Shuttle Discovery has had to dodge space debris flying towards it at a speed of more than 17,000 miles-per-hour. The European Space Agency recommends curbing rocket explosions in space, which contribute to 41 percent of space trash. The agency adds the junk that's already orbiting the Earth should be moved to a space cemetery thousands of miles away from the planet, or it should be destroyed with a laser.

Kenya. Cholera victims seek treatment in a makeshift hospital. The bacteria is spread by human waste polluting rivers and drinking water. Cholera strikes quickly. Severe diarrhea, vomiting and rapid dehydration occur, then the victim lapse into a coma. Without medical intervention, an infected patient can die within days. The World Health Organization reports that Africa had more cholera cases than any other continent in 1999, more than 167,000 patients and some 7,000 deaths. The WHO says the best way to prevent the international spread of cholera is not by restricting trade or travel. The organization says the only way to contain the disease is to stop it at its source: clean up contaminated water.

In Alabama and across much of the U.S., there is a new ally in cleaning up toxic waste: plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority is a pioneer of this technology. Here in Alabama, they built a manmade wetland to capture toxic runoff from an old strip mine. For the next 150 years, it will clean and filter the water, just like Mother Nature. It cost $650,000 to build. Nationwide, manmade wetlands are being used to clean up sewage and contaminated runoff like fertilizers. They can even clean up soil contaminated by explosives.


MCEDWARDS: Coming up in about two hours, in the 9:00 a.m. Eastern hour of our special millennium coverage: "A Drop to Drink." We'll look at the world's dwindling water supply. The guests will be Mikhail Gorbachev, one-time president of the former Soviet Union, and Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister.


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