AmeriScan: September 6, 2002

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Senate Votes to Bar New Mercury Thermometers

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate has passed legislation that would ban the sale of mercury fever thermometers anywhere in the United States.

The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to pass The Mercury Reduction and Disposal Act of 2002 (S 351), authored by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. Besides banning new thermometer sales, the bill would also help solve some of the nation's mercury disposal problems.

"Many of us know from personal experience that mercury fever thermometers are very easily broken," Collins said after the bill was passed. When this happens, the improper disposal of the mercury can have severe environmental and physical consequences."

"One mercury thermometer contains about one gram of mercury. Despite its small size, one of these thermometers contains enough mercury to contaminate all the fish in a 20 acre lake," Collins added.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that mercury thermometers contribute about 17 tons of mercury to solid waste per year.

The Mercury Reduction and Disposal Act provides for a grant program to help consumers exchange mercury thermometers for digital or other alternatives.

"By bringing in mercury thermometers for proper disposal, consumers will ensure the mercury from their thermometers doesn't end up polluting our lakes and threatening our health," Collins explained. "It will also reduce the risk of breakage and contamination inside the home."

The bill would also set up procedures for the safe storage and disposal of the mercury collected from thermometers in the exchange program. The bill directs the EPA to ensure that the mercury is kept out of the environment and out of commerce.

"This mercury will not reenter the environment, and it will not be sent to India, one of the largest manufacturers of mercury thermometers," Collins noted.

The bill creates an interagency task force to address the problem of the global circulation of mercury and ways to reduce the mercury threat to humans and the environment. The task force, to be chaired by the administrator of the EPA, would also be charged with identifying long term means of disposing of mercury and comprehensive solutions to the global mercury problem.

The bill must still be reviewed and passed by the House and signed by the President before it becomes law.

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Chicago Sues Paint Companies and Lead Industry

CHICAGO, Illinois, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - The city of Chicago is suing paint companies and lead pigment manufacturers for harming the health and safety of the city's children. The suit, filed Thursday, asserts that the presence of lead based paint in homes and buildings is a "public nuisance" that poses a health and safety threat to Chicago's children.

The city seeks to hold the companies responsible for eliminating the poisonous paint.

Despite progress in reducing lead poisoning, it remains the number one environmental health hazard facing American children. Lead exposure can cause permanent damage to a child's nervous system, resulting in IQ loss, learning disabilities, reduced attention span, and behavior problems.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 40 percent of U.S. homes contain lead paint.

"Chicago has more lead-poisoned children than any city in the country and almost any state," says Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a national policy organization. "I applaud Mayor Daley for insisting the lead paint manufacturers help solve the problem they created. Taxpayers, property owners, and families have all paid the price for lead poisoning for too long."

The Chicago case brings to 36 the number of governments that have turned to the courts to hold the industry responsible for solving the problem it caused. The state of Rhode Island, counties from New Jersey to California, and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Milwaukee, and St. Louis are among those that have filed suits against paint companies for manufacturing and marketing a product they knew was unsafe.

The city's lawsuit, filed as the Rhode Island case goes to trial, adds to the growing legal pressure on the industry.

The public nuisance claims, used successfully by governments to deal with nvironmental cleanup cases, are different from prior litigation against the companies.

While the industry internally acknowledged the hazards of lead based paint, the Chicago lawsuit claims, it concealed them from the public and used its lobbying clout to defeat warnings labels and other safety regulations.

"The paint companies put profits before children's health in aggressively promoting lead based paint as safe," declared Ryan. "It is long overdue for these companies to pay their fair share for making high-risk housing safe for children."

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Groups Plan Lawsuit Over DC's Dirty Air

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Citing the worst air pollution summer in almost a decade, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club are planning to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force the agency to reclassify metropolitan Washington DC from "serious" to "severe" for its ozone or smog levels.

Reclassification would trigger requirements for additional actions to reduce air pollution in the metro area, including reducing emissions from cars, trucks, buses and industrial sources. The groups also called on EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to disapprove the region's inadequate clean air plans, a move that would trigger legal requirements to redirect transportation spending from new roads to better mass transit.

"Already this summer we've had 12 code red days when the air was unhealthful, especially for small children and asthmatics," said Sierra Club spokesperson Melanie Mayock. "Parents should not have to worry about letting their children play outside in the nation's capital because of filthy air."

The call for reclassification to "severe" came in a letter sent on behalf of the Sierra Club by Earthjustice. The Earthjustice letter argues that metro DC belongs in the higher pollution category because the area missed a 1999 deadline for meeting federal health standards for ozone.

The letter threatens suit if the EPA does not reclassify the area within 60 days. The letter sent Thursday also threatens suit if the agency does not disapprove the region's deficient air pollution plans within that time frame.

"Healthful air is a necessity, not a luxury," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "Regional leaders and EPA need to acknowledge that metro DC's air is severely polluted, and take effective action now to protect area residents. Even healthy children and adults can suffer lung damage from breathing the dirty air in this region."

In response to a previous Earthjustice suit on behalf of Sierra Club, a federal court rejected the EPA's attempt to extend the 1999 clean air deadline to 2005 without reclassifying the area to "severe." Since the court ruled in July, the EPA has not taken action to require stronger clean air measures in the region, and has indicated that it may delay requirements for such measures until 2004.

"It's time for EPA to stop dragging its feet and start complying with the law," said Baron.

Ozone is a lung irritant that damages lung tissue, reduces lung function and causes symptoms such as chest pain, nausea and pulmonary congestion. The elderly, young children and persons with asthma are considered particularly vulnerable.

Breathing difficulties during a typical smoggy summer in metro DC send more than 2,400 people to the emergency room, and cause more than 130,000 asthma attacks.

For a calendar showing the region's summer 2002 ozone levels, visit:

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Nuclear Agency Outlines Latest Security Measures

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Responding to continuing questions about security at nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has put out a fact sheet detailing the steps taken since September 11, 2001.

As the nation nears the one year anniversary of last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many people remain concerned about the potential for a similar attack, perhaps using a large plane, on one of the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants. Such an attack might breach the containment vessel of the plant's reactor, releasing deadly levels of radiation.

According to the NRC, nuclear plants were already among the most well protected civilian facilities in the country before September 11. After the attacks, the NRC advised all major licensees of nuclear facilities to go to the highest level of security. A series of advisories, orders and regulatory alerts have since been issued to further strengthen security of NRC licensed facilities, control of nuclear materials, and security of all shipments of radioactive materials and spent fuel.

While the specific actions have not been made public, they include requirements for increased patrols, more and better trained security guards, additional security posts, installation of additional physical barriers, vehicle checks at greater distances from the plants, enhanced coordination with law enforcement and military authorities, and more restrictive site access controls for personnel.

The NRC is conducting a review of the agency's entire safeguards and security program, regulations and procedures. The agency also has studies underway to investigate the potential vulnerabilities of facilities to deliberate aircraft crashes.

While those studies are underway, the commission has directed nuclear power plant licensees to develop specific plans and strategies to respond to any event that could result in damage to large areas of their plants from explosions or fire. Licensees have been asked to provide assurance that their emergency planning resources are sufficient to respond to such an event.

The NRC has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration on regulations to prohibit planes from circling or loitering above nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities. Additional measures have been put in place to provide additional protection against land attacks, including the use of a substantial vehicle bomb, and against water borne attacks.

Security exercises that were suspended in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks have been reinitiated, and now involve an array of federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency planning officials. Full security performance reviews, including force on force exercises, will be carried out at each nuclear power plant on a three year cycle, instead of the eight year cycle that had been used prior to September 11, 2001.

The NRC is still evaluating approaches for controlling all radioactive sources which might be used in a radiological dispersal device - sometimes called a dirty bomb - aiming to maintain control of such sources from their creation to their destruction.

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Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters Similar

BOULDER, Colorado, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Preparations for terrorist attacks and natural disasters should be combined to create disaster resistant communities, argues a University of Colorado professor.

Communities everywhere should consider all risks they may face and prepare a disaster plan that could be used to address any type of disaster, says sociology professor Dennis Mileti. In terms of physical impacts, terrorist attacks are indistinguishable from natural events such as great earthquakes and hurricanes.

September 11 altered the focus and scope of the CU-Boulder Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, of which Mileti is director. The keynote speaker at the center's 27th annual international workshop on disasters last July was the senior director for response and recovery of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, who also oversaw federal recovery efforts in New York City after the attack on the World Trade Center.

The bottom line in limiting future deaths, injuries and damages is that "it's not about terrorism and it's not about earthquakes," Mileti said. "It's about disaster resilient communities."

"What use is a terrorist safe Los Angeles if everyone is killed in an earthquake?" Mileti asks. "It's got to be a comprehensive approach."

Mileti headed a landmark study on natural hazards risks for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1999 titled "Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States."

"We do not live on a safe planet," Mileti said. "It's never been safe and never will be. People just think they're safe, temporarily, until things happen. Every community, town, city and state really needs to find out what risks they are exposed to rather than pretending they are safe."

Earthquakes, wildfires, floods and hurricanes will continue to strike the United States and there also will be more terrorist attacks, Mileti warned. The level of readiness for such events varies, depending on the type of threat and its location.

In general, "the larger the community, the better the planning," he said. "We [the United States] have the best disaster plans on the planet. It's as good as it gets here. We invented it."

The response to September 11 was better because of preparations made following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Mileti said. Disaster responders learn from previous incidents. For example, the nation is better prepared to deal with nuclear plant accidents since the accident at Three Mile Island.

The professionals charged with responding to terrorist attacks today are the same people who have been charged with responding to disasters of any sort for decades: firefighters, police officers, emergency managers, planners, engineers, insurers and government officials.

Mileti said the nation is least prepared for threats that have not yet happened, such as a nuclear bomb attack, a huge earthquake in southern California, or a category 5 hurricane striking a major city.

"There are events that are large enough that you can't prepare for them," Mileti said. "California has known for decades that when the next great earthquake hits southern California, some areas will be without water for six months."

The Natural Hazards Center, part of CU's Institute of Behavioral Science, funded 17 researchers from around the nation who studied social and behavioral aspects of the September 11 attacks as part of its Quick Response Research Program. Results of the Quick Response studies are posted on the center's website at:

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Sea Turtle Bill Would Protect International Habitat

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont introduced a bill this week aimed at helping preserve the nesting habitats of marine turtles in foreign countries.

"This legislation will help to preserve this ancient and distinctive part of the world's biological diversity," the Vermont senator said in submitting the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2002 (S 2897).

The bill was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Jeffords, who left the Republican Party last year to become the only Independent in the Senate, chairs that committee.

"Marine turtles were once abundant, but now they are in serious trouble," Jeffords noted. "Six of the seven recognized species are listed as threatened on endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and all seven species have been included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, CITES."

The Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2002, Jeffords told fellow senators, "will assist in the recovery and protection of marine turtles by supporting and providing financial resources for projects to conserve nesting habitats of marine turtles in foreign countries and marine turtles while they are found in such habitats."

The bill would seek to prevent "illegal trade in marine turtle parts and projects, and to address other threats to the survival of marine turtles."

The proposed bill would authorize $5 million annually to fund projects to conserve marine turtles and their habitats.

"Because marine turtles are long lived, late maturing, and highly migratory, they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of human exploitation and habitat loss," Jeffords noted. "In addition, for some species, illegal trade seriously threatens wild populations."

Jeffords compared his legislation with similar laws passed by Congress to help preserve endangered animals and plants throughout the world, such as the Asian Elephant Conservation Act. Under those laws, he noted, "More than 300 projects have been funded and generated millions of dollars in private matching funds from sponsors representing a diverse group of conservation organizations."

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Zebra Mussels Invade Virginia

RICHMOND, Virginia, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries confirmed today that invasive zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) have been found in an inactive quarry in Prince William County in northern Virginia.

The area is a popular underwater diving spot, and it is possible that mussels were carried in unintentionally on diving gear previously used in infested waters elsewhere in the United States.

The Department is now checking other likely sites and examining its options for eradication of the mussels.

Department biologists fear that the zebra mussels could devastate populations of rare and declining freshwater mussels in southwest Virginia. Zebra mussels can attach themselves to the native mussel shells, making it impossible for them to open or close, burrow in the stream bottom, or feed.

The zebra mussel is one of the most troublesome non-native species ever to be introduced into U.S. freshwater ecosystems. The adaptable species can tolerate a wide range of conditions.

First sighted in the United States in 1988, zebra mussels have spread quickly throughout the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi River drainage, and other waterways east of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1992, the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries added the zebra mussel to its list of predatory and undesirable animals that are prohibited in the state without a special permit.

Efficient filter feeders, zebra mussels increase water clarity by removing microscopic organisms from the water which were service as food sources for native fish and freshwater invertebrates, which then begin to disappear.

There are very few natural predators of this species in Virginia, and biologists expect that zebra mussels will spread rapidly across the state unless eliminated.

Zebra mussels will attach to almost any hard surface, quickly spreading and covering that surface, clogging and blocking pipes, valves, and drains.

The Department is asking public utilities and other major water users to check their intakes for any signs of zebra mussels.

Department biologists are asking divers and boaters to take extra precautions with their equipment. All dive equipment should be checked and cleaned, especially the buoyancy control device and other items that retain water, and rinsed with water hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After a final rinse with clean fresh water, divers should allow all gear and equipment to dry completely before diving again.

Hunters and anglers should so the same with waders and bait buckets. Boaters should inspect and scrub boat hulls, anchors, and trailers, then hose equipment with hot water or high pressure water. Bilges, live wells, and any other compartments that could hold water should be drained at the site of origin, and, if possible, flushed with disinfectant or hot water. All boat equipment should be allowed to dry thoroughly before being used again.

For more information about zebra mussels and actions to reduce their spread, visit the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website at:

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Commercially Important Pine Genetically Modified

COLLEGE STATION, Texas, September 6, 2002 (ENS) - The most commercially important forest species in the southern United States, the loblolly pine, has been genetically engineered for the first time, researchers at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station report in the journal "Molecular Breeding."

Scientists are attempting to improve the native southern pine with such traits as drought tolerance and disease and pest resistance, says lead researcher Dr. Jean Gould, an Experiment Station molecular biologist. The quality of the wood products also may be transformed with the new technology, she said.

"Loblolly pine has been challenging to genetically engineer because the genotype is very difficult to regenerate into plants in tissue culture," said Gould.

The transformation was done with a marker gene to prove that such genetic transfer could be done and that plants carrying the gene could be regenerated.

Gould's method for transforming plants - using a plant's meristem region for inoculation with Agrobacterium - was patented by the Experiment Station in 1992. The first plants transformed using this method were petunia and corn, followed by cotton and rice.

"While some crop plants have been selectively bred for more than 10,000 years, programs for the genetic improvement of pine are less than 100 years old," Gould said.

Loblolly pines dominate some 29 million acres in the southern United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The species grows quickly when young and lives about 75 years, but does not reach reproductive maturity for up to 10 years after germination. Traditional breeding programs would take decades to make the changes that Gould and her colleagues are attempting.

In the study, transformation of loblolly pines using the meristem based method resulted in regeneration and survival of 10 to 30 percent of the shoots inoculated. Lab analysis showed that the genes were transferred to the genome of the new plants.

"These results suggest that a shoot based transformation method can be used in the genetic engineering of this important but stubborn species," Gould said. "There is a broad spectrum of applicability for this technology in the genetic improvement of all commercial pines."