AmeriScan: February 7, 2002


SACRAMENTO, California, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Elevated nitrate concentrations in water supplies used for drinking water threaten residents of both the United States and the People's Republic of China, concludes a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Because of the increased use of fertilizers worldwide since the 1950s, drinking water derived from aquifers in both countries have seen increased levels of nitrate, a plant nutrient regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act in the U.S. and by the Ministry of Water Resources in China.

Elevated concentrations of nitrate in water have been known to cause illness in babies, and there is indirect evidence that they can also cause cancer.

"On average, similar levels of nitrate were found in both countries in areas where heavy agricultural use of nitrate fertilizers is common," said the report's author, Joseph Domagalski, a USGS hydrologist. "However, the highest concentrations were measured in China."

China's Ministry of Water Resources and the USGS agreed to study the ground water quality of a heavily used agricultural region in northern Hebei Province, located southeast of the city of Beijing, and to compare the quality of that water with similar areas in the U.S. The areas studied in the U.S. included the Central Valley of California and the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.

"Despite the fact that the agricultural land in China has been farmed for a much longer time relative to land farmed in the U.S., the patterns of nitrate contamination are similar," said Domagalski.

The reason for this similarity includes the increasing use worldwide of nitrogen fertilizer since the 1950s to boost agricultural production. Heavier use of nitrate fertilizer in China, and well construction techniques that allow for easy infiltration of rainwater or irrigation water, account for some of the higher concentrations there.

Pesticides were not detected in any of the wells sampled in China, surprising the researchers. Although it was assumed that similar types of pesticides would be used in both countries, the lower use of these types of chemicals in China probably accounts for the lack of detections in water, they said.

The study is available at:

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Not enough research has been done to ensure the safety of sewage sludge used as fertilizer, concludes a report by the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained by the Associated Press.

The AP reports that the EPA's internal watchdog is citing "gaps in the science" that the agency used when approving sludge fertilizers, or biosolids, over the past decade. The EPA has also cut funding, staff and oversight for the sludge program, the inspector general notes.

"The agency can neither investigate nor keep track of all of the complaints of adverse health affects that are reported," the inspector general wrote in a draft report obtained by the AP.

In the U.S., 60 percent, or about four million tons a year, of the sewage sludge or biosolids produced is now spread on land as a fertilizer. Despite the fact that sewage sludge contains limited amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, toxic chemicals and disease causing pathogens, the EPA has determined that its use as a fertilizer poses no risk to human health or the environment.

On Wednesday, the AP reports, the EPA noted that it has asked the National Research Council to study public and scientific charges that sludge fertilized fields have sickened some nearby residents.

"It has been quite awhile since we put a rule in place, and we've asked NRC to make recommendations and give us some advice," said Mike Cook, the EPA's director of Wastewater and Management.

"We have thousand of workers in sewage treatment plants and handling biosolids all the time, every day," Cook added. "We have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, handling raw manure. There is no evidence these people are any sicker than the general population."

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - An El Niņo weather system is likely to develop in the tropical Pacific in the next three months, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Using climate monitoring data from polar orbiting satellites and a network of ocean buoys, the scientists also predict a localized warming of sea surface temperatures off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru over the next few weeks as part of the steady evolution toward El Niņo conditions.

"This warming represents an early stage of El Niņo's onset. If the warming persists, it will be several more months before mature El Niņo conditions develop," said NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr. "The impacts will depend on the strength of the event, which we can't determine at this time."

During an El Niņo event, the normally cold water off the west coast of South America becomes much warmer, exceeding the normal temperatures by several degrees, while the waters in the western Pacific cool.

El Niņos can affect weather conditions around the world. Among the consequences, for example, are increased rain storms across the southern tier of the United States and Peru, which have caused destructive flooding; and drought in the West Pacific, sometimes associated with devastating brush fires in Australia.

El Niņo episodes occur once every four to five years and can last up to 12 to 18 months. It has been almost four years since the end of the 1997-1998 El Niņo, which was followed by three years of La Nina. In many locations, especially in the tropics, La Niņa produces the opposite kinds of climate variations from El Niņo.

Confidence in this forecast is based on improvements in NOAA's ability to monitor the equatorial Pacific in real time, research advancements and improvements in NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction statistical and new dynamic forecast models.

"Our ability to predict El Niņo is dependent upon a robust suite of operational observatories such as the Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) array in the equatorial pacific and satellites overhead," said Lautenbacher. "These ocean and atmospheric observing systems hold great potential for predicting climate fluctuations on all scales around the globe that have enormous economic impacts in the U.S. and abroad."

More information is available at:, and at:

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Religious leaders joined lawmakers Wednesday to oppose legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.

More than two dozen clergy and lay people from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious groups were joined by Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, to voice support for a national energy policy that emphasizes conservation, efficiency and renewable fuels rather than increased oil production.

The religious leaders were on hand to express their theological and religious reasons for opposing Arctic drilling, and to underscore their solidarity with the native Gwich'in people, for whom the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a sacred area they call "The Place Where Life Begins."

"Our tradition teaches that our overriding concern must be to protect God's creation from unnecessary destruction," said Rabbi Warren Stone of the Central Council of American Rabbis. "There is no doubt that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would be destructive, and that it would be entirely unnecessary. Drilling is not the way to meet our nation's energy needs. The Senate should reject calls to drill the Refuge, and set our country on the road to a sustainable, clean, renewable energy future."

The Arctic Refuge is home to 130 species of birds, grizzlies, rare musk oxen, polar bears and dozens of other wildlife species. The 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the Refuge is also the birthing and nursery grounds for the 130,000 member Porcupine Caribou herd, one of the hemisphere's largest caribou herds.

The Gwich'in Indians, one of North America's last subsistence cultures, depend upon the caribou for food and as the foundation of their culture and traditions.

"A truly remarkable diversity of people of faith are coming together around this issue," said Dr. Khalil Zonoozy, professor of world religions and the environment, School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University. "Our traditions converge around the concept that we have a solemn obligation to care for creation, and for our fellow people. Sacrificing a place like the Arctic Refuge and a culture that has endured for thousands of years is simply wrong."

This morning, three Republican Senators - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island - held their own press conference to state their opposition to drilling in ANWR.

"Drilling in ANWR is not only contentious but inefficient as well," said Snowe. "The fastest, cheapest and cleanest step we could take toward reducing our nation's dependence on foreign oil would be to improve the fuel efficiency of America's auto fleet."

* * *


SANTA BARBARA, California, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - For the first time, scientists have succeeded in bringing some of the exotic creatures found around deep sea vents to the surface for live study.

James Childress, a professor of biology and an authority on deep sea organisms, brought 15 scarlet-colored tube worms, 12 white crabs, and 30 yellow mussels to special high pressure tanks at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Although tube worms have been collected before, this marks the first time that deep sea crabs and mussels have been brought back alive from the deep.


Scarlet colored tube worms, yellow mussels and white crabs form a colony around deep sea vents in the Pacific Ocean (Photo courtesy Jim Childress)
The animals were taken from an area called the East Pacific Rise, which is 400 miles south of Manzanilla, Mexico. They were living at a depth of a mile and a half below the surface.

At that depth, the ocean is very dark and cold and the worms and mussels survive by chemosynthesis. They convert hydrogen sulfide from the vents as an energy source - instead of light - for the synthesis of proteins and carbohydrates.

In the tanks they are being provided with hydrogen sulfide, which is poisonous to most forms of life. The crabs are eating pieces of squid.

The animals, which have been on campus for about six weeks, are being studied to understand their physiology and what conditions they need to stay alive.

To collect the animals, Childress went down to the deep sea vents in a three person submersible called Alvin. The deep sea vents are like hot springs, and are located in areas where the Earth's tectonic plates are moving and there is volcanic activity.

Water seeps down through fractured rock, is changed chemically, and then shoots up through vents of various sizes.

Using a mechanical arm, the pilot collected the animals and put them in a special plastic box, which kept the water cool, insulating the animals from the very warm temperature at the surface.

"When the animals go to lower pressure, they do better with cooler temperatures," said Childress. "It's tricky to get them back alive and under pressure."

Soon, the animals will be moved to a UCSB lab in order for scientists to perform additional tests to understand more about their physiology. "Currently the tube worms are growing, the mussels are attaching and moving around and the crabs are walking around and eating," said Childress.

* * *


CINCINNATI, Ohio, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Scientists from two U.S. and several international universities are working together to help solve the deadly problem of arsenic in Bangladesh's drinking water.

University of Cincinnati engineering professor Shafiqul Islam returned to his native Bangladesh in October 2001 as a Senior Fulbright Scholar for six months to help solve what has been called "the worst case of natural contamination in human history."


Professor Islam Shafiqul has gone back to Bangladesh to try to help his native country combat its arsenic problem (Photo courtesy University of Cincinnati)
"Arguably, nowhere in the world is water so abundant and yet so scarce, than in Bangladesh," said Islam, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering.

More than 70 percent of the country is flooded each year during the monsoon season. But the abundant surface water is polluted and not safe to drink. To reduce the health risks, Bangladesh has converted most of its drinking water supply from surface water supplies to groundwater wells.

But groundwater throughout Bangladesh and West Bengal in India is contaminated with arsenic from the sediments that form the region's aquifers. It has been estimated that 75 million people are at risk of developing health problems associated with the ingestion of arsenic.

"This is an environmental problem of enormous magnitude. Over one million wells are contaminated," said Islam.

Many of the area's wells contain water with arsenic concentration of 500 to 1,000 parts per billion and some as high as 2,000 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic. The current allowable standard in the United States is just 50 ppb, and the government plans to lower that standard to 10 ppb, the standard promoted by the World Health Organization.

The British Geological Survey is completing a detailed survey of groundwater contamination, which will set the stage for Islam's research. Their results show widespread contamination, but also an unusual pattern. Shallow wells are more contaminated than deeper wells.

Working with collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo, ETH in Switzerland, and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Islam will explore two research questions.

"Our first research question is: Why are arsenic concentrations so high in the groundwater of Bangladesh?" said Islam. "Once we have developed an understanding of the cause of high arsenic concentrations we will consider a second question: How will arsenic concentrations change over time and space?"

The field project, funded by a three year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, includes 16 test wells drilled from 25 feet down to 500 feet below the surface. The researchers will look at how arsenic level and the form of arsenic changes at different depths over time.

* * *


WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Consumer activists have launched a campaign urging Kraft Foods to remove genetically engineered ingredients from its products.

Activists from the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition demonstrated Wednesday at grocery stores in more than 170 cities around the United States, Canada and Australia in an effort to draw attention to the public health and environmental concerns associated with genetically engineered foods.

The groups warn that Kraft Food's genetically engineered products are not adequately safety tested nor labeled. Kraft Foods is the largest food and beverage company in the U.S. and a subsidiary of Philip Morris company.

"We are urging Kraft Foods to remove all genetically engineered ingredients from its products until adequate testing, labeling and liability are put into place to protect our health and the environment," stated Kate Madigan, advocate for the State Public Interest Research Groups, a member group of the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition. "Consumers, students and investors are joining us in this urgent call to Kraft Foods to remove untested and labeled genetically engineered ingredients from its products."

Independent testing released by the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition confirms the use of genetically engineered ingredients in Kraft products, including engineered corn and soy. The tests, commissioned by the coalition, determined that a variety of Kraft products including Taco Bell taco shells, Boca Burgers, Snackwell's crackers, Lunchables, Tombstone Pizzas, Post Blueberry Morning Cereal, and Stove Top Stuffing contained genetically engineered ingredients.

"The results are in - and the tests indicate that Kraft continues to use genetically engineered ingredients in the foods that they sell to U.S. consumers," said Madigan.

By 1999, consumer demand in Europe forced Kraft Foods to remove genetically engineered ingredients from some of their well known products, offering Europeans genetically engineered free products. The company has yet to offer such alternatives in the United States.

"Kraft Foods needs to listen to its customers when it comes to genetically engineered foods," said Lisa Archer, grassroots coordinator for Friends of the Earth, a member group of the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition. "The company is aware of the potential health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods, yet they have chosen profits over precaution."

More information is available at:

* * *


MOSS LANDING, California, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - Using new genomic technologies, microbiologists have discovered new groups of photosynthetic bacteria found in oceanic plankton.

The techniques are helping researchers learn the identity and the ecological roles of microbes in the ocean.

"It's an exciting time for microbial oceanography - genomics-based discoveries are changing fundamental paradigms about what kinds of microbes live in marine plankton and how they convert energy from the sun into nourishment for the rest of the oceanic food web," said Ed DeLong, leader of the research group at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

"The genomic 'libraries' of oceanic microbes we study are providing us with a kind of genetic encyclopedia. We can 'look up' the identity, properties and functions of naturally occurring microbes in that encyclopedia," explained DeLong. "Every time we do, it seems, we find something new."

In a new study published this week in the journal "Nature," MBARI microbiologists, in collaboration with colleagues from The Institute for Genomic Research, analyzed the genomes of microbes found in Monterey Bay and the central Pacific Ocean.

They found that a wide variety of bacterial photosynthetic genes, which scientists had not thought to be significant in marine plankton, are widely distributed in ocean waters. The work also showed that the bacterial photosynthetic genes were expressed in oceanic plankton, indicating that these microbes were garnering energy from light.

The existence of these new types of phototrophs - organisms that get energy from light - has stimulated oceanographers to re-think and revise oceanic food web models. Quantifying the impact of such microbes in the food web may help oceanographers balance the global carbon budget sheet.

"Microbial diversity and function in natural environments is not all that well understood. With new tools to compliment more traditional approaches, we can begin to get a more realistic picture of real world complexity," said DeLong. "Genomic technology is opening up a whole new and previously unseen world."