AmeriScan: January 23, 2004

New Medical Biodefense Agency Recommended for Pentagon

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - A new agency inside the Pentagon should be created to oversee all medical biodefense activities, if drugs and vaccines that work against biowarfare agents are to be developed successfully, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has acquired no new vaccines since the first Gulf War in 1990, and the committee says the best way to make countermeasures against biowarfare a priority is to pull all the various efforts in different departments together into one high level agency.

"Despite congressional and White House declarations that biological warfare poses a significant threat to the safety and effectiveness of the nation's armed forces, the Department of Defense's efforts to develop the necessary medical products to protect troops can only be described as fragmented, unsuccessful half-measures," said committee chair Dr. Leslie Benet, professor of biopharmaceutical sciences, University of California, San Francisco.

Benet chairs the Committee on Accelerating the Research, Development, and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures Against Biological Warfare Agents, which issued its report on Thursday.

Congress should authorize creation of a new Medical Biodefense Agency within the Office of the Defense Secretary, and the department's existing medical biodefense activities, now carried out by several different units, should be transferred to the new agency along with their funding and personnel, the committee recommends.

Among the programs that should be pulled together under the umbrella of the Medical Biodefense Agency are the medical biodefense components of the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, including some activities of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and some biodefense activities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Because efforts to develop drugs and vaccines against naturally occurring pathogens and biowarfare agents overlap, Defense Department programs to fight infectious diseases also should be transferred into the new agency, the committee recommends.

Based on the funding currently allocated to existing activities, the Medical Biodefense Agency would start with a baseline budget of $322 million. The committee did not consider this an adequate amount for the task, but said that DOD's efforts should be better focused before any substantial funding increases occur.

The agency should receive an initial increase of $100 million, rising to $300 million above the baseline budget by the end of the first five years, the committee said.

Congress should establish an external review committee made up of experts in the development of drugs and vaccines to evaluate the new agency's performance each year. If the review committee finds insufficient progress within three years, then as a last resort, all or part of the medical countermeasures program should be transferred out of the Pentagon, the report says.

The National Institutes of Health might take on this responsibility in the event of DOD failure, but the committee notes that it has many competing priorities, little tradition of product development, and a focus on civilian rather than military issues.

Partnerships with academia and industry, and improved liability protection for those who develop and manufacture these products, would stimulate willingness to invest in new research and development for biowarfare protection, the committee says.

Laboratories equipped with high level biosafety protections must be in place if DOD efforts to develop new medical countermeasures are to be successful.

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

A pre-publication copy of the report is online at: http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10908.asp?onpi_newsdoc012204

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Idaho Superfund Site Review Panel Members Challenged

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - Environmental watchdog groups are calling for the removal of two members of The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel investigating the cleanup of the Coeur d’Alene Superfund site in Idaho because they have undisclosed financial ties to corporate polluters.

According to documents filed with the NAS by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, six of 19 members of the panel have ties to mining, electric power, chemical, and other polluting industries.

The two members with the most direct and obvious ties to mining companies should be removed, the groups say, and replaced by new experts that represent environmental groups or the affected communities.

The Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund site in Northern Idaho's Coeur d'Alene River Basin was listed on the National Priorities list of the country's most hazardous waste sites in 1983.

One of the largest areas of historic mining operations in the world, since the late 1880s, mining activities in the Upper Coeur d'Alene Basin dumped an estimated 100 million of tons of mine waste to the river system.

Communities in the Upper Basin were built on mine wastes. Until as late as 1968, tailings were deposited directly in the river. Over time, these wastes have been distributed throughout more than 150 miles of the Coeur d'Alene and Spokane Rivers, lakes, and floodplains.

Mining and lead smelting have contaminated the soil, groundwater, air, and the river system with lead, arsenic, zinc, and cadmium. About 20 miles of streams are unable to sustain a reproducing fish population and about 10 miles of tributaries have virtually no aquatic life at all, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which says contaminated wetlands are causing 21 of the 24 species of birds in the area to die.

Since the 1970s, children in the vicinity registered dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, the EPA says. About 242,000 people live in the vicinity of the Basin, which affects numerous communities, two states, and the lands of the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Tribes.

The NAS panel is charged with reviewing the EPA cleanup plan for the site, but the environmentalists say that the review is designed to "thwart or delay" the cleanup.

"If the panel is to have any credibility, it cannot have members who are connected to the companies or industries responsible for polluting the site," said Merrill Goozner, a Washington based writer who is director of the Integrity in Science Project at Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The watchdog groups claim the appointments of Teresa Bowers and Corale Brierley violate of the Federal Advisory Committees Act, which prohibits the appointment of people with financial conflicts of interest to government panels unless the conflicts are unavoidable and immediately disclosed.

Dr. Bowers is a principal of Gradient Corporation, which helps mining and other industries reduce their legal and financial risk in pollution cases. Her areas of expertise include modeling of blood lead and urine arsenic levels resulting from exposure to environmental sources of lead and arsenic. She is the author of an adult blood lead model now being used by the EPA, and she has developed unique statistical approaches to calculating soil cleanup levels on average.

But it is not her scientific expertise the environmental groups are challenging. They object to her presence on the panel because Gradient represents the National Mining Association, which in turn represents at least two companies responsible for polluting the Coeur d'Alene site.

Dr. Brierley, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, consults with mining and chemical companies, and holds patents on techniques that have been licensed to companies that may be involved in the cleanup.

Last week one member of the committee with an obvious tie to a mining company involved at the Coeur d’Alene site resigned. Rosalind Schoof of Integral Consulting, Inc. had represented ASARCO, a major Coeur d’Alene polluter.

"If you needed advice on environmental cleanup, you wouldn’t you call on a polluter or their hired guns," said Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Jennifer Sass. "Regrettably, that’s what the NAS is doing."

The watchdog groups have supplied the National Academies with a chart outlining the industry affiliations of the panel members.

The chart with the NAS members’ industry affiliations is available at: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/coeur_d_alene_chart.pdf.

The written comments CSPI and NRDC are available at: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/comments_to_nas.pdf.

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Citigroup Sets New Environmental Standards

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - After a four year campaign to change the environmental practices of the world's largest financial institution, Citigroup, the Rainforest Action Network today declared victory.

The release of “Citigroup New Environmental Initiatives” raises the bar for the financial sector in areas related to deforestation and indigenous rights, enangered ecosystems and no-go zones, greenhouse gases and climate destabilization, and clean energy and sustainable development, the environmental group said.

Citigroup has agreed to deny financing for commercial logging in tropical rainforests, a first for the financial services sector. In another first, Citigroup is now the only private U.S. bank to recognize the need for environmental “no-go zones,” areas of high ecological value that are integral to a healthy planet. Recognizing that indigenous, forest dwelling peoples make an invaluable contribution to the wealth of human culture, Citigroup is enacting progressive new lending practices to help support the rights, livelihoods and cultural integrity of their communities.

To begin confronting climate destabilization, Citigroup has committed to report the greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector projects while at the same time working to increase investment in clean, renewable energy.

“We aspire to operate according to the highest standards in every arena in which we do business, and the environment is no exception,” said Citigroup CEO Charles Prince.

“We believe we can make a difference by holding ourselves accountable for our own impact on the environment," Prince said, "by embedding our commitment to environmental responsibility in our lending practices, by embracing sustainable business opportunities, and by engaging in the public domain on these issues to help foster solutions to often very thorny questions.”

For consumers, Citigroup is prepared to offer and market Fannie Mae energy efficient mortgages, encouraging energy independence.

"Citigroup's new mortgages could make solar-powered, energy-efficient homes more affordable for millions of American households," said Philip Radford, partner with Clean Edge, Inc., a research and strategy firm on clean energy. "This type of innovative consumer financing has the potential to accelerate the growth of new solar installations."

Citigroup Inc. is coming to its environmental commitments from a position of strength. On January 20, the company reported record net income for the 12 months ended December 31, 2003 of $17.85 billion, an increase of 17 percent over 2002.

“Today represents a triumph of democracy in the marketplace,” said Ilyse Hogue director of Rainforest Action Network’s Global Finance Campaign. “Four years ago the prospect of moving the banking sector on these issues seemed inconceivable. The policies set forward by Citigroup today mark a sea change in business as usual in the banking sector. Smart financial institutions will wake up and realize that destroying our forests and destabilizing our climate was never a road to riches. Environmental ruin is no longer tolerated by a discerning public.”

Rainforest Action Network today sent letters to 10 other U.S. banks challenging them to catch up with modern social values and “meet or beat” Citigroup’s policies.

The 10 banks now targeted by the environmental group are: JP Morgan Chase, Bank One, Bank of America, Fleet Boston Financial, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, John Hancock, Wachovia, U.S. Bancorp, and SunTrust.

Steve Lippman, senior social research analyst with Boston-based Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm with over $700 million in assets under management, said, “Citigroup’s new policies lead the way in seeking to protect not just the planet, but also the company and its shareholders, from environmental risks.”

Read the Citigroup New Environmental Initiatives online at: http://www.citigroup.com/citigroup/citizen/environment

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Starbucks Loan Supports Environmentally Friendly Coffee

SEATTLE, Washington, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - Small scale coffee producers will have new access to affordable credit through a $2.5 million loan from Starbucks Coffee Company to Conservation International, both organizations announced Thursday.

Through its Verde Ventures fund, Conservation International (CI) will provide both pre-harvest and post-harvest loans and capital improvement financing to coffee producers. CI owns and manages the $6 million investment fund which strengthens small and medium-sized enterprises contributing to biodiversity conservation in CI's priority areas through debt and equity financing of $100,000 to $500,000.

Starbucks support is the largest loan commitment of its kind provided by a specialty coffee company, and it is intended to address some of the financial challenges facing coffee producers.

The loans will help the coffee producers avoid being victimized by middle men who may use their position of relative power over farmers to purchase the crop at a price below the market rate and sell to agricultural merchants at a huge profit. The middle man is in a particularly strong position if the farmer has debts to pay or needs a quick sale to buy food or medicine.

Most of the loans will be distributed to producers in Central and South America. To date, three loans totaling nearly $435,000 have been approved for participants of the Conservation CoffeeT program in Chiapas, Mexico, and a cooperative of organic coffee farmers in Sumatra.

"Starbucks values are reflected through its supply efforts and our involvement with Verde Ventures demonstrates our desire to address the pressing issues that coffee farmers face today," said Orin Smith, president and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company.

"We hope that farmers will utilize their loans for conservation coffee production that protects the Earth's natural resources, improves their livelihoods, and provides Starbucks with sustainably grown, high quality coffee."

This new agreement extends Starbucks and CI's five year partnership with an additional three year, $1.5 million grant to support CI's Conservation Coffee program to conserve the environment while providing economic opportunities for coffee farmers.

"By extending our partnership for another three years, Starbucks is demonstrating a real commitment to support CI's Conservation Coffee program and our recently formed Verde Ventures fund," said Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of CI. "This partnership is demonstrating that the coffee industry can produce high quality coffee while protecting the environment and providing economic opportunities for coffee farmers."

Since Starbucks and CI began working together in 1998, the collaboration has produced significant benefits for habitat conservation and farmer livelihoods in Mexico, Colombia and Peru.

In Starbucks coffee shops consumers can purchase the results of this collaboration as coffees called Organic Shade Grown Mexico, Decaf Shade Grown Mexico, Conservation Colombia and Starbucks Peru.

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New Jersey Creates Lead Abatement Fund for Landlords

NEWARK, New Jersey, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - New Jersey landlords will get financial help to control hazardous lead paint in their buildings, and lead poisoned children will get emergency relocation assistance to move out of buildings that are making them sick under a new measure that became law this week.

Governor James McGreevey signed legislation Tuesday that will create a statewide lead abatement fund for landlords in New Jersey. Under the new law, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) will establish a Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund to provide low interest loans to the owners of housing units for lead based paint hazard control work.

Exposure to lead can happen from breathing contaminated air or dust, eating contaminated foods, or drinking contaminated water. Children can be exposed from eating lead paint chips or playing in contaminated soil. Lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive system.

The Governor also proposed giving every new mother a lead detection kit before she leaves the hospital. “We must protect our children where they spend the most time - in their home,” said McGreevey. “Every mother and father, myself included, wants their children to grow up in a home that is safe and lead-free."

"Families in urban areas have enough to worry about on a daily basis, without wondering if their house is killing them," said Senator Ronald Rice, who was the prime sponsor of the bill.

Funding for these loans will be generated from inspection fees and a portion of the tax revenue from the sales of paint containers. Additional grants will be made for owners of single family and two family homes, and multiple dwellings with no more than four separate dwelling units.

The DCA will also establish and maintain a registry of lead safe housing to track the state's progress of lead hazard control programs, as well as to identify lead-safe housing in multiple dwelling units.

Additionally, DCA's Division of Codes and Standards will now be required to inspect multiple dwellings for lead based paint hazards, over and above regular inspections.

The new law will also require the DCA to create the Emergency Lead Poisoning Relocation Fund, which in its first year will appropriate $2 million from the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund for emergency relocation assistance for lead poisoned children.

More than 172,900 New Jersey children were tested for lead poisoning in 2003.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, more than 5,230 children tested positive last year, 4.2 percent less than the 5,457 in 2002. While every county in New Jersey reported children with lead poisoning, Essex County had the highest elevated blood lead results with 1,879 children.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults, according the federal agency responsible for hazardous substances, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage.

Even at much lower levels of exposure, lead can affect a child's mental and physical growth. The ATSDR says exposure to lead is more dangerous for young and unborn children.

Unborn children can be exposed to lead through their mothers. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children. These effects are more common if the mother or baby was exposed to high levels of lead.

Under the new New Jersey law, the Department of Health and Senior Services will create and follow a standard protocol when investigating children with lead poisoning. This protocol will work to determine the origin of contamination in a child, whether it is from the interior or exterior of a residence, soil on the property or another structure.

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Zero Energy Home Star of International Builders Show

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - Homebuilders attending the three day 2004 International Builders' Show that closed in Las Vegas Thursday toured a highly energy efficient Zero Energy Home that produces as much electricity as it uses over the course of a year.

A Zero Energy Home combines renewable energy technologies with advanced energy efficient construction. Like most homes, a Zero Energy Home is connected to the utility grid. Because the home produces about as much energy as it consumes during a year, it is considered to achieve "net zero" energy consumption.

The U.S. Department of Energy and its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) partnered with Pardee Homes and energy consultant ConSol to introduce the Zero Energy Home concept with this single family custom home at the Nevada Trails master planned community.

Called the Ultimate Family Home, the 5,300 square foot custom home was built by Pardee Homes and designed by Bassenian/Lagoni Architects. The National Association of Home Builders selected it to serve as a show home for the annual builders' convention and show in partnership with "Builder Magazine" and "Home Magazine."

Solar cells on the roof provide electricity, and a solar hot water system heats the home's water. A highly efficient air conditioning system combined with good insulation, air sealing and advanced windows keeps the home comfortable. The home will use 90 percent less energy than a similar home built strictly to code.

"The Ultimate Family Home shows that energy efficiency and solar energy can be incorporated into attractive homes that come with all of the features homebuyers are looking for," said Tim Merrigan, Zero Energy Homes program manager at NREL.

Pardee already constructs all of its homes to exceed Energy Star standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a program developed by ConSol.

"The Ultimate Family Home combines comfort and value with environmental sensitivity and real, measurable savings," Rob Hammon of ConSol said.

The Zero Energy Homes initiative is intended to bring the latest research out of national laboratories and into homes. NREL scientists and engineers are working with four teams to introduce the Zero Energy Homes concept into the single family, new home construction industry.

Other Zero Energy Homes projects in the region include Clarum Homes' Vista Montana community in Watsonville, California; Morrison Homes' Lakeside community in Elk Grove, California; and the Armory Park del Sol neighborhood, built by John Wesley Miller Companies in Tucson, Arizona.

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Math Used to Decipher Cause of Mad Cow Disease

DAVIS, California, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - California scientists are using math and physics as weapons against mad cow disease and its cousins that strike humans, deer and elk, and other animals.

Diseases such as mad cow disease in cattle, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans, and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk are all apparently caused by prions, misfolded versions of a normal brain protein.

Mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is just one of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, and similar diseases have been found in other animals including cats, mink and rodents, and prion-type proteins have even been found in yeast.

Now Daniel Cox, Rajiv Singh and colleagues at University of California - Davis are using mathematical models to study issues such as the incubation time, prion "strains" and treatment or detection strategies.

Prions seem to cause disease by triggering normal versions of the same protein to spontaneously fold up the wrong way, creating growing mats and tangles.

The UC Davis researchers have developed mathematical models to simulate this process. The models reproduce how prions collect around an original "seed" prion, and how these clumps subsequently break up and spread around the brain and nervous system.

Predictions from the models compare well with the course of actual disease in both small and large animals, Cox said.

Cox and his team are now using the model system to investigate the minimal requirements for prions to cause disease, how "strains" of prions can exist and what effect they have, and potential treatment strategies.

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2003 Deadliest Year for Earthquakes Since 1990

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2004 (ENS) - The year 2003 closed as the deadliest year for earthquakes since 1990, 25 times more fatal than 2002, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which monitors earthquakes worldwide.

A total of 43,819 deaths have been reported for the past year, as confirmed by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2002, 1711 people died in quakes around the world; in 1990, 51,916 people were killed in various seismic events.

The "strong" magnitude 6.6 that hit Bam, Iran on December26 was responsible for at least 41,000 deaths, and the death toll there is still expected to rise.

The magnitude 8.3 earthquake that rattled the Hokkaido, Japan region on September 25 was recorded as the largest temblor in the world for 2003, and the only "great" quake.

California experienced the deadliest U.S. quake, a magnitude 6.5, on December 22 in San Simeon, 40 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Two people were killed when a building collapsed in nearby Paso Robles. Shallow but powerful, the earthquake uplifted the Santa Lucia mountains and triggered a vigorous aftershock sequence.

Four other events in Alaska, magnitudes 6.6 to 7.8 were stronger than the San Simeon temblor.

The USGS locates about 50 earthquakes each day or almost 25,000 a year. On average, there are 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 to 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or higher) each year worldwide. Several million earthquakes occur in the world each year, but many go undetected because they occur in remote areas or have very small magnitudes.

In the United States, earthquakes pose significant risk to 75 million Americans in 39 states, the USGS says.

The USGS and partners are working to provide emergency response personnel with real-time information, within five to 10 minutes of an event, on the intensity and distribution of ground shaking that can be used to guide emergency response efforts.

This effort, known as the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) has resulted in the installation of some 400 new earthquake monitoring instruments in vulnerable urban areas including San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Reno, Las Vegas, and Memphis.

Full implementation of ANSS will result in 7,000 new instruments on the ground and in structures. Information on the shaking of buildings during quakes will equip engineers with the data they need to improve building designs in the future.

"Federal science plays an essential role in reducing our vulnerability to earthquakes. The ability to coordinate and respond to threats is a defining characteristic of good government," said USGS Director Chip Groat. "Mother Nature lacks the malice of terrorists, but compensates with endless energy and dogged persistence. We must be prepared."

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