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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #921 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, August 23, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Carbon-free and Nuclear-free: A Detailed Energy Plan for the U.S.
A new report offers a blueprint for a U.S. energy system with no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and no nuclear power plants, achievable within 35 to 60 years. The blueprint provides a solid platform for climate justice activism. Has your favorite Presidential candidate taken a position on this report yet?
Teflon Chemicals Are Affecting Babies in the Womb
Chemicals used in stick- and stain-resistant products are reaching children in the womb and may be tied to "small decreases" in the size and weight of newborns, two studies by Johns Hopkins University researchers indicate.
Study Links Autism To Pesticide Exposures
Many scientists suspect autism may be a genetic disorder that is triggered by environmental influences. Now researchers are beginning to home in on the environmental triggers.
Arctic Ice at All-Time Low
Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Just last year the National Snow and Ice Data Center said that the Arctic was "right on schedule" to be completely free of ice by 2070 at the soonest. Now they say that day may arrive by 2030.
Marine Bird Populations Declining
"If we have declines in the birds, it means the ecosystem that supports those birds is in trouble."
A Challenge To Gene Theory, a Tougher Look at Biotech
"Evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today's commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals."


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #921, Aug. 23, 2007
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By Peter Montague

A path-breaking new report concludes that the U.S. could develop a sustainable energy policy -- one that is both carbon-free and nuclear- free -- in 60 years or less.

The book-length study by Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Takoma Park, Maryland offers a detailed plan for powering the nation's economy with zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and no nuclear power plants. The study resulted from a joint project of IEER and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.

Such an energy policy would solve four pressing problems:

1. Global climate disruption: carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of fossil fuels are the main human contribution to climate disruption, which is threatening the global economy, human societies, and many of the ecosystems upon which humans depend;

2. Disruption of marine food webs by ocean acidification, which is occurring now as atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans;

3. Insecurity of oil supply. Increases in global oil consumption, and conflicts in oil-producing regions, are making oil prices volatile and supplies insecure;

4. Nuclear proliferation: As we know from the experience of India, North Korea, and Pakistan, among others, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is being enabled by the spread of nuclear power plants, which are being promoted as a solution for carbon dioxide emissions.

The new IEER report, which will be published by RDR Books in the fall (and on the web sooner than that), is available now in summary, and as a special issue of IEER's newsletter, Science for Democratic Action.

It can provide a blueprint and an agenda for climate justice activists and for state and local officials.

The study offers seven main findings:

1. A goal of zero carbon dioxide emissions is necessary to minimize harm related to climate change.

2. A hard cap on carbon dioxide emissions -- that is, a fixed emissions limit that declines year by year until it reaches zero some before the year 2060 -- would provide large carbon emitters a flexible way to phase out CO2. However, current "carbon trading" programs would undermine and defeat the hard cap, and so would have to be abandoned. See related carbon trading story in Rachel's News #888.

3. A reliable U.S. electricity sector can be achieved without CO2 emissions and without nuclear power.

4. The use of nuclear power entails risks of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and serious accidents. It exacerbates the problem of nuclear waste and perpetuates vulnerabilities in the nation's energy system that can be avoided.

5. The use of available highly-efficient energy technologies, and building designs could greatly ease the transition to a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy system. IEER calculates that a two percent annual increase in efficiency per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could produce a one percent decline in energy use per year while providing three percent annual growth in GDP. "This is well within the capacity of available technological performance," the report concludes.

6. Biofuels, broadly defined, could be an important part of the solution, or could actually make the problem worse -- depending on the choices that we make. The report points to ethanol from corn, and biodiesel from palm oil as two examples of damaging biofuels. On the other hand, the report says microalgae grown in a high-CO2 environment can provide substantial energy benefits with minimal environmental harm, delivering 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of liquid fuels per acre of land per year.

7. Much of the reduction in CO2 emissions can be done without increased cost (for example, efficient lighting and refrigeration). The remainder of the CO2 reduction would likely cost $10 to $30 per metric tonne of CO2. (A metric tonne is 1000 kilograms or 2200 pounds).

8. The transition to a zero-CO2 system can be made in a manner compatible with local economic development in areas currently producing fossil fuels.

If you believe, as we do, that the four problems described at beginning of this article -- climate chaos, ocean acidification, insecurity of oil supply, and proliferation of nuclear weapons -- are extremely serious and need to be resolved without delay, then you will want to study this new report from IEER carefully. The full report will soon be available on the IEER web site.

With the publication of this new report, we all now have a firm basis for demanding a carbon-free nuclear-free energy system for the U.S.

Has your favorite Presidential candidate taken a position on this report yet?

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From: Wilmington (Del.) News Journal
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By Jeff Montgomery, The News Journal

Chemicals used in stick- and stain-resistant products are reaching children in the womb and may be tied to "small decreases" in the size and weight of newborns, two studies by Johns Hopkins University researchers indicate.

The findings from the University's School of Public Health are the latest in a growing wave of scientific investigations, triggered by concern over the discovery that perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoate acids, called PFOA, are present in human and animal blood around the globe.

Both chemicals are used in or associated with production of thousands of consumer products, from nonstick cookware to carpets, food wrapping, clothing and electrical equipment. The DuPont Co. is a global leader in use and development of the materials, with production sites in Deepwater, N.J., and elsewhere around the country under close scrutiny or targeted in lawsuits.

In the most recent Johns Hopkins study, released last week, scientists found that PFOA and PFOS levels in umbilical cord blood were associated with small decreases in head size and body weight in a study of 300 samples.

"These small, but significant, differences in head circumference and body weight provide the first evidence for a possible association between exposures to PFOS and PFOA and fetal growth," wrote Benjamin Apelberg, lead author of the study and a research associate in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology.

A recent study of newborns in Denmark found similar results for PFOA, but not PFOS, said Lynn R. Goldman, a study co-author.

"It's very unfortunate, because one of the most cherished members of any family is a newborn," said Harry Dietzler, an attorney who represented residents in a class-action lawsuit focused on drinking water contamination by a DuPont plant that uses C8, or PFOA. DuPont settled the case with an agreement that included hundreds of millions of dollars for health studies and monitoring.

There are no known health effects from PFOA, and "this study does not change our position," said Dupont spokesman Dan Turner.

The Johns Hopkins researchers acknowledged possible limitations on the conclusions that could be drawn from the study.

Another study published by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found links between PFOA and PFOS in the blood and levels of cholesterol and some liver enzymes.

An EPA advisory panel has tentatively labeled PFOA a "probable" cancer-causing agent.

Still to come are findings based on health screenings from tens of thousands of West Virginia and Ohio residents, produced as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement against DuPont.

Meanwhile, New Jersey recently directed DuPont to study groundwater contamination around its Chambers Works Plant, near the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge in Deepwater, N.J.

"This stuff needs to be banned now," said Tracy Carluccio, with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network conservation group. "The Johns Hopkins report is very troubling."

Contact Jeff Montgomery at 678-4277 or jmontgomery@delawareonline.com.

Copyright 2007, The News Journal.

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From: The Bakersfield Californian (pg. B1)
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By Lisa Schencker, Californian Staff Writer

Expectant mothers who lived near Central Valley fields sprayed with certain types of pesticides during the mid- to late 1990s were six times more likely to have children with autism spectrum disorders, according to a California Department of Public Health study published Monday.

The study found that mothers who lived near places with the pesticides endosulfan and dicofol during their first trimesters were more likely to have children with autism spectrum disorders than mothers who did not live near the chemicals. That doesn't necessarily mean the pesticides caused the autism, but some experts say the results of the study warrant a closer look at a possible connection.

"We're just kind of indicating there's a ray of hope that we may have found an association," said California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Mark Horton.

People with autism spectrum disorders, which are developmental disorders, generally have problems communicating and interpreting the world around them to varying degrees. No one knows exactly what causes the disorders, and there's no known cure.

The disorders affect about one out of every 150 U.S. children.

This latest study, which was published on the Web site of the Environmental Health Perspectives journal Monday, urges further study of pesticides and autism. Experts say it's the first study of its kind.

"The jury is really still out as to what's going on," said Rudy Rull, a research scientist with the Northern California Cancer Center who studies pesticides and birth defects. "It's something to think about as another possibility."

The study looked at 465 children with autism spectrum disorders born during 1996 to 1998 in 19 Central Valley counties and compared them with 6,975 other children born during the same period.

It found that among 29 women living within 500 meters of the most heavily sprayed areas during their first trimesters, eight children had autism spectrum disorders, a rate six times higher than in the control group.

Kern County ranked fifth in the state in 2005 in terms of the number of pounds of the two pesticides used, according to the Pesticide Action Network.

Kern County Department of Agriculture/Measurement Standards Assistant Director Louie Cervantes declined to comment on the study Monday.

California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokesman Glenn Brank said the department will be taking a closer look at the pesticides.

"We're going to be working very closely with the state department of public health," Brank said. "The implications of this study certainly are of great concern to us although you can note from the report itself there is a lot more research that needs to be done before any firm conclusions can be drawn."

Brank said the study results probably won't affect the state's agricultural industry too much because farmers are already using less of the two pesticides.

In 2005, California farmers used 83,000 pounds of endosulfin compared with 154,000 pounds of endosulfin in 2004. In 2005, California farmers used 102,000 pounds of dicofol compared with 198,000 pounds in 2004, Brank said.

He said the two chemicals combined make up less than 1 percent of total pesticide use in the state.

Though the study raises questions about a link between pesticides and autism, many are considering the results cautiously. Over the years, many have come forward with guesses about what causes autism, and this might be just one more until scientists can gather more evidence, said Kern Autism Network Vice President Carl Twisselman.

Twisselman said pesticides, for example, couldn't explain his grandson's autism spectrum disorder. Many think the disorders are caused by a combination of factors, both environmental and/or genetic.

"I just don't think you could act on a study of that nature until it was a long-term thing," Twisselman said. "At this point I wouldn't make any changes in my life or my children's lives or in where I live on the basis of a study like that."

Pablo Rodriguez, a member of the study's advisory group and director of the Dolores Huerta Community Organizing Institute, said he hopes this study is only the beginning of the discussion.

"It's important for the people of the Central Valley to advocate for continued study, more information and access to that information so we can make the best decisions to sustain agriculture," Rodriguez said. "We need more information to make the best possible decisions for our communities."


Copyright, 2007, The Bakersfield Californian

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From: National Geographic News
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By John Roach for National Geographic News

There is less sea ice in the Arctic than ever before recorded, thanks in part to a warm, sunny summer, a climate scientist said today. And the melting season isn't even over.

On Sunday the sea ice extent was measured at 1.93 million square miles (5.01 million square kilometers).

"It's continuing to go down at a rapid pace," said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

The previous minimum record -- set on September 21, 2005 -- was 2.05 million square miles (5.32 million square kilometers).

By the end of this summer, scientists at the center say, Arctic sea ice may drop below 1.74 million square miles (4.5 million square kilometers).

Bruno Tremblay is an assistant professor of ocean and atmospheric sciences at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who is planning a research cruise to the Russian Arctic in September.

In preparation for the trip, he has been observing updated maps of the sea ice extent, which show the quickly melting ice.

"I never thought it would go that low that fast," Tremblay said. "There's still a month of melting in front of us, and we're already past the record of 2005."

Tipping Point?

Sea ice -- frozen, floating seawater -- melts and refreezes with the seasons, but some of the ice persists year-round in the Arctic.

The current rate of sea ice melt is much faster than predicted by computer models of the global climate system.

Just last year the National Snow and Ice Data Center's Serreze said that the Arctic was "right on schedule" to be completely free of ice by 2070 at the soonest. He now thinks that day may arrive by 2030.

"There's talk of a tipping point, where we thin the ice down sufficiently so that at some point large parts of it can't survive the summer melt season anymore, so we see this very rapid decline in ice cover," he said.

"It's quite conceivable that that tipping point we talk about has already been reached."

Particularly warm and sunny weather in the Arctic this summer has helped speed up the pace of the melt, Serreze said. But the sea ice decline is part of a decades' long trend.

In the dark days of the winter, some sea ice grows back. Overall, however, the ice pack has thinned.

"It's really a reflection of what's been happening over the past 30 years -- this general pattern of warming, this general pattern of thinner and thinner ice, which makes it more vulnerable," he said.

Climate Surprise

The loss of sea ice is already having well documented impacts on the Arctic environment, such as shrinking polar bear habitat.

In addition, the melting sea ice will affect atmospheric circulation and precipitation patterns, Serreze said.

"Think of the Arctic as sort of the refrigerator of the Northern Hemisphere climate system. By losing that sea ice, we are greatly altering the efficiency of that refrigerator," he said.

Since different parts of the climate system are integrated, what happens in the Arctic will affect what happens elsewhere on the planet.

However, the climate models disagree on the nature of the potential impacts.

"That's the concern. It's the things that we don't know, it's the climate surprises in store," Serreze said.

If "we lose that sea ice, could we get a climate surprise because of that -- a climate surprise that is difficult to deal with, like shifts in precipitation?"

Copyright 1996-2007 National Geographic Society

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From: New York Times
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By The Associated Press

Bellingham, Wash. (AP) -- Marine bird populations in northern Puget Sound have seen significant declines since the late 1970s, according to a Western Washington University study.

The four-year study included a census of 80 north Puget Sound marine bird species -- those that live in the water, not just the shores. Students gathered data from about 150 sites between Tsawwassen, British Columbia, and Whidbey Island.

John Bower, a professor of field biology at Western, says he's still working on the final report but that early results point to steep declines in a number of key species.

Among them: the common murre, a long-billed black and white seabird, whose population has declined 93 percent since the 1970s census; and the Western grebe, a long-necked black and white seabird, which has seen its numbers drop 81 percent.

Other birds in decline include the brant, a coastal goose common on Padilla Bay, and the scoter, a sea duck that's a popular catch for hunters.

Bower's study compares the latest numbers with data collected between 1978 and 1979, when the construction of oil refineries in the region prompted the federal government to document marine species in the area that could be harmed by an oil spill.

"It was perfectly normal to go out to the bay and see several thousand Western grebes on the shores," Bower said. But the recent study found a one-day average of 10 Western grebes on Padilla Bay and 436 on Bellingham Bay, Bower said. Now "they just aren't around," he said.

The study seems to confirm earlier results from bird counts by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, but this time the birds were counted from the ground, not in the air.

David Nysewander, a Fish and Wildlife project leader who assesses marine birds on Puget Sound, said he wasn't surprised by the study results, but he says a lack of money prevents his department from doing much about it.

Bower said water pollution, eel grass destruction, global warming and habitat loss could all be factors in the bird decline, but he doesn't have the research to back that up.

In addition to government restrictions on shoreline development, he said individuals can do a lot to help the birds by limiting pollution and not allowing their dogs to disturb birds when walking on beaches.

By protecting the region's marine birds, Bower said, the public will be protecting the whole Puget Sound.

"If we have declines in the birds, it means the ecosystem that supports those birds is in trouble," he added.

Information from: Skagit Valley Herald.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press

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From: New York Times
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By Denise Caruso

The $73.5 billion global biotech business may soon have to grapple with a discovery that calls into question the scientific principles on which it was founded.

Last month, a consortium of scientists published findings that challenge the traditional view of how genes function. The exhaustive four-year effort was organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world. To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a "tidy collection of independent genes" after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, these findings will challenge scientists "to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do."

Biologists have recorded these network effects for many years in other organisms. But in the world of science, discoveries often do not become part of mainstream thought until they are linked to humans. With that link now in place, the report is likely to have repercussions far beyond the laboratory. The presumption that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built.

Innovation begets risk, almost by definition. When something is truly new, only so much can be predicted about how it will play out. Proponents of a discovery often see and believe only in the benefits it will deliver. But when it comes to innovations in food and medicine, belief can be dangerous. Often, new information is discovered that invalidates the principles -- thus the claims of benefit and, sometimes, safety -- on which proponents have built their products.

For example, antibiotics were once considered miracle drugs that, for the first time in history, greatly reduced the probability that people would die from common bacterial infections. But doctors did not yet know that the genetic material responsible for conferring antibiotic resistance moves easily between different species of bacteria. Overprescribing antibiotics for virtually every ailment has given rise to "superbugs" that are now virtually unkillable.

The principle that gave rise to the biotech industry promised benefits that were equally compelling. Known as the Central Dogma of molecular biology, it stated that each gene in living organisms, from humans to bacteria, carries the information needed to construct one protein. Proteins are the cogs and the motors that drive the function of cells and, ultimately, organisms. In the 1960s, scientists discovered that a gene that produces one type of protein in one organism would produce a remarkably similar protein in another. The similarity between the insulin produced by humans and by pigs is what once made pig insulin a life-saving treatment for diabetics.

The scientists who invented recombinant DNA in 1973 built their innovation on this mechanistic, "one gene, one protein" principle. Because donor genes could be associated with specific functions, with discrete properties and clear boundaries, scientists then believed that a gene from any organism could fit neatly and predictably into a larger design -- one that products and companies could be built around, and that could be protected by intellectual-property laws. This presumption, now disputed, is what one molecular biologist calls "the industrial gene."

"The industrial gene is one that can be defined, owned, tracked, proven acceptably safe, proven to have uniform effect, sold and recalled," said Jack Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and director of its Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety.

In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office allows genes to be patented on the basis of this uniform effect or function. In fact, it defines a gene in these terms, as an ordered sequence of DNA "that encodes a specific functional product."

In 2005, a study showed that more than 4,000 human genes had already been patented in the United States alone. And this is but a small fraction of the total number of patented plant, animal and microbial genes.

In the context of the consortium's findings, this definition now raises some fundamental questions about the defensibility of those patents.

If genes are only one component of how a genome functions, for example, will infringement claims be subject to dispute when another crucial component of the network is claimed by someone else? Might owners of gene patents also find themselves liable for unintended collateral damage caused by the network effects of the genes they own? And, just as important, will these not-yet-understood components of gene function tarnish the appeal of the market for biotech investors, who prefer their intellectual property claims to be unambiguous and indisputable?

While no one has yet challenged the legal basis for gene patents, the biotech industry itself has long since acknowledged the science behind the question.

"The genome is enormously complex, and the only thing we can say about it with certainty is how much more we have left to learn," wrote Barbara A. Caulfield, executive vice president and general counsel at the biotech pioneer Affymetrix, in a 2002 article on Law.com called "Why We Hate Gene Patents."

"We're learning that many diseases are caused not by the action of single genes, but by the interplay among multiple genes," Ms. Caulfield said. She noted that just before she wrote her article, "scientists announced that they had decoded the genetic structures of one of the most virulent forms of malaria and that it may involve interactions among as many as 500 genes."

Even more important than patent laws are safety issues raised by the consortium's findings. Evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today's commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.

"The real worry for us has always been that the commercial agenda for biotech may be premature, based on what we have long known was an incomplete understanding of genetics," said Professor Heinemann, who writes and teaches extensively on biosafety issues.

"Because gene patents and the genetic engineering process itself are both defined in terms of genes acting independently," he said, "regulators may be unaware of the potential impacts arising from these network effects."

Yet to date, every attempt to challenge safety claims for biotech products has been categorically dismissed, or derided as unscientific. A 2004 round table on the safety of biotech food, sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, provided a typical example: "Both theory and experience confirm the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-splicing technology and its products," said Dr. Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who represented the pro-biotech position. Dr. Miller was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, and presided over the approval of the first biotech food in 1992. Now that the consortium's findings have cast the validity of that theory into question, it may be time for the biotech industry to re- examine the more subtle effects of its products, and to share what it knows about them with regulators and other scientists.

This is not the first time it has been asked to do so. A 2004 editorial in the journal Nature Genetics beseeched academic and corporate researchers to start releasing their proprietary data to reviewers, so it might receive the kind of scrutiny required of credible science.

ACCORDING to Professor Heinemann, many biotech companies already conduct detailed genetic studies of their products that profile the expression of proteins and other elements. But they are not required to report most of this data to regulators, so they do not. Thus vast stores of important research information sit idle.

"Something that is front and center in the biosafety community in New Zealand now is whether companies should be required to submit their gene-profiling data for hazard identification," Professor Heinemann said. With no such reporting requirements, companies and regulators alike will continue to "blind themselves to network effects," he said. The Nature Genetics editorial, titled "Good Citizenship, or Good Business?," presented its argument as a choice for the industry to make. Given the significance of these new findings, it is a distinction without a difference.


Denise Caruso is executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute, which studies collaborative problem-solving. E-mail: dcaruso@nytimes.com.

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