AmeriScan: September 6, 2006

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World Trade Center Responders Suffering Health Ailments

NEW YORK, New York, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - More than 60 percent of World Trade Center responders still suffer respiratory problems from exposure to environmental contaminants released when the towers were hit by hijacked airplanes five years ago, according to the largest study to date on the health effects of 9/11.

Released Tuesday by the Mount Sinai Medical Center, the study is based upon medical examinations performed between July 2002 and April 2004 on 9,500 World Trade Center responders.

The responders were a highly diverse group and included members of the building trades, law enforcement officers, firefighters, utilities and telecommunications workers, transit workers, and many others.

The report found that a high proportion of those examined became sick as a result of their World Trade Center work and illnesses have persisted in the years since September 11 in a high proportion of the workers.

In one area alone - pulmonary function tests - the study found World Trade Center responders had abnormalities at a rate twice that expected in the comparable U.S. population and that these abnormalities persisted for many months and, in some cases, years after exposure.

"Many who worked at Ground Zero in the early days after the attacks have sustained serious and lasting health problems as a direct result of their exposure to the environment there," said Dennis Charney, dean for Academic and Scientific Affairs at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "This study scientifically confirms high rates of respiratory problems in a large number of responders - including construction workers, law enforcement officers, utilities workers and public sector workers."

The study found that almost 70 percent of World Trade Center responders had a new or worsened respiratory symptom that developed during or after their time working at the World Trade Center.

Among the responders who were asymptomatic before 9/11, 61 percent developed respiratory symptoms while working at the site and close to 60 percent still had a new or worsened respiratory symptom at the time of their examination.

One third had abnormal pulmonary function tests, much higher than expected, and severe respiratory conditions including pneumonia were significantly more common in the six months after 9/11 than in six months prior.

Rates of respiratory symptoms and pulmonary function abnormalities were positively correlated with how early the responders arrived at the World Trade Center site.

Those who arrived first at the site suffered the heaviest exposures and had the most frequent respiratory problems.

"An estimated 40,000 rescue and recovery workers were exposed to caustic dust and airborne toxic pollutants following 9/11," said Philip J. Landrigan, chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai. "We are continuing our monitoring and treatment program with support from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. We encourage anyone who worked at Ground Zero, especially in the early days after September 11, who has not yet been screened, to come for an evaluation. It is important that those who gave so heroically in the aftermath of the disaster be assured that they will be able to get all the medical care they need."

The report will be published Thursday in "Environmental Health Perspectives," the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and will be published on Thursday, September 7.

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Environmental Enforcement Dropping Under Bush

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - U.S. Justice Department figures show that federal enforcement of anti-pollution laws has steadily and substantially declined since George W. Bush became president. The department's statistics, released Tuesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), detail that requests by federal agencies for criminal prosecution have dropped by more than half since 2000 while such referrals for civil prosecution have declined by more than a third.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for most of the anti-pollution enforcement - other environmental prosecutions are initiated from cases developed by other federal agencies, ranging from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Referrals for new environmental criminal prosecutions government-wide have dropped by 54 percent from 2000 to 2005. At the EPA, such requests for prosecution have fallen 33 percent during that same five-year period.

PEER's analysis found that referrals for new civil prosecutions of environmental offenses have declined by 34 percent between 2000 and 2003 - the last year for which statistics are available.

New federal civil court complaints against polluters have dropped even more, with a government-wide decline of 37 percent in new cases filed. EPA civil filings are down by 44 percent in this same period.

Furthermore, the number of federal criminal environmental prosecutions filed in 2005 has decreased 14 percent since 2000 and the number of convictions obtained is down 13 percent.

During the same period, criminal prosecutions filed on EPA cases have declined by 18 percent while convictions are down 6 percent.

"This Bush administration can make no claim to law and order credentials when it comes to pollution," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Corporate transgressors have growing reason for confidence that environmental violations will not trigger federal prosecution."

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U.S. Struggling With Chemical Weapons Deadline

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - Fifty percent of the total munitions in the United States' declared chemical weapons stockpile has been destroyed, the U.S. Army announced last week, but the nation is unlikely to meet a treaty obligation to destroy its entire stock by next year.

The 50 percent figure represents more than 1.7 million munitions of the total stockpile originally estimated, according to the Army's Chemical Materials Agency. The figure includes bombs, rockets, mortars, projectiles, land mines and spray tanks filled with nerve agents (including sarin and VX), plus blister agents (including mustard gas). The total destroyed to date represents 39 percent of the U.S. stockpile by weight.

The Army says the 50 percent milestone "demonstrates the United States' commitment to its international obligations as a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)."

The CWC, which entered into force April 29, 1997, bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons.

Ratified by the United States in 1997, the treaty also prohibits the use or preparation for use of chemical weapons and the assistance, encouragement or inducement of anyone else to engage in activities prohibited by the convention.

But permitting delays and facility work stoppages have held up the overall effort to eliminate the national stockpile, according to the Army. These challenges prompted the United States in July to submit a draft request that would extend the deadline for the destruction of the entire U.S. chemical weapons stockpile from April 2007 to April 2012.

It took the United States "longer than anticipated to build facilities and to obtain the necessary permits and consent to begin destruction of chemical weapons, and we have found that, once operating, our facilities have not destroyed weapons as rapidly as we initially projected," said Ambassador Eric Javits, head of the U.S. delegation to the CWC council.

The U.S. Chemical Materials Agency has been disposing of chemical weapons since 1990. In that year, it began to dispose of munitions at a destruction facility on Johnston Atoll, which is more than 1,290 kilometers southwest of Honolulu. Complete destruction of that stockpile was achieved in 2000, and the Army says the site "remains a wildlife refuge." After Johnston Atoll, disposal efforts were initiated in Utah, Alabama, Oregon, and Indiana and Arkansas.

Earlier this year a site in Aberdeen, Maryland became the first to completely destroy its stockpile.

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Retailers Ordered to Pull Illegally Imported Confetti String

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered five national retail chains to pull from their shelves cans of illegally imported confetti string products that contain banned hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

These substances deplete the earth's protective stratospheric ozone layer and increase the risk of skin cancer.

Millions of cans of these novelty items, all imported from China or Taiwan and known by various names such as Zany String, Crazy String, and Party Streamer, have been sold illegally in the United States.

The EPA banned HCFC propellants in spray cans more than a decade ago.

The federal agency said the stores in question - Dollar Tree, American Greetings, Inc., Dollar General, Target, and Too, Inc. - have complied with the order by taking the banned products off their shelves and shipping them to a commercial incinerator for destruction.

More than 2.7 million cans will be incinerated under EPA's compliance orders. In addition, the companies have agreed to audit their operations and adopt new policies to ensure that these problems do not arise again.

"We are pleased that these retail companies signed these compliance orders with EPA to ensure that these products will not be available to consumers and the ozone-depleting substances they contained will never make it into our environment," said Granta Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

HCFCs and other ozone-depleting substances, when emitted, drift up and attack the earth's stratospheric ozone layer - this protective shield safeguards human health and the environment from the sun's ultraviolet rays.

The United States, in cooperation with over 185 other countries, is phasing out the production of ozone-depleting substances under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

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Bush Picks Park Service Veteran as New Director

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - President George W. Bush has announced his intention to nominate Mary Bomar to serve as director of the National Park Service and to appoint her to be a member of the board of trustees at the American Folklife Center. Bomar currently serves as Northeast regional director of the Park Service, overseeing agency operations in 13 Northeast states.

"I greatly admire the passion that Mary brings to her work in the Northeast Region," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. "That passion for our national parks mirrors that of the American people. I am confident that Mary is the right person to ensure that our national parks endure for the enjoyment of future generations."

Bomar would replace outgoing Park Service director Fran Mainella, who has served as director of the Park Service since President Bush took office in 2001. Mainella announced her resignation in July.

Prior to taking charge of the Northeast REgion last year, Bomar managed Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. During her tenure there, she oversaw the opening of the Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center.

The project was one of the largest urban revitalization project in the nation. In December 2004, Bomar also oversaw the reopening of the park's Second Bank of the United States after a two-year utilities project and managed a $5.2 million rehabilitation of Independence Square, the site of Independence Hall.

A British native who became an American citizen in 1977, Bomar's career in the Park Service began in the financial arena at Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas where she became chief of administration.

In January 1994, she accepted a management position at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park - home to the largest collection of Spanish Colonial resources in the United States - and was promoted to the position of assistant superintendent.

After a detail as the acting superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park in Coloraod, Bomar was appointed superintendent of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. She became superintendent of Independence National Historical Park in January 2003.

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Plant Study Finds Landscape Corridors Aid Biodiversity

RALEIGH, North Carolina, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - A new study of plants shows that landscape corridors that connect isolated patches of habitat help conserve biological diversity.

The researchers found that patches of habitat connected by corridors contained 20 percent more plant species than unconnected patches at the end of the five-year study.

The findings are significant because they back up the theory that establishing and protecting wildlife corridors is a critical factor in conservation efforts.

The study, published last week in the journal "Science," was conducted by scientists at North Carolina State University and collaborators at other U.S. universities.

The scientists worked with the U.S. Forest Service at the Savannah River Site National Environmental Research Park, a federally protected area on the South Carolina-Georgia border largely covered with pine plantations.

The Forest Service created eight identical sites, each with five openings, or patches, by clearing the pine forest.

A central patch was connected to one other patch by a 150-meter-long, 25-meter-wide corridor, while three other patches were isolated from the central patch - and each other - by the surrounding forest.

The patches are home to many species of plants and animals that prefer open habitats, many which are native to the historical longleaf pine savannas of this region.

The researchers surveyed all plant species inside connected and unconnected patches from 2000 to 2005 and found some 300 species of plants were found.

There was no difference in the number of species between connected and unconnected patches when the study began. After five years patches with a corridor retained high numbers of species, while those without a corridor lost species.

Corridors provided the largest benefit to native species while having no effect on the number of invasive plant species, the researchers said. Invasive species seem to already be everywhere, not needing corridors for their spread, or remain where they originated.

The researchers said that a number of factors likely contributed to the difference in plant diversity.

Seeds dispersed by animals are more likely to be deposited in patches with corridors and flowers are more likely to be pollinated because corridors increase the movement of insects. In addition, animals that eat seeds - like ants and mice - can eat the seeds of more common species in connected patches and give rare seeds an advantage.

"It's surprising that we would see such a dramatic change over a short time scale," said Ellen Damschen, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Plants are thought to be relatively sedentary organisms that are heavily influenced by their environmental surroundings. This study indicates that plants can change relatively quickly through their interactions with the landscape and the animals that interact with them, such as seed dispersers, pollinators and predators."

The next step in for the researchers is to explore predictions for how corridors affect plants based on plant characteristics. They plan to study the specific effects of pollination and seed dispersal by wind and animals on plants in both connected and unconnected patches of habitat, for example.

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Research Suggests Bird Flu Not Easily Transmitted to Humans

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2006 (ENS) - A new study finds that the H5N1 bird flu virus may not be easily transferred from birds to humans. Researchers analyzed hundreds of Cambodian villagers who tended sick birds around their homes. Suprisingly, the villages showed no evidence of infection with the H5N1 virus, according to a study published in the October edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"This study provides evidence of the low transmissibility of the H5N1 virus from infected poultry to humans, even in circumstances in which human-poultry interactions are regular and intense," the research team said.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Institut Pasteur in Cambodia, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, Australia National University, CDC and others.

The H5N1 virus is a highly pathogenic avian influenza strain that has spread to pandemic proportions among Asian birds, with more than 200 million dead.

It has been found in domestic and wild birds in more than 50 countries and in regions other than Asia, and has killed more than 140 humans.

Because this particular flu strain previously infected humans only rarely, international health officials warn that if H5N1 becomes easily transmissible among humans, an influenza pandemic could sweep the world.

The researchers focused their study on a Cambodian village in Kampot province where a 28-year-old man was infected with the H5N1 virus in March 2005.

Within a week after the man's death, the researchers conducted surveys of families within a 1-kilometer radius of the patient's household to determine how widely the illness might have appeared in birds and people in the same area.

"Despite frequent direct contact with poultry suspected of having H5N1 infection, none of 351 participants from 93 households had neutralizing antibodies to H5N1," the report says.

None of the participants recalled having any respiratory illness during the 12-month period prior to the survey, despite regular, close contact with poultry, and in some cases, pigs.

The investigators report that they cannot come to a definitive conclusion on why only one person developed illness when so many others reported similar poultry exposures, though they acknowledged a small chance that previous H5N1 levels might have been missed in the antibody testing.

The findings do provide the basis for suggesting that transmission to humans occurs in persons who have "unique host susceptibilities and a predisposition to an abnormal inflammatory response that results in severe and fatal outcomes," the study says.

The villagers also had very different ways of handling their birds, the research team found, a variance that could be another factor in their vulnerability to infection. Some families kept their birds closer to the house, potentially reducing their contact with wild birds that might carry the virus, in comparison to families that allowed their birds to roam broadly.

The researchers further noted varying practices in tending poultry with some villagers cleaning stalls and cages more regularly than others, and removing potentially infectious materials.

"These findings may highlight the value of educating farmers about hygienic animal-handling practices," the study said.

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