AmeriScan: April 27, 2004

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Only Half of Recalled Meat Recovered

COLUMBUS, Ohio, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - Between 1998 and 2002 manufacturers recovered only half the meat and poultry recalled in the United States because of suspected health hazards, a new study finds.

Study coauthor Neal Hookers says this and other results suggest new federal food safety regulations that took effect in the late 1990s have not done enough to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply.

"I was hoping that with the new regulations we would have higher recovery rates, but that has not happened," said Hooker, an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University. "Manufacturers should have a better success rate, but they do not."

The study does find that the new regulations have had some success - there has been a large increase in the number of recalls and the size of those recalls.

"The food supply is probably safer, but only because recalls are triggered more often and more quickly, not because plants are preventing problems before they occur," Hooker said.

But the bigger, faster recalls are also due to more sensitive, more rapid tests developed in recent years.

The new regulations, called the Pathogen Reduction Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, went into effect in 1998 at large plants with 500 or more employees, in 1999 at plants with 10 to 500 employees, and in 2000 at plants with fewer than 10 employees.

The program was designed to encourage meat plant managers to examine their operations, identify the "critical control points" where risks to the food might occur, and put safety precautions in place to prevent potential hazards.

The system also requires detailed records to be kept about production and distribution, said Hooker, and that is where it seems to have had the most effect.

The results of the study, which Hooker conducted with graduate student Ratapol Teratanavat, appear in the April issue of the journal "Food Control."

The researchers collected recall information from the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service and other sources, using the Freedom of Information Act in some cases to gather data.

They found that during this five year period, 74 percent of the recalls were classified as Class I, the most serious threat to human health.

That did not change after the new rules went into effect, Hooker said. Additionally, 57 percent of the recalls resulted from some form of bacterial problem, such as Escheria coli or Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Physical hazards, in which a foreign object is found in a food product, accounted for only 16 percent of the recalls.

"I was hoping we would see that the more hazardous cases - Class I recalls that are microbiological in nature - would be more quickly acted upon and have higher recovery rates," Hooker said. "But the answer was no."

The number of large plants recalling products has been relatively stable over the years, with fewer than 20 cases per year. But recalls from small plants has increased from 29 or less between 1994 and 1999 to 38 to 49 in 2000-2002 - recalls from very small plants jumped from seven or less before 1999 to 17 to 26 per year from 1999-2002.

Although the number and size of recalls have increased, Hooker said, their success rate in collecting product has not. On average, only about half of products that are recalled are actually recovered from the market, and few clear patterns emerged on whether the rate of recovery increased or decreased during the period studied.

"The smallest plants seem to do the best job," Hooker said. "I think it is because they have simpler distribution systems and know their customers better, and will accept more product than was actually included in a recall just for good customer relations."

Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "just asks a company if it made contact with retail outlets which distributed a product," Hooker said.

"There is very little followup," he said. "If a product is already in the grocery stores and the stores do not put up big signs about the potential hazard, people might not get the message."

Simply allowing the USDA to initiate a recall does not go far enough, Hooker said.

"Our research says timing matters ... if we ever have a major bioterrorism threat linked to the food supply, we should have the system in place that would create the sense of urgency to prevent problems," said Hooker. "You want to be able to move very, very quickly, and that should be in the regulations."

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Rapid Climate Change Linked to Ocean Currents

WOODS HOLE, Massachusetts, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - A new study strengthens evidence that the oceans and climate are linked in an intricate dance, and that rapid climate change may be related to how vigorously ocean currents transport heat from low to high latitudes.

The study reported last week in the journal "Nature" suggests that when the rate of the Atlantic Ocean's north-south overturning circulation slowed dramatically following an iceberg outburst during the last deglaciation, the climate in the North Atlantic region became colder.

When the rate of the ocean's overturning circulation subsequently accelerated, the climate warmed abruptly, according to the study authors.

The study finds that the coldest interval of the last 20,000 years occurred when the overturning circulation collapsed following the discharge of icebergs into the North Atlantic 17,500 years ago.

This regional climatic extreme began suddenly and lasted for two thousand years.

Another cold snap 12,700 years ago lasting more than a thousand years and accompanied another slowdown of overturning circulation.

Each of these two cold intervals was followed by a rapid acceleration of the overturning circulation and dramatically warmer climates over Northern Europe and the North Atlantic region.

The research team found that the rate of ocean circulation varied remarkably following the last ice age, with strong reductions and abrupt reinvigorations closely tied to regional climate changes.

Study coauthor Jerry McManus of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says this is the best demonstration to date of what many paleoclimatologists and ocean scientists have long suspected.

"Strong overturning circulation leads to warm conditions in the North Atlantic region, and weak overturning circulation leads to cold conditions," he said. "We have known for some time from changes in the chemistry of the seawater itself that something was different about the ocean's circulation at times of rapid climate changes, and it now appears that the difference was related to changes in the rate of ocean circulation."

"One big question is why the circulation would collapse in the first place and possibly trigger abrupt climate change," McManus added. "We think it is the input of fresh water to the surface ocean at a particularly sensitive location."

McManus says the team is now applying this same technique to sea floor cores collected in other regions of the North Atlantic.

"We have made a little step forward in understanding the ocean's role in the climate puzzle, but there are more pieces to fill in," he said.

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Arctic Ozone Loss Influenced By Stratospheric Temperatures

PASADENA, California, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - The loss of Arctic ozone due to the presence of industrial chlorine and bromine in Earth's atmosphere may well be sensitive to subtle changes in stratospheric climate, according to a new study.

Such ozone depletion leads to increased exposure to harmful, ultraviolet solar radiation at Earth's surface.

According to the study, the sensitivity of Arctic ozone to temperature is three times greater than predicted by atmospheric chemistry models.

The scientists found the coldest stratospheric winters, during which most of the ozone loss occurs due to greater polar stratospheric cloud formation, have gradually become significantly cooler during the past few decades.

This leads to the possibility that decreases in stratospheric temperatures may have significantly larger impacts on future Arctic ozone concentrations than have been expected in the past, the researchers say.

"If stratospheric climatic conditions had not changed since the 1960s, Arctic ozone loss would be much less severe today, despite the increase in chlorofluorocarbons and bromine," said Dr. Markus Rex of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Potsdam, Germany

Rex led the study, which also included scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

"This study presents a new method of looking at a multi-year data set that enables us to relate year-to-year variations in the amount of ozone depletion to climate change," said co-author Dr. Ross Salawitch, a JPL research scientist. "Results of this research will lead to substantially improved computer model simulations of this phenomenon and will provide an excellent method for analyzing data from satellites such as NASA's soon to be launched Aura atmospheric chemistry laboratory."

Researchers are trying to understand why the Arctic stratosphere cools.

It may be due to a number of factors: rising levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide; a feedback between ozone depletion and stratospheric temperature; and natural variability.

Higher amounts of greenhouse gases trap heat near Earth's surface, warming the surface and preventing the heat from reaching the stratosphere, thus cooling the upper atmosphere.

But climate models vary widely in their estimates of how much stratospheric cooling has occurred due to rising greenhouse gases over the past 40 years.

Stratospheric chlorine and bromine have begun to decline in response to the Montreal Protocol, a worldwide agreement signed in 1987 that limits the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting pollutants.

Scientists believe this indicates the cleansing process has begun, and eventually the ozone layer will recover, although chlorofluorocarbons can stay in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years.

The study suggests the healing process might be slowed, in the short term, by changes in stratospheric climate.

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Scientists Find Evidence of Life 3.5 Billion Years Ago

SAN DIEGO, California, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - An international team of scientists has identified what is believed to be evidence of one of Earth's earliest forms of life. The finding, reported in the April 23 issue of the journal "Science" could factor heavily into discussions of the origins of life.

The team found microscopic life colonized in ancient volcanic lava dating nearly 3.5 billion years old, during a time known as the Archean.

"Our evidence is amongst the oldest evidence for life found so far," said Hubert Staudigel, a research geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

The researchers build on documentation in 2001 of how microscopic organisms, smaller than the width of a human hair, are able to eat their way into volcanic rock to form long, worm like tubes.

The new study, which describes a similar finding in the Barberton Greenstone Belt, a location several hundred miles east of Johannesburg, South Africa, near Swaziland, proves that microbial processes that can be seen today also occurred during the earliest stages of the planet's history at the roots of life's origins.

The Barberton Greenstone Belt was formed in an underwater setting in the planet's oceanic crust but is now uplifted and accessible to land based field work.

Until the team's expedition last June, this area had not been extensively explored for signs of early life.

"This area within the oceanic crust is a favorable place for the origin of life," Staudigel said. "It offers relatively easy access to seawater and volcanic environments such as deep sea hydrothermal systems, including a wide range of catalysts that are required in the origin of life."

The research tem says the region's previous geographic position in a submarine environment below the ocean floor may have provided protection from the life stunting effects of meteorites that bombarded Earth's surface billions of years ago.

"This finding may allow us to cross-reference the visual clues of these microbial fossils with their chemical fingerprints," said Staudigel. "They may help us understand biological and chemical processes that occurred 3.5 billion years ago, which is only one billion years after the accretion of Earth from the solar nebula."

The scientists identified the microbes in an area of Barberton with ample volcanic eruptions called "pillow lavas."

These are formed when undersea volcanoes erupt and spew lava, which cools quickly to form tube like structures.

Over time these tubes harden and, when dissected by erosion, form pillow like formations.

"When the planet was three and a half billion years old there were no plants or animals to eat," said Staudigel. "So to make a living these microbes adapted to eating volcanic rock. That is all there was."

The scientists now plan to analyze the microbes with sensitive instruments to characterize their ancient activities within the pillow lava.

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Greens Fear Weakening of Bush Diesel Proposal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - Perhaps as soon as this week, the Bush administration plans to unveil its final rule to reduce emissions from nonroad diesel engines.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a two phase plan to cut 90 percent of harmful emissions from non road diesel engines used in construction, industrial, and agricultural equipment by 2014.

Nonroad diesel engines are a significant contributor to the nation's air pollution - they are the largest source of particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in the transportation sector.

According to a report by Environmental Defense and the American Lung Association, diesel nonroad engines are responsible for more pollution today than when the 1970 Clean Air Act was put in place.

The proposal lowers the sulfur content of diesel fuel and mandates the use of less polluting engines, similar to regulations set for road diesel engines that will begin in 2006.

The proposal requires reduction in the sulfur content in nonroad diesel fuel from the current average of 3,400 parts per million (ppm) to 500 ppm in 2007 - the same standard as current highway diesel fuel. It calls for this standard to be further tightened to 15 ppm by 2010.

Cleaner fuel will enable the second component of the EPA's plan, which is the requirement that new engines meet tighter emissions standards for nitrogen oxides and PM by 2014.

The pollution reductions from the plan could annually prevent some 9,600 premature deaths, decrease respiratory illnesses and prevent nearly a million work days lost to illness, EPA officials said.

The proposal drew rare praise for the Bush administration from environmentalists, but some now fear the final rule could be diluted.

The oil industry has asked the White House to override the decision of EPA staff to include diesel trains, boats, and ships in the rule.

Specifically, the industry is pushing to exempt the diesel fuel used to power trains, boats, and ships from the cleaner fuel requirements.

Environmentalists note that while EPA does not plan to finalize emission standards for trains, boats, and ships in this rulemaking, they contend the cleaner fuel requirement will set the stage for strong and timely engine standards and therefore is critical.

Diesel locomotive and marine engines are a major source of pollution: today, according to EPA, they comprise more than one-quarter of dangerous fine particle soot from all non-road diesel engines.

The Washington-based Clean Air Trust named Marathon Oil its "Clean Air Villain of the month" for leading the effort to block or delay cleanup of diesel fuel used in trains and boats.

The organization notes that the EPA has predicted that by the year 2020, train and marine engines will account for about 50 percent of diesel soot emissions and about 30 percent of smog-forming nitrogen oxides emissions from all moving sources of pollution.

Marathon's suggestions that the proposal is "costly and unnecessary" do not wash considering the company's financial position, according to the Clean Air Trust. The company had a net income of $1.3 billion in 2003.

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Road Claims Dispute Draws Another Legal Challenge

WASHINGTON, DC, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - Conservationists sued the federal government last week for not releasing documents concerning the process for resolving claims to disputed dirt tracks across Utah and the rest of the West.

The dispute centers on the use of a repealed 1866 law - known as RS2477 - to establish rights of way across federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In April 2003 Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then Utah Governor Michael Leavitt brokered a controversial settlement that codified an interpretation of the repealed 19th century mining law, which was intended to grant the right to construct and use highways across public lands that were not otherwise reserved or protected for other public use.

Although repealed in 1976, claims on right of ways prior to the repeal can still be made.

Administration officials say the policy only applies to existing publicly traveled and regularly maintained roads and would not apply to environmentally sensitive areas and national parks.

But conservationists are not convinced and the settlement has sparked an array of legal challenges.

This latest lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of The Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), challenges the Interior Department to release public information concerning jeep tracks and cattle paths claimed as constructed highways by Utah and other western state and county governments under RS-2477

Critics fear the potential impacts of turning over rough trails to the state as highways include: destruction of existing wilderness areas, disqualification of unprotected areas as wilderness, damage to wildlife habitat, destruction of riparian areas, harm to watersheds important for drinking water, and the elimination of beloved hunting and hiking opportunities.

"Interior has established a pattern of withholding information from the public about activities that will directly impact public lands," said Leslie Jones of The Wilderness Society. "Rather than try to resolve this issue in an open, commonsense manner, Interior has chosen a path choked with secrecy and confrontation."

SUWA and The Wilderness Society filed their lawsuit after waiting more than six months for the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to provide information concerning the Leavitt-Norton settlement.

That deal was approved one year ago without public notice or involvement - both Leavitt and Norton promised that the process for reviewing Utah's claims would be open to the public.

The conservationists say that six months after the legal deadline for responding to the groups' requests, the Interior Department and BLM continue to withhold documents that could shed light on the process.

In 2002, The Wilderness Society and SUWA sued BLM and the state of Utah to obtain a map of Utah's claims to proposed highways across the state.

As a result of the suit, the BLM released Utah's map, which showed the state claiming 100,000 miles of highways including every hiking trail in Zion National Park and numerous routes in the Wasatch Mountains.

"Miners, loggers, oil and gas developers, all-terrain-vehicle users, and other special interests hope to use a Civil War-era law to punch dirt-bike trails and paved roads into our national parks and wildlife refuges by asserting that old trails should be considered highways," said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represents the groups in the case. "The best way the public can defend parks and refuges is to gather information about these threats. And that is exactly the information the Bush administration will not release."

Critics of the Bush administration's RS-2477 settlement and policies received some good news in February when the General Accounting Office released a report that determined the memorandum of understanding signed by Norton and Leavitt last April was illegal.

The report by the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress has no legal or regulatory authority, but it could bolster the case of environmentalists challenging the settlement in federal court.

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OSHA Inspectors Offered Beryllium Blood Tests

BERKELEY, California, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - In a reversal of longstanding policy, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now offering blood tests to hundreds of its inspectors who have been exposed to beryllium, according to documents released Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Beryllium is an extremely toxic metal that can carry a high risk of disease following even very low exposure.

Exposure to beryllium dust has been linked to chronic beryllium disease, a fast progressing and potentially fatal lung disease.

An agency database indicates that as many as 500 current and former compliance officers may have been exposed to beryllium levels up to several hundred times higher than permissible levels.

The decision vindicates federal whistleblower Dr. Adam Finkel, who was removed from his position as OSHA Administrator for the six-state Rocky Mountain Region last year after protesting a decision by Assistant Labor Secretary John Henshaw to deny recommended blood screening tests and to veto informing potentially exposed individuals of the findings.

"After much dissembling, OSHA is finally admitting that this is a serious public health issue," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who noted that Finkel now has another position in OSHA and received a substantial financial settlement in return for withdrawing a reprisal complaint against the agency. "But public employees should not have to cast a profile in courage, as Dr. Finkel did, to induce a federal agency to protect its own workers, particularly the agency whose mission is protect American workers from these very hazards."

But PEER says there are still flaws in OSHA's testing program because it does not:

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Bhopal Survivors Warn of Chemical Catastrophes

WASHINGTON, DC, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - Survivors and activists from the 1984 Bhopal tragedy warn that terrorists could easily turn chemical plants and freight trains into weapons of mass destruction in the United States and are calling on both the U.S. government and major chemical companies to prevent such a catastrophe.

"Twenty years after the Bhopal tragedy, the survivors and people of Bhopal are amazed and appalled we are still dealing with the same problem the world over," said Bhopal survivors and Goldman Environmental prize winners Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla at a media event Friday in Washington, D.C. "America must recognize that thousands of Bhopals are waiting to happen within its borders, and should take steps to ensure that a similar disaster does not happen here."

Across the United States, thousands of industrial facilities use and store hazardous chemicals in quantities that could threaten communities in accidental releases or if deliberately attacked by terrorists.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 100 facilities have at least 1 million people living close enough to be at risk of injury or death in the event of a chemical release.

Despite renewed fears in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has failed to enact anything beyond voluntary security standards for chemical facilities.

"The vulnerability of chemical facilities to a potential terrorist attack is well-documented," said New Jersey Democratic Senator Jon Corzine. "Yet as we near three years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we have yet to take the first step in setting national security standards for our chemical infrastructure."

Corzine has sponsored legislation that would require companies to assess their hazards and increase security in addition to using safer chemicals and processes where available.

"America should heed the message of Bhopal survivors and require chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and processes wherever possible," said Greenpeace Toxics Program Legislative Director Rick Hind. During the early hours of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a storage tank at a Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing facility in Bhopal.

As it escaped, the gas moved across adjacent communities killing thousands of people and injuring many thousands more. According to the Indian government, some 3,800 people died from the Bhopal tragedy, billed as the world's worst industrial disaster.

According to the latest official estimates, 380 gas affected people succumb to health effects each year, and more than 20,000 are exposed to the toxic wastes lying in and around the Union Carbide factory site in Bhopal.

Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide's Bhopal site in 2001.