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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #939 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, December 27, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

The Basket Our Eggs Are in
The nation's new energy law will cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by a mere 4.7% by 2030 at a time when scientists say we need cuts 5 to 10 times as large. The U.S. seems to be painting itself into a corner, creating a global warming emergency, which may then be used to convince us to accept the only "solution" favored by the coal, oil, mining, railroad and automobile industries: burying carbon dioxide a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever.
The Backlash Against Biofuels
Just as the U.S. Congress passes a new law requiring a 4-fold increase in the use of ethanol for fuel, critics argue that such biofuels reduce the world's food supply and don't necessarily alleviate global warming.
World Food Stocks Dwindling Rapidly, UN Warns
The world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Dec. 17.
How Risky Is the New Era of Nuclear Power?
"Serious safety problems" plague U.S. nuclear plants because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn't adequately enforcing its standards and has cut back on inspections, says a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Arsenic Invades the Womb
Arsenic is poised to become even more notorious. Scientists have found that if a pregnant woman is exposed, the deadly contaminant can alter the activity of several genes in her fetus, potentially increasing the child's risk of cancer later in life.
Group Says Infant Formula Cans Pose Health Risk
Tests by both the Environmental Working Group and the Food and Drug Administration show "1 of every 16 infants fed [liquid] formula would be exposed to the [bisphenol A] at doses exceeding those that caused harm in laboratory studies," says a new report. The chemical is in every brand of liquid formula in varying amounts, it says.
International Agency Plans To Call Night Work a Probable Carcinogen
Several epidemiologic studies, done mostly on nurses and flight crews, have shown a link between night work and cancer of the breast and prostate.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #939
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By Peter Montague

President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 on December 19. The Sierra Club celebrated the new law as a "historic victory." The Union of Concerned Scientists called it "landmark" legislation. Reports in the nation's major newspapers (Los Angeles Times and N.Y. Times) focused on two of the new law's boldest provisions --

** By 2020, U.S. automobiles must average 35 miles per gallon (with light trucks and SUVs included in the average for the first time), and

** Production of ethanol, a home-grown gasoline additive, must rise from 9 billion gallons per year in 2008 to 36 billion gallons per year by 2020.

The 822-page law also requires that energy-efficiency standards eventually be set for many household appliances and electric motors, and it outlaws the sale of most incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Furthermore, the law says new or renovated federal buildings must use 55% less fossil fuel by 2010 and 100% less by 2030 -- in other words by 2030 federal buildings have to produce at least as much energy as they use.

Effect on Carbon Dioxide Emissions

An initial analysis of the greenhouse-gas-reduction potential of the new law has been provided by the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy (ACEEE). They calculate that, by 2020, the law will have reduced U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by a cumulative total of 2017 million metric tonnes (megatonnes); by 2030, they say, the law will have reduced cumulative U.S. CO2 emissions by a total of 7679 megatonnes. (One million metric tonnes = one megatonne = one trillion grams = 1E12 grams = 1 teragram; one tonne of CO2 contains 12/44 of a tonne of carbon).

How big a dent in the nation's total CO2 emissions will the 2007 energy law make?

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1990 and 2005 U.S. annual CO2 emissions rose from 5529 megatonnes to 6432 megatonnes. In other words, between 1990 and 2005, U.S. CO2 emissions grew exponentially at the rate of 1.01% per year. If that modest 1.01% growth-rate were to continue from 2008 through 2020, the cumulative CO2 emissions during the period would total 84,557 megatonnes and during 2008-2030 the cumulative total emitted would be 164,041 megatonnes. Therefore we can see that by 2020 the 2007 energy law will have reduced total U.S. CO2 emissions by 2017/84557*100 = 2.4% and by 2030 the reduction will be 7679/164041*100 = 4.7%.

In sum, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will force only a small reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions between now and 2030. And that assumes the law is totally effective. Business Week magazine predicts that these sections of the law will never be enforced. More likely, they say, these sections will be ignored and fines will be levied, merely driving up the price of automobiles and gasoline as the cost of fines is passed on to consumers.

In any case, one thing is clear: the U.S. has announced no plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to any substantial degree. Obviously we are painting ourselves into a corner -- the longer we delay making the needed reductions, the more drastic the required reductions become. When Congress finally acts, it will be in response to an emergency that the U.S. has intentionally created. As we know, the U.S. financial and political systems thrive on emergencies just such as this one.

During the climate change conference in Bali in mid-December, the European Union pressed the industrialized world to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 25% and 40% by 2020 -- at least 10 times the reductions built into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. However, the U.S. derailed that Bali plan by flatly refusing to go along with any numerical targets, even voluntary ones.

While the Bali conference was under way, in the U.S. the business- friendly Conference Board issued a report showing that 40% reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved with only modest investments. This raises the question, if the Conference Board acknowledges that the desired reductions are affordable, why does the U.S. consistently refuse to allow them to be adopted as a voluntary international goal? The oil and coal industries have nothing to gain from efficiency or renewable sources of energy and have successfully resisted all efforts by Congress to force them to help pay to remediate the problems they have created. The Energy Independence and Security Act originally included $13 billion in taxes on oil corporations, earmarked for the support of renewable energy. By the time the law was enacted that $13 billion support for renewables had evaporated. The insider's newsletter, Greenwire, attributed this remarkable evaporation to the "raw power" of the oil corporations. This year alone the oil corporations have given members of Congress $75 million in reward for fealty. The question is, under what circumstances -- if any -- will the oil and coal corporations allow the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions?

The Size of the CO2 Problem

In 2005, humans worldwide dumped about 27 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fuel combustion.[1, pg. 48]

For many years, global CO2 releases from industrial sources have been increasing steadily by about 2% per year,[2] thus doubling in size every 35 years. If this growth-rate continues, global industrial CO2 emissions during the 45-year period 2005-2050 will total 2 trillion tonnes and by the end of this century will total 8.2 trillion tonnes. This gives us some feel for the size of the world's problem -- it is very large.

A variety of solutions to these problems have been proposed.

1. Energy efficiency. As we have seen, 40% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are considered affordable by the Conference Board, which serves U.S. industrial corporations. However, we have also seen that the U.S. delegation would not allow even 25% to be set as a voluntary international goal at the Bali Conference, and the best Congress could do in the 2007 energy law was a 4.7% reduction by 2030. No, the U.S. government clearly is not able to take energy conservation seriously. The "raw power" of the oil and coal corporations will not allow it.

2. Renewable energy -- wind and other forms of solar power. Numerous technologies exist for rapid deployment of solar power, developing an energy system that is carbon-free and nuclear-free -- but oil and coal corporations oppose the necessary investments. Globally, renewable energy is not expected to develop substantially between now and 2030. According to the Wall Street Journal, in its most recent annual report, World Energy Outlook 2007, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030 renewable sources of energy will be no further along than they are today: "Renewable energy sources such as solar will grow in use in certain areas, like the United Kingdom, but the current logistical challenges and costs of using and developing them mean all renewable energy sources will remain a fraction of total energy use globally in 2030 at about 10%, unchanged from today," says the IEA.

3. Extract CO2 from the air. A machine to extract CO2 from the air was announced this month by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their aim is to split CO2 into carbon monoxide and oxygen, and then to use these as building blocks for new liquid fuels, which would compete with petroleum products like gasoline. Initially Sandia plans to extract CO2 from the smokestacks of power plants but eventually, they say, they intend to extract CO2 from the atmosphere to create "carbon neutral" liquid fuels. It remains to be seen whether the development of this potentially- subversive machine will be allowed to continue.

Another technique for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere would mix it with alkaline and alkaline-earth oxides to produce solid compounds such as magnesium carbonate and limestone (calcium carbonate).[3, Chapter 7] This would require mining 1.6 to 3.7 tonnes of silicates for each tonne of CO2 and would produce 2.6 to 4.7 tonnes of carbonate rocks for each tonne of CO2 -- in sum, a very large mining and waste- rock disposal operation.

Another machine to extract CO2 from the air was announced earlier this year by Columbia University. The announcement pointed out that the captured carbon dioxide could then be buried in the ground. We predict that this machine will quickly attract major investment from oil and coal corporations. As we'll see, it is exactly what they need.

4. Carbon capture and storage: Here, finally, we come to the only approach strongly favored by the U.S. government, by the coal, oil, automobile, mining and railroad industries, by teams of researchers at more than a dozen universities, and by several of the big environmental organizations in Washington and New York (Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC], The Izaak Walton League, The Clean Air Task Force, and even the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others). This is the basket our eggs are in.

The plan is to extract CO2 from industrial smoke stacks (or from the open air), compress it into a liquid, and pump it 3000 to 8000 feet below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. This plan is known as CCS, which stands for carbon capture and sequestration, or carbon capture and storage.

Of all the options described above, only CCS is being vigorously pursued. The U.S. Department of Energy has allocated roughly $2 billion to CCS projects that are going on now in 41 states. More than a dozen universities are researching the pros if not the cons. Several prominent environmental organizations have enthusiastically endorsed the plan, even before a decade of necessary research has begun. It is no exaggeration to say that CCS has become a bandwagon -- or a juggernaut.

Very few people have heard of CCS; in the U.S., at least, it is essentially invisible. Yet it is so far along that it looks like a done deal, almost unstoppable. It seems clear that coal and oil corporations and their camp followers are counting on CCS to solve the global warming problem. CCS is a major industrial plan; all other proposed solutions to global warming are tinker toys by comparison.

No environmental organizations and no news reports have so far mentioned it, but a major feature of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 is Title VII, which requires the federal government to undertake a nationwide assessment of the suitability of geological formations capable of storing carbon dioxide underground. (A "Carbon Sequestration Atlas of the U.S." has already been produced [29 Mbyte PDF].) Title VII also requires the federal government to support seven projects to demonstrate the capture of CO2 from industrial sources. This is the most far-reaching section of the 2007 energy law and you can be sure that Title VII will be vigorously enforced. The coal industry will see to that.

The CCS plan was devised by the coal industry, but has the financial support of many of the world's most powerful corporations, an all-star cast from the oil, gas, mining, railroad, and automobile industries: American Electric Power, the American Petroleum Institute, Aramco Services, BP (formerly British Petroleum), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, The Electric Power Research Institute, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, General Electric, General Motors, Marathon Oil, Peabody Energy, Schlumberger, Shell Oil, Southern Company, and Toyota, among others. They, in turn, have lined up support within academia and the corporate environmental organizations.

The coal industry is betting its whole future on the CCS plan: "Coal is going to be the answer and is the answer, and carbon capture and sequestration is the answer to climate change," says Steven F. Leer, chief executive officer of Arch Coal, Inc., the nation's second- largest coal company, after Peabody Energy. If the CCS plan fails, the coal industry will fade into history, at least in the U.S., where carbon dioxide emissions are causing cancellations of new coal-fired power plants.

Here is why CCS seems like such a good idea -- the only good idea -- from the viewpoint of the fossil corporations, coal and oil:

1. CCS is compatible with the existing energy infrastructure. If industry's carbon dioxide can be buried in the ground, the coal and oil industries can continue Business as Usual until declining supplies make fossil fuels too expensive. If the fossil fuel industries can maintain Business as Usual, then so can the mining, railroad and automobile industries. Nothing will have to change. Once CCS has been "demonstrated" (a word that means very different things to different people) then the major incentive to conserve energy or develop renewables will evaporate. Even the small federal investment currently devoted to conservation and renewables could be logically withdrawn. Why spend money on futuristic energy technologies that are not needed -- especially potentially-subversive sources like solar that lend themselves to dispersed community control but not to centralized corporate control?

2. After it has been injected into the ground, carbon dioxide will be out of sight and out of mind. Best of all, it will be irretrievable and its precise whereabouts will be unknowable. Once it's down there, it's beyond human control. Of course corporate experts will claim to know where it is, but it will be loose in the deep earth and under tremendous pressure from the weight of the earth above it. Buoyant forces will be constantly pushing it upward. It turns water acidic and so can leach rocks. The site where it is buried will be poorly understood because of a fundamental catch-22: to understand the geology a mile below ground in detail requires numerous bore holes sunk into the earth. But these bore holes ruin the natural integrity of the site and make leakage more likely. So you can have a poorly- understood site that retains its integrity, or a well-understood site that has lost its integrity, but you can't have a well-understood site that retains its integrity. Thus the perpetual danger of leakage will be with us and with our children and with their children and their children's children....

Happily, after a few decades the injected CO2 will almost certainly be forgotten as other, bigger problems absorb humanity's attention and resources. Humans have no experience paying attention to anything for hundreds of years, much less tens of thousands of years. By the time leaks begin to occur -- even if by chance anyone is still paying attention and leakage is detected -- the people who created the problem will be long gone. The public will be left holding the bag. The fossil fuel industry has already proposed that its liability for buried CO2 should end after just 10 years.) This is very similar to present-day U.S. hazardous waste law, which allows waste corporations to bury megatonnes of industrial poisons in the ground. Almost everyone involved acknowledges that these poisons will eventually leak, but the companies that do the deed are only legally liable for 30 years. After that, it's the public's problem. CO2 storage is being proposed on this same corporate-friendly model.

3. Injecting CO2 into the ground is something that only a handful of geologists, physicists and engineers will be able to discuss in detail. Within the U.S. regulatory framework, in which individuals typically are invited to public hearings where they are given 5 minutes or less to ask questions and offer facts and perspectives, there will be no way for the public to participate in CCS decisions. Thus this "techno-fix" will further weaken U.S. democracy, leaving the important decisions to partisan corporate "experts," some of whom will work directly for industry, some for academia, and some for corporate environmental organizations. The media can be counted on to present all these experts as independent and occasionally even adversarial.

As with the nuclear industry, those who make the decisions on CCS will be engineers with a vested interest in saying that it can be done "safely" (without ever defining what that word means in the context of burying trillions of tonnes of liquid CO2 a mile below ground "forever"). Given the decline of U.S. government regulatory capacity during the past 30 years, there is no regulatory structure left to counter the claims of partisan advocates and corporate experts. When he announced that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would soon write regulations governing CCS, EPA chief Stephen Johnson said, "By harnessing the power of geologic sequestration technology, we are entering a new age of clean energy where we can be both good stewards of the Earth, and good stewards of the American economy." In other words, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already been captured. We cannot expect EPA to provide a probing analysis of the serious dangers of CCS. Who then will do it? Many of the corporate environmental groups have also been captured. The skids are fully greased.

4. It is relatively easy for unprincipled technical personnel to claim that CCS can be accomplished safely. There is no way to "demonstrate" that CO2 can be stored underground forever. No matter how long you run your test, it could always fail next year as leaks develop. So "successful" CO2 storage cannot be demonstrated -- given that the goal is storage in perpetuity. Therefore, engineers will define some other "test" that they will then claim "demonstrates" successful CO2 storage. In fact, almost any test will do. Example: CO2 is currently being buried in the ground at three locations, about a million tonnes per year at each site. A million tonnes may sound like a lot, but it is minuscule compared to the total amount of CO2 being produced. To bury even two trillion tonnes -- much less 8 trillion tonnes -- would require scaling up current operations by a factor of 2E12/3E6 = 670,000. Despite the major difficulties inherent in such enormous growth, a small group of corporate environmentalists and corporate-funded academics in the U.S. is already claiming that CCS has been successfully demonstrated. The public is not well-prepared to understand the shameless deception and rank dishonesty of such a claim.

5. Carbon capture and storage provides a way for energy corporations to make a great deal of money from the CO2 catastrophe that they have created, which they have spent millions denying and thus prolonging. If the Columbia University CO2 extraction machine works as advertised, perhaps the patents will be purchased by oil and coal corporations so that they can profit doubly from the machine. U.S. coal and oil firms may soon be marketing their "proven safe" carbon storage services to China and India, where regulation and oversight will be even more lax than in the U.S. Large amounts of money could be made in the short term, and in the long term when the CO2 begins to leak out and heat up the planet, perhaps threatening the tenure of humans on earth, it will be somebody else's problem.

6. All the CCS activity generated by the U.S. Department of Energy creates the impression that CCS is just around the corner. Given this, coal companies can promise to build new power plants that could use CCS but don't have to use CCS (they could just as easily, and far more cheaply, dump their CO2 into the atmosphere). Such plants are called "capture ready."

CCS will cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per tonne of CO2 captured (not including the costs of transport and burial). So carbon capture may eliminate coal's price advantage over renewable fuels. Therefore actually burying carbon in the deep earth may not be what the coal companies are counting on. "The coal industry's many proposals to build 'clean' coal plants that are 'capture ready' across the U.S. is a smokescreen," says Leslie Harroun, a senior program officer at the Oak Foundation in London, U.K. Until a decade of research is completed, CCS may just be something to talk about with bluff and bluster, to gain permission to build a hundred or more "capture ready" coal-fired power plants. That would be a strategy Big Coal could take to the bank right now.


[1] International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2007. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2007, pg. 48.

[2] Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, "Implications of 'peak oil' for atmospheric CO2 and climate." Available online in PDF.

[3] Bert Metz, Ogunlade Davidson and others, editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). (23 Mbyte PDF)

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From: Nature
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By Kurt Kleiner

Last month Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, called biofuels a "crime against humanity" and asked for a five- year moratorium on the practice of using food crops for fuel.[1]

It was only the latest voice in what seems to be turning into a backlash against biofuels. In September, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a sceptical assessment of biofuels, warning that they could cause more problems than they solve.[2]

Even the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall got involved in September, warning that the demand for more biofuels is causing rainforests to be cut down to grow more sugar cane and oil palms.

For decades, biofuels seemed to promise a clean, sustainable, environmentally friendly way to produce fuel, one that would promote energy independence and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But even as governments and corporations are finally throwing their weight behind biofuel production, a small but vocal chorus of critics claims that biofuels are at best a waste of effort and at worst outright damaging. Some critics even question whether biofuels will lower greenhouse gas emissions or actually increase them.

"People are getting smarter. People are beginning to see that the damage ensuing from producing agrofuels by far outweighs any possible benefits," says Tad W. Patzek, a professor of geoengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a prominent biofuels sceptic.

Criticism of biofuels comes from several directions. Some critics argue that biofuels will demand more energy than they produce. Others think that biofuels will use up resources that would otherwise go to feeding people. Still others worry about the environmental damage that will be caused by farming of more land -- damage that they say could result in higher greenhouse gas emissions. It is even cast as an issue of human rights, as critics worry that more indigenous people will be forced from their land to make way for biofuel plantations.

"I think a lot of environmentalists got caught with their pants down. They were thinking of biofuels in a local, non-industrial way. When agroindusty and oil companies got ahold of it, they turned it into something that is by no means sustainable," says Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of the FoodFirst Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, California.

Although ethanol was used as a transport fuel early in the twentieth century, it was the oil shocks of the 1970s that prompted the US government and others to encourage home-grown bioethanol industries through tax breaks, regulation and research grants. But for much of that time the use of biofuels has struggled against a relatively low petroleum price that has made it hard for them to be cost-competitive.

Now, with oil prices in the US approaching triple digits, worries about potentially dwindling oil supplies and the threat of climate change have combined to give biofuels a boost that supporters think will make them a practical fuel source.

Global ethanol production was 13.4 billion gallons in 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.[3] The US led production at 4.8 billion gallons, mostly produced from corn, and Brazil was close behind, producing 4.5 billion gallons, mostly from sugar cane. Production increased 20 percent between 2004 and 2006.

New efforts by the US and the EU promise to increase that production further. The US government has announced a goal of doubling ethanol production again by 2012, and the EU has announced a goal of making ten percent of transport fuelled from biofuel by the 2020.

Although technically a biofuel is any fuel that can be derived from biomass, including firewood, the term is usually applied to liquid fuels that can be used for transportation. By that definition, the two most plentiful biofuels produced today are bioethanol and biodiesel.

Bioethanol is made by first fermenting a starchy or sugary feedstock such as corn or sugar cane, then distilling the alcohol in a process not unlike making whiskey or rum. Biodiesel, in contrast, is produced from vegetable oils such as palm or soy oil through a transesterification process that makes the oil suitable for burning in diesel engines.

Net energy

The first question regarding biofuels is whether they can provide enough energy to be worth the effort. Fossil fuels come out of the ground in a form that is relatively energy-dense -- their pre- processing has been accomplished by geological forces over millions of years. Corn and sugar cane, on the other hand, are much less energy- efficient. It takes about 2.7 kilograms of corn, or 12 kilograms of sugar cane, to produce a litre of ethanol.

Of course, the energy in biofuels comes free from the sun. But to harvest, transport and process the feedstock requires tractors, trucks and production facilities, all of which need energy for their building and operation. The crops also require nitrogen fertilizer, which is derived from natural gas. Critics say that all the effort isn't worth it, at least in terms of net energy.

Patzek and his colleague David Pimentel, a professor of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, have done a number of analyses on the energy requirements of various biofuels. In a 2005 paper, they attempted to quantify all of the energy inputs required to produce and process a feedstock into ethanol.[4]

When using corn as a feedstock, they concluded, it took 6,597 kilocalories of energy to produce the ethanol, whereas the ethanol would yield only 5,130 kilocalories. In other words, biofuels actually use more energy than they provide. Patzek and Pimentel also calculated that the cost of a litre of ethanol is US$1.24, compared with 33 cents for a litre of gasoline. Their analyses of ethanol from other feedstocks, and of biodiesel, were equally discouraging.

But many other researchers have found net energy gains from biofuels. In a paper presented to the International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels in September 2005, Michael Wang, a fuel systems analyst at Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago, concluded that it takes only 0.74 British thermal units (Btu) of fossil energy to produce one million Btu of ethanol from corn.[5]

Other researchers have come up with similar numbers. In a paper published in Science in 2006, Alexander E. Farrell, an energy policy analyst at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues looked at six studies and concluded that ethanol does have a net energy benefit.[6]

But Bruce Dale, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University, argues that a net energy analysis is largely irrelevant because it ignores the fact that we value different energy carriers in different ways. For instance, it takes three megajoules of energy from coal to create one megajoule of energy from electricity. But electricity is useful to us in a way that heat from coal is not, so we're willing to pay the price. In the same way, we're willing to pay a price for liquid fuel that we can put in our tanks, Dale says.

Because we're trying to use biofuels to replace liquid fuel for transporation, he says, one of the most important metrics is not the total energy used to create the ethanol, but the amount of petroleum it displaces. He calculates that each megajoule of energy from bioethanol displaces 22 megajoules of energy from petroleum.

Extra emissions

Replacing petroleum with biofuels should, on the face of it, be good for climate change. After all, every tonne of carbon emitted by burning biofuels is just a tonne that was absorbed from the atmosphere by the feedstock crop, resulting in no net change. But it's not that simple. The energy used to create the biofuel also emits greenhouse gases.

If biofuels do provide more energy than the fossil fuels needed to produce them, it makes sense that there would be some reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the analysis has to take into account the kind of fuel used to produce the ethanol -- ethanol made by using coal to provide heat for distillation, for instance, actually increases carbon emissions compared with gasoline -- as well as the greenhouse gasses generated by other aspects of the process, such as increased fertilizer use.

In their Science analysis, Farrell and colleagues noted that there are still unanswered questions about how to calculate greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of biofuels.[6] They calculated that switching to ethanol produced from corn reduces emissions moderately, by about 13 percent, compared with using gasoline.

And a recent paper by P.J. Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and colleagues concludes that previous studies underestimated the amount of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide produced by agricultural use of nitrogen fertilizer. If their new number is right, they say, ethanol made from corn could actually produce more greenhouse gasses than the use of gasoline.[7]

An even greater concern is that the increased demand for biofuels will cause farmers to cut down forests in order to plant more corn, sugar cane, oil palm trees or soybeans. According to an analysis by Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust in Suffolk and Dominick V. Spracklen of the University of Leeds, leaving the land forested would sequester two to nine times as much carbon over a 30-year period as would be saved by using biofuels.[8]

In a study published in September, the World Wildlife Fund warned that biodiesel from palm oil will only have a positive environmental impact if the new plantations are planted on fallow land. If forests are cleared to create new plantations, the resulting biofuel will actually have a negative effect.[9]

Food or fuel

Another concern is that land that could have been used to grow food will be given over to growing crops for fuel.

"Rushing to turn food crops... into fuel for cars, without first examining the impact on global hunger, is a recipe for disaster," the UN rapporteur on food said in his August report to the UN General Assembly.[1] The report cited estimates that to fill one car tank with biofuel requires an amount of maize that would feed one person for one year.

The report noted that riots broke out in Mexico in February when the price of corn tortillas rose by over 400 percent, the result of an increase in the price of corn brought on in part by increased demand for corn ethanol.

"Agrofuel production is unacceptable if it brings greater hunger and water scarcity to the poor in developing countries," the report says. It concludes by calling for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production while new biofuel technology is under development.

A new breed of biofuels

The technology many are counting on is called cellulosic ethanol. Unlike conventional bioethanol, which is based on sugars or starches extracted from the feedstock, cellulosic ethanol can be made from a plant structural material called lignocellulose, found in everything from corn husks to grasses.

Part of the promise of cellulosic technology is that for feedstock it could use plants like switchgrass, which can be grown on otherwise marginal lands, without irrigation or fertilizer, leaving prime farmlands for food. Agricultural waste such as corn stalks could also be used.

In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy concluded that crop residues, forest byproducts and other underutilized resources could produce more than a billion tons a year of biomass for cellulosic conversion in the US alone, enough to replace 30 percent of US petroleum consumption by 2030 (ref. 10).

"As cellulosic takes hold, I believe we'll get much higher yields of grasses and so forth. We'll be making more efficient use of the land that we have," says Dale.

One of the many attractions of cellulosic ethanol is that producing it is potentially much more energy-efficient than using corn. Corn bioethanol requires an outside energy source to provide the heat needed for processing. But cellulosic processing separates the lignin from the cellulose and then burns the lignin to provide energy for distillation.

Fewer fossil fuels are used, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, as long as the feedstock doesn't require nitrogen fertilizer, nitrous oxide emissions are cut. In a 2007 paper, Wang and colleagues concluded that use of cellulosic ethanol would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 88 percent compared with gasoline.[11]

One problem: cellulosic ethanol isn't ready for market. There are a number of ways to break down cellulose into component sugars that can be fermented, including applying enzymes and chemicals. But the process is still too expensive to produce ethanol on a large scale at a competitive price.

On 6 November, the Range Fuels biorefinery broke ground in Soperton, Georgia, one of six cellulosic biorefinery demonstration projects being funded with US$385 million from the US Department of Energy. The plan is for the biorefineries to produce 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year at a cost competitive with gasoline. Advocates say the technical advances in cellulosic ethanol will eventually achieve inexpensive, energy energy-efficient, non-polluting ethanol.

Zero-sum game?

But sceptics aren't so sure. "The fact is that with cellulosic ethanol, we don't have the technology yet. We need major breakthroughs in plant physiology. We might wait for cellulosic for a long time," Holt-Gimenez says.

Patzek and other sceptics worry that biofuels are a distraction from other steps that would make a real difference, including solar and wind power and conservation. They dismiss the biofuels boom as a result of government subsidies.

"This is a completely fictitious market. It's floated by the subsidies, tariffs and targets. If those weren't there, you wouldn't see this boom," Holt-Gimenez says.

He worries that biofuels will simply enrich agrobusinesses while at the same time driving countries in the south to switch cropland and forests over to fuel production.

The Worldwatch Institute also recognizes that danger. But in a 2006 report on biofuels, it concluded that if the biofuel industry is managed effectively, it could actually benefit the environment and third-world farmers, who could profit from growing the crops needed to produce the fuel.[12]

"I just don't see it as a zero sum game," says Raya Widenoja, a Worldwatch research associate who works on biofuels sustainability. "I believe there is enough land to produce food and also to produce some biofuels.... If it was done right, there's potential for farmers and developing countries to gain," she says.

Kurt Kleiner is a freelance science writer.


[1] Ziegler, J. The Impact of Biofuels on the Right to Food. Report No. A/62/289 (United Nations General Assembly, New York, 2007);

[2] Doornbosch, R. & Steenblik, R. Round Table on Sustainable Development. Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease? Report No. SG/SD/RT(2007)3/REV1 (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, 2007);

[3] Renewable Fuels Association; http://www.ethanol rfa.org/industry/statistics/#E

[4] Pimentel, D. & Patzek, T.W. Nature Resour. Res. 14, 65-76 (2005).

[5] Wang, M. in 15th International Symoposium on Alcohol Fuels (San Diego, 2005); http://www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/TA/354.pdf

[6] Farrell, A.E. et al. Science 311, 506-508 (2006). Article PubMed ChemPort

[7] Crutzen, P.J. et al. Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 7, 11191-11205 (2007).

[8] Righelato, R. & Spracklen, D.V. Science 317, 902 (2007).

[9] Reinhardt, G., Rettenmaier, N., Gartner, S. & Pastowski, A. Rainforest for Biodiesel? Ecological Effects of Using Palm Oil as a Source of Energy (World Wildlife Fund Germany, Frankfurt, 2007);

[10] Perlack, R.D. et al. Biomass as a Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: the Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply. (US Department of Energy and US Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, 2005);

[11] Wang, M. et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 2, 024001 (2007).

[12] Biofuels for Transport: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century (Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, 2006).

Copyright 2007 Nature Publishing Group

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From: International Herald Tribune
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By Elisabeth Rosenthal

ROME: In an "unforeseen and unprecedented" shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Monday.

The changes created "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food," particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The agency's food price index rose by more than 40 percent this year, compared with 9 percent the year before -- a rate that was already unacceptable, he said. New figures show that the total cost of foodstuffs imported by the neediest countries rose 25 percent, to $107 million, in the last year.

At the same time, reserves of cereals are severely depleted, FAO records show. World wheat stores declined 11 percent this year, to the lowest level since 1980. That corresponds to 12 weeks of the world's total consumption -- much less than the average of 18 weeks consumption in storage during the period 2000-2005. There are only 8 weeks of corn left, down from 11 weeks in the earlier period.

Prices of wheat and oilseeds are at record highs, Diouf said Monday. Wheat prices have risen by $130 per ton, or 52 percent, since a year ago. U.S. wheat futures broke $10 a bushel for the first time Monday, the agricultural equivalent of $100 a barrel oil. (Page 16)

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

"We're concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world's hungry," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, in a telephone interview. She said that her agency's food procurement costs had gone up 50 percent in the past 5 years and that some poor people are being "priced out of the food market."

To make matters worse, high oil prices have doubled shipping costs in the past year, putting enormous stress on poor nations that need to import food as well as the humanitarian agencies that provide it.

"You can debate why this is all happening, but what's most important to us is that it's a long-term trend, reversing decades of decreasing food prices," Sheeran said.

Climate specialists say that the vulnerability will only increase as further effects of climate change are felt. "If there's a significant change in climate in one of our high production areas, if there is a disease that effects a major crop, we are in a very risky situation," said Mark Howden of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Already "unusual weather events," linked to climate change -- such as droughts, floods and storms -- have decreased production in important exporting countries like Australia and Ukraine, Diouf said.

In Southern Australia, a significant reduction in rainfall in the past few years led some farmers to sell their land and move to Tasmania, where water is more reliable, said Howden, one of the authors of a recent series of papers in the Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences on climate change and the world food supply.

"In the U.S., Australia, and Europe, there's a very substantial capacity to adapt to the effects on food -- with money, technology, research and development," Howden said. "In the developing world, there isn't."

Sheeran said, that on a recent trip to Mali, she was told that food stocks were at an all time low. The World Food Program feeds millions of children in schools and people with HIV/AIDS. Poor nutrition in these groups increased the risk serious disease and death.

Diouf suggested that all countries and international agencies would have to "revisit" agricultural and aid policies they had adopted "in a different economic environment." For example, with food and oil prices approaching record, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.

FAO plans to start a new initiative that will offer farmers in poor countries vouchers that can be redeemed for seeds and fertilizer, and will try to help them adapt to climate change.

The recent scientific papers concluded that farmers could adjust to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees) of warming by switching to more resilient species, changing planting times, or storing water for irrigation, for example.

But that after that, "all bets are off," said Francesco Tubiello, of Columbia University Earth Institute. "Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale, but there is a strong potential for negative surprises."

In Europe, officials said they were already adjusting policies to the reality of higher prices. The European Union recently suspended a "set-aside" of land for next year -- a longstanding program that essentially paid farmers to leave 10 percent of their land untilled as a way to increase farm prices and reduce surpluses. Also, starting in January, import tariffs on all cereal will be eliminated for six months, to make it easier for European countries to buy grain from elsewhere. But that may make it even harder for poor countries to obtain the grain they need.

In an effort to promote free markets, the European Union has been in the process of reducing farm subsidies and this has accelerated the process.

"It's much easier to do with the new economics," said Michael Mann a spokesman for the EU agriculture commission. "We saw this coming to a certain extent, but we are surprised at how quickly it is happening."

But he noted that farm prices the last few decades have been lower than at any time in history, so the change seems extremely dramatic.

Diouf noted that there had been "tension and political unrest related to food markets" in a number of poor countries this year, including Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. "We need to play a catalytic role to quickly boost crop production in the most affected countries," he said.

Part of the current problem is an outgrowth of prosperity. More people in the world now eat meat, diverting grain from humans to livestock. A more complicated issue is the use of crops to make biofuels, which are often heavily subsidized. A major factor in rising corn prices globally is that many farmers in the United States are now selling their corn to make subsidized ethanol.

Mann said the European Union had intentionally set low targets for biofuel use -- 10 per cent by 2020 -- to limit food price rises and that it plans to import some biofuel. "We don't want all our farmers switching from food to biofuel," he said.

Copyright 2007 The International Herald Tribune

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From: USA Today
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By Mel Evans, AP

Nearly two years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the operator of the Indian Point nuclear plant a year to add backup power supplies to the plant's emergency warning sirens. Entergy paid a $130,000 government fine in April -- but still hasn't done the work at the plant 24 miles north of New York City.

At the Peach Bottom nuclear plant south of Harrisburg, Pa., security guards often took 15-minute "power naps," according to a letter from a former security manager to the NRC last March. The NRC began investigating after CBS News aired video of the dozing guards in early September.

Neither of the incidents amounted to an "immediate" safety risk, the NRC says. But they -- and hundreds of other seemingly minor episodes at nuclear power plants in recent years -- are drawing increased scrutiny as the USA prepares to launch a new generation of nuclear reactors.


NUCLEAR SAFETY PROBLEMS: A sampling since the Three Mile Island accident


Power companies are beginning to file applications to build up to 32 nuclear plants over the next 20 years, the first since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania halted plans for new reactors and led to sweeping changes in safety regulations. It's partly a reflection of how, amid concerns about climate change, communities have become more open to nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to pollution-belching coal-fired plants.

Critics and advocates of nuclear power generally agree that improvements in equipment and employee training have helped to make nuclear plants safer since the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island.

Watchdog groups, however, say that unless nuclear safety and security improve, the USA's expansion of its nuclear power industry -- which now involves 104 reactors that supply about 20% of the nation's electricity -- could pose risks to nearby communities.

"Serious safety problems" plague U.S. nuclear plants because the NRC isn't adequately enforcing its standards and has cut back on inspections, according to a report 2 Mbyte PDF released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nuclear safety watchdog group.

The report also says that even though security at nuclear plants was increased after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, reactors still aren't sufficiently protected against terrorist threats such as hijacked jets, and new reactors aren't being designed to be significantly safer than existing ones. Increasing the number of reactors without creating "unacceptably high safety and security risks" could be difficult, the report concludes.

There has been no meltdown of a reactor in the USA since the incident at Three Mile Island, which led to no deaths or identifiable injuries from radiation exposure but resulted in the release of some radiation from the plant.

However, since 1979, U.S. nuclear plants have had to shut down 46 times for a year or more, in most cases to fix equipment problems that accumulated over time and that regulators should have ordered repaired earlier, according to the UCS, which compiled the data from the NRC and other research. And the number of equipment failings that increase the risk of an accident is up since 2001, compared with the previous five-year period, NRC figures show.

The UCS says incidents such as occasional failures of pumps that cool the nuclear reactor core in an emergency eventually could prove disastrous if they coincide with other low-probability events, such as coolant leakages from the core.

"The track record on existing reactors leaves much to be desired, and until you fix that problem, it's going to carry over to new reactors," says David Lochbaum, director of UCS' nuclear safety project.

The NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's trade group, say just one incident since Three Mile Island -- a water leak at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 2002 -- has come close to threatening communities near any plant.

The NRC says that in the episode involving the sleeping guards at Peach Bottom, it didn't act sooner because it couldn't substantiate the claims with Exelon (EXC), the plant's operator. At Indian Point, Entergy (ETR) says its plan to install backup power for the sirens has been delayed by technical hurdles and the need to get permits from dozens of towns, counties and state offices.

A 'reliable fleet of reactors'

Nuclear reactors generate heat that produces electricity when uranium atoms split. In the reactor core, uranium is kept in water to prevent it from overheating, melting down and releasing radiation.

A meltdown by itself typically would not be disastrous because the reactor sits in a concrete containment structure to prevent radiation from escaping.

However, a meltdown could cause a buildup of temperature and pressure that ruptures the containment building. A massive release of radioactive gas into a surrounding community could destroy or damage human cells and cause death or cancer.

That's what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986. The world's worst nuclear plant disaster involved a meltdown and an explosion that killed 56 people. At least an additional 4,000 are projected to die from cancer because of exposure to radiation.

In the accident at Three Mile Island seven years earlier, water cooling the core in one of the plant's two reactors leaked through a partly open valve. The valve was closed enough to prevent an alarm from sounding. Half the core melted, but the containment building stopped all but a small amount of radiation from seeping into the environment.

The incident led the U.S. government to require upgrades in piping, valves and other equipment at all nuclear plants, and NRC inspections were increased.

Today, "The U.S. operates not only the biggest but probably the safest and most reliable fleet of reactors," says NEI Senior Vice President Marvin Fertel.

UCS' Lochbaum counters that the 46 reactor shutdowns during the past three decades indicate there has been a buildup of multiple problems that regulators should have caught sooner.

In 1995, for example, Public Service Electric & Gas had to close its Salem plant in New Jersey for three years until 43 equipment problems were fixed, including a broken fan that kept safety gear from overheating.

A Government Accountability Office report said the NRC knew about 38 of the flaws -- in two cases for more than six years -- and that its "lack of more aggressive action" compounded the plant's problems.

Plants inspected less frequently

In the most serious episode involving a U.S. nuclear plant since Three Mile Island, the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio was shut down from 2002 to 2004 after the NRC failed to spot what it acknowledges were early signs of trouble.

An acid leak through the reactor vessel's lid left a quarter-inch- thick steel veneer, according to NRC reports. Because emergency pumps also were faulty, core-cooling water leaking through the ruptured lid could have led to a meltdown.

The NRC identified the leak in fall 2001 but let the plant keep operating. An NRC Inspector General's report in 2002 found the agency's willingness to keep the plant running "was driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on (plant operator FirstEnergy) that would result from an early shutdown."

In a statement last month, the NRC blamed FirstEnergy (FE) for providing "inaccurate and misleading information," including its "explanation of the leak."

FirstEnergy says it has made extensive staffing and procedural changes to prevent such situations in the future.

Stuart Richards, deputy director of the NRC's inspection unit, says such shutdowns show "that if the NRC feels plants shouldn't be operating, we'll take appropriate actions."

Richards notes that Davis-Besse was the last plant to be shuttered for at least a year and that similar safety problems have decreased. Plants were shut down an average of 1.5% of the time because of safety lapses in 2006, down from 10% in 1997, NRC figures show.

NRC credits a more precise oversight system, launched in 2000, that increases inspections at poorly performing plants. However, one key safety measure -- of problems that the NRC says increase the annual risk of a meltdown from an average of 1 in 17,000 to up to 1 in 1,000 -- has doubled the past six years to an average of 18 a year.

There have been 337 such "precursors" since 1988, including failures of pumps that supply water to reactors in a crisis, the NRC says. Each plant's emergency cooling system typically has several backups, such as pumps or power generators.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell says the increase in such problems is insignificant because 22 of the incidents stemmed from two causes the agency was aware of, rather than a rash of separate problems.

Half the problems stemmed from the loss of power -- needed to run critical cooling systems -- and most of those occurred during the massive electricity blackout that struck the northeastern USA on Aug. 14, 2003. The other half involved cracks in nozzles that, in some cases, let water seep from a reactor.

Lochbaum says that such explanations by the NRC do not ease his concerns about plants' safety. He blames the increasing "precursors" on scaled-back inspections by the NRC and plant owners.

From 1993 to 2000, routine NRC inspection hours declined by 20%, partly because of budget constraints, the NRC acknowledges.

Although the hours spent inspecting plants rose 11% from 2001 to 2005, most of the increase stemmed from more attention to post-9/11 security checks, rather than the operation of the plants.

NRC and industry officials acknowledge they're inspecting many parts of nuclear plants less frequently since 2000. But they say inspections are more effective because they now focus on critical gear whose failure poses the greatest risk to the public.

Questions about standards

In its report, the UCS says the NRC has not consistently enforced many of its safety regulations for nuclear plants.

The group says that since 1981, for example, the NRC has issued about 1,000 exemptions to plants that failed to meet fire-protection rules that went into effect after a 1975 blaze at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama.

The NRC says the waivers were granted to older plants that couldn't make certain structural changes such as separating primary and backup safety gear. Waivers permit alternative fire-prevention methods, such as sprinklers or smoke alarms.

NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko says the agency should require plants to take more elaborate steps, such as installing fire-resistant power cables as backups to standard sets.

In February 2000, a steam generator tube at the Indian Point plant ruptured, causing a small radiation leak outside the plant. Workers had spotted corrosion in the tube in 1997, but Con Edison, the plant's operator, persuaded the NRC to delay a follow-up inspection slated for June 1999.

An NRC engineer was skeptical of the request, but agency policy discouraged her from asking follow-up questions, an NRC Inspector General's report found later. The tube broke before the next scheduled inspection in 2000.

The NRC says the inspection was delayed because the plant had been shut down for 10 months before the request, leaving little time for the tube to degrade further.

The UCS' Lochbaum largely blames enforcement lapses on an NRC culture he says discourages workers from raising safety issues out of fear of retaliation. A 2002 Inspector General's survey said only 53% of NRC employees "feel it's safe to speak up" at the agency.

The NRC's Richards says, "We emphasize safety as being important and ... that people should raise concerns."

To bolster enforcement, the UCS report urges Congress to require the NRC to recruit managers from outside its ranks to transform the agency's culture.

Another proposal, in a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would allow states to seek an independent safety assessment of a nuclear plant when it seeks a license extension or an increase in power output, or has repeated safety problems.

The UCS also criticizes the NRC for not requiring new reactors to be significantly safer than current ones.

Under a tentative ruling by the agency, new reactors wouldn't have to include features such as double-walled containment structures to withstand aircraft attacks. The NRC this year similarly decided against a proposal to force existing reactors to install giant mesh shields to deflect air attacks.

NRC Deputy Director Gary Holahan says nuclear plants already are "one of the most robust, safest facilities... against air attacks."

Developers of more than half the 32 planned reactors have chosen two models that use "passive safety" systems. If the core overheats, they rely mostly on a gravity-driven release of water to cool it, rather than on motorized pumps like those in existing reactors. The new systems cut costs and avoid potential breakdowns if power is lost, making them safer than current models, say the NRC and manufacturers Westinghouse and General Electric.

But UCS scientist Edwin Lyman says the new designs' reduced reliance on backup pumps is a concern because their performance in a crisis is less certain. "They're shaving safety margins," he says.

Another point of contention: The NRC plans to have about 30% of its inspections of new reactors done by private contractors as it tries to streamline licensing reviews. Lochbaum worries that safety will be sacrificed in a rush to issue licenses quickly. Many engineers who designed the reactors will be responsible for reviewing them, he says.

But NRC's Holahan says the contractors will simply be providing technical information. "We make the final decisions about whether something is safe," he says.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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From: Science Magazine
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By Benjamin Lester

Arsenic is poised to become even more notorious. Scientists have found that if a pregnant woman is exposed, the deadly contaminant can alter the activity of several genes in her fetus, potentially increasing the child's risk of cancer later in life. The find puts new urgency on keeping arsenic out of expectant mothers' drinking water.

Arsenic contaminates drinking water the world over, entering from both naturally occurring deposits and industrial activities. To meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards for safety, arsenic must not be present in drinking water at concentrations greater than 10 parts per billion, but in some countries, such as Bangladesh, the levels far exceed that danger point. Scientists have linked low, chronic exposure to a host of illnesses including diabetes and cancer. In addition, recent work suggests that arsenic exposure before birth can raise cancer risks later in life, but the mechanism has remained unclear.

Wondering whether genes might play a role, researchers at the Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, led by environmental toxicologist Panida Navasumrit focused on the country's Ron Pibul district. Tin mining from the 1960s to the 1980s contaminated groundwater there with arsenic at levels up to 50 times the WHO limit. The team took blood and fingernail clippings from newborns and their mothers in the region and sent 21 samples to Leona Samson, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Samson compared the samples to those from 11 babies in Bangkok whose mothers had not been exposed to arsenic. After analyzing blood samples from 13 exposed and unexposed babies, she found that the expression levels of 11 genes were significantly different in newborns with arsenic-exposed mothers. When Samson used these genes as a guide, she could predict with 83% accuracy whether the remaining 19 babies had been exposed to the environmental contaminant via their mothers.

The 11 genes play roles in cell growth and death as well as in inflammation, the group reported online 23 November in PLoS Genetics. Although it's not yet known exactly how arsenic causes cancer, Samson notes that chronic inflammation has been linked to stomach cancer. "It therefore seems likely that the arsenic-induced inflammatory response plays at least some role in arsenic-induced cancer," she says.

The paper "opens up potentially very interesting avenues of research" into the fetal effects of environmental contaminants, says Michael Waalkes, a toxicologist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Still, he notes that the predictive power of the gene set is low, and "because of the experimental design we can't really say that other exposures might [not] be an issue."

Copyright 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science

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From: E&ENews PM
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By Russell J. Dinnage, E&ENews PM reporter

Major U.S. manufacturers of infant formula line their packages with material that contains unsafe levels of a chemical linked to reproductive problems, an advocacy group said in a report released today.

The Environmental Working Group said Nestle, Ross-Abbot, MeadJohnson and PBM admitted using the chemical, bisphenol A, as an epoxy resin to line cans of popular brands Good Start (Nestle), Similac (Ross-Abbot) and Enfamil (MeadJohnson).

And Ross-Abbot, MeadJohnson, PBM and Hain-Celestial use bisphenol A- based linings on metal portions of their powdered formula cans, the group said. Nestle did not provide the Washington-based group with information on whether the chemical is used to line packages of its powdered formula brands.

The companies provided information about their use of bisphenol A in a recent survey conducted by the environmental group. The survey asked the companies about whether they use the chemical in packaging for both liquid and powdered formula products. Among the questions: "Do you use bisphenol A in cans of liquid and powdered formula?" And "Do you test for bisphenol A in your products?"

The report advises parents who use formula to choose the powdered version because bisphenol A is more easily absorbed from the container into liquid formula. Tests by both the EWG and Food and Drug Administration show "1 of every 16 infants fed [liquid] formula would be exposed to the [bisphenol A] at doses exceeding those that caused harm in laboratory studies," the report says. The chemical is in every brand of liquid formula in varying amounts, it says.

The report also advises parents to buy formula in plastic containers because non-metal packaging contains lower levels of leachable bisphenol A. Also, parents should use formulas that require dilution because adding water reduces the amount of the chemical entering a baby's body.

Bisphenol A is used in water and food containers, shatter-resistant baby bottles and dental fillings. There is particular concern about the chemical's effect on very young children. San Francisco passed a ban on bisphenol A in toys last year over concerns about its potential to harm reproductive systems.

Scientists generally agree that bisphenol A, which is used in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics, can cause reproductive problems by blocking testosterone and mimicking estrogen.

But the Food and Drug Administration maintains that small doses of the chemical via food are not harmful to human health.

The EWG findings follow past group studies that found that bisphenol A is present in plastic baby bottles and that parents can best protect their infant's health by using glass bottles.

"Many parents have switched to [bisphenol A]-free bottles for their infants. They certainly should have access to [bisphenol A]-free formula as well," EWG analyst Sonya Lunder said. "U.S. manufacturers of infant formula and baby bottles can and should do the right thing and remove this harmful chemical from their products."

Copyright 1996-2007 E&E Publishing

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From: Physician's First watch
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The International Agency for Research on Cancer plans to categorize overnight shift work as a probable carcinogen, according to the Associated Press.

The AP says the agency will make the change in December, and the American Cancer Society is likely to follow suit. Until now, the ACS has considered the association between cancer and night work to be "uncertain, controversial or unproven."

Several epidemiologic studies, done mostly on nurses and flight crews, have shown a link between night work and cancer of the breast and prostate, the AP notes. Another analysis, prepared by the IARC, will be published in the December issue of Lancet Oncology.

In theory, sleep loss and circadian disruptions resulting from night work could contribute to cancer risk. Being exposed to light at night could disrupt production of melatonin, a hormone that can limit tumor growth.

Associated Press story (Free)

American Journal of Epidemiology article on rotating shift work and prostate cancer, 2006 (Free)

Related Journal Watch link(s):

Journal Watch General Medicine summary of studies on night shift work and breast cancer, 2001 (Free)

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