AmeriScan: July 7, 2004

* * *

National Study Finds Dog and Cat Allergens in All U.S. Homes

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - Detectable levels of dog and cat allergens are universally present in American homes, federal scientists have determined. Until now, exposure to these allergens had not been studied in residential environments on a national scale.

The report by Dr. Samuel Arbes and his team from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will appear in the July 2004 issue of the "Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology."

The report is based on one of a series of allergen reports from the National Survey of Lead and Allergens in Housing. In that nationally representative survey of 831 homes, researchers collected dust samples, asked questions, and examined homes.

Although allergen levels were higher in homes with an indoor dog or cat, levels associated with an increased risk of allergic sensitization were common even in homes without pets, the researchers discovered.

Arbes found that dog and cat allergen levels were higher among households belonging to demographic groups in which dog or cat ownership was more prevalent, regardless of whether or not the household had the indoor pet.

Because dog and cat allergens can be transported on clothing, the researchers speculated that the community, particularly communities in which dog or cat ownership is high, may be an important source of these pet allergens. "For pet allergic patients in these communities, allergen avoidance may be a difficult challenge," Arbes said.

The survey was conducted using established sampling techniques to ensure that the surveyed homes were representative of U.S. homes. The homes were sampled from 75 randomly selected areas across the country. The 831 homes included all regions and all settings - urban, suburban, rural.

For statistics derived from the 831 homes, the contribution from each home was weighted as necessary to ensure that the statistics were representative of the U.S. population.

* * *

Bacteria in House Dust May Protect Infants From Asthma

BOSTON, Massachusetts, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - Children whose homes contain high levels of endotoxin, a bacterial compound that collects in house dust, may be less likely to develop eczema during their first year of life, a children's health expert has found. This is the first U.S. study to look at the effects of endotoxin exposure on eczema, one of the most common allergic diseases of infancy.

A study led by Dr. Wanda Phipatanakul, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at Children's Hospital Boston and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School confirms other recent work supporting hygene hypothosis - the idea that early exposure to infectious or inflammatory agents causes changes in babies' immune systems that reduce their risk of developing allergy related conditions later in life.

As part of the ongoing, Boston Home Allergens and Asthma Study, the researchers followed nearly 500 infants living in the Boston metro area beginning at two to three months of age.

The scientists collected dust samples from the living rooms of 400 of them and analyzed the samples for endotoxin, a component of the cell walls of various bacteria. All the babies had a parent with allergies or asthma.

The more endotoxin in the home, the less likely babies were to be diagnosed with eczema during their first year of life.

When endotoxin concentrations were classified into four levels, the risk for eczema was about 25 percent lower with each increase in endotoxin level, after adjustment for other eczema-related variables.

Infants whose homes had a dog also were less likely to develop eczema, but this relationship weakened after adjustment for endotoxin exposure. Eczema risk was increased in infants whose fathers had a history of eczema, or whose mothers were sensitive to at least one allergen.

Cases of eczema have increased two to three fold in industrialized countries since World War II, a pattern similar to that seen for asthma and other allergic conditions.

According to the hygiene hypothesis, today's cleaner environments, freer of germs, may deprive babies' developing immune systems of chances to practice fighting off microbes. As a result, their immune systems veer toward an allergic type of response, mistakenly attacking harmless substances. Supporters of this still-controversial idea note that children who live on farms, grow up with pets, come from large families, or start day care in early infancy are less prone to allergies and asthma.

Phipatanakul does not advise parents to buy pets, stop cleaning their homes, place their infants in daycare, or do anything else to protect them from eczema.

"We now know that there are things in the environment that may be important in eczema," she says. "But you need lots of studies to be able to come up with recommendations."

* * *

Hawaiian Monk Seal Freed After Surgeons Removed Fish Hook

HONOLULU, Hawaii, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - An endangered Hawaiian monk seal was returned to the ocean Tuesday after surgery 20 days ago to remove a large fish hook from its esophagus.

A team of veterinarians assembled by NOAA Fisheries operated for five-and-a-half hours to save the rare seal, officially tagged TT40. The marine mammal experts say it is only the second time that this type of surgery has been performed on a Hawaiian monk seal.

“If the fish hook had not been removed, infection may have set in, and he may have died,” said surgical team leader, Dr. Robert Braun, a Hawaii veterinarian specializing in marine mammals. “Now he has a much better chance of survival, and we have gained valuable experience and knowledge about the species.”

Braun was assisted by Hawaii veterinarian Dr. Gregg Levine. Dr. Marty Haulena, a marine mammal veterinarian with the Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito, California, administered anesthesia, assisted by NOAA Fisheries marine biologists.

The 20 year old adult male seal, weighing approximately 450 pounds, was first seen on June 4 with fishing line trailing from his mouth. He was captured near Waimea, Kauai, after eluding capture for a week as he swam almost around the island of Kauai.

About 15 feet of fishing line and a leader were removed from the animal before he was airlifted by the U.S. Coast Guard to Oahu where surgery was performed at the University of Hawaii Marine Mammal Research Program’s laboratory on the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Base.

Hawaiian monk seals are rare and are found only in the Hawaiian Islands. Formerly numbering in the thousands, they were hunted during the 1800s, and today they number about 1,300.

Most Hawaiian monk seals reside in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but in recent years, a small but increasing number have been observed in the main Hawaiian Islands.

In an effort to learn more about their habits, NOAA Fisheries recently began a health and disease study designed to provide protected species managers with a better understanding of Hawaiian monk seal health, exposure to endemic diseases, foraging ecology and habitat use in the main Hawaiian Islands. TT40 is one of several monk seals that was outfitted earlier this year with satellite transmitters that allow scientists to track their movements.

“Knowing more about the seals’ habits will help managers make better informed decisions that will aid in the recovery of the species,” said Bill Robinson, regional administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands regional office in Honolulu. “In addition, the transmitter will allow scientists to monitor TT40’s progress.”

In 1976, the Hawaiian monk seal was listed as an endangered species and is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. Human interaction with endangered monk seals is against state and federal laws, and officials suggest staying 150 feet away when viewing the marine mammals.

* * *

Sea Turtle Conservation in Developing World to Be Funded

WASHINGTON, DC, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - Under a new law signed by President George W. Bush on Friday, sea turtles will be added to the list of species eligible for funding under the Multinational Species Conservation Fund.

The Marine Turtle Conservation Act supports protection, research, and education efforts in developing countries where resources and capacity are limited. The bipartisan bill authorizes $5 million a year for international conservation projects protecting nesting sea turtles and their habitats.

"This law will assist us in addressing some of the most pressing sea turtle conservation issues," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said. "As a direct result of funds made available by similar acts for elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, great apes and neotropical migratory birds, overseas wildlife researchers and managers are more effectively protecting their countries' wildlife and habitat resources."

Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration share jurisdiction for the conservation of marine turtles. The Service focuses conservation activities on nesting beaches, while NOAA works to conserve and recover turtles in their marine habitats. All six sea turtle species found in U.S. waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

"Turtles depend on the oceans and nesting beaches of many nations to survive," said Conrad Lautenbacher, Ph.D., Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. "This Act will reduce poaching, improve management and monitoring, and support local conservation efforts in areas of the world where needs are greatest."

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation based in Gainesville, Florida has worked for over a year to ensure the passage of of the Marine Turtle Conservation Act.

Funds have not yet been appropriated to cover these activities but when they are, implementation of the Marine Turtle Conservation Act will be modeled on previous Multinational Species Conservation Act initiatives, the officials said.

Each project funded under the Multinational Species Conservation Fund is a cooperative effort with foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations, or the private sector.

Advisory committees assist the Service in reviewing projects. The $25 million in federal funds provided to date under the Multinational Species Conservation Fund have been matched by over $80 million in contributions from approximately 500 partner organizations.

Less than 60 years ago, marine turtles were abundant, and widespread nesting on beaches was common, the Service said. But today the Kemp's ridley, the olive ridley, the loggerhead, the leatherback, the hawksbill, and the green turtle all are listed as endangered. All are also listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) so that trade in their parts is prohibited.

Threats facing marine turtles include egg harvesting, poaching, trade in turtle parts and loss of habitat. In many cultures, people still harvest marine turtles and their eggs for food. Most countries have outlawed the killing of turtles and the taking of eggs, but resources for enforcement are inadequate.

Marydele Donnelly, a sea turtle biologist with The Ocean Conservancy who testified before Congress in April in support of the legislation, "Tonight, on beaches around the world, poachers armed with machetes will butcher turtles coming ashore to nest. Some of these animals will be 30-40 year old animals nesting for the very first time. By supporting international conservation efforts the bill will help curtail the illegal trade in sea turtle shell, meat and eggs."

* * *

Western Governors: We Can Conserve Our Own Sage Grouse

WASHINGTON, DC, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - The governors of 11 Western states are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the Greater Sage Grouse as endangered or threatened under federal law until they finish studying the bird and develop their own conservation measures. Federal listing could limit development or oil and gas drilling in the bird's habitat.

In a July 1 letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams, the Western Governors Association says the 11 states that are members of the association are working in their own way to protect the grouse, whose habitat covers most of the Western United States.

"Given the scope of this area, which stretches from Colorado to California and north from Utah to Montana, the collaborative conservation effort highlighted in the attached documents is nothing short of remarkable," write Colorado Governor Bill Owens, a Republican, and Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, a Democrat on behalf of the association.

Hundreds of stakeholders representing a cross section of Western interests - including ranchers, environmental organizations, industry groups and government agencies - have joined together to form 64 local working groups. These groups are collecting new scientific data about the grouse, identifying key conservation priorities and forging partnerships for conservation with local landowners, the governors say.

Sage grouse serve as an indicator of the overall health of the sagebrush ecosystem in western North America. The historic range of the sage grouse included 15 Western states, but has been reduced by habitat destruction. Drilling for oil and gas is the latest threat to the bird's survival.

In December of 2003, the Service announced that it intended to address all outstanding petitions for the listing of the Greater Sage Grouse by March 29, 2004, a process that takes 12 months to complete.

In their letter Governors Owens and Napolitano point to a Western Governors Association policy resolution from their annual meeting in February, asking to address grouse conservation in their own way.

The Western governors believe their own efforts are "sufficient and demonstrate the commitment of all parties involved, from the private landowner to the federal partner, to ensure the conservation and preservation of the Greater Sage Grouse and the enhancement of its habitat."

Data released by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in its recent report, "Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Habitats," shows populations in most areas have stabilized or declined only slightly in the last 15 to 20 years. In many areas, numbers have increased between 1995 and 2003, the governors point out.

Sage Grouse are "landscape birds, meaning large expanses of land are required to provide all the habitat components for their annual life cycle," the governors say in documents provided to the Service.

The private lands in the West are often mixed with public lands in a mosaic pattern, and the grouse often find essential parts of their habitat needs on state and/or private lands. If the critical private land habitat is lost, the sage grouse habitat values for large expanses of adjacent public lands may be severely reduced, the governors contend.

About 28 percent of the bird’s habitat is in private ownership and another five percent is under state management, which makes these lands essential to conserving the sage grouse. The key to this conservation is voluntary cooperation by landowners, the governors say, cooperation that could be cooled if the federal agency imposes a listing before Westerners are ready to accept it.

The governors favor the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s private lands conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program over a federal listing. The programs provide incentives for private landowners to develop or set aside lands that can be utilized to create or enhance Sage Grouse habitat, they say.

"A climate of trust and cooperation, where landowners work in good faith with government agencies is the only sure course toward long-term Greater Sage Grouse conservation," the governors say. "If the health and viability of the Greater Sage Grouse is a primary concern, then we should look first to local, cooperative measures like those detailed in this report to ensure our success."

* * *

Comments Welcome on Louisiana Coastal Restoration Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - A $2 billion plan to restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands over 10 years is under consideration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was released for public comment on Friday.

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works John Paul Woodley Tuesday announced the Army Corps of Engineers draft Louisiana Coastal Restoration Plan. The Corps submitted the plan on July 2 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for review and public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Woodley said, "Coastal Louisiana is a resource of national significance. President [George W.] Bush believes that we can make great progress on coastal wetlands restoration in a fiscally responsible way by using the best available science and sound management principles to achieve measurable results. I am pleased that the Corps and the State are developing a plan that meets these rigorous standards."

Since 1930, Louisiana has lost more than 1,500 square miles of wetlands. The state is still losing 25 to 30 square miles each year. The U.S. Geological Survey says Louisiana leads the nation, and likely the world, in area lost to coastal erosion and wetland deterioration.

Louisiana contains 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 States. These wetlands support a harvest of renewable natural resources like seafood with an annual value exceeding $1 billion. At the same time, Louisiana also has the highest rates of coastal wetlands loss - 80 percent of the nation's total loss of coastal wetlands.

The plan provides for accelerated implementation for up to five construction features as soon as feasibility information and engineering details are available and construction could begin as early as 2006 the Corps says. The costs of these five features could be as much as $786 million.

The plan provides for accelerated implementation of several additional elements, including a 10 year science and technology program costing $100 million, a demonstration program costing up to $175 million, a beneficial use of dredged material program costing $100 million and a modification of existing structures program that is expected to cost up to $10 million. The Corps estimates that the combined accelerated authority would amount to about $1.15 billion.

In addition to the accelerated elements, the plan calls for Congressional authorization for $60 million for a large scale studies program and identifies another 10 projects subject to a case-by-case authorization by Congress as feasibility level investigations and other considerations are ready for evaluation. These additional projects identified for possible development within the plan could have additional costs of $730 million.

The state and the federal government each expect to bear a portion of the cost.

Once adopted by Congress, the plan will guide how projects will be identified, prioritized, sequenced and budgeted over the next 10 years. Research and preparation of a plan have been underway for two years.

"Under this approach, planning efforts will focus on the parts of the ecosystem that require the most immediate attention and will propose to address these needs through features that provide the highest return in net environmental and economic benefits per dollar cost," Woodley said.

The proposed plan is now available for public comment and is subject to Congressional authorization. It continues under development by the Corps, other federal agencies and the state of Louisiana. A final report is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

* * *

Objection: Spiderman Toys Containing Mercury in Cereal Boxes

PORTLAND, Maine, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - A new Spiderman toy that comes in some Kellogg cereal boxes is powered with a battery containing mercury, and it has prompted an environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, to ask the Kellogg Company and local supermarkets to stop selling those boxes with the toy inside.

"Who would expect to find the latest toxic mercury threat in colorful boxes of children's cereal?" said Jon Hinck, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). "Take these toxic toys off the shelves to protect our kids and prevent needless mercury pollution."

The so-called "Spidey-Signal" toy - a promotional tie-in with the Spiderman 2 movie - is designed to project a web-shaped light. It is powered with a mercury battery. The toy comes with the warning, "Battery in toy contains mercury, dispose of properly."

The battery is not easily removable and not replaceable. The toy recently hit the shelves in Maine and nationwide in specially marked Kelloggs cereal boxes, including Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies.

"Kellogg's saw the hazard posed by mercury, but then failed to understand that there is no place for cereal buyers to send the batteries from these toys," said Hinck. "Before you can say Snap, Crackle and Pop, the mercury will be headed to a landfill or incinerator and eventually to a lake or river near you."

At a news conference in Portland Tuesday, Hinck gave out copies of the environmental organization's correspondence to Kellogg, Hannaford Brothers and Shaw's supermarkets requesting an immediate halt to sales of the toy filled cereal boxes. Kellogg's should take the batteries back.

This year, the Maine State Legislature enacted a law to study button cell batteries in novelty items - like the battery in the toy in the Rice Krispies box - to assess non-mercury alternatives and the feasibility of banning all button cell batteries in novelty items.

Representative Scott Cowger from Hallowell sponsored the bill. "Needless trinkets and novelty items powered with mercury batteries are already cause for concern," said Cowger. "I never suspected we would find mercury batteries in cereal boxes. This mercury "Spidey" toy should convince the Legislature that enough is enough."

“Our partnership with ‘Spider-Man 2’ represents Kellogg’s first-ever global theatrical promotion,” said Kevin Smith, senior vice president marketing services, Kellogg Company. “Through local promotions and products, Kellogg is bringing Spider-Man excitement to families and fans in more than 180 countries around the world.”

Hinck urged Maine consumers not to buy cereal with the Spidey toy and other novelties that have mercury batteries.

* * *

Robot Farmers Smaller, Smarter

URBANA, Illinois, July 7, 2004 (ENS) - In the not too distant future, farms may be tended by agricultural robots moving up and down the rows, scouting for insects, blasting weeds and taking soil tests.

University of Illinois agricultural engineers have developed several ag robots, one of which resembles R2D2, except that it is square, not round.

"The robots are completely autonomous, directing themselves down corn rows, turning at the end and then moving down the next row," said Tony Grift, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Eventually, said Grift, these small, inexpensive robots to take on some of the duties now performed by large, expensive farm equipment. "Who needs 500 horsepower to go through the field when you might as well put a few robots out there that communicate with each other like an army of ants, working the entire field and collecting data?" he asked.

He said the robots are part of a "smaller and smarter" approach to farming.

One of the robots coming out of ag engineering is a foot-long Ag Ant, designed to walk through crop rows on mechanical legs. Built for only $150, these cheap robots could someday be used to form a robotic strike force.

"We're thinking about building 10 or more of these robots and making an ecosystem out of them," Grift said. "If you look at bees, they will go out and find nectar somewhere. Then a bee will go back and share this with the group and the whole group will collect the food. Similarly, one robot might find weed plants. Then it would communicate this location to the other robots and they would attack the plants together as a group - an ecosystem, if you will."

In addition to the Ag Ant, Grift and Yoshi Nagasaka, a visiting scholar from Japan, developed a more expensive, high-tech robot for about $7,000. This robot guides itself down crop rows using a laser mounted in front to gauge the distance to corn plants.

Nagasaka, has had experience with ag robots, developing autonomous rice planters for the landscape of rice paddies in Japan.

Grift and Matthias Kasten, an intern from Germany, have built yet another robot, this one for roughly $500. The robot is equipped with two ultrasonic sensors that bounce sound waves off of objects, as well as four of the cheap infrared sensors used in simple motion detection sensors.

These low-budget robots maneuver down crop rows using what Grift calls "the drunken sailor" approach. The robot drifts to the left, senses a corn plant, then steers off to the right, senses another plant and steers back to the left. As a result, the robot weaves its way between the rows. To make turns at the end of a row, sensors detect when crop rows end and then signal the robot to turn.

Grift would like to someday see an experimental farm where all of the work is being performed by autonomous robots. And he said the logical place for such an ambitious farm would be Illinois.

"Instead of applying all of this spray that might drift everywhere, a robot could actually spit chemical at the plant with great precision, using a very small amount of chemical," Grift said. "We have all kinds of wild ideas."

* * *