* Lab falsified thousands of tests: Thousands of U.S. toxic waste sites certified as safe may not be safe after all, because the environmental laboratory that tested them apparently falsified its test results to satisfy industrial and government clients. As a consequence, according to an indictment brought by U.S. prosecutors last fall, many of the "endusers" of resources in or from some 59,000 sites across the United States could be unaware that their drinking water, irrigation water, air, or soil may be contaminated. Those users include not only local residents and farmers, but consumers elsewhere, who might have bought contaminated farm products. The pollutants for which soil, water, and air samples were supposed to have been tested include pesticides, explosives, and "nerve/chemical agents" from military sites.
The indictment was brought against 13 chemists and supervisors who worked at the Richardson, Texas lab of the London-based Intertek Corporation between 1996 and 1997. One of the 13, Martin Dale Jeffus, was still the company's vice president for North America, at the time of this writing. Intertek chairman Richard Nelson recently told the Wall Street Journal that he wasn't aware that any of the defendants still worked for his company.
Jeffus was alleged to have "personally directed and trained chemists to falsify results to meet customers' quality control specifications," according to the Journal. Former Intertek chemist Alan Humason reported that Jeffus informed him of a way he could "lie" about data on a compound called thiodiglycol, a byproduct of toxic sulphur mustard gas that remains in the ground around Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver, Colorado.
Evidence gathered by federal prosecutors includes testimony from an Environmental Protection Agency investigator, Stephen Remaley, who inserted a covertly prepared sample into a regular shipment of samples from the Newmark Superfund site in California. The test results came back with falsified data under Jeffus's signature, according to the EPA investigation.
All told, some 250,000 environmental tests were altered. In addition to Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Newmark, the sites given false bills of health, at least with regard to the tested samples, included the Oakland Army Base (California), McGregor Naval Weapons Plant (Texas), Foster Air Force Base (Texas), Wurtsmith Air Force Base (New York), Fitzsimmons Army Hospital (Colorado), and Bellows Air Force Station (Hawaii).
* Coral reefs crash: More than a quarter of the world's coral reefs have been effectively destroyed, according to a new report released at the 9th International Coral Reef Symposium in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2000. This share is significantly higher than the 10 percent loss estimated in 1992, and suggests that coral reefs are now among the most endangered and rapidly declining ecosystems on the planet.
Reefs in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, and around Southeast Asia have been particularly hard hit, says Clive Wilkinson, a marine biologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the lead author of the study. He cautions that nearly all of the world's reefs are at risk, with as many as 60 percent facing possible die-off by 2030 if current trends continue.
The report estimates that 11 percent of global coral reefs have been lost due to direct human pressures, including coastal development, waste dumping, oil spills, vessel collisions, and inland deforestation and farming, which can cause runoff of harmful nutrients and sediments. Coral mining and overfishing have also emptied reefs, particularly in Southeast Asia, where fishers use destructive and often illegal methods like blast fishing and cyanide poisoning to stun or kill fish.
The remainder of the damaged reefs--about 16 percent of the global total--are victims of recent widespread "coral bleaching," says Wilkinson. Bleaching occurs when warmer ocean temperatures or other environmental changes agitate the microscopic algae (or zooxanthellae) that inhabit the tiny coral animals that make up the reef. The algae provide food. for the corals and give them their vibrant colors. But if the stress endures, the corals expel the plants and turn a chalky white--often eventually dying.
The worst coral bleaching episode on record occurred in 1997-98. Over a period of months, a combination of El Nino and La Nina-related climatic changes and record-high tropical sea surface temperatures affected reefs in at least 60 countries. Wilkinson and his colleagues have estimated the damage to Indian Ocean reefs alone at between $700 million and $8.2 billion, in terms of services lost. In some areas, 1,000-year-old corals died and damage approached 90 percent, at depths of up to 40 meters.
In theory, many of the bleached reefs could rebound over the coming decades, if they have retained--or can recruit--enough living coral to survive. Roughly a third of the damaged reefs already show early signs of recovery, reports Gregor Hodgson, founder and coordinator for Reef Check, an annual survey of coral reefs. But scientists warn that any future mass bleaching events would likely offset these gains, and spell doom for additional reefs.
Coral reefs account for less than 0.2 percent of ocean area, yet they provide habitat for as many as 1 million species, including an estimated quarter of known marine fish species. More than 100 countries--many of them small islands--rely on reefs for essential goods and services, valued at nearly $400 billion a year. Reefs produce roughly a tenth of the global fish catch, and a quarter of the catch in the developing world. Coral-derived molecules have been used to develop many antibiotics and other medicines, while reef formations shelter coastlines from storm damage, erosion, and flooding. Coral reefs also generate significant tourism revenue, with those in the Caribbean alone bringing in some $140 billion annually.
Key reef protection efforts range from charging dive fees to finance local conservation and law enforcement, to establishing marine reserves where fishing, anchoring, and other harmful activities are banned. In March 2000 the United States announced plans to protect a fifth of its reefs in such reserves by 2010. Unfortunately, these and other well-meaning efforts will likely prove futile if all countries do not make parallel efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
* Nations ban 12 chemical pollutants: In December 2000, officials from 122 nations agreed to a treaty to phase out a dozen of the most dangerous chemicals ever created. According to John Buccini, the Canadian official who chaired the U.N. Environment Programme negotiations in Johannesburg, South Africa, the treaty amounts to a "declaration of war" against persistent organic pollutants (POPs)--the class of highly toxic, long-lived substances that includes these "dirty'dozen" compounds.
Among the chemicals marked for elimination are nine pesticides that are already banned in at least 50 countries. But the phase-out of at least one such pesticide will take time; 25 developing countries received temporary exemptions to continue using DDT, which in some cases remains the cheapest and most accessible defense against malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. These countries have agreed to phase in alternatives gradually.
The treaty also requires countries to halt the manufacturing of the industrial chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and to minimize thc release of dioxins and furans. These two chemical families, which contain some of the most toxic chemicals ever discovered, are byproducts of waste incineration, the production of PVC plastics, pulp and paper bleaching, and other common industrial activities.
Perhaps the biggest success of the negotiations was the acceptance of a "precautionary approach" to synthetic compounds, despite initial opposition from major chemical-producing countries, including the United States and Japan. This approach reverses the traditional regulatory burden of proof. Instead of assuming that a new chemical is harmless unless shown to be dangerous, the treaty will require countries to avoid producing chemicals that are likely POPs, even if the substances are not yet proven members of that group. Chemicals already in use may be added to the treaty's ban if they meet certain criteria--even in the absence of scientific certainty about their toxicity. This preventative approach aims not just to stem the spread of POPs, but to spur the development of safer materials.
Safer materials are becoming increasingly common in a number of sectors. In Scandinavia, for example, a large portion of woodpulp for papermaking is now bleached with methods that use oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen, instead of chlorine, since chlorine bleaching produces dioxins and furans. In at least 130 countries, there is some commercial production of organic food, which is grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Industrialized countries have committed $150 million a year to help developing countries make the transition to safer but sometimes costlier options. If the interest in such options grows, the treaty could prove to be a powerful tool for developing forms of heavy industry that are compatible with ecological--and human--health.
Anne Platt McGinn
* Environmental factors, not genes, cause most cancers: The majority of cancers are caused by environmental and behavioral factors--such as diet, infections, and exposure to pollutants--not by genetic problems, according to a study led by researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2000, tracked incidences of 28 types of cancer in nearly 45,000 pairs of twins in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Researchers examined the medical records of individuals diagnosed with cancer and checked to see if the corresponding twins had ever developed similar malignancies. In cases where identical twins (who share the same genetic makeup) developed similar cancers, the primary cause was assumed to be genetic. In cases where cancer occurred in fraternal twins (who have only half their genetic makeup in common), the main cause was assumed to be shared environmental factors.
The research found that environmental factors triggered, on average, twice the number of cancers as genetic factors. The cancers most closely tied to genetic characteristics were prostate cancer (42 percent of the risk is linked to heritable factors), colorectal cancer (35 percent), and breast cancer (27 percent). "Everybody believes that if you know your genes then you can cure most diseases," said Anastasia Iliadou, one of the researchers on the study. "Not everything is genes, actually the environment plays the major role."
While this study supports "the widely accepted estimate that 80 to 90 percent of human cancer is due to environmental factors," writes Robert Hoover with the National Cancer Institute in an editorial accompanying the study, "In the past 15 years the explosion of molecular genetics has overshadowed environmental explanations." In response to the report, a number of scientists have called for additional research to identify environmental risk factors for cancer, and how to avoid them. Writing in the same issue of the Journal, Neil Holtzman of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Theresa Marteau of Guy's, King's and St. Thomas' Medical School in London, explain the problem this way: "In our rush to fit medicine with the genetic mantle, we are losing sight of other possibilities for improving the public health."
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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