AmeriScan: February 19, 2003

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Automakers Oppose Increased Fuel Efficiency

WASHINGTON, DC, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - American automakers say meeting a new higher fuel efficiency standard for light trucks, as proposed by the Bush administration, would carry a prohibitive cost.

The three largest U.S. automakers - General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler AG - have filed papers with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration arguing that a proposal to increase fuel economy standards for light trucks by 1.5 miles per gallon could cost the companies billions of dollars.

To meet the new standards, automakers might need to make trucks lighter, which would make them less safe, the companies said.

Last December, the NHTSA proposed to mandate the small increase in the fuel efficiency of light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) between model years 2005-2007, boosting economy from a fleet average of 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) to 22.2 mpg. The light truck standard has remained at 20.7 mpg since 1996, and the standard for cars has been held at 27.5 miles per gallon.

Critics of the proposal say it shortchanges American consumers and national security because automakers already have the technology to raise fuel economy much more.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said an analysis of the proposal shows that what the administration is proposing is less aggressive than what the automakers have said they would do voluntarily by 2005.

In 2000, Ford Motor Co. committed to improving the fuel economy of its fleet of SUVs by 25 percent over five years. Assuming Ford made no improvements to its other light trucks, its commitment would yield a 1.8 mpg increase for its light truck category by 2005.

By contrast, the administration's proposal would give the automaker two more years to improve its light trucks by 1.5 mpg.

But Ford joined GM and DaimlerChrysler on Friday in saying that even the meager increase proposed by the NHTSA is too much. In particular, GM said the mandate could cost $1.1 billion or more, and provide little economic benefit.

"NHTSA has significantly underestimated the costs of its new standards," GM wrote in its 127 page filing, noting that the NHTSA said the fuel economy improvements would cost about $703 million. "We believe that a more accurate assessment of our capabilities will show that the proposed standards are significantly too high."

GM said it expected it could achieve 20 mpg efficiency by 2005, 20.1 mpg in 2006 and 20.8 mpg in 2007.

Ford added that it "continues to believe that uniform industry fuel economy standards are inefficient and unfairly penalize full line manufacturers," but said it has committed to meeting the new standards. And DaimlerChrysler suggested that NHTSA reduce its proposed fuel economy increase to 0.8 mpg, for a new standard of 21.5 in 2007.

The problem with NHTSA's proposal, GM argued, is that it relies on technological improvements that have yet to be achieved.

But a recent analysis by the National Academy of Sciences showed that the technology exists to raise the fuel economy of SUVs and pickups higher than the NHTSA proposal, without compromising vehicle safety or making automakers spend more than they can afford.

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Insecticides, Solvents Linked to Gulf War Syndrome

WASHINGTON, DC, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - A comprehensive assessment of the available scientific literature reaffirms findings of a link between Gulf War Syndrome and exposures to a few specific insecticides or solvents.

A new report from the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Sciences confirms what is known already about specific human health effects associated with the Persian Gulf War. There is some limited evidence to link certain long term health problems with exposures to some specific chemicals, the report argues.

However, for the majority of solvents and insecticides that have been studied, there is not enough epidemiologic evidence to determine whether associations exist between diseases and exposures to these chemicals, the researchers conclude.

"Our exhaustive examination of the literature produced no unexpected findings," said Jack Colwill, emeritus professor of family and community medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

"Our conclusions about exposure to insecticides and solvents and long-term health problems largely mirror those reached by many other scientific groups," Colwill continued. "While we would like to have more definitive answers to questions about the specific diseases that may be associated with these chemicals, in most cases the evidence simply is not strong enough or does not exist."

The committee evaluated the published, peer reviewed research on exposure to various insecticides and solvents - such as cleaning agents - for any evidence of links to specific cancers, neurological effects, or other health problems that occur or persist after exposure. Of the 3,000 studies the committee reviewed, most involved individuals who were exposed to these agents in occupational settings such as agricultural and industrial sites.

Only a small number of reports studied veterans who may have been exposed while serving in the Persian Gulf. Toxicology studies conducted in animals also were reviewed, but played only a supportive role in this assessment.

The insecticides and solvents used during the Gulf War were agents that have also been used for industrial and personal applications. Insecticides and repellents, including DEET and permethrin, were applied by service members to control insects that can carry infectious diseases endemic to the area, such as malaria and leishmaniasis. Personnel came into contact with solvents during activities such as equipment cleaning and vehicle maintenance and repair.

However, little information exists on the use of insecticides or solvents by individual service members, and how that use may have differed from stateside use or exposure. Because scant information exists on actual exposure levels - a critical factor when assessing health effects - the committee emphasized that it could not draw specific conclusions about the health problems of Gulf War veterans.

Veterans who have experienced chronic health problems following their service in the Persian Gulf are asking whether exposure to various chemical or biological agents might be responsible. Thousands of troops did come in contact with a number of agents before, during, and after the war.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs requested an Institute of Medicine (IOM) study of potentially harmful chemical, biological, or environmental agents to which Gulf War veterans might have been exposed. Congress mandated a similar study, listing several specific agents.

This report on insecticides and solvents is the second in a series from the IOM that responds to these requests. The first report focused on depleted uranium, pyridostigmine bromide, sarin, and vaccines. The next report will examine the health effects of exposure to selected environmental pollutants and particulates, such as smoke from oil well fires, diesel heater fumes and jet fuels.

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Europe Ahead of U.S. in Renewable Power

DENVER, Colorado, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - Europeans have far outdone Americans in developing new sources of renewable energy and a sound environmental policy, argue researchers.

As the world's only remaining superpower, the United States is often at the cutting edge of science and technology. But according to researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this week, the Europeans are way ahead in renewable energy research and development.

"Europe has made a major commitment to renewable energy and is leading the United States in deploying it," said Allan Hoffman, a renewable energy expert and senior advisor to the Clean Energy Group at Winrock International, a nonprofit group dedicated to sustainability and based in Arkansas.

Of all the potential sources of renewable energy, wind is the most widely used. It is the world's fastest growing energy source, with the current worldwide capacity at around 30,000 megawatts. In less than five years, wind power capacity is expected to rise to around 60,000 megawatts, according to speakers at the AAAS meeting.

Citing a recent survey of renewable energy initiatives worldwide, L. Hunter Lovins of The Global Academy, an interdisciplinary think tank based in Florida, rejected the contention of U.S. President George Bush that U.S. adherence to the Kyoto protocol would place the United States at a competitive disadvantage.

"It turns out that the U.S. will be at a competitive disadvantage by not signing" she said.

As consumers begin to notice the benefits that renewable energy sources bring to the environment and their quality of life, Lovins said, companies in nations that have invested in the new sources of energy will gain a marketing edge.

Lovins added that the investment community has also begun seeing an increase in "socially responsible investing," investments in companies that agree to practice environmentally and socially responsible policies.

As a result, such investment options have received the attention of the big institutional investors - pension funds with assets equal to 46 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. One of these, The California Public Employees' Retirement System, (CalPers), with $130 billion in assets, has announced that it has begun screening investments. From such decisions, Lovins expects to see a ripple effect that will lead to changes in U.S. energy policy.

"As Americans we are in a time of unprecedented opportunity and unprecedented peril. We have more choices than ever in terms of efficient energy and renewables," Lovins said. "At the moment, however, our administration's policies are going in the wrong direction."

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GM Matches Funds To Protect Brazilian Rainforest

ARLINGTON, Virginia, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - General Motors and The Nature Conservancy today pledged to raise $400,000 in an effort to protect one of the most threatened rainforest areas in the world.

As part of its ongoing partnership with The Nature Conservancy, GM issued a challenge grant, pledging to match up to $200,000 of every dollar raised by the Conservancy's Adopt an Acre® program for the Atlantic Forest project in Brazil. The Adopt an Acre® program raises funds to protect threatened rainforest areas around the world.

"General Motors was drawn to The Nature Conservancy because of its dedication to preserving a variety of ecosystems," said Elizabeth Lowery, GM vice president of environment and energy. "The Adopt an Acre® program makes it possible for us to aid in the protection of a vital area."

Funds raised through the Challenge Grant will be used to purchase an estimated 6,000 acres of mountain terrain in the Atlantic Forest along the eastern coast of Brazil. The region is home to hundreds of endangered animal and plant species that can be found nowhere else on Earth.

"This matching grant from General Motors will allow donors to protect Brazil's threatened forests twice as fast," said Steve McCormick, president of The Nature Conservancy. "These national and international partnerships are critical in preserving the vast biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest and protecting the global environment."

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is one of the highest conservation priorities on the planet. Once spanning more than 500,000 square miles across Brazil and into neighboring Paraguay and Argentina, the Atlantic Forest has been reduced to less than seven percent of its original size.

The region is home to 55 mammal species - including 17 primates - and 188 bird species that can be found nowhere else in the world. Of Brazil's 202 endangered species, 171 of them depend on the Atlantic Forest to survive.

The mountain terrain to be purchased under the Adopt an Acre® and GM matching grant program will be part of the Atlantic Forest Restoration Project in the state of Parana, in southern Brazil. That 30,000 acre reserve - more than twice the size of Manhattan - was created in 2000 with help from a $10 million investment from GM. A local Brazilian conservation partner owns and manages the reserve with the technical assistance of The Nature Conservancy.

The project will help to ensure the protection of endangered species in the area, and benefit the global atmosphere by capturing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis during forest growth.

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North Carolinians Oppose NSR Revisions

SYLVA, North Carolina, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - The town of Sylva is urging the state of North Carolina to join a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's proposal to revise the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Officials from Sylva sent a resolution to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper on Monday, urging him to file a lawsuit for the state against the decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise the NSR provisions. Critics of the planned revisions say they will result in more air pollution in many parts of the country.

The NSR provisions now require aging power plants and factories to install state of the art emissions control equipment when they upgrade or expand their facilities. But on December 31, the EPA proposed to revise the definition of "routine maintenance" - an action that would exempt the vast majority of facility upgrades from the NSR requirements.

These facilities will now be able to increase their capacity without adding emission controls, a situation that could generate substantial increases in air pollutants.

Last month, U.S. Senator John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, introduced an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that would have set aside the EPA's NSR ruling until a study by the National Academy of Sciences could examine the environmental and public health effects of the proposed changes. The amendment was rejected by a vote of 50-46.

In addition to Sylva, the towns of Chapel Hill, Hendersonville, and Asheville are considering sending similar resolutions to the state attorney general. The resolution was introduced in these towns over the past two weeks by the Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group promoting clean air in the southern Appalachian region.

Should North Carolina file a Petition for Review against the EPA's decision, it would become the 11th state to take this action, following New York, New Jersey, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

"It's very important that North Carolina join this lawsuit," says Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition.

"The EPA, Congress and the president need to hear the clear message that any attempt to weaken the Clean Air Act will meet with strong political and legal opposition from the people and states of every region in this country," Friedman continued. "The Clean Smokestacks Act passed last year, virtually unanimously, by the NC General Assembly, mandates that state agencies use all available means to protect North Carolinians from air pollution that originates in other states. Joining this lawsuit would be in compliance with the state's responsibility outlined in Section 10 of the Clean Smokestacks Act."

In addition to those towns and cities already approached, The Canary Coalition and other organizations plan to introduce the NSR lawsuit resolution to Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Durham, Boone, Blowing Rock and possibly others in the next 10 days. The deadline for a state to file a Petition for Review against the EPA's Final Rule on NSR is March 3.

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Utility Customers Help Fund Salmon Projects

PORTLAND, Oregon, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - Oregon utility customers who opted for salmon friendly renewable power have helped to pay for seven new salmon habitat restoration projects in Oregon.

Customers of Pacific Power and Portland General Electric can opt to purchase renewable power under the utilities' Green Mountain Energy® Salmon-Friendly Plan. Under the plan, customers make a monthly contribution through their electricity bill to For the Sake of the Salmon's Pacific Salmon Watershed Fund (PSWF).

The contributions go to projects that restore habitat for threatened fish. On Tuesday, For the Sake of the Salmon announced seven new salmon habitat restoration projects in Oregon, supported by more than 6,000 customers who purchase the utilities' renewable power option.

"By signing up for the Salmon-Friendly option, Oregonians are putting their dollars to work for salmon," explained Betsy Kauffman, program manager with For the Sake of the Salmon. "The projects funded by the program are opening up more than 15 miles of habitat that currently is blocked for fish passage. The Habitat option is a great opportunity for those who care about the future of our salmon runs to help make a difference."

The announcement was made at the site of a rebuilt fish ladder near Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. The additional projects will restore fish habitat in locations near Lakeside, on the southern Oregon Coast, Scappoose, Happy Valley, Oregon City, Canby and Albany.

"Restoring salmon habitat and purchasing renewable power sends signals throughout the energy community that Oregonians will put their money where their hearts are when it comes to choosing cleaner energy," said Bill Edmonds, director of environmental policy for Pacific Power.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Community Based Restoration Program has matched the funds generated by the utilities, for a total contribution of $165,500 toward habitat restoration in Oregon. The seven projects are also receiving funding and in kind support from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, local agencies, watershed councils, and other nonprofits.

"Projects like these are the most visible ways our customers have improved the survival of threatened salmon and steelhead," said Thor Hinckley, PGE's manager of renewable products. "Customers who choose the Salmon-Friendly option have an important role in restoring this resource."

In addition to the salmon habitat projects, Green Mountain Energy Company has announced an increase in wind content of Pacific Power's and PGE's Renewable Usage and Habitat options from 15 to 20 percent new wind. The wind power will come from the Stateline wind generation facility, located on the Oregon/Washington border.

The products' remaining 80 percent of energy will be generated from geothermal sources in northern California. The change in the renewable content will not result in a price increase but will increase the amount of carbon dioxide a household can avoid.

An Oregon household using about 1000 kilowatt hours (kWh) a month can now prevent more than 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions a year - as much as a car makes when driven almost 4,000 miles.

"Increasing the amount of wind in these renewable options gives Oregonians an even more powerful way to reduce their household's share of CO2," said Karen Norris, program director for Green Mountain Energy Company in Oregon. "Customers in Oregon are responsible for this improvement; they are part of a large customer base that is increasingly demonstrating demand for sources of cleaner energy."

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$3.2 Million Pledged to Restore New York Islands

NEW YORK, New York, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - New York State has pledged more than $3.2 million to protect and restore Randall's and Wards Island Park in the East River near New York City.

The new funding is part of a joint effort of the state, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Randall's Island Sports Foundation to increase public access and enjoyment of this urban park.

"By investing in projects to preserve open space, create new recreational opportunities and enhance access to our waterfronts, we are improving the quality of life for all New Yorkers," said New York Governor George Pataki. "Working with the city of New York and our other partners, we are protecting and restoring critical habitat in Randall's and Wards Island Park while increasing opportunities for families and visitors to experience the beauty of nature right here in the city."

Randall's and Wards Island Park consists of two connected islands in the middle of the East River at the intersection of the Triborough Bridge, which links Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. The 480 acre park is half the size of Central Park and contains miles of shoreline, beaches and inland wetlands.

Using funds from the State Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), the state and city will undertake the restoration of 14 acres of wetlands in the Little Hell Gate Inlet on the western edge of the park and reconstruct a half mile of shoreline adjacent to a new waterfront pedestrian and bicycle path on the Harlem River. These projects will preserve rare plants and breeding areas for birds and aquatic organisms, while also helping to reduce the impact of non-point source pollution.

The Randall's Island Sports Foundation (RISF), in private-public partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, established a master plan for Randall's and Wards Island Park and commissioned the shoreline and wetlands restoration project to promote the reuse of this waterfront resource.

"We appreciate the strong support Governor Pataki has provided for this project, which means so much to young people in New York," said Richard Lewis, chair of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation, Inc. This funding will help make Randall's Island a place where families can play, learn and be entertained."

The shoreline restoration project will help to create recreational opportunities on nine acres of inaccessible waterfront parkland. The surrounding rivers, waterways and inlets provide a visual backdrop for activities inland and along the shoreline and the southern end of the island is a popular fishing area for large bluefish and striped bass.

Efforts to restore wetlands and repair shorelines damaged by erosion and use are part of the overall plan to protect and enhance the island.

"Randall's and Wards Island Park contains critical natural resources and wildlife habitats, and also offers outstanding recreational opportunities," said state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner Erin Crotty. "It is essential that we continue to work with all stakeholders to protect and enhance the park to provide urban residents with an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors."

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Allergen Free Shrimp May Be On the Way

DENVER, Colorado, February 19, 2003 (ENS) - Genetic engineering could someday put allergen free shrimp on dinner plates, say researchers from Tulane University.

For people with shellfish allergies, a shrimp cocktail could be deadly. But new genetic studies offer the potential of shrimp engineered to avoid the proteins that trigger allergic reactions, according to scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting.

"It's definitely possible that we'll have foods that are less of a risk for allergy," said Samuel Lehrer of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where shrimp is a key element of the local cuisine. "There's a lot of work we need to do to be sure to know what to ask."

Lehrer and others are conducting studies on shrimp to better understand the genetic basis for the proteins in foods that cause allergic responses in some people. An expert in food allergens and allergen detection, Lehrer also addressed issues of allergenicity in new products being developed through genetic engineering, and gave an "understanding of the framework that's involved and changing, and a sense of what's being ensured so we don't have exposure to new allergens."

Research in shrimp allergenicity owes its recent strides to ongoing research in plant foods, such as soy and peanuts.

Food allergies are immune responses to proteins from foods that somehow did not get broken down by cooking or digestion. Instead, they entered the bloodstream and interact with antibodies on cells lining the gut, and in the nose, throat, skin, and lungs, for example. These cells then release chemical mediators including histamines, which create unpleasant and sometimes life threatening allergic responses.

Lehrer has identified the major shrimp allergen and the epitopes - the allergenic portion of the molecule - that bind with an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The reaction that results from the allergen or epitope causes classical allergic reactions of itchiness around the eyes, throat, skin and mouth.

Improved detection methods for unknown food allergens can also contribute toward better safety for new food products that are altered through genetic engineering, according to Lehrer, who is in the process of developing an immunological test, with mice, to check foods for allergenicity.

Work on altering animal based allergens is generally much less further along than that for plant based food allergens, for which breeding programs and food processing have been used to address allergenicity. Now, working at the gene level may someday put allergen free peanuts, soybeans or shrimp on dinner plates, according to Lehrer.

However, "there's concern that new epitopes can be made," Lehrer said of the techniques used to transfer genes in and out of a food plant or animal.

While testing for known allergens has been established, testing proteins that may be expressed in genetically modified foods, which have no previous human exposure, is needed. This scenario raises an interest in developing models for testing allergenicity, said Lehrer, who is developing a mouse model to test this.

"If there's a way to validate the mouse responses are similar to the human response, this would be a useful way to screen novel proteins. We saw very good responses to peanut allergens and shrimp allergens and they seem to be similar to human responses," explained Lehrer. "Now, we want to look at responses on an epitope level."

Lehrer is also looking at less common allergens, like rice, beef and corn.

The biotechnology used to alter food products can also be used to improve food safety by preventing the production of allergy causing agents, according to Lehrer, who points to his work with shrimp as an example. Lehrer has located the gene sequence that encodes the shrimp allergen and regions of the sequences for the different molecules that interact with the antibody IgE.

By altering the epitopes in shrimp allergens that bind to IgE, by just one amino acid, the binding action could be stopped.

"This can possibly be used therapeutically or even in reducing the allergenicity of a particular food," Lehrer said.