Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
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Precaution Reporter

Rachel's Precaution Reporter #139 "Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World" Wednesday, April 23, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

If This Meat Was From a Cloned Animal, Would You Eat It?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now lifted a voluntary ban on the sale of cloned food that has been in place since 1999. Farmers can freely sell the meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals. Would you knowingly eat such products?
Living Above the Line
Our legal and economic systems are based on the assumption that economic growth always provides more benefits than harms. But now that we have exceeded many of Earth's ecological limits, that basic assumption no longer holds true. The implications are profound.
Greener Grass
"As to how much exposure or how much of a risk that is, it's still ill-defined. It comes down to the precautionary principle. If we don't know the risks of these [lawn] chemicals, then we should take precautions and not use them, especially because it's an aesthetic use."
Brussels Wants Better Warnings on Violent Video Games
Despite its concern that some video games could cause "aggressive behaviour" in individuals, the commission admitted that a direct link between video games and violence is difficult to establish. Instead, commissioner Kuneva said, "we need to work... on the precautionary principle".
Study Finds EU Leading Way In Nantech Safety
The European Commission is playing a leading role in the global debate on responsible nanotechnology through its initiatives such as the Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research. In this code, the Commission specifically asked member states to respect the precautionary principle in research on nanosciences.
New Law Introduces Civil Liability For Environmental Damage
Malta has adopted a precaution approach to environmental damage, including a duty to prevent harm, and the principle that polluters shall pay.
Swiss Retailers Introduce Code of Conduct For Nanotechnology
An association of Swiss retailers has adopted a code of conduct that includes the precautionary principle for the sale of products involving nanotechnology.

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From: The Guardian (Manchester, U.K.)
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IF THIS MEAT WAS FROM A CLONED ANIMAL, WOULD YOU EAT IT?

By Ed Pilkington

It is an absurdly pretty setting. A row of conifers borders snowbound fields that stretch for miles to a low horizon. Birds are nesting. Magnificent Angus cattle meander under a metallic blue sky, with the sweet smell of silage hanging over everything.

A sign nailed to one of the cattle pens provides the first clue that this picture postcard view is not as quaintly old-fashioned as it looks: "For Biosecurity: Authorised Personnel Only." The second clue comes in the form of two young red Holstein heifers, identified by eartags as numbers 306 and 307, sitting quietly on a bed of straw. By their perfect bone structure and proportions, a breeder could tell that these are very fine animals; to me they are just absurdly pretty, like their surroundings. Their fluffy rust-red-and-white coats and pink wet noses are programmed to make you smile involuntarily. Then you notice that they are the spitting image of each other, the same white blazes running down their foreheads and the same doe-like eyes.

These are not twins, though they do have identical genetic makeup. They were created from separate embryos containing the DNA extracted from a prize-winning red Holstein cow, Miss Leader Red Rose. In short, 306 and 307 are clones.

It seems incongruous, but these two innocent-looking calves are at the centre of a public relations timebomb that is about to blow, with consequences that will be felt throughout Europe and beyond. Along with about 50 other cloned animals being held in a "biosecure" environment here at Bovance, America's largest cow-cloning company in Sioux Center, Iowa, they embody the frontline in the battle between science and consumer ethics over the way we produce food, similar in many respects to the furore that erupted over genetically modified crops.

Twelve years after the birth of the Scottish trailblazer Dolly the sheep, cloned animals are about to be cleared for use in commercial farming. Earlier this year, food regulatory authorities in America and Europe declared meat and milk derived from cloned cattle and their progeny safe to eat and drink. The same green light was given for cloned pigs and goats.

As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration has now lifted a voluntary ban on the sale of cloned food that has been in place since 1999. Farmers can freely sell the meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals, a liberty that has already led to a sharp spike in interest in Bovance's services from breeders across the US. And where America leads, others are ever quick to follow.

Only one final regulatory barrier stands in the way of firms such as Bovance seeking to inject cloning technology into commercial farming. The US agricultural department has asked for a brief extension of the ban -- applicable to cloned animals alone, not their progeny -- to give it time to talk to international trade partners and retailers in the hope of avoiding a consumer backlash. No one expects that hurdle to be in place for more than a few months, after which the path will be clear for the full exploitation of cloned animals for food. As Joseph Mendelson of the Centre for Food Safety puts it: "It seems to us that the floodgates are already open."

The scientists and entrepreneurs who are pushing at the frontiers of this new technology dislike the phrase cloned food, finding it too reminiscent perhaps of the scarewords used by opponents to GM crops such as "Frankenfood". They prefer the phrase "agricultural genomics". But putting the obfuscations of vocabulary aside, the promise they see in cloning is quite simply stated.

In essence, cloning allows breeders to speed up the clock -- to bring forward a particular trait in a herd in rapid time. Let's say a farmer discovers that one of his bulls is exceptional for its muscle development and hence meat production. The farmer wants to spread those traits right through his stock. He can put the bull to several cows each year for natural procreation, but the impact is limited by the breeding season and the dilution of the bull's DNA as it combines with the cows' inferior genetic profiles. Artificial insemination can be used to raise the number of fertilisations possible from a single elite bull, as it often is in dairy herds. But cloning has the added advantage that the animal's genetic brilliance is passed in its unaltered glory, which amplifies its effect in raising the genetic quality and hence the value of the herd. In genetic terms, cloning is to previous reproductive methods as the Blitzkrieg was to the cavalry charge.

David Faber, the head of Trans Ova Genetics, a firm in Iowa that jointly set up Bovance, says the method increases the impact of elite farm animals. "We are interested in reproducing animals that are at the peak of the genetic pyramid -- they are the rock stars of the barnyard."

To see where this process of rock-star proliferation begins, I fly 1,000 miles across the Great Plains, out of the snows of Iowa and into the heat of Austin, Texas. There, in a business park on the edge of town with neatly trimmed lawns and sparkling glass buildings, I am greeted by a vision of farming's future. This is the headquarters of Viagen, Trans Ova's partner in Bovance and one of only three companies in America leading the global push towards farm cloning. (The other is Cyagra, an Argentinian-owned company based in Pennsylvania.) Whatever critics might say about this technology, no one can accuse Viagen of lacking a sense of humour. A poster of cowboys on the wall bears the appeal "Wanted: Progressive cattlemen." Another says: "Cloning is cool cool."

I watch Viagen's laboratory technicians carry out the various stages of cattle cloning. Tissue samples from the ears of rock-star bulls and cows from across rural America are sent to the company in temperature- controlled boxes, then chopped and placed into incubators to allow their cells to multiply before being cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen.

In another lab, Earl Hwang is displaying his great skill at working under a microscope -- a 21st-century equivalent of a cowboy's dexterity with the lasso. He begins by emptying receptor eggs of their genetic content, using UV light to detect the tiny balls of DNA and suck them into a microscopic pipette. Then he inserts a single cell drawn from the tissue sample of the animal to be cloned into the genetically void egg and sets it down between the egg's outer wall and inner cytoplasm. The final stage is to pass an electric current through the egg that fuses the walls of the cells and mimics the process of fertilisation. The result: an embryo carrying the exact genetic match of its single parent. It was two such embryos created in Viagen's Texan lab that ended up as 306 and 307.

Mark Walton, Viagen's president, is unapologetic about his desire, as head of a for-profit company, to make money out of cloned farm animals. He puts the firm's investment so far at "multiple tens of millions of dollars", though he admits that, to date, the payback has been very limited. The voluntary ban placed on the cloning industry has until now demoted the use of the technology to the ranks of a minority sport. While 33 million beef cattle are slaughtered in America each year, the country only has 570 cloned cattle -- and 10 cloned horses, eight pigs, five African wildcats, three mules and a cloned sand cat.

But Walton is confident that the lean years are coming to an end. His order book is full for the rest of the year, and once the final barrier is lifted he thinks demand will flow. "The genetics from cloned animals could certainly spread pretty broadly and pretty quickly once the market opens and is accepted."

Walton believes the value of cloning is not just economic -- to boost the performance of animals and thus their value. He also claims that the technology has a definite green potential in that it can increase the food efficiency of the herd, by bringing to the fore animals who require less feeding and produce less waste, thus reducing their environmental footprint.

More radically, he cites scientists in Canada who have created an "enviro pig" by inserting the gene phytase into its genome, which makes the pig excrete less phosphate -- a major agricultural pollutant. The enviro pig came about through gene manipulation, but if combined with cloning, its green potential could be maximised. Walton gives another example from New Zealand: "A dairy cow was discovered by accident that naturally produces lower-fat milk that has some omega-3 fatty acids in it. Wow, that's really cool.But what can you do with just one cow? With cloning you could make something of it."

What he doesn't expect to see is cloned beefburgers landing on American dinner plates any time soon. At $17,000 (£8,500) a cloned calf, compared with $1,500 for a naturally conceived animal, it would be far too expensive to replicate the rock stars of the farmyard only to butcher them. Milk is likely to be a different story, as even elite cloned cows need milking. And the offspring of cloned animals are certain to enter the US food chain soon, and in rapidly growing numbers.

In fact, they already have. Don Coover in Kansas has been selling up to 20,000 units of sperm from each of his two cloned bulls every year for several years. "That's thousands and thousands of cloned progeny. A lot of people, myself included, got impatient with the regulators for dragging their feet and we chose not to abide by the voluntary moratorium," he says.

Coover's trade in the sperm of cloned bulls suggests that the ban has already begun to break down, and that in turn has set alarm bells ringing among a powerful alliance of consumer groups, churches, animal welfare and other bodies that are staunchly against the advent of the new technology.

The Centre for Food Safety, a leading opponent, bases its position on a range of detailed scientific criticisms combined with wider ethical objections. It points out that the failure rate of cloning is still substantially higher than other reproductive methods -- it can be as low as 5% of the embryos implanted. There is also a greater incidence of problems at birth, such as Large Offspring Syndrome, in which oversized foetuses develop in the womb that can cause suffering and even death for both mother and calf.

CFS is unimpressed by official assurances that cloned food is safe, arguing that there is insufficient scientific evidence to be certain about its long-term prospects. The organisation poses a series of what-if questions: what if defects or mutations in clones remain hidden and undetectable but are found to be dangerous to humans down the line? What if those defects can be passed on to the progeny of clones, thereby disseminating them throughout the nation's livestock?

And finally CFS warns that the impact of cloning will tend towards a further reduction in biodiversity through the promotion of genetically identical herds, which in turn could put both animals and humans at risk of disease epidemics. It wants to see the labelling of any products coming from either clones or their offspring, a demand that US authorities have deflected.

Viagen has an answer to each of these forebodings. The success rate of cloning is improving all the time, bringing down costs and ameliorating animal suffering. The progeny of clones are not clones at all, but normal animals created from two parents; and any irregularities in the expression of cloned genes are ironed out, or "reset", in their offspring. As for the string of what-if questions, Walton dismisses that as scaremongering: "That is applying the precautionary principle, and the fallacy of that, as any beginners' statistics class will teach you, is that it is impossible to prove a negative. As a scientist, I absolutely reject it."

With such arguments swirling back and forth, the reaction of the big supermarkets that could so easily be caught in the middle has so far been understandably cautious. Wal-Mart, the world's largest supermarket chain, says, somewhat ambiguously, that it has no plans to buy products from cloned livestock. The second largest US chain, Kroger, is more categorical, pledging to shun products from clones or their offspring.

As for the great American public, confusion reigns. Surveys suggest that knowledge levels are pitifully low, while suspicions abound about a technique that many regard as weird or unnatural. A poll last December by the Washington-based Pew Initiative found that despite the overwhelming conclusion from scientists that cloning poses no safety risks to humans, two-thirds of Americans remained "uncomfortable" with the idea.

You get a feel for what beef means to the average American when you visit a famous old Texan barbeque shack, Iron Works, in the centre of Austin. There they serve beef ribs that look as though they have been carved from giants. The gargantuan cuts are dripping in BBQ sauce with meat that is so succulent and tender that it really does melt in the mouth.

At a table at the back, Cynthia (she asked not to give her surname) is just finishing off her plate, and as she does so she tells me her views, which touch on several of those wider public apprehensions. She is reserving judgment on cloned food because she doesn't know enough about it, she says, but then she goes on to reveal that she fears it will lead to less genetic diversity and a downward spiral. "We are sterilising the Earth and that's very dangerous. Mother nature has been taking care of reproduction for thousands of years, so why do it? I can understand if it's to find a cure for an illness, but to create these huge slabs of meat?"

If the GM crop row is anything to go by, the consumer reaction in Britain is likely to be considerably more hostile even than in the US. Last month the first public auction in the UK of the progeny of a cloned cow had to be cancelled in the face of protests. Dundee Paradise -- the offspring of a Holstein clone called Vandyk-K Integ Paradise 2 -- was withdrawn from sale, although the auction was fully legal under EU law.

Bob Schauf, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who owns a cloned cow called Mandy2, has firsthand experience of the British aversion. He made a business plan with a partner in the UK to sell eggs flushed from a cloned cow for artificial insemination. But his partner called him to say the deal was off. "He sounded like a puppy that had just been spanked," Schauf recalls. "He said that the UK didn't want the cloned cow over there; nobody wants any of this. He was very disappointed."

Sir Ian Wilmut, who fronted the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, thinks that Britain's strong emphasis on animal welfare will prove a formidable hurdle for the cloning industry. The high incidence of problems at birth with cloned animals is likely to turn consumers off. "It wouldn't be deemed acceptable to produce elite animals whose benefit over the rest of the herd were small and the risks of their creation large," he says.

But it is by no means certain that the gradual dissemination of genetic material produced by cloning can be prevented, or even monitored. Though Viagen is proposing a database to record the whereabouts of all its cloned farm animals, neither it nor anybody else is contemplating tracking what happens to the offspring -- a task that would be prohibitively expensive, were it even possible.

GM crops had a similar trajectory. Transgenic crops -- that is those whose makeup has been altered through the transfer of genes from other breeds -- have now spread through the US like a spider's web. About 90% of the soya bean crop and 80% of corn is now transgenic, while about a half of all cheese consumed is made with enzymes produced by genetically modified bacteria. Those are statistics that give Viagen's Walton added hope that consumer resistance to cloning will now similarly be overcome: "There's not a consumer in America today who doesn't end up buying some transgenic food," he says. "So the fact is that what people tell you in the polls and what they actually do in the supermarket are two very different things".

How cattle are cloned

1 Cells from the ears of rock-star bulls and cows are placed under a microscope at ViaGen's offices in Austin, Texas

2 The tiny balls of DNA are detected using UV light

3 The DNA is removed from the nucleus of the cell using a microscopic pipette

4 Cloned cells are stored

5 Embryos created from the cloned cells are frozen at Bovance in Iowa

6 A cow is placed in a stall to receive a cloned embryo

7 The embryo is implanted

8 The result -- cloned heifers

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News
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LIVING ABOVE THE LINE

By Peter Montague

I know it's not fashionable to talk about limits. Nobody likes limits. But anyone who's paying attention knows that the Earth has definite limits. It's a tiny place, really. (If the Earth were a peach, then the part of it we inhabit -- the biosphere -- would be the fuzz on the peach.)

About six months ago, the United Nations Environment Programme's fourth Global Environmental Outlook Report (GEO-4) concluded that we humans presently require 22 acres per person to support our global average lifestyle -- but, the report said, Earth has only 15 acres per person available.

In other words, we have already exceeded the Earth's "carrying capacity" -- it's capacity to "carry" (or support) 6 billion humans. And the human enterprise is poised for a massive spurt of economic and population growth -- expected to raise our numbers to 9 billion by roughly mid-century and to double the size of the human economy every 23 years.

This is why the surface of the Earth is getting warmer, chemical contamination is rife, fresh water is in short supply, and there are food riots occurring or threatening to occur in about 40 countries. Given the way we live now, there's not enough space on earth to provide land for the food and minerals we require, plus places to absorb our wastes.

The situation is serious. In 2005, when the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published, the directors of that authoritative study said, "At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

Unfortunately the U.S. legal and economic systems are premised on the idea that everything can grow without limit -- and everyone else's legal and economic systems seem to rest on similar assumptions. Attorney and scientist Joseph H. Guth** shows this in two simple graphs.

Here's the first one:

Benefits are Assumed to Exceed Costs

In this graph, Joe Guth shows the two basic assumptions that underpin our present legal and economic systems (and the regulatory system they have spawned). First, the system is premised on the assumption that economic growth is always good -- which is to say, the benefits will always be larger than the costs. (Joe Guth wrote about this in more detail in Rachel's #846.) Yes, the system acknowledges that people are being harmed and that the earth is being stressed by "development" -- but overall the system assumes that benefits always outweigh costs.

This is why it is almost impossible to beat polluters in court -- the legal system assumes that the polluter is creating more good than harm and it is up to you, the plaintiff, to prove otherwise. If you can prove to a near certainty that the costs of an activity outweigh the benefits, you've got a fighting chance that the judge will make the polluter pay a fine or perhaps even cut back the pollution a bit. But notice that the burden of proof rests on you to prove that the harms outweigh the benefits. If there is any real doubt or uncertainty, the polluter wins automatically (the polluter gets the benefit of the doubt).

Secondly, both the legal system and the economic system assume that costs can grow forever without limit. That's what Graph 1 shows. Neither the economic system nor the legal system recognize that the Earth is finite and that we've already run out of space to support ourselves in the style to which we have become accustomed.

In the law, there are no built-in limits -- nor even any built-in way to recognize limits or even to recognize the need for limits -- and anyone who wants to impose limits bears the burden of proving that limits are necessary and reasonable. Without compelling proof, growth proceeds unchecked. Growth gets the benefit of the doubt.

Now let's look at Graph 2.

Cumulative effects can exceed ecological limits.

Here we see a horizontal line that represents the ecological limits of the Earth. According to the GEO 4 report and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we are already living above this line -- and so about 2 billion people have run out of necessities (water and food), not to mention housing, education, health care, and the other basics of a decent life.

You could say that the horizontal line represents the "precautionary principle." In many cases, we don't know exactly where the limits of the biosphere lie. But when we exceed them, we usually learn about it the hard way -- ocean fisheries stop producing fish, for example, or the temperature of the planet begins to rise and storms grow more frequent and more destructive, or industrial poisons begin to be measured in human babies' first poop (which is called meconium). These are all unmistakable signs that we have exceeded earth's carrying capacity (sometimes called "assimilative capacity") and that our cumulative costs have risen above the horizontal line in Joe Guth's second graph.

Some Growth is Good

Economic growth is needed in poor countries, so they can begin to live a better life. They need roads, power plants and ports. They need to achieve a middle-class lifestyle so they can afford real social security programs instead of relying on large numbers of children as their only old age insurance. (This is the answer to "the population problem" -- middle class people naturally want small families, so we need to raise everyone's standard of living so they need and want fewer children.)

But growth in the global South will require us to cut back in the overdeveloped global North. The wealthy countries need to operate their economies substantially below that horizontal line in Joe Guth's second graph, to make space for needed growth in the global South.

To do that, our legal system needs to develop some new assumptions: traditional economic growth can no longer be assumed to provide net benefits. Arguably, growth in the global North is already creating more harm than good and the law needs to reflect that. The burden should now be placed on those who aim to enlarge the human "ecological footprint" -- they should have to show that the benefits will outweigh the costs. And the burden should be on them to offer persuasive evidence; if there's substantial doubt or uncertainty, then the law should assume that expanding the human ecological footprint is a net detriment, to be prevented. (This is what it means to "reverse the burden of proof.")

When the cumulative costs of many, many small projects add up to a threatened planet, it is time to take into consideration the "cumulative impacts" of traditional growth and development. And since this is hard to do, the precautionary principle becomes our standard decision rule: when essential data are missing or the science is uncertain, give the benefit of the doubt to nature and to human health.

When you're living above the line -- as abundant evidence suggests we are now doing -- then our task is to re-examine everything we are doing and choose the least harmful ways. Eat lower on the food chain, travel less, build fewer McMansions, revive mass transit, revitalize our cities, shift to less destructive ways of farming, and so on. This need not feel painful or restrictive -- if we take it as an exciting opportunity to find our right livelihoods, to discover and create sustainable ways of being on the planet. As we know from the important not-for-profit sector of our economy, endless growth is not essential for creating plenty of good jobs.

One thing is certain: the earth is our only home and we'd had better take care of it or we're goners. Continuing to live above the line is a recipe not only for increasing pain and misery, but eventually for extinction.

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Additional reading:

James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World (Yale University Press, 2008).

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005)

United Nations Environment Programme's fourth Global Environmental Outlook Report (GEO-4)

** Joseph H. Guth, J.D., Ph.D, is Legal Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN). He is a member of the New York State Bar, has a law degree from New York University, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.

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From: The Journal Times (Racine, Wisc.)
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GREENER GRASS

By David Steinkraus

There is one space around the house which is simultaneously green yet perhaps not green. It's your lawn, that stretch of green which may not be environmentally green if it receives heavy treatments of weed- killers, insecticides, fertilizers and other chemical aids.

Many people cut what grows, but those who clip and manicure or know someone who does may wonder whether the lawn can be an environmentally friendly decoration. It can, and although the movement to more natural lawn maintenance has been around for 10 to 15 years, only recently is it of real interest.

"All of a sudden it's exploded. Especially mothers with kids are becoming concerned with chemicals in the lawns," said Racine-area landscaper John Melby. Until this past winter when he went to a Chicago conference, he too hadn't thought much about the issue.

It was the first conference there for professional landscapers, said Kim Stone, associate director of the Safer Pest Control Project, which is based in Chicago and covers the state of Illinois. Although the group has existed since 1994 and has spoken to countless neighborhood groups, its leaders have always wanted to sponsor a conference for professionals, she said. It grew from frustration among people unable to find companies that maintain lawns organically. "A lot of people don't maintain their lawns themselves and don't know what's being used on their lawns." And although laws require companies to tell people what chemicals they use, she said, many don't.

The conference had capacity for 100 and sold out. "We did have to turn a lot of people away," Stone said.

Melby had a revelation. "I just realized that, my gosh, what I've been doing 30-some years is damaging the environment," he said. "And most of all children -- I've got grandkids now, and I worry about chemical exposure in general."

Chemical health

Scientific studies are building blame for household chemicals as a factor in many childhood illnesses. We know pesticides exacerbate asthma, said Dr. Claire Gervais, a family practice physician in Madison. Along with a neighbor, Gervais started what became the Healthy Lawn Team, a neighborhood network now helping communities all over the state promote the elimination of lawn chemicals.

Studies have linked pesticide use in schools with acute illness among staff and students, and have linked pesticide use at home with an increased risk of childhood leukemia. But one of the biggest issues is that in the end we don't know because these studies are difficult to do, Gervais said.

"As to how much exposure or how much of a risk that is, it's still ill-defined. It comes down to the precautionary principle. If we don't know the risks of these chemicals, then we should take precautions and not use them, especially because it's an aesthetic use."

We also need to remember the chemically sensitive, she said, about one in every one thousand people. Some become very ill or die because of pesticide exposure. "And we need to just look out for those canaries in our coal mine."

Environmental risk

It's not only children who are at risk. So are creatures on the ground and in the water. Pesticides linger, Melby said, and after killing what humans want them to kill they may go on to kill the organisms that form the basis of the food web.

In 2003, two scientists writing in Land Use Policy noted that the popular herbicide 2,4-D is toxic to birds, fish wand insects. Between 3,300 and 4,400 tons of 2,4-D were used in the United States in 1996, according to data they found. After 10 days on the lawn, only half of the stuff has broken down.

Another popular herbicide, glyphosate, has a half-life of 47 days, and in 1996 total application in the country was between 2,200 and 3,300 tons.

Their study also noted that lawn chemicals are applied at about three times the rate of agricultural chemicals, and that while agricultural chemical use decreased by 12,189 tons from 1992 to 1997, lawn chemical use increased by 7,747 tons.

This is not to say that products labeled organic are better or safer because of that label. The term typically means unprocessed, yet some organic products used in the past were more toxic in some ways than the synthetics which displaced them, said John Stier, associate professor of environmental turf grass science at the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

He said a woman called him recently because she was concerned that corn gluten -- which prevents seed germination and provides some fertilization -- also isn't completely safe.

And ironically, he said, he found himself making the same arguments used to defend synthetic lawn chemicals, that if used properly organic products are low-risk.

"A person cannot prove a negative. I cannot prove there is no harm in corn gluten meal. I can prove that it's not likely to cause any significant harm."

Great expectations

All that fertilizers do for you, Melby said, is make grass greener faster in the spring. That leads to more basic questions: What should homeowners expect, and what compromises are they willing to make? "It's actually relatively easy to have a low impact lawn," Stier said.

Of course many people already have that. About half of homeowners don't do anything to their lawns, and Melby said that in the arid West and Southwest there aren't any lawns at all because the environment isn't suitable for grasses.

Organic lawn care really amounts to what has been done for hundreds of years, but it does require a change of perspective. "It's easy to do if one is willing to accept a different quality of lawn," Stier said. "You probably give up some perfection, probably have more weeds and more brown turf in the lawns. Is that really bad? We probably would not have lawns all looking the same. Is that bad?"

Some landscapers he's talked to are caught between the opposing goals of organic care and a perfect green lawn. What we really need, he said, is a national conversation on what we want.

That includes defining what we mean by environmentally friendly because, Stier said, what seems a good idea at first may have consequences that aren't. He cited El Paso, Texas, which has been buying up lawns and replacing them with rocks and native plants to reduce water usage. But in that part of the world people use air conditioners which blow air across damp fabric so they have both cooling and humidification. Putting rocks near homes increased the amount of mass absorbing and radiating heat, and that increased the need for air conditioning which increased water use.

"Do we want to be green for the sake of green, or do we want to be sustainable?" Stier said.

And again, he said, if we use the simple techniques used for hundreds of years it is easier to go green with lawns than with many other facets of our lives such as food or transportation."I think the bottom line is if people are willing to accept different quality of turf, we can be green pretty easily, and it's never left us."

Lawns have historical roots

Lawns have been around for a while and do more than make a home look pretty.

In the United States they began as means of keeping dirt out of the house, said John Stier, associate professor of environmental turf grass science at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Before then most people had yards covered with nothing except dirt.

They also became useful for keeping nature outside because those expanses of manicured grass were not hospitable to spiders or ticks which then were less likely to enter houses. Next lawns became useful for recreation, and especially since the 1950s have been used to increase home value. Real estate studies have shown that good landscaping adds 10 to 15 percent to the resale value of a home, he said.

Today we recognize their other qualities of lawns, that they make an area cooler, hold soil to prevent erosion, filter runoff after storms, and help recharge groundwater.

The modern lawn chemical industry took hold after World War 2 as a result of two changes, Stier said. One was the advances in chemistry resulting from the war effort, and the other was the growth of suburbs brought by affluence and automobiles.

Three green things

From John Stier of the University of Wisconsin-Extension here are three steps you can take right now to start on the path to an environmentally friendly lawn.

* Mow high -- 3 to 3 � inches -- and frequently. That will be enough to keep out most weeds. Make sure your mower blade is sharp so grass is cut cleanly heals easily.

* Leave clippings on the lawn to act as fertilizer and protection for the grass.

* Plant the right grass in the right place. Kentucky blue grass, which most people have, prefers full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. It doesn't do well in the shade or in soil which is extremely wet or dry. Someone who wants a hardier grass that requires less care should plant a fine fescue. That grass will have more brown in it, won't look as neat, and it's not made for high-traffic areas.

Area landscaper John Melby recommends starting with a soil test to determine what a lawn needs. Those are easily available through the local University of Wisconsin-Extension office.

Be careful with organic fertilizers, Stier said, because many of them are high in phosphorus which most lawns don't need and which contributes to the growth of algae and weeds in rivers and lakes.

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From: EU Observer
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BRUSSELS WANTS BETTER WARNINGS ON VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES

By Elitsa Vucheva

The European Commission on Tuesday (22 April) said all EU countries should use the same age-rating system when it comes to video games and make that system known to citizens.

It also called for an EU-wide code of conduct on the sale of video games to minors to be introduced within two years.

Video games are "a very important industry for Europe," but also one "that impacts on society," Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for the information society and media, and Meglena Kuneva, EU consumer commissioner, said at a joint press conference in Strasbourg.

Currently, the value of the video games market has reached half that of the music industry, with one third of the global gaming market European, according to commission data.

In addition, 42 percent of Europeans spend between one and five hours playing video games "in a typical week", while 11 percent spend more than 15 hours on this activity.

That is why "we have to develop a good level of information on the content of games," in order to protect children -- but also young adults -- from the most violent elements contained in some of them, Ms Reding said.

Since 2003, the vast majority of EU member states have been using an age-rating system called PEGI -- Pan European Games Information - developed by the video games industry itself, in order to protect the youngest users from games judged too violent.

The system includes five age categories and uses content descriptors for bad language, discrimination, drugs, fear, sex, violence or gambling.

It is currently applied by 20 member states, while three use other legislative measures. Cyprus, Luxembourg, Romania and Slovenia have no age-rating system in place.

"PEGI, as an example of responsible industry self-regulation and the only such system with almost pan-European coverage, is certainly a very good first step," commissioner Reding stated.

"However, I believe it can be greatly improved, in Europe and beyond, by making the public more aware about its existence," she added.

No banning

Despite its concern that some video games could cause "aggressive behaviour" in individuals however, the commission admitted that a direct link between video games and violence is difficult to establish.

Instead, commissioner Kuneva said, "we need to work... on the precautionary principle".

For his part, Belgian Christian Democrat MEP Ivo Belet from the European Parliament's Committee for Culture and Education backed the commission's call for a generalised European system of age-rating and product information, and for increasing "the media literacy of young people".

But he also warned against the possible banning of some video games.

"Forbidding violent games or taking them off the market will not yield the result we want, as young consumers can get hold of them anyway online or via illegal downloads. Often x-rated games will only make games more attractive to young gamers," Mr Belet stated.

The commission also said it wanted "most of all" to inform parents and educators and "let them take their responsibility" when it comes to buy or not a certain game.

At this stage, four EU states -- Germany, Ireland, Italy and the UK - have taken the step of prohibiting video games judged too violent.

Copyright 2008 EUobserver

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From: EurActiv
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STUDY FINDS EU LEADING WAY IN NANTECH SAFETY

A new US study shows EU member states invest nearly twice as much as the United States in research addressing the potential environment, health or safety hazards of nanotechnologies.

While the positive potential of nanotech is acknowledged, good understanding its risk potential is necessary, states the US Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies (PEN) in a risk research inventory update published on 19 April 2008.

The report argues that "comparatively little US government money has been spent on ensuring that scientists know how to control or prevent possible nanotechnology environmental, health, and occupational and general safety (EHS) risks".

According to PEN, just $13 million (€8.16 million) of the total $1.4 billion (€0.878 million) allocated to the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2006 was spent on highly relevant nanotech risk research -- despite government claims that it had spent triple that ($37.7 million).

According to PEN's Chief Science Advisor Andrew Maynard, the US is "guilty of wishful thinking in its assessment of research that will lead to the development of safe nanotechnologies" and is avoiding difficult questions on "what makes a nanomaterial potentially harmful, how it can be used safely, and what happens when it is eventually disposed of".

The project argues that at the same time, European countries together invested some $24 million in this type of research. According to the European Commission's implementation report on the EU nanosciences and nanotechnologies action plan 2005-2009, some €28 million of Community funds have been dedicated to projects specifically focused on risk research since 1998. Safety research is said to "significantly increase" in the bloc's Seventh Framework Programme for R&D (2007-2014).

While no government in the world has developed a specific nanotech regulation to date, everybody agrees that more research on the potential risks of nanoparticles is needed to ensure that asbestos- like scandals do not come back to haunt nanotech companies in the future.

In this regard, it appears that the Commission is playing a leading role in the global debate on responsible nanotechnology through its initiatives such as the Code of Conduct for Responsible Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research (see EurActiv 12/02/08). In this code, the Commission namely asked member states to respect the precautionary principle in research on nanosciences.

The Commission has also recently carried out a review of the current EU legislation to establish whether new regulatory action is required to cover risks in relation to nanomaterials. A communication on the issue, stating no new regulation is needed, will be published by the end of April.

Links Think tanks & Academia

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN): Europe Spends Nearly Twice as Much as U.S. on Nanotech Risk Research (19 April 2008)

Copyright EurActiv.com

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From: http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/2008/04/16/n5.html
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NEW LAW INTRODUCES CIVIL LIABILITY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

By Raphael Vassallo

A legal notice issued on Monday will hold all private or public entities, including individual citizens, civilly liable for any damage they may wittingly or unwittingly cause to the environment.

The new law, which comes into force on 1 May, will provide the legal basis for the competent authority to sue perpetrators of environmental damage to recover the costs involved in rectifying the damage.

Entitled "The Prevention and Remedying of Environmental Damage Regulations", the legal notice aims at upgrading Malta's definitions of such terms as "natural habitat" and "environmental damage" to bring them in line with European directives.

It also identifies the Malta Environment and Planning Authority [MEPA] as the competent authority responsible for enforcing various aspects of the law.

Among other novel aspects, the regulations envisage "preventive action" in cases where environmental damage has not yet occurred, but is considered "imminent".

A MEPA official explained that these changes are innovative in legal jurisdictions such as Malta, where the notion of civil environmental liability is not ingrained.

"Through these regulations, the competent authority, on behalf the state, is authorised to sue an operator for causing environmental damage, and also for such an operator to take measures to remedy such damage. The regulations also provide for the precautionary approach, in that the primary duty of an operator is to take any action he deems appropriate to avoid such damage, and positive action may be requested from such an operator even if he anticipates the likely occurrence of damage."

Examples of environmental damage listed in the law include: damage to protected species and natural habitats; pollution of water which may affect its ecological, chemical or quantitative status; land contamination creating risk to human health; as well as other damage caused by emissions or pollutants.

The spokesman added that the legal change is likely to prompt individual initiatives from the private sector. "One would also expect the insurance industry to react to these regulations (as they have done in relation to the EU Directive this legislation transposes) and offer products to such operators through which the risk of the operator may be partly covered by insurance policies."

In keeping with the celebrated "polluter pays" principle, the operator "shall bear the costs for the preventive and remedial actions taken pursuant to these regulations"; but these regulations cater for civil, and not criminal liability, so no new penalties are stipulated.

rvassallo@mediatoday.com.mt

Copyright MediaToday Co.

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From: Nanowerk News
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SWISS RETAILERS INTRODUCE CODE OF CONDUCT FOR NANOTECHNOLOGY

On April 14th, the Swiss Retailer's Organisation (IG DHS) among whose members are the most important actors in the Swiss Retailing such as Migros, Coop, Denner, Manor, Valora and Charles Vogele, in cooperation with Innovation Society Ltd., published a Code of Conduct for the handling of nanotechnology in consumer products. In the Code, the members commit to highest possible transparency for consumers and to the application of the precautionary principle in the face of a lack of specific legal rulings.

With this self-commitment the signing members want to make sure that consumers will be informed openly about products containing nanotechnology and that products characterised as nanotechnological actually do contain applications of nanotechnology.

The Code of Conduct will prove to be of special relevance for producers and suppliers located in upstream parts of the value chain.

They are expected to perform a systematic and documented risk management and to disclose all decision-relevant product data. Due to the high market power of the signing retailers, it is likely that these requirements will actually be enforced.

The Innovation Society was involved as a consultant in the elaboration of the Code of Conduct. Companies that use the CENARIOS risk management system developed by the Innovation Society in collaboration with T�V S�D can be sure to fulfil all requirements of the Code concerning safety, information and documentation.

Here is the full text of the Code:

Code of Conduct Nanotechnologies

1. Preamble

The Code of Conduct has been drawn up by the Swiss retailer's association IG DHS1 in order to take account of the growing importance of nanotechnologies in consumer products.

The Code of Conduct defines the position of IG DHS members in respect of manufacturers and suppliers and serves as the basis for informing consumers with the aim of ensuring maximum transparency.

The members of IG DHS are actively involved in discussions with other interest groups. The lack of specific legal rulings for nanomaterials and the uncertainty associated with the assessment of their possible risks mean that the precautionary principle needs to be applied in order to protect the health of consumers and the environment from possible harmful effects. On the other hand, the numerous potential advantages and benefits offered by nanotechnologies need to be exploited in the best possible way.

This document adopts the working definition cited in the basic report of the Swiss Action Plan on "Synthetic Nanomaterials"2', according to which nanotechnology is concerned with structures between 1 and 100 nm that offer added functionality and are manufactured or manipulated in a targeted manner.

2. Obligations of IG DHS members

2.1. Personal responsibility

Product safety is the top priority. Only those products which, according to the latest scientific and technical findings, are considered to be harmless to humans, animals and the environment during manufacture and correct use, may be included in the product range.

If new findings indicate that certain materials or substances must be classified as unsuitable for use in certain areas, IG DHS members shall immediately take the necessary measures.

2.2. Procurement of information

The members of IG DHS are responsible for requesting information about nanotechnologies from their manufacturers and suppliers.

IG DHS members must actively inform themselves about current developments concerning legal rulings and the latest scientific findings concerning nanotechnologies.

If it emerges that nanotechnological components or effects have been used in products but this fact has not been communicated, the manufactures and suppliers will be proactively approached for information by IG DHS members.

2.3. Information for consumers

The retail trade is responsible for informing consumers openly about products that incorporate nanotechnology.

The retail trade shall ensure that products described as employing nanotechnologies actually contain components and/or modes of action corresponding to these technologies.

3. Requirements for manufacturers and suppliers

3.1. Company-specific requirements

The IG DHS requires manufacturers and suppliers to give appropriate consideration to, and document, the aspect of nanotechnology in their risk management.

The IG DHS requires nanospecific aspects to be taken into account in respect of occupational health and safety during production, storage and transport.

3.2. Product-specific requirements

The IG DHS requires manufacturers and suppliers to disclose and forward decision-relevant product data throughout the production and distribution chain.

For the purposes of product assessment, IG DHS members shall request the following minimum information from their manufacturers and suppliers:

** Benefit or added value of the "nano-product" compared to the conventional product

** Evidence of the nanospecific effects and/or modes of action

** Technical specifications (physical-chemical data, e.g. size, structure, etc.)

** Risk potential for humans, animals and the environment (toxicology, ecotoxicology, degradability, disposal, etc.)

Any new health-related or environmentally relevant findings on products that come to light must be communicated quickly and openly by manufacturers and suppliers to the respective IG DHS members.

Full text of the code: IG DHS Code of Conduct Nanotechnologies (pdf download, 40 KB)

Factsheet Code of conduct for nanotechnologies (pdf downlaod, 92 KB)

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