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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #944 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, January 31, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

A Rocky Start for 'Clean Coal'
In the U.S., the future of global warming hinges on a fight over coal-fired electric plants, which, together, emit 60% more carbon dioxide (CO2) than all the automobiles in the nation.
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing To Save Civilization
"At the heart of the Plan B climate-stabilizing initiative is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to hold the future temperature rise to a minimum. This initiative will mean the world can phase out all coal-fired power plants."
The Chemicals Within
Many common household products contain compounds that could be affecting our health, says Newsweek magazine.
Harmful Pesticides Found in Everyday Food Products
Children eating conventional foods from grocery stores have signs of toxic pesticides in their urine and saliva. When the same children eat organic fruits, vegetables and juices, no signs of pesticides are found.
Making Sense of Biomonitoring
Many toxic chemicals are measurable in the blood of everyone in the U.S. Rather than trying to prevent and eliminate this toxic trespass, the chemical industry and the U.S. government are planning to spend several decades debating where to place the decimal point in toxicity equations. Meanwhile the toxic trespass continues.
Corporations Gaining Control of University Research Agendas
As taxes are cut, university research budgets are cut. This has created an opening for corporations (oil, gas, coal, pharmaceuticals, others) to fund research -- gaining more than a "green" image in the process. Often the corporations get to influence what will be studied, and get to veto publication of the results.
Bad Week for Fish
As wealthy nations vacuum the oceans for fish (often illegally), traditional fishers in poor countries find themselves without a livelihood, forcing them to emigrate to places where they are not welcome.

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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #944, Jan. 31, 2008
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A ROCKY START FOR 'CLEAN COAL'

By Peter Montague

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced January 30 that it is pulling out of the Futuregen Project in Mattoon, Illinois -- America's $1.8 billion "clean coal" demonstration plant scheduled to start construction next year. DoE had committed to paying 74% ($1.3 billion) of Futuregen's costs.

"Clean coal" is the coal industry's term for various end-of-pipe filters that capture carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the main global warming gas -- pressurize it into a liquid, and store it underground, hoping it will stay there forever. This is known as "carbon capture and storage" or CCS for short.

Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and other Illinois politicians immediately denounced DoE for reneging on its commitment to the Mattoon "clean coal" project. (Not to be outdone, Mr. Obama's political rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, has said that, if elected President, she will "put immediate funding towards 10 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects.")

DoE's 13 industrial partners in the Illinois project (the Futuregen Alliance) have bravely promised to press ahead, but without DoE's billions, the Illinois project is almost certainly dead.

Ho hum, you say?

Not so. The U.S. response to global warming -- and therefore, arguably, the future of the planet -- is wrapped up in this fight.

President Bush had personally announced the Futuregen project Feb. 17, 2003 as a "bold" 10-year demonstration to turn coal into gas (mainly hydrogen and carbon dioxide), burn the hydrogen to make electricity, and bury the carbon dioxide a mile underground, hoping it would stay there forever. Originally Futuregen was also intended to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal, according to the New York Times. In 2003, Futuregen was supposed to cost $750 million, but recent estimates have escalated to $1.8 billion, and further increases were expected, so the DoE pulled out.

Futuregen was an important part of the coal-industry's "clean coal" campaign because it would combine, for the first time, coal gasification with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal gasification had been demonstrated at commercial scale a decade ago at the small (260-megaWatt) Polk Power Station 40 miles southeast of Tampa, Fla. (Polk uses a system called IGCC, short for integrated gasification combined cycle.) Despite this technical innovation, Polk still emits its carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming. Futuregen in Illinois was supposed to show that a small (275- megaWatt) electric power plant could combine coal gasification with carbon capture and storage (CCS), reducing near-term CO2 emissions by perhaps 85% compared to standard coal-burning plants.[1, pg. 4] (In the longer term, no one knows if, or when, CO2 stored below ground will escape to the atmosphere. The stated goal of the Futuregen project to store CO2 below ground for 5000 years.)

As the nation's first demonstration of carbon capture and storage (CCS) below ground from a coal-fired power plant, the Futuregen project seemed crucial for the future of the coal industry. In 2002, the U.S. emitted a total of 5611 megatonnes (millions of metric tonnes) of CO2 from the combustion of all fossil fuels (coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas). The nation's roughly 500 coal-electric plants emitted 33% of this (1868 megatonnes), which is 60% more than all the CO2 released that year by all the gasoline-powered automobiles in the nation (1176 megatonnes).[2]

If you are looking for an obvious choke-point to cut greenhouse gases, coal is it.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) -- sometimes called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) -- would benefit other industries besides coal. An 85% reduction of CO2 emissions from coal plants would make "space" for the automobile industry to continue to pollute, so the automobile and oil corporations are enthusiastic about CCS for coal. The electric utilities favor CCS because it would mean they could stop worrying about unfamiliar renewable technologies like solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power; if they can get CCS going on a large scale, renewable energy won't be needed. Coal mining executives strongly favor CCS because without it their day is done. And the railroads favor CCS because 44% of all rail freight (by weight) is coal.[3]

To stop global warming, stop coal

James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading U.S. climate expert, testified in November, 2007, "Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered (stored in one of several possible ways)." And he has said even more dramatically, "If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains -- no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable, irreplaceable species," he said, reminding us that the future of all life on Earth is at stake.

To avoid a total phaseout of coal, the coal industry is desperately eager to "demonstrate" that CO2 can be captured and sequestered a mile below ground, where they hope it will stay forever.

To stop coal, stop CCS

Without CCS, coal is over, and if coal is over then space opens up for renewable technologies, creating an opportunity for America to revitalize its economy and once again demonstrate its industrial power, ingenuity, leadership, and productivity. It poses a basic choice for the nation: stick with 19th century technologies (coal and oil) or move into the 21st century and revitalize our economy and our standing in the world at the same time.

Naturally, with the coal, oil, automobile, mining and railroad industries depending upon it, carbon capture and storage will not be easily derailed. Both political parties enthusiastically endorse the coal industry's "clean coal" campaign. In his 2008 State of the Union address Jan. 28, President Bush said, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." And, as noted above, both Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton support carbon capture and storage.

So Futuregen may be dead, but carbon capture and storage is anything but.

Two days after President Bush endorsed "clean coal" in his final State of the Union address, Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell held a press conference to renounce the Illinois Futuregen project. However, he was quick to point out that President Bush's 2009 budget includes a $648 million subsidy for coal -- a $129 million (25%) increase over 2008.

Mr. Sell pointed out that there are at least 33 coal plants planned, or under construction, using IGCC gasification technology. He gave the utilities until March 3 to apply for 100% government funding to add carbon capture and storage to any of those 33 projects. He said the DoE's new approach would result in "twice as much carbon" being buried in the ground in the next few years, compared to the Illinois Futuregen project.

So it seems apparent that the Department of Energy beheaded the Mattoon Futuregen project not to derail so-called "clean coal" but to accelerate its development, aiming to get CCS demonstration projects going more quickly in more places simultaneously. Like the mythical Hydra, a giant many-headed serpent with poisonous breath, Futuregen and its progeny will be hard to kill.

[More next time.]

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[1] IPCC Special Report Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2005). [24 Mbyte PDF]

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2005 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, April 15, 2007. See Table 2-1 in Annex 2. [27 Mbytes PDF]

[3] Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts 2007 Edition (Washington, D.C.: 2007), pg. 28.

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From: Earth Policy Institute
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PLAN B 3.0: MOBILIZING TO SAVE CIVILIZATION

By Lester R. Brown

"In late summer 2007, reports of ice melting were coming at a frenetic pace. Experts were 'stunned' when an area of Arctic sea ice almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week," writes Lester R. Brown in his new book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton & Company).

"Nearby, the Greenland ice sheet was melting so fast that huge chunks of ice weighing several billion tons were breaking off and sliding into the sea, triggering minor earthquakes," notes Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.

These recent developments are alarming scientists. If we cannot stop this melting of the Greenland ice sheet, sea level will eventually rise 23 feet, inundating many of the world's coastal cities and the rice-growing river deltas of Asia. It will force several hundred million people from their homes, generating an unimaginable flood of rising-sea refugees.

"We need not go beyond ice melting to see that civilization is in trouble. Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. It is time for Plan B," Brown says in Plan B 3.0.

"Plan B 3.0 is a comprehensive plan for reversing the trends that are fast undermining our future. Its four overriding goals are to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth's damaged ecosystems," says Brown. "Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well."

Continuing rapid population growth is weakening governments in scores of countries. The annual addition of 70 million people to world population is concentrated in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry, forests are shrinking, soils are eroding, and grasslands are turning into desert. As this backlog of unresolved problems grows, stresses mount and weaker governments begin to break down.

The defining characteristic of a failing state is the inability of a government to provide security for its people. Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Pakistan are among the better known examples. Each year the number of failing states increases. "Failing states," notes Brown, "are an early sign of a failing civilization."

"Even as the accumulating backlog of unresolved problems is leading to a breakdown of governments in weaker states, new stresses are emerging. Among these are rising oil prices as the world approaches peak oil, rising food prices as an ever larger share of the U.S. grain harvest is converted into fuel for cars, and the spreading fallout from climate change."

"At the heart of the climate-stabilizing initiative cited above is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to hold the future temperature rise to a minimum. This initiative has three major components -- raising energy efficiency, developing renewable sources of energy, and expanding the earth's tree cover. Reaching these goals," says Brown, "will mean the world can phase out all coal-fired power plants."

In setting the carbon reduction goals for Plan B, we did not ask "What do politicians think is politically feasible?" but rather "What do we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change?" This is not Plan A: business-as-usual. This is Plan B: an all-out response at wartime speed proportionate to the magnitude of the threats facing civilization.

"We are in a race between tipping points in natural and political systems," says Brown. "Which will come first? Can we mobilize the political will to phase out coal-fired power plants before the melting of the Greenland ice sheet becomes irreversible? Can we halt deforestation in the Amazon basin before it so weakens the forest that it becomes vulnerable to fire and is destroyed? Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Himalayan glaciers that feed the major rivers of Asia?"

Although efforts have been made in recent decades to raise the efficiency of energy use, the potential is still largely untapped. For example, one easy and profitable way to cut carbon emissions worldwide is simply to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that use only a fourth as much electricity. Turning to more efficient lighting can reduce world electricity use by 12 percent -- enough to close 705 of the world's 2,370 coal-fired power plants.

In the United States, buildings -- commercial and residential -- account for close to 40 percent of carbon emissions. Retrofitting an existing building typically can cut energy use by 20-50 percent. The next step, shifting to carbon-free electricity to heat, cool, and light the building completes the transformation to a zero-carbon emissions building.

We can also reduce carbon emissions by moving down the food chain. The energy used to provide the typical American diet and that used for personal transportation are roughly equal. A plant-based diet requires about one fourth as much energy as a diet rich in red meat. The reduction in carbon emissions in shifting from a red meat-rich diet to a plant-based diet is about the same as that in shifting from a Chevrolet Suburban SUV to a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

In the Plan B energy economy, wind is the centerpiece. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales easily and can be developed quickly. The goal is to develop at wartime speed 3 million megawatts of wind-generating capacity by 2020, enough to meet 40 percent of the world's electricity needs. This would require 1.5 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. These turbines could be produced on assembly lines by reopening closed automobile plants, much as bombers were assembled in auto plants during World War II.

In the development of renewable energy resources, Brown notes, we are seeing the emergence of some big-time thinking -- thinking that recognizes the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where the state government is coordinating an effort to build 23,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (the equivalent of 23 coal-fired power plants). This will supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of over 11 million Texans -- half the state's population. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the earth's wind resources cannot be depleted.

Solar technologies also provide exciting opportunities for getting us off the carbon treadmill. Sales of solar-electric panels are doubling every two years. Rooftop solar water heaters are spreading fast in Europe and China. In China, some 40 million homes now get their hot water from rooftop solar heaters. The plan is to nearly triple this to 110 million homes by 2020, supplying hot water to 380 million Chinese.

Large-scale solar thermal power plants are under construction or planned in California, Florida, Spain, and Algeria. Algeria, a leading world oil exporter, is planning to develop 6,000 megawatts of solar- thermal electric-generating capacity, which it will feed into the European grid via an undersea cable. The electricity generated from this single project is enough to supply the residential needs of a country the size of Switzerland.

Investment in geothermal energy for both heating and power generation is also growing fast, notes Brown. Iceland now heats nearly 90 percent of its homes with geothermal energy, virtually eliminating the use of coal for home heating. The Philippines gets 25 percent of its electricity from geothermal power plants. The United States has 61 geothermal projects under way in the geothermally rich western states.

The combination of gas-electric hybrid cars and advanced-design wind turbines has set the stage for the evolution of an entirely new automotive fuel economy. If the battery storage of the typical hybrid car is doubled and a plug-in capacity is added so that batteries can be recharged at night, then we could do our short-distance driving -- commuting to work, grocery shopping, and so on -- almost entirely with cheap, wind-generated electricity.

This would permit us to run our cars largely on renewable electricity -- and at the gasoline-equivalent cost of less than $1 per gallon. Several major automakers are coming to market with plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

With business as usual (Plan A), the environmental trends that are undermining our future will continue. More and more states will fail until civilization itself begins to unravel. "Time is our scarcest resource. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize," says Brown. "These deadlines are set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock."

The key to restructuring the world energy economy is to get the market to tell the environmental truth by incorporating into prices the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels, such as climate disruption and air pollution. To do this, we propose adopting a carbon tax that will reflect these indirect costs and offsetting it by lowering income taxes. We propose a worldwide carbon tax to be phased in at $20 per ton each year between 2008 and 2020, stabilizing at $240 per ton. This initiative, which would be offset at every step with a reduction in income taxes, would simultaneously discourage fossil fuel use and encourage investment in renewable sources of energy.

"Saving civilization is not a spectator sport," says Brown. "We have reached a point in the deteriorating relationship between us and the earth's natural systems where we all have to become political activists. Every day counts. We all have a stake in civilization's survival."

"We can all make lifestyle changes, but unless we restructure the economy and do it quickly we will almost certainly fail. We need to persuade our elected representatives and national leaders to support the environmental tax restructuring and other changes outlined in Plan B. Beyond this, each of us can pick an issue that is important to us at the local level, such as phasing out coal-fired power plants, shifting to more-efficient light bulbs, or developing a comprehensive local recycling program, and get to work on it."

We all need to educate ourselves on environmental issues. For its part, the Earth Policy Institute is making Plan B 3.0 available for downloading free of charge from its Web site.

"It is decision time," says Brown. "Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come."

Lester R. Brown, Author & President (202) 496.9290 x 11 Janet Larsen, Director of Research (202) 496.9290 x 14 Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496.9290 x 12

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From: Newsweek
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THE CHEMICALS WITHIN

By Anne Underwood, Newsweek

As an Alaskan fisherman, Timothy June, 54, used to think that he was safe from industrial pollutants at his home in Haines -- a town with a population of 2,400 people and 4,000 eagles, with 20 million acres of protected wilderness nearby. But in early 2007, June agreed to take part in a survey of 35 Americans from seven states. It was a biomonitoring project, in which people's blood and urine were tested for traces of chemicals -- in this case, three potentially hazardous classes of compounds found in common household products like shampoo, tin cans, shower curtains and upholstery. The results -- released in November in a report called "Is It in Us?" by a coalition of environmental groups -- were not reassuring. Every one of the participants, ranging from an Illinois state legislator to a Massachusetts minister, tested positive for all three classes of contaminants. And while the simple presence of these chemicals doesn't necessarily indicate a health risk, the fact that typical Americans carry these chemicals at all shocked June and his fellow participants. As Stephanie Felten, 28, of Aurora, Ill., put it, "Why should chemical companies be allowed to roll the dice on my health?"

Clearly, there are chemicals in our bodies that don't belong there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts a large, ongoing survey that has found 148 chemicals in Americans of all ages, including lead, mercury, dioxins and PCBs. Other scientists have detected antibacterial agents from liquid soaps in breast milk, infants' cord blood and the urine of young girls. And in 2005, the Environmental Working Group found an average of 200 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 newborns, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins. "Our babies are being born pre-polluted," says Sharyle Patton of Commonweal, which cosponsored "Is It in Us?" "This is going to be the next big environmental issue after climate change."

The shocking thing to most Americans is that we really don't know the health effects of many chemicals on the market today. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, chemicals already in use were grandfathered in without scrutiny. These include the three classes of compounds targeted in "Is It in Us?" -- a plastic strengthener called bisphenol A (BPA), brominated flame retardants known as PBDEs and plastic softeners called phthalates. The chemical industry says these compounds have been used safely for decades, and certainly they do not have the overtly toxic properties of mercury or lead. But in animal studies and human cell cultures, they mimic hormones, with effects even at minute levels, down to parts per billion. Scientists say we're now awash in a chemical brew of hormone-mimicking compounds that didn't exist 100 years ago. "We've changed the nature of nature," says Devra Lee Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Take bisphenol A. It's a basic constituent of the polycarbonate plastics found in many baby bottles, sippy cups and juice bottles. A highly versatile compound, it is also found in dental sealants, CDs, DVDs and the resin linings of food and beverage containers, including many cans and takeout cartons. But most scientists say small amounts can leach out -- and ultimately find their way into our bodies -- when the plastics start to break down under high heat or wear and tear. The CDC has found BPA in 92 percent of Americans age 6 and older who were tested. But the chemical industry says it's safe -- and the Food and Drug Administration agrees. "It's not possible to contact harmful levels of it," says Steven Hentges of the American Chemistry Council, which represents the major chemical companies.

Reproductive biologists aren't so sure. Patricia Hunt of Washington State University was alerted to possible dangers of BPA in 1999 when her mouse study on an unrelated topic suddenly went haywire, with dozens of female mice unexpectedly developing chromosomal abnormalities in the eggs they carried in their ovaries. As it turned out, a lab worker had used the wrong detergent to clean the animals' cages -- one that caused BPA to leach out of the plastic cages and feeding bottles. Hunt tried washing brand-new cages with the same detergent to confirm the source of the problem. She then began studying BPA exposures in unborn rodents, which she followed into adulthood. The results were striking. Almost half the eggs of female mice exposed to low doses of BPA during gestation carried extra copies of chromosomes or were missing chromosomes. No one has replicated the findings.

There are other potential effects. Hundreds of animal and test-tube studies suggest that low-dose exposures, particularly during gestation, may later lead to breast and prostate cancer, abnormalities in the reproductive tract and behavioral problems, among other things. But there is disagreement about the implications for human health. Two groups convened by the National Institutes of Health have reached opposite conclusions. In 2007, advisers to the government's National Toxicology Program found "minimal" cause for concern. Meanwhile, another scientific panel produced a consensus statement saying that, based on animal data, common levels of exposure could pose a problem and that further study was needed. "We can't say there are conclusive data in humans," says Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri, who headed the second panel. "But given the fact that we're seeing irreparable damage in animals, for heaven's sake, let's get this out of products our babies are coming in contact with."

No government in the world has seen the need to do that yet. But two weeks ago, Michigan Rep. John Dingell, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent letters to seven manufacturers of infant formula asking if their cans were lined with BPA and if they had tested their products for it. In 2006 Whole Foods stopped carrying baby bottles made from polycarbonate plastic, which contains BPA. The chain now sells only BPA-free bottles and sippy cups.

Phthalates have also raised concern. The compounds are used to soften the plastics in products ranging from rubber duckies and vinyl shower curtains to certain medical tubing and IV bags. They are also found in hundreds of personal-care products, including many fragrances, body lotions, nail polishes and shampoos. Again, 30 years of data from institutions like the NIH and EPA point to potential problems in animals stemming from prenatal exposure, including abnormalities in the reproductive tract and a decline of sperm quality. Now there is a smattering of human studies, too. In 2006 Danish researchers found that higher levels of a particular phthalate in mothers' breast milk correlated with lower testosterone in male babies at 1 to 3 months of age. Similarly, Dr. Russ Hauser at Harvard studied roughly 500 men at a fertility clinic and found that those with higher levels of certain phthalates in their urine had lower sperm counts and sperm motility. A Swedish study of young military recruits, however, found no such correlation. These are all association studies -- which by definition cannot prove cause and effect.

Other scientists are starting to look at what happens when these chemicals are combined. L. Earl Gray Jr., a research biologist at the EPA, has tested mixtures of two or more phthalates in animals. He deliberately selected doses of each that were too low to cause effects individually -- yet found that as many as 50 percent of male rats who were exposed to the combination in utero developed abnormalities in the reproductive tract. In his latest study, he combined three phthalates with four pesticides and found that at the highest doses, the effects equaled those of a sevenfold dose of a single phthalate. "All the males were malformed," he says.

The toy industry contends that phthalates pose no danger, particularly a widely used one called DINP. This chemical "has been well studied here in the U.S. and in Europe and found to be safe specifically for kids' products," says Joan Lawrence, a vice president of the Toy Industry Association. She notes that companies cannot easily replace it because none of the potential substitutes "has its lengthy safety record." Nonetheless, last October, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a ban on the use of six phthalates in children's products sold in the state -- though three of them, including DINP, are prohibited only in items that kids under 3 are likely to put in their mouths. In December, Toys "R" Us notified its vendors of its intention to comply with the California ban by Jan. 1, 2009, the date the law takes effect. Mattel is already in compliance.

Finally there are the flame retardants, PBDEs. They turn up in fabrics, upholstery, foam mattresses, circuit boards and the casings of computers and televisions -- and apparently escape into indoor air and dust. Animal studies show they can have negative impacts on learning and memory, sperm counts and thyroid functioning in rats and mice. PBDEs tend to linger a long time in the body, and one mixture in particular seems "quite biologically active, especially during development, as we've seen in studies on rats, mice and fish," says Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology at the EPA. "If I were nursing my baby, I wouldn't stop because of PBDEs in breast milk, but many of us wish they weren't there." According to the EPA, 11 states -- including California, Maine, Michigan and New York -- have bans on two major types.

It could take decades to resolve doubts about the safety of all these chemicals, one way or the other. But Timothy June isn't waiting. He's stopped buying tomato sauce in tin cans to avoid the BPA, which scientists say tends to leach out of can linings when the contents are particularly acidic. He's ditched his vinyl shower curtain in favor of a cloth one. And he's considering getting rid of the foam mattress on his fishing boat. "I guess the survey had a bigger impact on me than I realized," he says. Let's all hope the chemicals aren't having an even bigger impact on us.

With Anna Kuchment

Copyright 2008 Newsweek, Inc.

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From: Seattle (Wash.) Post-Intelligencer
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HARMFUL PESTICIDES FOUND IN EVERYDAY FOOD PRODUCTS

By Andrew Schneider

Government promises to rid the nation's food supply of brain-damaging pesticides aren't doing the job, according to the results of a yearlong study that carefully monitored the diets of a group of local children.

The peer-reviewed study found that the urine and saliva of children eating a variety of conventional foods from area groceries contained biological markers of organophosphates, the family of pesticides spawned by the creation of nerve gas agents in World War II.

When the same children ate organic fruits, vegetables and juices, signs of pesticides were not found.

"The transformation is extremely rapid," said Chensheng Lu, the principal author of the study published online in the current issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

"Once you switch from conventional food to organic, the pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) that we can measure in the urine disappears. The level returns immediately when you go back to the conventional diets," said Lu, a professor at Emory University's School of Public Health and a leading authority on pesticides and children.

Within eight to 36 hours of the children switching to organic food, the pesticides were no longer detected in the testing.

The subjects for his testing were 21 children, ages 3 to 11, from two elementary schools and a Montessori preschool on Mercer Island.

The community has double the median national income, but the wealth of Mercer Island made no difference in the outcome, he said.

"We are confident that if we did the same study in poor communities, we would get the same results," he said. The study is being repeated in Georgia.

The study has not yet linked the pesticide levels to specific foods, but other studies have shown peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, strawberries and cherries are among those that most frequently have detectable levels of pesticides.

Measuring the harm

Lu is quick to point out that there is no certainty that the pesticides measured in this group of children would cause any adverse health outcomes. However, he added that a recent animal study demonstrated that persistent cognitive impairment occurred in rats after chronic dietary exposure to chlorpyrifos.

Death or serious health problems have been documented in thousands of cases in which there were high-level exposures to malathion and chlorpyrifos. But a link between neurological impairments and repeated low-level exposure is far more difficult to determine.

"There's a large underpinning of animal research for organophosphate pesticides, and particularly for chlorpyrifos, that points to bad outcomes in terms of effects on brain development and behavior," Dr. Theodore Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University in North Carolina, said in the April 2006 Environmental Health Perspectives.

Lu says more research must be done into the harm these pesticides may do to children, even at the low levels found on food.

"In animal and a few human studies, we know chlorpyrifos inhibits an enzyme that transmits a signal in the brain so the body can function properly. Unfortunately, that's all we know."

Not many chemicals, including pharmaceutical products, were designed specifically to kill mammals, which was genesis of organophosphates.

"It is appropriate to assume that if we -- human beings -- are exposed to (this class of) pesticides, even though it's a low-level exposure on a daily basis, there are going to be some health concerns down the road," said Lu, who is on the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide advisory panel.

The EPA says it eliminated the use of organophosphates on many crops and imposed numerous restrictions on the remaining organophosphate pesticide uses.

Congressional concern that children were being harmed by excessive exposure to pesticides led to the unanimous passage of the Food Quality Protection Act. At its heart was a requirement that by 2006, the EPA complete a comprehensive reassessment of the 9,721 pesticides permitted for use and determine the safe level of pesticide residues permitted for all food products.

"As a result, the amount of these pesticides used on kids' foods (has undergone) a 57 percent reduction," said Jonathan Shradar, the EPA's spokesman.

But that's not nearly enough to prevent birth defects and neurological problems, said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, a nationwide, nonprofit, food research organization.

"The pesticide limits that EPA permits are far, far too high to say they're safe. And, the reduction that EPA cites in the U.S. has been accompanied by a steady increase in pesticide-contaminated imported foods, which are capturing a growing share of the market," he said.

Yet the EPA continues to insist that "dietary exposures from eating food crops treated with chlorpyrifos are below the level of concern for the entire U.S. population, including infants and children."

That statement is "not supported by science," Benbrook said.

"Given the almost daily reminders that children are suffering from an array of behavioral, learning, neurological problems, doesn't it make sense to eliminate exposures to chemicals known to trigger such outcomes like chlorpyrifos?" he asked.

What to do

While the gut reaction of some parents might be to limit the consumption of fresh produce or switch completely to organic food, Lu cautions not to make the wrong decision.

"It is vital for children to consume significantly more fresh fruits and vegetables than is commonly the case today," he says, citing such problems as juvenile diabetes and obesity.

"Nor is our purpose to promote the consumption of organic food, although our data clearly demonstrate that food grown organically contains far less pesticide residues."

Lu says an all-organic diet is not necessary. He has two sons, 10 and 13, and he estimates that about 60 percent of his family's diet is organic.

"Consumers," he says, "should be encouraged to buy produce direct from the farmers they know. These need not be just organic farmers, but conventional growers who minimize their use of pesticides."

Understanding how fruits and vegetables grow can help guide the consumer, he says.

For example, organic strawberries probably are worth the money because they are a tender-fleshed fruit grown close to the dirt, so more pesticides are needed to fight insects and bugs from the soil. He adds apples and spinach to his list.

"It may also be money-smart to choose conventionally grown broccoli because it has a web of leaves surrounding the florets, resulting in lower levels of pesticide residue," Lu says.

He is greatly concerned about one finding from the study.

"Overall pesticide (marker) levels in urine samples were even higher in the winter months, suggesting children may have consumed fruits and vegetables that are imported. The government needs to ensure that imported food comply with the standards we impose on domestic produce," he said.

Dangerous science

Chlorpyrifos, made by Dow Chemical Co., is one of the most widely used organophosphate insecticides in the United States and, many believe, the world.

For years, millions of pounds of the chemical insecticide were used in schools, homes, day care centers and public housing, and studies show that children were often exposed to enormously high doses. Just as the EPA was ready to ban the product, which analysts said would have damaged Dow's overseas sales, the company "voluntarily" removed it from the home market. Yet, with few exceptions, the agricultural uses continued.

The EPA's Web site is a study in contradictions when it comes to chlorpyrifos.

At one section, it "acknowledged the special susceptibility and sensitivity of children to developmental and neurological effects from exposure to chlorpyrifos."

But in another section, the agency reports that infants and children face no risk from eating food crops treated with chlorpyrifos. However, the agency doesn't say how it reached that conclusion. There is no agreement of how much of the neurotoxin is too much.

Benbrook said the EPA has refused orders from Congress to study the cumulative developmental risk to children from low-dose exposures.

"Perhaps we can rest assured that EPA has protected us adults from acute insecticide poisoning risk, but our kids are on their own," Benbrook said.

========================================================

ABOUT THE STUDY

Chensheng Lu's study was published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives (ehponline.org), a publication of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. It was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and used federal laboratories to confirm the accuracy of his findings.

Unlike many previous studies, Lu's team focused on children living in an urban/suburban area who were tested for multiple days in each of the four seasons with urine and saliva sampled twice a day.

The organic produce was sent to the Department of Agriculture lab in Yakima to be tested for pesticides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the urine samples and the Food and Drug Administration laboratory is completing its quantification of pesticide residues in samples of the conventional food the children consumed.

The team included scientists from Emory University, the CDC and the University of Washington.

========================================================

Post-Intelligencer senior correspondent Andrew Schneider can be reached at 206-448-8218 or andrewschneider@seattlepi.com.

Copyright 1996-2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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From: Chemical & Engineering News (pg. 52)
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MAKING SENSE OF BIOMONITORING

By Cheryl Hogue

In an ideal world, scientists would be able to monitor industrial chemicals found in people's bodies and predict the health implications from any level of exposure to the substances. At the same time, they would be able to provide solid information about risk for companies, regulators, and the public to act on.

But scientific understanding isn't that far developed. Analytical tools are becoming more and more sensitive and have the ability to detect increasingly minuscule amounts of chemicals in blood, urine, or breast milk. Data from these sorts of analyses, collectively called biomonitoring, show that people's exposure to many synthetic chemicals is widespread.

This means that the public has become more aware of the bodily burden chemicals have, and the government is helping in this regard. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is analyzing blood and urine from thousands of U.S. residents for hundreds of industrial chemicals -- including pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, and phthalates -- as part of the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey.

Investigations by journalists also are fanning interest. Nearly three years ago, the Oakland Tribune in California ran an award-winning series of articles revealing that the youngest member of a family of four, a 20-month-old toddler, had the highest level of polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants in his blood. National Geographic delved into the issue in October 2006 with an in-depth article by self-described "journalist-as-guinea-pig" David Ewing Duncan, who subjected his bodily fluids to a battery of analyses. In October 2007, CNN aired "Planet in Peril," a special that included a segment featuring reporter Anderson Cooper getting his blood screened for scores of industrial chemicals.

These news reports all raised a similar alarm: Many of the chemicals detected in people through biomonitoring can cause cancer or other health problems. But all of those reports also left the key question unanswered: What do the levels of toxics detected mean for the health of the individuals tested?

This question did not remain unanswered because of omissions by the reporters, but for a more worrisome reason: Scientists simply don't know the answer.

In a 2006 report, the National Research Council stated that the ability to detect a chemical in humans often exceeds the ability to determine whether that substance causes a health risk or to evaluate how a person is exposed to it (C&EN, July 31, 2006, page 38). For instance, the toddler in the Oakland Tribune series had 838 parts per billion of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in his blood. Laboratory rats show behavioral changes with 300 ppb in their blood. But no one knows whether the little boy has or will develop health or behavior problems because of the flame retardants in his body.

"Our ability to measure has outstripped our ability to interpret data," says Richard A. Becker, senior toxicologist for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical industry trade group.

Now, chemical manufacturers have joined with a commercial toxicology laboratory and two government regulatory agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, in an effort to make more sense of the level of chemicals found in people's blood or urine.

This effort revolves around the concept of "biomonitoring equivalents." A biomonitoring equivalent, Becker explains, corresponds to the blood or urine level of a chemical -- or its metabolites -- if a person is exposed to a safe dose of the substance.

Calculation of a biomonitoring equivalent starts with an established safe dose for a chemical. Perhaps the mostly widely known type of established safe dose for chemicals is EPA's reference dose. A reference dose reflects EPA's scientific judgment on the amount of a substance that people can ingest daily without harmful effects. The particular values come with a nagging burden of uncertainty regarding their relevance to people, however, because they generally are extrapolated from the results of tests on laboratory animals.

For years, health and environmental advocates have questioned whether a safe dose based on laboratory testing of rodents truly protects the public, including sensitive subpopulations such as infants and the elderly, from adverse health effects. These safe doses are, nonetheless, the starting point for the new effort to put biomonitoring data in context.

"We need something for interpreting biomonitoring data," says Sean M. Hays, president of Summit Toxicology, a Colorado-based consulting firm. "The biomonitoring equivalent is imperfect, but it's a logical first step,"

Summit Toxicology is doing a pilot project to develop biomonitoring equivalents for four chemicals. Sponsors of the work are EPA, Health Canada, ACC, the Soap & Detergent Association, the American Petroleum Institute, and two pesticide industry groups, CropLife America and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.

EPA has an established reference dose for each of the four chemicals in the pilot project. One of the chemicals is acrylamide, a substance formed when starchy foods are fried, baked, or toasted. It's also a probable human carcinogen that can damage the human neurological system as well. Another is the pesticide 2,4-D, which is (2,4- dichlorophenoxy)acetic acid. Cadmium, an element classified as a probable human carcinogen, is the third. The fourth, toluene, is an industrial solvent that causes neurological effects.

Robert S. DeWoskin of EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment, which provides guidance and risk assessments for protecting human health and the environment, says biomonitoring equivalents hold promise for interpreting biomonitoring data. These interpretations, he says, will be done in the context of current health-based guidance values such as the reference dose.

"The question becomes, is this biomonitoring level of a chemical high enough to do damage if the chemical is at a site in the body where it can do some damage?" DeWoskin tells C&EN.

Biomonitoring equivalents can then be used as a screening tool to help risk assessors or an individual, in consultation with a physician, "initially determine whether or not there is need for concern or more definitive testing for internal levels or toxicity," DeWoskin says.

Hays, meanwhile, says biomonitoring equivalents are designed as "screening values for public health," not to determine the risk posed to a particular person. They could provide a tool for prioritizing chemicals for further study, he says.

For instance, biomonitoring data for a particular chemical might demonstrate that the population's blood or urine level of a chemical is orders of magnitude lower than the biomonitoring equivalent. In this case, Hays says, "there's not much likelihood of a public health risk" from typical exposure to the substance.

But biomonitoring equivalents have limitations. It "isn't a bright line" between a person who experiences a safe exposure and one who is at risk of health effects from a chemical, Hays says. In fact, even if the data show exposures to a chemical above its biomonitoring equivalent, "you can't say there's an increased risk" of health problems from exposure to the substance, Hays says.

Becker adds that you need a large body of data because "you wouldn't be able to draw a particular risk-based conclusion for an individual." For this reason, Hays tells C&EN, biomonitoring equivalents are not intended to be "personal diagnostic tools" and aren't the last word in interpreting biomonitoring data. "We're not trying to oversell these or make them more than they are," he says.

Environmental advocacy organizations are tracking the development of biomonitoring equivalents. Richard A. Denison, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, an advocacy organization with a history of working with regulators and companies, says he has "no problem" with EPA working with industry to increase scientific knowledge and the ability to interpret biomonitoring data. Nonetheless, he points out, chemical manufacturers have a vested interest in minimizing the significance of data showing that people are exposed to synthetic substances that no one expected would end up in their bodies.

"Clearly, biomonitoring is seen by the chemical industry as a major threat," Denison says. After all, for years chemical manufacturers argued that so many of their products did not pose a risk to humans because people presumably were not exposed to the compounds, Denison says.

The growing body of biomonitoring data has shifted this discussion, Denison says. Now, he tells C&EN, the industry is contending that although exposure is occurring, the tiny amount of synthetic chemicals in people's bodies doesn't matter.

In a statement released in November 2007, ACC said: "The public should not be misled into thinking that the products of chemistry are inherently dangerous just because chemicals can now -- through improvements in analytical chemistry -- be detected at trace levels in people's blood or urine. Biomonitoring indicates presence. It doesn't mean there is a significant health risk."

Ted Schettler, science director for the advocacy group Science & Environmental Health Network, an advocacy group, says biomonitoring equivalents "are an attempt, I suspect, to create a framework to minimize concerns" about exposure to industrial chemicals. "Nothing is inherently dishonest" about the development of biomonitoring equivalents, he says. But what these numbers turn out to be will depend heavily on scientific assumptions and judgments made in the calculations, Schettler says.

Development of a biomonitoring equivalent for a chemical requires data on how the body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes, and excretes the substance. Biomonitoring tests may determine the level of the substance in the blood or urine. But what matters for determining health effects is the concentration of the compound in the tissue of specific organs, such as the brain, adrenal glands, ovaries, or testes, which the chemical can adversely affect.

In other words, Schettler explains, biomonitoring is a measure of how well the body has absorbed a chemical, not how much of the substance is in the area of the body where a substance wreaks harm. Toxicologists refer to these as target organs.

Hays and EPA's DeWoskin, meanwhile, say the concentration of a chemical in blood in some cases is a good "surrogate" for the level in a tissue affected adversely by the substance, such as the brain or liver. There are exceptions, Hays adds. For example, cadmium can cause damage in the kidney, so using urine biomonitoring data would be better than blood-based data for developing a biomonitoring equivalent for this element.

Another problem with biomonitoring is that translating an established safe dose of a chemical into a biomonitoring equivalent such as parts per billion of a chemical in blood will call for expert judgments and assumptions, Schettler says. Calculations will involve educated guesses about how often people are exposed to the chemical, he explains.

For some chemicals, people exposed to different amounts of one chemical can end up with similar concentrations of the substance in blood, urine, or breast milk, Schettler says. A man who inhales a large dose of benzene while filling up a gasoline can, for instance, will end up with a high level of the chemical in his body. But over time, as his body metabolizes it, he eventually will have as much of the substance in his blood as a worker who is exposed to a small amount of benzene on the job every weekday, Schettler explains.

Schettler and Denison agree that a biomonitoring equivalent cannot differentiate whether a blood or urine level of a chemical is due to exposure to small amounts of a chemical over time or to a large one- time dose that the body is slowly clearing.

A large dose of a substance over a short period of time -- called an acute exposure -- may lead to different toxic effects than the same amount spread out over a longer time, which is referred to as a chronic exposure, Schettler says. Biomonitoring equivalents, he adds, would not account for this difference.

The peak level of a chemical in the body may be more relevant to an individual's chance of developing health problems than it is to how much of the substance is found in his or her blood or urine on average over time, Schettler says.

A partygoer who guzzles five beers in an hour, for example, is in greater danger of acute alcohol poisoning and will show a higher blood-alcohol content than one who drinks five brews over the course of five hours.

With toxicity, the plot is thick with many confounding factors. For example, whether a person is deficient in any vitamins or minerals is an important aspect in determining risk for adverse effects from chemical exposure, according to Schettler. So are social circumstances -- such as access to regular medical care, he says.

Another confounding dynamic is that people are exposed to a mixture of chemicals in the environment that may interact, including synergistically or antagonistically. This may limit the usefulness of biomonitoring equivalents, Shettler notes.

Researchers are just now developing a foundation for biomonitoring equivalents. But this measure could have a strong impact on the public, its perceptions of chemicals, people's health, and chemical companies' bottom lines. These values could provide the public with some assurances that the amount of a particular toxic substance people have in their blood is of little worry. But if analyses, such as the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey data, show an exposure exceeding a biomonitoring equivalent for a substance, regulators might be prompted to clamp down on the compound. Or this information could dampen the market for products containing it.

Despite these unknowns, biomonitoring equivalents show promise to the people, physicians, and everyone else interpreting the onslaught of data about the many industrial chemicals that have found their way into their bodies.

Copyright 2008 American Chemical Society

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From: Center for Science in the Public Interest
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CORPORATIONS GAINING CONTROL OF UNIVERSITY RESEARCH AGENDAS

WASHINGTON -- American universities may be jeopardizing their academic integrity by giving oil, gas, and other polluting industries unprecedented influence over the research those companies fund on campus, according to a report released today by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CSPI surveyed nine major universities that recently inaugurated industry-funded research programs on biofuels or other aspects of global warming. In return for accepting grants from industry, the universities are variously letting corporate representatives sit on governing boards (six out of nine universities), giving companies first rights to intellectual property (five), or letting companies review and possibly delay publication of studies (five). In some cases, such as Georgia Tech and the University of California-Davis, the universities give corporations a direct role in deciding which specific research projects are funded. And while industry enjoys the green patina that sponsoring university research into global warming confers, companies actually spend very little on research and development, particularly that relate to clean alternative energy technologies.

"It's a cheap subterfuge for carbon-emitting companies," said Merrill Goozner, director of the CSPI's Integrity in Science Project. "They get the prestige of associating themselves with major respected universities, yet can control the direction of research and get first rights to intellectual property while delaying any finding that doesn't help the bottom line. Meanwhile, the p.r. blitz surrounding these programs masks the fact that the carbon-emitting industries actually are spending much less on research and development than they did 10 or 15 years ago."

Among the grants highlighted in CSPI's report, Big Oil U.:

** University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories: To manage British Petroleum's grant of $500 million over 10 years to these institutions, Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute set up a 10-member panel, which includes two scientists from BP, to review all grant proposals. That group's final list of potential grantees is then submitted to an 8-member governance board made up of four BP officials and four university officials, effectively giving either BP or the university veto power over the direction of the program.

** Stanford University's 10-year, $225 million Global Climate and Energy Project, funded by ExxonMobil, Toyota, General Electric, and oil services giant Schlumberger, gives an exclusive, five-year right to a royalty-free license to the companies that fund any research that leads to a university-patented invention. Researchers at 20 universities outside Stanford have applied for grants from the program, thus extending this perk far beyond Stanford's walls.

** The Georgia Institute of Technology's 5-year, $12 million grant from Chevron Corp. for biofuels research eschews open competition for grants and gives the company officials the final review for every project funded by the program. "It's their money," said Roger Webb, a retired professor of electrical engineering who runs the program at Georgia Tech.

** University of California at Davis: Chevron's 5-year, $25 million grant to U.C. Davis, also for biofuels research, gives the company an unusually long period of three to four months to review research results to remove confidential business information and to identify potential intellectual property worthy of filing for patents.

According to CSPI, the industry-academic partnerships highlighted in Big Oil U. represent a strategic shift for the industry. Instead of discrediting the science behind global warming, companies increasingly want to be seen as part of the solution. Between 1998 and 2005, Exxon gave more than $19 million to groups that promoted the idea that global warming was a hoax. Yet beginning in 2006, ExxonMobil ads proudly touted the company's funding of the Stanford program: "Today an energy company and a leading university share a common goal. The common good." Another ExxonMobil ad bore the Stanford University seal.

But David Ritson, emeritus professor of physics at Stanford, calls the program a fig leaf: "It does play into the hands of the Bush administration's view that if we just leave it up to industry and the private sector, everything will be fine." At some programs, corporate sponsors may be able to influence the direction of research by evaluating proposals before school officials decide which projects receive funding.

Corporate sponsors have also been given exclusive rights to commercialize any inventions that result from the program's research, which has the appearance of transforming the university from a bastion of independent scholarship into a contract research organization for industry. ExxonMobil and other corporate sponsors are given the right to delay publication of research while they finalize patent applications for such inventions.

CSPI also examined corporate sponsored energy programs at Princeton, MIT, Rice, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon. Princeton, whose Carbon Mitigation Initiative is supported by BP and Ford, has strong no- strings-attached funding policies to ensure the academic freedom of its researchers, according to CSPI. MIT has strong policies in place, but, coincidence or not, the latest reports from its Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change have supported coal and nuclear power.

CSPI recommends that universities accepting corporate funding adopt policies to protect their autonomy and preserve their researchers' autonomy. Those recommendations include:

** Prohibiting representatives of corporate donors from sitting on research programs' governing boards;

** Prohibiting industry donors from controlling the content and direction of research programs;

** Eliminating "first rights" intellectual property clauses from donor agreements; and

** Ensuring that company representatives cannot make substantive editorial changes in manuscripts or delay their publication.

Center for Science in the Public Interest 1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009 (202) 332-9110 cspinews@cspinet.org

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From: Worldwatch Institute
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BAD WEEK FOR FISH

By Brian Halweil

Last week brought a perfect storm of bad PR for the world's seafood. Or, it might have actually been good PR from the beleaguered fish's perspective. Interestingly, the three stories of depletion fish stocks, illegal fishing, and seafood contamination are closely related.

First, Elizabeth Rosenthal at the New York Times reported that the strengthening Euro and a traditional taste for seafood has made Europe the world's largest market for fish, importing about $22 billion worth a year. But this roaring import market isn't just evidence of Europe's traditional taste for fish. It's also buoyed by Europe's depletion of its own fish stocks, since much of this fish comes from waters hundreds or thousands of miles away. Europe now imports 60 percent of its fish.

Second, in a monumental transfer of nutrition and wealth, much of this growing import tab includes fish stolen from the waters of West Africa, the Caribbean, and other poorer regions, where local populations used to depend on the catch for dinner. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, up to half the fish sold in Europe is illegally caught or imported.

Third, the New York Times Dining Section reported that tuna served in Manhattan sushi houses often contains dangerous levels of mercury, a pattern ostensibly present with tuna served anywhere in the nation or the world. A follow-up editorial in the Times made the profound point that "the food you eat is only as safe as the environment it comes from." For decades, industry, coastal cities, and unsuspecting citizens have taken advantage of the diluting power of the oceans for dumping grounds. In particular, coal-burning power plants release massive amounts of mercury into the air, which eventually enters the ocean food chain only to come right back at us in our seafood, particularly in large, long-lived species like tuna, swordfish, and cod.

The connection between the first two stories is straightforward. As Europeans -- not to mention Americans and Japanese and Chinese -- crave more seafood, the price goes up, as does the incentive to get fish by any means necessary. A reef fish caught off the coast of Senegal commands a much higher price in Europe than it does in a coastal fishing village.

It may not be immediately clear what tuna with dangerous levels of mercury has to do with depleted, illegal fish being sold in Europe. But the same large fish that command the highest prices in seafood shops, sushi bars, and restaurants from London to Berlin also tend to be the most endangered fish in the sea. Their size -- and their fatty flavor and texture -- makes them highly desirable, but also makes them high in contaminants. (See my previous post on choosing safer seafood.)

And because these problems are integrated, the solutions naturally are as well. Avoiding these big, luxury fish will mean fewer international fleets scouring the waters, and less competition for the fish that poor fishing villages depend on. But it will also mean less risk of consuming unsafe levels of mercury. As with so many environmental issues, self-interest ends up also being in the best interest of the planet.

Copyright 2007 Worldwatch Institute

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