Featured stories in this issue...
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #935
By Peter MontagueAs the urgency of global warming continues to unfold in surprising ways, the coal industry finds itself in desperate straits. Opposition has developed in completely unexpected places.
This week Google -- the innovative internet giant -- announced it will invest several hundred million dollars in research to produce electricity from solar power cheaper than from coal. And they intend to do it in the next few years, not the next few decades. And a new study this week showed that windmills wired together in a large grid could provide power as reliably as -- and cheaper than -- coal plants.
Coal technology has remained essentially unchanged since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century -- so to have a young, savvy adversary like Google enter the electricity business means that coal and electric utility executives suddenly have reason to fear for their retirement benefits. They must be feeling like a slow-moving leaf-eating dinosaur that suddenly finds itself staring into the eyes of a large pack of hungry leopards.
Coal-fired electric power plants produce 40% of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. (and even more, worldwide). By itself, phasing out coal would go a long way toward fixing the global warming problem.
That point was made last April in an advertisement in the New Yorker magazine. The ad asserts,
"There is a 'silver bullet' for global warming: NO MORE COAL.'
The ad, placed by Architecture 2030, a design firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, threw down the gauntlet to the coal industry -- but more importantly to all the designers of the built environment, the people who design and build our cities and towns. They are calling it the "2030 Challenge."
The "2030 Challenge" points out that there are 151 coal-fired power plants currently on the drawing boards and 76% of their energy would go into buildings. So, to solve the global warming problem, let's just modify our buildings so we don't need any more coal plants.
Here's the text of the ad:
Think You're Making a Difference?
There are 151 new conventional coal-fired power plants in various stages of development in the US today.
Home Depot is funding the planting of 300,000 trees in cities across the US to help absorb carbon dioxide (C O2) emissions...
The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant, in just 10 days of operation, will negate this entire effort.
Wal-Mart is investing a half billion dollars to reduce the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of their existing buildings by 20% over the next seven years. If every Wal-Mart Supercenter met this target...
The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just one month of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.
California passed legislation to cut CO2 emissions in new cars by 25% and in SUVs by 18%, starting in 2009. If every car and SUV sold in California in 2009 met this standard...
The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized coal-fired power plant, in just eight months of operation each year, would negate this entire effort.
If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent...
The CO2 emissions from just two medium- sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.
The Campus Climate Challenge calls for all college campuses in the US to reduce their CO2 emissions to zero. If every college campus building in the US met this challenge...
The CO2 emissions from just four medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort.
NY, ME, VT, NH, MA, CT, RI, PA, NJ, DE, MD
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cooperative effort by 11 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce their CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2014...
The CO2 emissions from just 13 medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year will negate this entire effort.
Congress is considering many climate change bills this year to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions...
The CO2 emissions from any new coal-fired power plants work to negate these efforts.
THERE IS A "SILVER BULLET" for SOLVING GLOBAL WARMING...
NO MORE COAL
Without coal, all the positive efforts underway can make a difference.
Over an 11-year period (1973-1983), the US built approx. 30 billion square feet of new buildings, added approx. 35 million new vehicles and increased real GDP by one trillion dollars while decreasing its energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
We don't need coal, we have what we need: efficient design and proven technologies.
Today, buildings use 76% of all the energy produced at coal plants.
By implementing The 2030 Challenge to reduce building energy use by a minimum of 50%, we negate the need for new coal plants.
Make a Difference: Protect Your Efforts.
The message is crisp and crystalline: "We don't need coal, we have what we need: efficient design and proven technologies." (And, for anyone who wants a detailed energy plan for the U.S. that avoids both coal and nuclear, one is available.)
Of course, because we have allowed Big Money to buy influence and run roughshod over common sense in Congress, we're going to have to fight like crazy to keep Congress from propping up Big Coal with a massive multi-billion-dollar bailout subsidy.
Just remember: Every dollar spent to prop up Big Coal is a dollar that cannot be spent creating good jobs with a real future -- renewable energy and efficient use. Every dollar spent propping up Big Coal is a dollar that cannot be spent renewing the U.S. as a world-class industrial leader.
But with innovators like Google and Architecture 2030 nipping at their heels, the coal industry dinosaurs are up to their eyeballs in deep mud -- and with some persistent organizing, many of their servants in Congress may soon suffer their same fate: political extinction.
By Megan Ogilvie, Health ReporterIsabel Palferro is doing everything she can to make sure her unborn child will be healthy when it enters the world.
The 27-year-old Mississauga[, Ontario] mom-to-be has eliminated alcohol, caffeine and soda from her diet. She eats more fish -- "the healthy kind, low in mercury" -- loads up on fruits and veggies and pops her prenatal vitamins. She avoids household chemicals and paint and gas fumes whenever she can. Her evenings alternate between twilight strolls with her husband, yoga and aquafit classes.
Palferro, who is seven months into her pregnancy, has extra incentive to be vigilant. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. While she has learned to live with the disease, Palferro does not want her child to have to live with it, too.
"There is risk that you might pass it down," says Palferro, who attends a high-risk diabetes clinic at Credit Valley Hospital. "But we decided to try and prevent it and to take all the measures we can ahead of time with diet and routine to try to not pass it down to the child."
For years, pregnant women have been told to be careful what they put in their bodies.
But a new field of science is showing us that almost every aspect of our environment -- from stress to our food to toxin exposure -- can affect our genetic makeup in ways that can affect our bodies, and those of the next generation, for life.
It is called epigenetics and it refers to any process that alters the gene activity in a strand of DNA without changing the genes themselves. And it means DNA can no longer be thought of as a biological inheritance passed from parent to child.
Epigenetic processes are a normal and necessary part of life. Much like a software program that tells a computer how to work, epigenetic processes tell our DNA when, where and how to express each of the body's 25,000 genes. But if they go wrong or work ineffectively, there can be major health consequences. And scientists now believe that epigenetic changes are the root cause of many complex, chronic diseases, including cancer, neurological disorders and type 2 diabetes.
Sidebar: The Science
It was 1983 when scientists first found evidence that epigenetic changes in the human genome could cause cancer. But progress was sluggish until the map of the genome was completed in 2000.
Since then, a host of studies have shown the environment, from diet to lifestyle to toxin exposure, can change the epigenome. Though it's still early days, these seminal studies suggest epigenetic changes may be behind some of the most common -- and most complex -- human diseases.
STUDY: Diet can trigger epigenetic changes
WHO: Randy Jirtle and Robert Waterland at Duke University
WHEN: August 2003 in Molecular and Cellular Biology
WHAT: Pregnant agouti mice -- which carry a gene that makes them fat, yellow and susceptible to obesity, cancer and diabetes -- were fed a diet high in vitamin B12, folic acid, choline and betaine. The methyl- rich diets altered the agouti gene, effectively switching it off so that pups were born skinny, with a brown coat and a reduced risk of disease.
STUDY: Epigenetic changes may persist at least four generations
WHO: Michael Skinner at Washington State University
WHEN: June 2005 in Science
WHAT: Pregnant rats were briefly exposed to high levels of pesticides. Male pups had lower sperm production and higher infertility. Two genes in the affected male pups had been altered. The changes were found in 90 per cent of males four generations later, even with no additional pesticide exposure.
About 850,000 people, or 9 per cent of Ontarians, have type 2 diabetes, far outstripping the World Health Organization's global estimate of 6.4 per cent by 2030. Toronto is the urban epicentre, with 225,000 cases. A groundbreaking study by Toronto's Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences showed diabetes rates in poorer neighbourhoods were almost triple that of more populated areas downtown. They pointed to the environment, everything from how far it was to the nearest grocery store or community centre, as a factor.
Scientists have long known that diabetes, much like cancer and other diseases, is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, but no one knew just how much one or the other contributed. Now it looks like the science of epigenetics has come down firmly in the middle.
For decades, scientists have searched for specific genes that cause disease and have had some success. We now know, for example, that cystic fibrosis is caused by a mutation in a single gene.
Raylene Reimer, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, says something other than a single gene mutation is likely behind the dramatic rise in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in Canada and across the globe.
She points out there hasn't been a major mutation in the DNA of the human population in the last 100 years. Rather, she says, it is likely environmental cues are triggering epigenetic changes in the genome, which in turn are triggering disease. And the most likely culprit behind the obesity and diabetes epidemics is the food we eat.
Scientists first linked epigenetic changes with nutrition and disease after examining detailed health records from the 1944 Dutch Famine. They found women who became pregnant during the famine had children with an increased chance of becoming obese and getting diabetes. But women in their second or third trimester when the famine hit bore children who had an increased risk of heart disease as adults.
"Something had changed in their gene expression to program whether or not the child is going to be at an increased or decreased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes or heart disease," Reimer says.
Since the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study was published in 1998, researchers have homed in on two critical periods when epigenetic changes can have the most effect: when the fetus is first developing; and during the first 6 to 12 months of life. Both periods are strongly influenced by the maternal environment, especially the amount and type of foods a mother eats.
In 2003, Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, and graduate student Robert Waterland uncovered startling evidence that epigenetic changes could influence disease in mice. They found feeding pregnant agouti mice -- named for a gene that makes them fat, yellow and susceptible to obesity, cancer and diabetes -- a diet high in specific nutrients could switch off the agouti gene, so pups were born skinny, brown and disease-free.
Jirtle says they found an epigenetic change, called methylation,upstream of the agouti gene in the newborn pups. "It was phenomenal that something you are exposed could alter this process," he says.
Research in epigenetics has soared in the last few years. There is evidence to show mothers who don't have enough to eat or the right nutrients, bear children who are "programmed" to become obese. Scientists believe the programming is caused by a mismatch between a nutritionally bare prenatal environment and a nutritionally abundant postnatal environment.
"If (the fetus) senses there is going to be a low amount of nutrition ... it reprograms gene expressions to be incredibly efficient in storing energy," says Jirtle of the hypothesis. "The real problem is when you sense an environment of low nutrition and are born into an environment like we have now with gobs of calories." Reimer points to rodent studies that show a maternal diet low in protein can trigger obesity in offspring. She's curious about the reverse effect, as most of the Western world eats too much. "What is our high-fat, high- protein diet doing to the programming of fetuses' or infants' genes?" she wonders.
Reimer's initial research suggests diets high in fibre can protect against obesity and disease.
To that end, she and other researchers hope to identify the ideal pregnancy diet, one that will protect unborn babies from a host of diseases, including type 2 diabetes.
Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007
By Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger and Cary SpivakTake a look at your shoes, your shampoo, your carpet.
Your baby's bottles, even the dental sealants in your mouth.
These products contain chemicals that disrupt the natural way hormones work inside of you.
The chemicals known as endocrine disruptors are all over your house, your clothing, your car.
The chemicals are even in you.
They promise to make skin softer, clothes smell fresher and food keep longer.
The problem is, neither the companies that make these products nor federal regulators are telling you that some of these substances may be dangerous. Many have been found to cause life-threatening illnesses in laboratory animals.
Chemical makers maintain that their products are safe. They point to government assurances and the millions of dollars they have spent on their own research as proof.
But a growing number of scientists are convinced the chemicals interfere with the body's reproductive, developmental and behavioral systems.
Hundreds of studies have shown that these compounds cause a host of problems in lab animals. They include cancers of the breast, brain and testicles; lowered sperm counts, early puberty, miscarriages and other defects of the reproductive system; diabetes; attention deficit disorder, asthma and autism -- all of which have spiked in people in recent decades since many of these chemicals saturated the marketplace.
A Journal Sentinel investigation found that the government has failed to regulate these chemicals, despite repeated promises to do so. The regulatory effort has been marked by wasted time, wasted money and influence from chemical manufacturers.
The newspaper reviewed more than 250 scientific studies written over the past 20 years; examined thousands of pages of regulatory documents and industry correspondence; and interviewed more than 100 scientists, physicians, and industry and government officials.
Among the findings:
** U.S. regulators promised a decade ago to screen more than 15,000 chemicals for their effects on the endocrine system. They've spent tens of millions of dollars on the testing program. As yet, not a single screen has been done.
** Dozens of chemicals the government wants to screen first have already been tested over and over, even while thousands of untested chemicals are waiting to be screened.
** By the time the government gets around to doing the testing, chances are the results will be outdated and inconclusive. The government's proposed tests lack new, more sensitive measures that would identify dangerous chemicals that older screens could miss.
** As the U.S. testing process remains grounded, hundreds of products have been banned in countries around the world. Children's products -- including some baby toys and teething rings -- outlawed as dangerous by the European Union, Japan and Canada, are available here without warning.
** Lacking any regulation in the U.S., it's impossible for consumers to know which products are made with the dangerous compounds. Many companies don't list chemicals known to disrupt the endocrine system on product labels.
The government's efforts have been "an abject failure, a disaster," said Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Landrigan was at the White House ceremony in 1996 when President Clinton signed laws requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to screen chemicals for their effects on the endocrine system.
Because the effects of endocrine disruptors may take years to reveal themselves, it is almost impossible to say that a particular chemical caused a certain disease. There also is a lot of uncertainty about how these chemicals work inside your body. So, scientists extrapolate. They can't test their theories on humans. Instead, they have to rely on animal studies and try to figure out the implications for people.
By mimicking or blocking the body's hormones, endocrine disruptors can trigger faulty messages that disrupt development. That makes them particularly dangerous to fetuses and young children, scientists say. These chemicals can be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin.
Michael E. Mitchell, chief of pediatric urology at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, has seen the consequences he attributes to these unregulated chemicals.
He has witnessed a dramatic spike in the number of genital birth defects in the last 30 years. And it breaks his heart, he said, to see the damage done to so many children who must undergo painful surgery to correct birth deformities.
Considering the number of chemicals that developing fetuses are exposed to, "it's amazing that anyone turns out OK," he said.
Anxiety is rising over the growing number of cancer cases and other diseases linked to these chemicals. But few answers are forthcoming.
"People should know what they're being exposed to and be given the option to choose alternatives," said Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. "And that is not happening very fast."
EPA officials blame their lack of progress on the complexity of the undertaking.
"Clearly, we would have liked to have been a lot further along," said Elaine Francis, national program director of the EPA's endocrine disruptors research program. "But science tends to move at its own pace."
To find how pervasive these compounds are in everyday use, the Journal Sentinel asked Frederick vom Saal, an internationally known expert in endocrine disruption, to perform a chemical audit of the Greendale home of Dean and Ellen Lang Roder and their four children, ages 3 to 10.
As the University of Missouri biologist went through each room in the house, vom Saal found hundreds of reasons for the Roder family to worry -- from the bathtub rubber duck to the plastic pipes that bring water into their home.
"Anything that goes in your child's mouth is a factor for you to be concerned about," vom Saal told Ellen Roder as he held one of her children's dolls. "Particularly, dolls made from a plastic called polyvinyl chloride that 10 years from now just won't exist. It will be looked at like cigarettes. It is that dangerous."
Industry scientists dispute that.
"Science supports our side," said Marty Durbin, federal affairs managing director for the American Chemistry Council, the trade group representing the plastics industry.
They say there is no reason to fear the toys, baby bottles and other products containing the chemicals because none of their studies has proved that the chemicals cause harm to people. Chemists for the industry say you would have to consume 1,300 pounds of canned and bottled foods each day to notice any effects from the chemicals those products contain.
"I'm very comfortable with my kids and grandkids using these products, and that's really my bottom line," said James Lamb, an industry consultant and former EPA regulator. "And it is because I believe the industry has done the studies that need to be done and that they're interpreting them properly."
Lack of screening
There are roughly 100,000 chemicals on the market today. Yet, lacking a coordinated screening program, there is no way to know how many of these chemicals interfere with the human endocrine system.
The chemicals at issue are used as additives in plastics, fragrances, creams and as flame retardants.
Some of the more controversial compounds include bisphenol A and certain phthalates.
Six billion pounds of bisphenol A, the raw material of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, are produced each year in the United States.
Phthalates (pronounced "THAL-ates") are the chemicals that make plastic flexible and allow creams and personal-care products to hold their smell. U.S. chemical companies produce more than 2 billion pounds of these compounds a year. They are commonly found in nail polishes and hair sprays, shower curtains and even Halloween costumes.
For more than a decade, government agencies have said that several of these chemicals are safe at levels that people are exposed to every day.
Chemical makers have relied on these assurances as proof that their products are safe. They bolster these conclusions with millions of dollars of research and testing.
But the newspaper's review of 258 studies of bisphenol A, a common ingredient in baby bottles, reusable water bottles, eyeglass lenses and DVDs, shows otherwise.
More than 80% of studies analyzed by the Journal Sentinel show that the chemical adversely affects animals, causing cancer and other diseases.
Developing embryos exposed to endocrine disruptors through their mothers are most at risk, said Theo Colborn, a scientist trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book on the explosion of dangerous chemicals in the environment, titled "Our Stolen Future," stirred passionate calls for reform and regulation when it was published in 1996.
"You need the right hormones in the right place at the right time sending out the right signals," Colborn said. "If that's fouled up prenatally, you're in trouble."
Colborn, like many of her colleagues, has changed the way she deals with these compounds, refusing to store her food in plastic or use certain creams and lotions that contain chemicals suspected of causing harm.
Scientists first suspected that endocrine disruptors were wreaking havoc decades ago when they began observing freakish abnormalities in wild animals, particularly along the Great Lakes with its legacy of industrial pollution.
They were seeing female gulls nesting together, birds with twisted bills and frogs with severe deformities, including one with an eye growing inside its mouth. Elsewhere across the country, scientists reported finding male fish with sacks of eggs and alligators with withered penises.
In 1991, Colborn, then a zoologist working for the World Wildlife Fund, convened a conference of some of the country's leading wildlife biologists, toxicologists and endocrinologists at Wingspread Conference Center in Racine to discuss the emerging science.
It was there that the term "endocrine disruptor" was coined. The 21 scientists signed a consensus statement, expressing concern about the dangers that these new chemicals posed and calling for them to be tested immediately.
Five years later, Colborn and two colleagues chronicled the bizarre spectacles of nature and their theories about the causes.
The authors wondered that if the toxins in the environment could cause these effects in animals, what were they doing to people? Just as with lead and tobacco decades before, these chemicals are all around us, ravaging nature's delicate design, the authors said.
Their book stirred controversy in the scientific community, and many dismissed the claims as "junk science" because there was no direct link between specific chemicals and illnesses in people.
Within days of the book's publication, the chemical industry's trade group issued an alert to its members, warning them to expect a swarm of calls about the book's claims. The memo predicted the fallout could be fierce.
Later that year, Congress unanimously passed two laws ordering the EPA to begin screening and testing chemicals and pesticides for endocrine disrupting effects by 1999.
The EPA convened a committee of scientists from academia, the government and the chemical industry to lay the groundwork for testing these chemicals. They came up with a way to identify and test chemicals for the risks and get the information to the public.
In the beginning, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm. Then-EPA administrator Carol Browner said in 1998 that her agency would begin fast-tracking efforts to screen these compounds by the end of that year.
"Some 15,000 chemicals used in thousands of common products, ranging from pesticides to plastics," would be screened, Browner said.
Officials identified the program as a top priority. Browner appointed the first panel of scientists to build a framework for how to screen the chemicals. She left the agency after the presidential election in 2000.
More than $80 million later, the government program has yet to screen its first chemical.
That has left Browner, and others, concerned about the lack of any results.
"It doesn't take nine years," she said with a sigh. "You adjust as you go. You don't have to build a Cadillac when a Model T will do."
Frustrated at the lack of action, a consortium of environmental, patient advocacy and labor groups filed a federal lawsuit, prompting the EPA to promise that screening would begin by the end of 2003.
But the agency repeatedly has missed its self-imposed deadlines as well as those set by law.
Agency administrators testified twice before Congress, first in August 2000 and again two years later, pledging that the screening would be in place soon. Three separate committees of academic and industry scientists, including the one Browner formed, have been appointed by the EPA to take up the issue.
"A lot of bureaucratic foot-stomping and dust-raising," was the observation of Peter DeFur, a researcher at the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who served on all three of the committees.
"To delay is to win on the part of the industrial community," DeFur said.
Industry, he said, tried mightily to slow the effort. He was particularly critical of one test pushed by chemical makers that involved studying mature male rats to see the chemicals' effects on the development of the reproductive system.
"What does the old white rat have to do with development?" DeFur said. "By the time he gets to be mature, or even nearly mature, all the organs are developed."
Industry and other groups have flooded the EPA and the committees with research, said L. Earl Gray Jr., an EPA research biologist.
The industry's lobbying efforts are led by the American Chemistry Council. The group has a $75 million budget and includes some of the biggest names in commerce -- Dow Chemical Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and DuPont.
Chemical makers have "in some sense learned that if you play on the uncertainty of danger, you're going to be able to stop regulatory action especially in an anti-regulatory era," said David Rosner, professor of history and public health at Columbia University. That's particularly true "in a time when so many of our regulatory agencies have been neutered politically and socially," he added.
Durbin, of the trade group, denied any stall tactics.
"If it was our interest to delay things around here, we'd just sit on our hands and see whether or not EPA gets any funding," said Durbin, noting that the trade group frequently lobbies for increases in the EPA's budget.
Annual federal funding for the endocrine disruptor screening program peaked at $12.6 million in 2000 and has dropped by about one-third.
Critics have charged that the White House has cut back on efforts to regulate a wide array of industries. DeFur, among others, felt that frustration while serving on the endocrine disruptor committees.
Clifford Gabriel, director of the EPA's Office of Science Coordination and Policy, countered that budgetary constraints have not hurt the progress.
Stephen L. Johnson, Browner's successor as head of the EPA, declined requests to be interviewed.
Whatever the reason, the committees met less frequently as time went by.
By April 2006, 10 years after the congressional order to begin the screening, progress stalled altogether.
Gerald LeBlanc, chairman of the committee charged with developing the screens, got a call from an EPA administrator, assuming that the two would be setting the committee's next meeting. Instead, LeBlanc was told the committee was being terminated.
"They were not going to allow me to take this job to completion," said LeBlanc, toxicology professor at North Carolina State University.
Edward Orlando, a biology professor at Florida Atlantic University and a member of the last committee, said its abrupt dissolution came as a disappointment -- not to mention a waste of public money.
"How long will this take? Another five years? Another 10?" Orlando said.
The EPA's Francis said that LeBlanc's committee had a set term, and the agency felt it was more efficient to turn the work over to an advisory panel, where it remains today. But committee members say the effort was doomed for the past several years.
"Frankly, there was not enough political oomph behind it," said Gina Solomon, a member of the first EPA committee and senior scientist for the National Resources Defense Council.
Those with ties to industry say they, too, wish the process moved faster.
"Everyone is disappointed that you can't make quicker progress, but it does take time," said Thomas Osimitz, an industry consultant who sat on two of the three EPA committees. "It's frustrating, but, on the other hand, I don't know what could be quicker."
By the time the government gets around to the tests, they likely will be of little value. Under the current model, government tests do not screen for the chemicals' effects at low doses.
Instead, government researchers follow standard toxicology testing practices, feeding animals such as rats huge doses of the chemical.
Then they record the damage to the animal, most often cancer, behavioral or reproductive failures. The researchers then test the rats at lower and lower doses until they no longer find those problems.
But bisphenol A and phthalates don't work that way, many scientists say. They can elicit different effects in animals at extremely low doses.
Two groups of scientists, one from the National Academy of Science and the other from the National Toxicology Program, have called for a radical reform in the way that government screens these chemicals. But, so far, the government hasn't budged from its original formula.
"The EPA is lumbering along trying to clumsily incorporate the science of a couple of decades ago," Solomon said.
The list of chemicals scheduled to be screened is also being questioned.
The EPA will first screen 73 chemicals -- all pesticides, none of the chemicals found in household products. The tests aren't set to happen until sometime next year.
EPA officials declined to say exactly when the screening would occur, explaining that the agency must finish its study of the tests before shipping them to another panel for review. But most of the pesticides have already been tested, and many have been established as endocrine disruptors.
Francis, of the EPA, says her agency chose to screen that relatively small batch of chemicals as a way to test the reliability of the process. But even scientists hired by the chemical industry question the value of screening chemicals that have been studied thoroughly.
"Most of those on the list have already been tested, so why are we doing this?" asked Lamb, the toxicologist who works as a consultant to the chemistry council.
The EPA hopes to conclude the first round of tests by 2010, said Enesta Jones, an agency spokeswoman. Only then will the agency have an idea when the next group of chemicals will be screened.
For as slow as the process of screening chemicals has been in the U.S., concern about the safety of endocrine disruptors has caught on in Europe, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Mexico and even Fiji.
Reports of declining sperm counts, birth defects and fertility problems have sparked widespread concern there. The European Union has banned 1,100 chemicals from cosmetics that are thought to cause cancer or reproductive harm.
"When we go to Europe, I breathe a sigh of relief because of all of the things I'm not exposed to over there," said Rochester's Swan, an epidemiologist and biostatistician.
Earlier this year, the European Union passed a law that requires chemical companies to prove their products are safe before they are put on the market.
The U.S. has no such protocol, known as the precautionary principle, and the chemical industry has argued against it.
"The problem with the precautionary principle is that you have a moving target," said Tim Shestek, a chemistry council lobbyist. "You need to prove that something is safe -- safe is never really defined by anybody."
Lacking testing or regulation by the U.S. government, it falls to consumers to watch out for themselves.
Buyers must know the names of specific chemicals -- such as dibutyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate -- if they want to find out if a bottle of nail polish or a jar of hand lotion contains endocrine disruptors.
Even then, if the chemical is not considered a key ingredient, the company is not required to include it on the label.
There is nothing listed on a bottle of Chanel Precision Energising Radiance Lotion, for example, to let you know that it contains at least six chemicals that have been linked in laboratory studies to cancer in animals. Nor can you know by looking at the label for Avon's Anew Ultimate Skin Transforming Cream that it contains chemicals linked to cancer and endocrine disruption, according to a review by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
A spokeswoman for Chanel declined comment, and officials from Avon Products Inc. referred questions to the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, which dismissed the claims as unfounded.
Consumer interest groups are trying to answer some of the questions that the government is not. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of groups concerned with women's health, labor, consumer rights and the environment, offers a Web site run by the Environmental Working Group that enables shoppers to check the safety of cosmetics and personal-care products. The site identifies more than 450 products that are banned as dangerous in other countries but are widely available here.
As consumers learn more about these chemicals, more firms are taking steps to remove them from product lines.
Cosmetics giant Revlon Inc., for example, stopped using phthalates 15 years ago. A company spokeswoman said its products, including those sold in the U.S., comply with the stricter rules of the European governments.
Other companies following similar policies include the L'Oreal Group, Hasbro Inc. and McDonald's Corp. In 1998, the fast-food giant stopped using phthalates in its Happy Meal toys designed for children age 3 and younger.
Retailers, including Target Corp. and Whole Foods Market Inc., have removed items and are looking at ways to eliminate products that contain some endocrine disruptors.
"We are committed to reducing PVC in our products and packaging," said Susan Kahn, a vice president at Target, referring to polyvinyl chloride, the plastic that contains phthalates and is found in shower curtains, children's toys and packaging materials.
Some companies, such as Born Free LLC, a Florida-based baby bottle- maker, are promoting goods that do not contain bisphenol A. Ron Vigdor, Born Free president, said his small company is experiencing rapid sales growth.
Most consumers remain unaware of the potential dangers they are bringing into their homes, said Jane Adams, a neurotoxicologist at the University of Massachusetts.
"Most of the population would not be well-informed and necessarily know what steps to take," Adams said.
Roder, the Greendale mother who volunteered to have her house checked for endocrine disruptors, is grateful for the information she got.
Since the audit, Roder filled a garbage bin full of items that she'll no longer use -- waxed paper, plastic wrap, old plastic cups, toys and containers.
She says her husband teases her for whacking bugs with shoes now, refusing to use bug spray. Instead of giving in to anxiety, Roder says her newfound awareness has brought peace of mind.
"It made me feel safe," she said.
But few people have the luxury of knowing what in their house is safe because few products contain any labeling of these compounds. Even the government scientists charged with alerting the public to the chemicals' dangers say information is sorely lacking.
"The real problem is that we don't know where all the different phthalates are coming from in our environment," said Gray, the EPA biologist whose lab has examined effects of endocrine disruptors for two decades. "I can't tell them what products to specifically avoid. The information isn't there."
By Marla FelcherLate one afternoon in October 2006, Carolyn and Ghassan Daher took their five-year-old son Brayden to a party near Seattle. Kids got goody bags filled with toys and candy; a favorite were the yo-yo water balls, liquid-filled spheres attached to long, stretchy cords. Brayden and his friends hit the kiddie dance floor, swinging the balls over their heads like lassos. Suddenly Brayden came running to his mother, clutching his neck. "His eyes were watering and bloodshot, and I couldn't see anything because the string was clear," Carolyn recalls. "I couldn't see it was around his neck. The ball was pulling down -- it was like a rock with flashing colors." After what seemed like an eternity, she was finally able to break the cord. Brayden suffered no permanent injuries.
But Carolyn was shaken, and when she got home she searched the Internet for information on yo-yo balls. She found that (like most toys in the United States) they are typically imported from China or Taiwan, and that (also like most toys) they have never been tested for safety by the U.S. government. She read about Lisa Lipin, an Illinois mother whose son had nearly been strangled by a yo-yo ball in July 2003. Lipin begged the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to follow the lead of France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and ban the balls. "But they just wanted me to go away," she says. In September of that year, despite close to 200 near-deadly incidents, the CPSC stated that the balls posed "a low risk of strangulation." The agency's chairman, Harold "Hal" Stratton, even told Good Morning America that he'd forbidden his own children from playing with the balls -- but would not take them off the market. By late 2006, the agency had reports on 416 incidents involving yo-yo balls; 290 of them were classified as strangulation/suffocation.
Ever since Illinois-based RC2 Corp. recalled 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine trains in June after they were found to be coated in lead paint, the headlines have been full of reports on the dangers of Chinese imports -- lead paint on Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street toys, Barbies with small magnets that came loose, Playskool sippy cups whose spouts broke off, causing toddlers to choke. Most of the stories have focused on the lack of manufacturer oversight in China. But the root of the problem is closer to home: The CPSC, created to prevent hazardous products from winding up in American homes, has been gutted by decades of manufacturer lobbying and White House interference -- and the Bush administration has finally paralyzed it to the point that it can barely function. "What's going on there is not benign neglect," says Ann Brown, CPSC chairman under President Clinton. "It's the systematic dismantling of the agency."
the CPSC was created in 1972 with a broad range of powers. It could impose mandatory safety standards, ban or recall products found to be unsafe and dangerous, and levy fines on companies that hid safety information. Its job was to keep tabs on more than 15,000 types of consumer goods -- just about everything you'd find in a Wal-Mart except food and drugs. By 1979, it had a budget of $44 million and a staff of nearly 900, whose investigations resulted in 545 recalls that year alone.
Then came the Reagan administration. Within months of taking office, Reagan convinced Congress to pass legislation that crippled the commission: Before it could impose mandatory standards on any product, it had to wait for industry to write its own standards, and then prove that they had failed. Recalls plummeted to fewer than 200 a year, and by 1988 the commission's budget was down 22 percent and its staff had been cut almost in half.
But it was under Hal Stratton, George W. Bush's commission chairman (and former New Mexico attorney general, as well as Lawyers for Bush cochair), that the commission turned from paper tiger to industry lapdog. Stratton cut back on investigations while taking full advantage of the perks of his office -- he turned the agency into "a little travel bureau," according to a longtime staffer. When a coalition of doctors and safety advocates asked him to look into the problem of adult-sized all-terrain vehicles marketed to kids, Stratton said he'd do a study. Three years (and more than 400 ATV-related deaths of kids under 16) later, he released the results of fact- finding trips to West Virginia, New Mexico, and Alaska, where he'd met with safety advocates as well as various ATV enthusiast groups. The upshot: a proposal to let kids ride even bigger, more powerful ATVs.
Stratton's departure in 2006 left the agency with a grim record -- product-related deaths were up from 22,000 in 1998 to 27,000 -- and only two commissioners, one from each side of the aisle. Lacking a quorum, much of the commission's work came to a halt. After waiting more than seven months to pick a new chairman, President Bush nominated a senior lobbyist for the very industry the commission regulates: Michael Baroody, of the National Association of Manufacturers. In May, Bush withdrew the nomination after it was disclosed that the association planned to give Baroody a $150,000 severance package when he took his new job. That left the CPSC's Republican commissioner, Nancy Nord -- the former director of consumer affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- in place as acting chairman; she had earlier shown her bona fides by turning down Senate Democrats who wanted to increase the commission's budget. "I'm not trying to fight with you," Senator Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) exasperatedly told her during hearings this spring. "I'm trying to get you more money!"
Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Tribune reported on a Seattle toddler who had died on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, after swallowing tiny magnets that had spilled from a broken Magnetix building set. The commission had been warned about the hazard of magnetic toys years earlier and failed to act: Just six months before the toddler's death, an Indiana preschool teacher had called to report that one of her students had nearly died when the Magnetix bits he swallowed perforated his bowels.
It wasn't until the following year that CPSC finally recalled the Magnetix sets; its press release reassured consumers that only old sets were problematic, when in fact the hazardous sets were still being sold (and stayed on shelves for another year). This past April the commission -- having now received reports of 29 Magnetix-related injuries, all but one of which had required surgery -- expanded the recall to include 4 million more units. (The recall press release, negotiated with the company's lawyers, was so vague, the CPSC had to issue a separate fact sheet later to tell parents which sets were safe to buy and which were not.) Asked by Illinois lawmakers what she planned to do about all this, Nord said her agency needed more money after all.
Nord was called back to Capitol Hill this summer during the Chinese toy recalls. "What we have here is an agency in distress," Senator Pryor told the press. By September, even the toy industry was pleading for new government standards to help reassure jittery consumers (and, quite possibly, preempt lawsuits). "CPSC got caught with their pants down about China," says former commissioner Ann Brown. "Companies know the agency is toothless, so there's no reason for them to worry about the products that they bring into the country."
Sidebar: The Honor System
What happens when manufacturers are left to police themselves
Zenith projection TVs
In the early morning of October 20, 1998, 13-year-old Stephanie Arzie and her 10-year-old brother Michael were killed when their family's large-screen Zenith projection TV caught fire. The company had gotten reports of burning projection TVs since 1996; two had caught fire on showroom floors. Companies are required to notify CPSC within 24 hours of learning that a product may have a dangerous defect. But Zenith did not meet with regulators about a recall until October 21, 1998 -- the day after the Arzie children died.
After the deaths, Zenith agreed to recall the TVs, but in an unusual move the CPSC agreed not to issue a press release, instead letting Zenith send a "safety notice" to dealers. Many sets remained in people's homes, and by 2003, 45 more had burned. At that point, CPSC finally mentioned the five-year-old recall in a press release, stating that "no injuries have been reported." Asked about the Arzie children, a CPSC spokesman said he couldn't comment.
Daisy BB guns
In May 1999, 16-year-old Tucker Mahoney's best friend shot him in the head with a BB gun he thought was empty; he had fired it eight times before, producing only air pops. Tucker's parents sued the manufacturer, Daisy Co., and learned that the company knew the guns had a design flaw that allowed them to fire even when appearing empty. Fifteen children had been killed by the air guns, and 171 more were seriously injured.
Tucker's shooting prompted a CPSC investigation. But when the commission declared the guns unsafe and asked the company to recall the 7.5 million it had sold, Daisy refused; the commission then voted 2-1 (two Democrats versus one Republican) to force the recall by suing Daisy. That same day, President Bush nominated Hal Stratton as CPSC chairman, giving the commission a GOP majority. Two years later, after a closed-door meeting with company lawyers, the commission settled the suit without issuing a recall. Tucker Mahoney had died of his injuries the month before.
When manufacturers introduced hard-handled infant carriers in 1993, there were no safety standards of any kind for the product. The industry began work on a voluntary standard in 1997 and completed it in 2000; during that time, tens of millions of carriers were sold, some 7 million of which were ultimately recalled because the handles unlatched and babies fell to the floor. Hundreds of children suffered concussions, fractured skulls, and other serious injuries. And the industry's standard seems to have done little to fix the problem: Last May, seven years after it took effect, Evenflo recalled hundreds of thousands of its carriers because handles had unlatched and at least 160 babies had been injured.
Hasbro Easy-Bake Ovens
In 2006, Hasbro overhauled its iconic oven with a new design and heating system. By the following February, the company had to recall nearly 1 million ovens because children had suffered burns after getting their hands caught in them. Rather than taking the ovens back, Hasbro got the CPSC to sign off on an easier fix: It would send a repair kit to any consumer who requested it. The ovens were recalled again this July, after 77 kids had gotten burned; one five-year-old had to have a finger amputated. This time, consumers got to return their ovens -- for a voucher, good only for another Hasbro product. -- M.F.
Copyright 2007 The Foundation for National Progress
By Raymond ColittBrasilia -- Unless the international community agrees to cut carbon emissions by half over the next generation, climate change is likely to cause large-scale human and economic setbacks and irreversible ecological catastrophes, a United Nations report says on Tuesday.
The U.N. Human Development Report issues one of the strongest warnings yet of the lasting impact of climate change on living standards and a strong call for urgent collective action.
"We could be on the verge of seeing human development reverse for the first time in 30 years," Kevin Watkins, lead author of the report, told Reuters.
The report, to be presented in Brasilia on Tuesday, sets targets and a road map to reduce carbon emissions before a U.N. climate summit next month in Bali, Indonesia.
Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere help trap heat and lead to global warming.
"The message for Bali is the world cannot afford to wait, it has less than a decade to change course," said Watkins, a senior research fellow at Britain's Oxford University.
Dangerous climate change will be unavoidable if in the next 15 years emissions follow the same trend as the past 15 years, the report says.
To avoid catastrophic impact, the rise in global temperature must be limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). But carbon emissions from cars, power plants and deforestation in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere, are twice the level needed to meet that target, the U.N. authors say.
Climate change threatens to condemn millions of people to poverty, the UNDP says. Climate disasters between 2000 and 2004 affected 262 million people, 98 percent of them in the developing world. The poor are often forced to sell productive assets or save on food, health, and education, creating "life-long cycles of disadvantage."
A temperature rise of between 5.4 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (3 and 4 degrees Celsius) would displace 340 million people through flooding, droughts would diminish farm output, and retreating glaciers would cut off drinking water from as many as 1.8 billion people, the report says.
In Kenya, children 5 or younger are 50 percent more likely to be malnourished if they were born during a drought year, affecting their life-long health and productivity.
Countries have the technical ability and financial resources but lack the political will to act, the report says. It singles out the United States and Australia as the only major Western economies not to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement signed by 172 countries to reduce emissions. It expires in 2012.
Ethiopia emits 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, compared to 20 tonnes in Canada. U.S. per capita emissions are over 15 times those of India's.
Proposed Road Map
The world needs to spend 1.6 percent of global economic output annually through 2030 to stabilize the carbon stock and meet the 3.6- degree Fahrenheit temperature target. Rich countries, the biggest carbon emitters, should lead the way and cut emissions at least 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Developing nations should cut emissions 20 percent by 2050, the UNDP says.
"When people in an American city turn on their air-conditioning or people in Europe drive their cars, their actions have consequences ... linking them to rural communities in Bangladesh, farmers in Ethiopia and slum dwellers in Haiti," the report says.
The UNDP recommends a series of measures including improved energy efficiency for appliances and cars, taxes or caps on emissions, and the ability to trade allowances to emit more. It said an experimental technology to store carbon emissions underground was promising for the coal industry, and suggested technology transfer to coal-dependent developing countries like China.
An international fund should invest between $25 billion and $50 billion annually in low-carbon energy in developing countries.
Asked whether the report was alarmist, Watkins said it was based on science and evidence: "I defy anybody to speak to the victims of droughts and floods, like we did, and challenge our conclusions on the long-term impact of climate disasters." (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)
Copyright Reuters 2007All rights reserved
By Jason Gale and Bill VarnerGlobal warming will put millions more people at risk of malaria and dengue fever, according to a United Nations report that calls for an urgent review of the health dangers posed by climate change.
Increases in rainfall, temperature and humidity will favor the spread of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes over a wider range and to higher altitudes, according to the 2007-2008 Human Development Report, released today. That could put 220 million to 400 million additional people at greater risk of the disease that kills about 1 million a year, mostly in Africa.
"Ill health is one of the most powerful forces holding back the human development potential of poor households," the report said. "Climate change will intensify the problem."
The 384-page report commissioned by the UN Development Program was released a week before delegates to a UN-sponsored conference on Bali, Indonesia, will try to convince the U.S. to join a new emissions- limiting treaty that will pick up after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol ends.
Droughts, floods and storms will worsen unless measures are taken to cut emissions in half by 2050 relative to 1990 levels, the report said. About 262 million people were affected by climate disasters from 2000 to 2004, most of them in developing countries.
Changes in weather patterns may also increase the number of people exposed to dengue fever to 3.5 billion from 1.5 billion by 2080. The potentially lethal viral disease, which is also transmitted by mosquitoes, is found at higher elevations in previously dengue-free areas of Latin America, the report said.
"A major public health threat is coming from the vector- borne diseases that depend on temperature and on humidity," said Martin Krause, UNDP's Bangkok-based technical adviser on climate change for the Asia-Pacific region. "Occurrences of malaria and dengue fever in communities" traditionally unaffected by these diseases would place an additional strain on public health services, he said.
Developed countries are also at risk. Heat waves in U.S. cities may double by 2050, prompting more sickness from dehydration and heat stroke, particularly in the elderly. Illnesses such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease may also increase because of climate change.
World temperatures have increased by about 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) since industrialization intensified the use of coal and other carbon-emitting sources of fuel, according to the report.
Rising temperatures are causing Arctic ice to melt, rain to decline in parts of Africa and the Mediterranean, and sea levels to rise, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said on Nov. 17 in its fourth report of the year. Global warming may continue for centuries, and governments will have to spend billions of dollars a year to slow climate change and adapt to its effects, the panel said.
Technologies are available to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, and more political action is needed to achieve reductions, according to the panel, which shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
The report released today ranks 177 nations in a Human Development Index combining statistics for life expectancy, adult literacy and per-capita income. Iceland ranked first, displacing Norway after six years on top of the UN ranking. Norway, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Netherlands and France completed the top 10. The U.S. dropped to 12th place from seventh last year.
All of the 21 nations at the bottom of this year's index are in sub- Saharan Africa, where the UN said drought could expand arid areas by as much as 350,000 square miles (about 900,000 square kilometers) and cost $26 billion in crop failures by 2060. At the same time, the lives of 70 million people in Bangladesh, 6 million in Egypt and 22 million in Vietnam are being altered by the threat of flooding, the UN said.
Key recommendations in the report include a new framework for mitigating the threat of climate change and strengthening cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
The report estimates about $86 billion in new and additional funding is required by 2015 to "climate-proof" development investments, strengthen national strategies for poverty reduction and to assist disaster and post-disaster recovery.
Representatives of 190 countries will meet on Bali next week to start UN-sponsored negotiations to write a successor to the Kyoto accord. At stake is persuading China and the U.S., the top greenhouse-gas emitters, to join an international regime of curbing carbon dioxide and trading permits among polluters to put a cost on global warming.
Between now and 2030, the average annual cost of cutting emissions would equal 1.6 percent of global gross domestic product, the authors said. A report last year by former top U.K. economic adviser Nicholas Stern found that failure to invest now in emissions reduction could result in climate-change effects that would cut global GDP by 5 percent to 20 percent.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Gale in Singapore at email@example.com; Bill Varner at the United Nations at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Emma MarrisFor four years, butterfly net in hand, Robert Jon Wilson tramped up and down the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains in central Spain, tracking the shift in butterfly ranges as rising temperatures steadily heated the hillsides.
At the base of the mountains, Madrillenos fleeing the summer heat of the city relax on the weekends. Above them lies deciduous oak forest where horses and cattle graze. Further up, this gives way to pine forest and then alpine grasslands. Wilson recalls his fieldwork in these pleasant surroundings as "bittersweet". Despite the seemingly untouched landscapes, he found that butterfly species' ranges have crept up the mountain by an average of 200 metres since they were mapped 35 years ago. Species already living on the mountain tops are now shifting off the peaks into thin air -- that is, they are going extinct. Apollo butterflies (Parnassius apollo) in the Sierra de Guadarramas, for example, are restricted to north-facing slopes above 1,300 metres1. That's not a lot of real estate.
Too hot to handle
"We were quite shocked by how dramatic these changes have been," says Wilson, who is now at the University of Exeter. "I feel very privileged to have seen those species and habitats while many of them are still here."
The biological world is changing because of global warming. Most non- specialists are familiar with poleward shifts -- migration routes and species distributions that are creeping north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere as the equator-facing edges of these historic ranges become too hot for species to handle.
The same phenomenon is happening in three dimensions, though there is less data and less media coverage for these upward trends. As the climate warms, there is a corresponding increase in temperature at any given elevation. And any species unable to take the heat -- or related changes in, for example, precipitation -- will generally move up the mountain towards colder climes, until they reach the top.
Complicating the picture is the observation that not all species adjust to temperature shifts at the same rate. Bird species may flee uncomfortably hot altitudes far before a tree-line shifts uphill. And many species may move not because they can't take the temperatures themselves, but because of the impact of climate change on other species they rely on, or because the creeping heat favours pathogens that kill them off.
"I am most concerned about species' communities being torn apart," says Stanford ecologist Terry Root. "It is all going to be quite a mishmash of things."
In the case of Wilson's butterflies, many of them have left areas that still contain the plants on which they feed in the caterpillar stage. Wilson's group probed what was pushing the butterflies uphill by bringing some eggs of the black-veined white butterfly (Aporia crataegi) from 900 metres, where the species is found now, down to 600 metres, where it used to be seen in the 1960s and 70s. Even when the eggs were placed on shrubs like blackthorn and hawthorn, their traditional hosts, they all died. Wilson suspects that the heat killed them directly.
About fifteen years ago, according to biologist Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas, Austin, experts argued over what kinds of effects climate change would have on species. The only thing they could agree on in those early days, she says, was that "Mountain restricted species and other species that had very strict range limitations would be in trouble."
The years since have borne out this prediction. Two kinds of evidence attest to the escalator effect, where species move steadily upward in altitude in response to a parallel shift in their climatic habitat. The first is a limited number of studies comparing species' ranges over the years and, ideally, proposing mechanisms for observed shifts. Wilson's mountain-climbing butterflies fit into this category, as do tree-lines on the move in Siberia and the Canadian Rockies. And similar trends are being observed across mountain woodlands in Queensland, Australia, where heat-stressed tree possums are literally falling out of the trees.
Yet another example is the American pika, a fur-ball of a rodent that lives in high mountains in the American west. The US Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the government to list the pika as endangered as a result of climate change. They cite data showing that lower-elevation populations are disappearing. The pika is well known to be intolerant of heat; experiments in the 1970s showed that just a few hours in 27 deg. C heat can strike them dead.
More complex is the case of harlequin frogs in the mountains of Costa Rica. They don't move up, but they are clearly becoming extinct in a pattern that matches changes in global climate. A current hypothesis is that they fall prey to a nasty fungus that benefits from complex changes in microclimate. The frogs stay put, but the pathogen explodes in their range, thanks to ideal growth conditions caused by climate change, including cloudiness, daytime cooling and night-time warming2.
Alan Pounds of the Golden Toad Laboratory for Conservation at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and Tropical Science Center, in Costa Rica, put the pieces together to form that hypothesis. He has worked in Central America since the 1980s, and says that changing patterns in biodiversity are evident all around him. "We can see it ourselves when we walk outside," he says. "It used to be that at a certain point you could hear one bird calling up-slope and another calling down-slope, and those patterns have changed."
The other kind of evidence comes from global models that estimate how many species may be in danger of extinction. Using the notion of a 'climate envelope', these models often describe the known range of a species by some more or less arbitrarily chosen climate markers, such as hottest month, coldest day of the year and seasonal rainfall.
Models based on various warming scenarios can then be used to predict how climate patterns over land will change in the future. For some species, the climate envelope that surrounds them moves decorously poleward or upward through undeveloped land, and the species can be assumed to move with it. Often, though, the climate envelope moves into a developed area or off the top of a mountain, and the model then assumes that the species will become extinct.
The most famous of these models looked at both poleward and upward movement and predicted that between 15% and 37% of species will be 'committed to extinction' by 2050. That is, some individuals may remain, but not enough for the species to recover3.
The paper was criticized by some biologists, however, for combining models that relied on different assumptions and methods. Miguel B. Araujo, a biologist at el Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, worries that the method could give an inaccurate estimate. "If you choose different statistical techniques to model the range shifts you get different results -- you might get a 300% expansion or 100% contraction for the same species." He says, "They used projections in different parts of the world with different techniques and lumped them all together. They may be right, but it is just a guess."
The contentious model's first author, Chris Thomas of the University of Leeds, says the critics misinterpreted the paper's aims. "Most people have been totally over-interpreting it," he says. "Before we started, people talked about climate changes causing species to go extinct, and we wondered, 'what percent?' It was an order of magnitude question, and the answer was on the order of 10, rather than 1."
While Araujo argues that current methods just aren't good enough to come up with useful numbers on a global scale, Thomas believes that models such as his are good for gross analysis of trends -- but that's as far as they go. "You can't trust the projection as a prognosis for an individual species," he says. And, as is often the case with complex systems, the escalator effect does not work independently. "I would personally expect climate change to have its most severe effects as a result of the interaction between habitat loss, climate change and invasive species," says Thomas.
Despite all of these caveats, many scientists feel that modelling is a compelling way of estimating the magnitude of climate effects on species. Cagan Sekercioglu, conservation biologist at Stanford University, hopes that his newly published model of bird extinctions4 will help convince the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) -- the body that compiles the international 'Red List' of threatened species -- to consider threats from climate change when evaluating the status of a species.
Prepared with three co-authors, including Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider, the analysis found that hundreds of birds could go extinct owing to the escalator effect. "Our best guess is that climate change effects, exacerbated by habitat loss, will result in about 400-550 land bird extinctions by 2100, based on a 2.8 deg. C warming," says Sekercioglu. Just 21% of birds predicted to go extinct under the model are on the IUCN Red List.
Sekercioglu is a researcher at Stanford, but he is more likely to be found nearly anywhere else in the world where there are birds. Speaking from a field site in Ethiopia, where hyenas while away the midday watching Sekercioglu and his team band birds, he says that the extinctions he's predicting are new. "These extinctions will be in addition to the ones currently predicted," he says. "This analysis shows that quantitatively. We are hoping that elevational range will be adopted by the IUCN as another flag to predict which species may be threatened due to climate change."
Because of the global nature of climate change, there is not much that can be done about this effect at the local level. But that hasn't stopped some conservation biologists from being creative. "You can't make the mountain grow bigger, but you could think about moving species to another mountaintop that is either higher or further north," says Parmesan. "Some say, 'Well then you are introducing alien species.' The counter argument is, 'Well, should we just watch them die?'"
Emma Marris is a correspondent for Nature based in Columbia, Missouri.
Wilson, R. J. et al. Ecol. Lett. 8, 1138-1146 (2005).
Pounds, J. A. et al. Nature 439, 161-167 (2006).
Thomas, C. D. et al. Nature 427, 145-148 (2004).
Sekercioglu, C. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (in press).
Copyright 2007 Nature Publishing Group
Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at email@example.com. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. Editors: Peter Montague - firstname.lastname@example.org Tim Montague - email@example.com
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