AmeriScan: January 29, 2002


EAST LANSING, Michigan, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - Men with higher levels of PCBs in their bodies are more likely to father boys than girls, finds a study by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU).

The study, using data from three separate studies in which levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were measured in the bodies of men who ate fish taken from Lake Michigan, found that of the 208 children born to those men, more than 57 percent were boys.

The paper was published in the current issue of the "Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine."

"We do not wish to say that having a baby boy is bad, it's just that there were more of them," said Wilfried Karmaus, MSU associate professor of epidemiology, who directed the study. "A change in the proportion of boys to girls, however, indicates that environmental contaminants may play a role in human reproduction."

PCBs are among a number of environmental contaminants that have plagued the Great Lakes for years. They can come from any number of sources, including hydraulic fluids and oils, electrical capacitors and transformers, and as a byproduct from the paper mills that dot the shoreline.

PCBs are known to disrupt the body's endocrine system, and are also considered a possible carcinogen.

In this study, Karmaus and colleagues restricted their research to children born after 1963 and to families in which PCB levels were detectable in both fathers and mothers. This was a total of 208 children from 101 families.

They found that men with PCB concentrations of at least 8.1 micrograms per liter of blood were more likely to father boys.

"However," Karmaus noted, "we did not detect that the PCB levels of mothers affected the number of boys or girls."

The team said the study provides more evidence of the effects environmental contaminants can have on the human body. The research was funded by a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - Increasing energy production - by drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for instance - will not protect the U.S. from oil price shocks or boost supplies, a group of energy experts said this week.

Threats to the security of U.S. energy supply call for new thinking, new policies, new regulatory structures and new energy sources, agreed senior policymakers and energy experts taking part this week in a special symposium on energy security convened by Resources for the Future (RFF).

Instability in the Middle East and the terrorist attacks of September 11 have encouraged debate about the need for energy policy to strengthen U.S. national security. Assessing the risk of U.S. dependence on imported oil from a volatile region, two panels of economists agreed that self sufficiency was not a realistic option in a world market with one worldwide oil price.

They said price volatility - not scarcity - was the biggest threat to energy security and the American economy.

"Opening ANWR would do absolutely nothing for energy security, and absolutely nothing for (price) volatility," said Robert Weiner of George Washington University.

Production from ANWR would provide a little more competition for OPEC, said RFF's Michael Toman, but it would not alter the price of oil.

Toman said ANWR oil might even make the American energy system less secure by pushing down prices and increasing consumption. Estimates of potential production from ANWR range as high as almost one million barrels of oil a day, compared with total U.S. consumption of almost 20 million barrels a day, some 12 million of which are imported.

"We'll never produce enough oil to be self-sufficient - or affect the price of oil," agreed Shirley Neff, senior staff economist on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Neff said one of the biggest threats to energy security is inflexible and increasing demand.

"By 2020, demand will have grown by two million barrels a day, but producers are running at capacity now," Neff added. "Either we dramatically expand capacity, adding many more refineries or pipelines, or we dramatically reduce demand."

The panelists agreed that the only way to make the U.S. economy less vulnerable to shocks from oil supply disruptions is to reduce American consumption. But they also recognized the political dilemma posed by that conclusion.

"On the oil demand side we seem to be stymied," Neff observed. The country refuses to raise gasoline taxes to discourage consumption, but is also reluctant to tighten the fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks out of a concern that it would hurt American manufacturers in competition with imports, she said.

Reducing the nation's overall reliance on oil and fossil fuels, encouraging the use of new technologies to diversify energy use, stockpiling oil and allowing markets some involvement in deciding when the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) should be used to combat price shocks and disruptions were some of the alternatives proposed by the panelists.

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JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups today asked a Wyoming federal judge to review Forest Service permits for helicopter skiing and snowmobile tours on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, warning that the activities could harm lynx, wolverines and other wildlife.

In its complaint, the coalition asserts that the Forest Service has neglected to conduct environmental studies as required by law, and is gambling with the future of irreplaceable wildlife resources.

"We are fortunate that the Bridger-Teton continues to host populations of some of our country's most spectacular wildlife, including the rare lynx and wolverine," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the groups. "Unfortunately, the Forest Service isn't doing what the law requires to safeguard these species."

In December 2001, the Forest Service issued six permits - one for commercial helicopter skiing across the Teton, Gros Ventre, Wyoming, and Snake River ranges; one for commercial snowmobile tours in the Granite Creek and Gros Ventre drainage and the Togwotee Pass areas; and four for the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail segments.

By failing to analyze how wildlife would be affected, the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act, the groups charge.

"The Forest Service shortchanges the public's interest in preserving wildlife when it ignores the concerns of biologists," said Scott Groene of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The helicopter skiing permit raises special concerns because it doubles the number of permitted skiers from 468 to 900, and allows helicopter traffic into areas that are home to animals that are sensitive to human pressures.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has recommended that the Forest Service consider restricting helicopter access in wildlife areas such as the Hoback River watershed, where average wintering bighorn sheep numbers have plummeted from 31 to four since the advent of helicopter skiing.

Helicopter skiing also threatens one of the few known populations of wolverines, a rare species that finds refuge in the Teton Range.

"Wolverines den from February to April in exactly the same remote high mountain country that helicopter skiers prefer," said wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "Female wolverines with young have abandoned their dens upon finding human tracks in the area. The noise and disturbance of repeated helicopter trips forecloses any wolverine denning where helicopter skiing occurs."

The conservation groups will seek an order to protect wildlife habitats in the Hoback River area and Teton Range and to delay the doubling of helicopter skiing permitted by the Forest Service, until the agency completes necessary environmental studies.

"We will ask the court to address specific wildlife concerns," said Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "More than 95 percent of the helicopter skiing terrain on the Bridger-Teton Forest will remain unaffected by this court action. People will still have an opportunity to go helicopter skiing. But we hope that wildlife will also have an opportunity to make it through the winter."

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has decided to revise its meeting policy to encourage participation by members of the public.

The revised policy, the result of an ongoing initiative by the agency to improve communications with the public, will identify three categories of NRC meetings and outline public participation opportunities for each. It also will enable people to listen and participate by telephone in NRC sponsored public meetings.

The NRC said it will encourage the public to provide comments or questions in writing as a means of facilitating public participation and staff follow up.

The first category of NRC meetings under the revised policy involves those held with one licensee or petitioner to discuss regulatory issues addressing their specific facility, license or application. At these meetings, the public will be allowed to observe NRC's interactions with licensees, and to obtain information to assist in understanding regulatory issues.

At such meetings, the public will be given an opportunity to communicate with the NRC before the session is adjourned. A licensee may respond to questions from the public, if it chooses.

At lengthy meetings, lasting more than two hours, the public will have opportunities to speak with the NRC staff before the meeting concludes. Meetings in this category could include annual public meetings under the reactor oversight process, regulatory conferences, pre-decisional enforcement conferences, reactor restart meetings, as well as those held on licensing actions or applications, renewals and amendments.

The second category of meetings involves those held with a group of industry representatives, licensees, vendors or non-governmental organizations. The objective at these meetings is for the NRC to solicit feedback from the groups on issues that could affect more than one licensee.

The public will be encouraged to discuss regulatory issues with agency officials at designated points on the agendas of these meetings. The NRC staff will answer questions at these meetings, with those that cannot be answered assigned to a designated staff person for prompt followup.

Examples of this category of meeting could include task force groups, industry groups, such as the Nuclear Energy Institute or owners' groups, public interest and citizen group discussions that focus on issues that could apply to several facilities, such as plant system aging, license renewal, decommissioning, or spent fuel storage.

The third category of meetings includes those conducted for the general public, representatives of non-government organizations, private citizens, or various businesses or industries. These meetings allow the NRC to work with members of the public to ensure their issues and concerns are understood and considered.

Such meetings provide the most comprehensive participation opportunities for members of the public to comment and ask questions. NRC staffers will be on hand and will be assigned follow up on specific public inquiries.

Examples of meetings in this category could include town hall or roundtable discussions, environmental impact statement scoping meetings, workshops, the Regulatory Information Conference, the Nuclear Safety Research Conference, or proposed rulemaking meetings.

A new brochure will describe the public meeting process, levels of participation and follow up responsibilities by NRC. Meeting summaries will be made available to the public to ensure that public concerns were heard.

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HUNTSVILLE, Alabama, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - New maps developed from orbiting sensors reveal where on Earth the most powerful bolts of lightning are likely to strike.

Lightning avoids the ocean, but strikes often in Florida, the Himalayas and even more so in central Africa. Lightning almost never strikes the North or South Poles.

These are just a few of the things learned by scientists at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists have been using satellites to monitor worldwide lightning for about seven years.

"For the first time, we've been able to map the global distribution of lightning, noting its variation as a function of latitude, longitude and time of year," said Hugh Christian, a scientist from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and project leader for the lightning team at the NSSTC's Global Hydrology and Climate Center.

This new perspective on lightning is possible thanks to two satellite based detectors: the Optical Transient Detector and the Lightning Imaging Sensor.

"Basically, these optical sensors use high speed cameras to look for changes in the tops of clouds, changes your eyes can't see," said Christian, whose team developed the sensors. By analyzing a narrow wavelength band around 777 nanometers - which is in the near infrared region of the spectrum - they can spot brief lightning flashes even under daytime conditions.

Before the space based sensors were developed, only approximate global lightning patterns were known, based on scattered ground based lightning detectors with a limited range.

The development of space based optical detectors was a major advance, giving researchers their first complete picture of planet wide lightning activity. The new maps show that Florida, for example, is one place where the rate of strikes is high.

Dennis Boccippio, an atmospheric scientist with the NSSTC lightning team, explained that, "Florida experiences two sea breezes: one from the East Coast and one from the West Coast."

The interaction of these two breezes forces ground air upward and triggers thunderstorms.

Another lightning hot spot is in the Himalayas, where the local topography forces the convergence of air masses from the Indian Ocean.

In Central Africa, " you get thunderstorms all year 'round," Christian said. "It's a result of weather patterns, air flow from the Atlantic Ocean, and enhancement by mountainous areas."

The satellite data also track patterns of lightning intensity over time. In the Northern Hemisphere, for example, most lightning happens during the summer months. But in equatorial regions, lightning appears more often during the fall and spring.

Areas such as the Arctic and Antarctic have very few thunderstorms and, therefore, almost no lightning at all.

"Oceanic areas also experience a dearth of lightning," Christian said. "People living on some of the islands in the Pacific don't describe much lightning in their language."

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OAK RIDGE, Tennessee, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are testing ways to turn coal flyash - a waste byproduct of coal fired power plants - into a lightweight concrete building material.

The new material could be used in wall systems of future construction of homes and businesses, says the ORNL team and their partners at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned utility.

Researchers at ORNL's Buildings Technology Center, working with a private company, Babb International, are testing an autoclaved aerated concrete block weighing as little as one-fifth the weight of an ordinary concrete block. This block is composed of 70 percent recycled flyash produced by TVA's coal fired power plants.

Babb International is the largest U.S. manufacturer of autoclaved aerated concrete products.

Plans call for the flyash block wall to be tested for one year at a Habitat for Humanity home to be built in northern Georgia. ORNL researchers hope to install instrumentation while monitoring the energy efficiency and air tightness of the home.

The results will be compared to data obtained from the insulation monitoring of two Habitat homes built more than a year ago in Lenoir City.

Jeff Christian, director of ORNL's Buildings Technology Center, said that energy production and energy efficiency both can benefit through this project.

"One of the unique aspects of this particular research project is that it helps the supply of energy by utilizing historic waste stream - being flyash from coal fired power plants - and enhances the country's efforts to improve energy efficiency by providing an energy efficient construction material," Christian said.

Testing is taking place at ORNL's Buildings Technology Center, a DOE national user facility that is the site for conducting research in improving systems that make up roofs, walls and building foundations, as well as the insulating materials these systems contain.

Christian said preliminary tests in the Buildings Technology Center's whole wall hot box indicate the walls absorb heat that can heat a home at night long after the sun has set.

"The thermal mass benefits of the autoclaved aerated concrete wall can result in a home as energy efficient as a typical home constructed of two by fours in the Knoxville area," Christian said.

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BELLINGHAM, Washington, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - A hybrid car designed at Western Washington University (WWU) is powered by an electric drive and a diesel engine that runs on biodiesel fuel, or a mixture of cooking oils and fuel additives.

Students at the university's Vehicle Research Institute (VRI) have designed the hybrid car as a high tech, sporty two seat vehicle. The student team is now fabricating molds for the car's carbon fiber body, using engineering support and cutting edge machining capabilities donated by Janicki Industries.

Janicki employees Eric Friesen and Joel Holmer, both WWU industrial design alumni, have been assisting the students in restyling the car's body using state of the art engineering software and one of Janicki Industries' computer controlled machines to cut full scale molds - the first Viking car designed using this technology.

"Using this virtual model, we've essentially cut four to six months off their build time and significantly reduced the amount of labor required. We've insisted that the students be involved in every step of the process to give them a more profound idea of current industry capabilities," said Friesen, who designs tooling for the marine, aerospace and transportation industries.

Following their work at Janicki, the VRI students will take the molds back to Western where they will use them to laminate multiple elements of the carbon fiber composite body of the car. The car will run on its front electric drive in urban traffic and will switch to its rear diesel engine at speeds greater than 40 miles per hour.

"This vehicle is different from the current hybrids on the market because it will be much more efficient at highway speeds and will get excellent fuel economy," said Michael Seal, founder and director of the VRI.

Students are also redesigning the car's electrical control system and suspension components, preparing the vehicle to race in the 2002 Tour de Sol: The Great American Green Transportation Road Rally, from Washington, DC to New York City, May 12-18.

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - Web users can now join a science expedition to one of the coldest and remote regions on Earth - the Alaskan Arctic.

The online JASON Project expedition (JASON XIII: Frozen Worlds) features live daily expedition webcasts, streaming video, photos of Alaska's unique wildlife and landscapes, and live chats.

On the JASON Project website (, visitors can:

More than 5,000 Idaho middle and junior high school students will gather at five locations across Idaho in late January and early February to participate in the JASON XIII: Frozen Worlds project.

The Idaho JASON Project, sponsored by the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and the Office of Naval Research, attracted 10,000 Idaho students during a yearlong science program designed to bring discovery into the classroom.

The 5,000 Idaho students who have chosen to attend the broadcast will join with millions more from around the world by following the expedition via online reports and a live satellite link to five Idaho colleges and universities.

Corene Boggs, a ninth grade student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, was chosen from thousands of applicants worldwide as one of 24 Student Argonauts to travel to Alaska and participate in the JASON XIII expedition.