AmeriScan: June 11, 2003

* * *

Monkeypox Triggers U.S. Ban on African Rodent Imports

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - The Center for Disease Control is working with state and local health departments to investigate an outbreak of monkeypox in persons who have had contact with prairie dogs. These prairie dogs, sold to individuals as pets, most likely became infected with monkeypox at a dealer after being exposed to rodents imported from Africa.

As of June 11, a total of 54 cases of monkeypox were under investigation in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey.

Today the United States placed an embargo on all rodents imported from Africa and banned the distribution, sale and transport of prairie dogs and six specific African rodent species implicated in the monkeypox outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson issued the embargo under the Public Health Service Act and said it will remain in effect until further notice.

"The current outbreak of monkeypox in humans has the potential to pose a threat to public health in the United States," Secretary Thompson said. "Today's action is an important step we must take in order to help prevent further spread of this virus."

Monkeypox is a viral disease that looks like smallpox in humans. Unlike smallpox, which was eradicated worldwide in 1980, monkeypox has been seen as a sporadic disease in parts of Africa. Worldwide, children born after 1980 have not been vaccinated against smallpox and are likely to be more susceptible to monkeypox than older members of the population.

Today's order prohibits the importation of all rodents from Africa and the distribution, sale, transportation, and intentional release into the environment within the United States of prairie dogs. tree squirrels, rope squirrels, dormice, Gambian giant pouched rats, brush tailed porcupines, and striped mice.

The agency is advising individuals who have acquired an animal named in the order since April 15 to carefully monitor their own health as well as the health of the animal.

If an individual exhibits symptoms, such as a rash accompanied by a fever, cough, or aches, or become ill, he or she should immediately contact a physician.

If an animal becomes ill, the responsible human should immediately contact a veterinarian, contain the animal in an appropriate carrier, and then transport it to the veterinarian without other people or pets in the vehicle. Under no circumstances should such animals be intentionally released into the wild.

The ban on animals from Africa does not apply to individuals who transport listed animals to veterinarians, animal control officials, or other entities recommended by federal, state, or local government authorities.

The Centers for Disease Control is investigating which species of rodents imported from Africa may be playing a role in this outbreak.

* * *

Forest Thinning Does Little to Stop Wildfires

SANTA FE, New Mexico, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - There is little scientific information to guide forest managers when thinning forests to reduce wildlife risk, according to a new study by the Southwest Community Forestry Research Center in Santa Fe. The Southwest center is one of four regional stations of the National Community Forestry Center.

"Modifying Wildfire Behavior - the Effectiveness of Fuel Treatments" looked at more than 250 of the most current scientific studies that evaluate three types of fuel treatment in relation to fire behavior in western forests - prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, and a combination of thinning and burning.

The authors surveyed the literature to evaluate recent suggestions by policy makers that commercial logging can be used to treat dense forest fuels.

"Although the assertion is frequently made that reducing tree density can reduce wildfire hazard, the scientific literature provides tenuous support for this hypothesis," the study concludes.

"This review indicates that the specifics of how prescriptions are to be carried out and the effectiveness of these treatments in changing wildfire behavior are not supported by a significant consensus of scientific research at this point in time," the study states.

Henry Carey, one of the authors of the study, said, "The literature shows that factors other than tree density, such as surface vegetation and the distance from the ground to the tree crown, play a profound role in the spread of fire."

The study found substantial evidence that supports the effectiveness of prescribed fire as a fuel treatment. "The specifics of how thinning treatments are to be used and their relative effectiveness in changing wildfire behavior are not supported by a significant consensus of scientific research at this point in time," Carey said.

The study also surveyed the scientific literature to evaluate recent suggestions by policy makers that commercial logging can be used to treat forest fuels.

"We found that the proposal that commercial logging can reduce the incidence of canopy fire was untested in the scientific literature," said Carey. "Commercial logging, with its focus on large diameter trees, does not remove the ladder fuels that contribute to fire spread."

The report suggested more systematic field research to provide a sound scientific basis for evaluating and designing fuel reduction treatments and that the idea that mechanical thinning, or a combination of thinning and prescribed fire, reduces the incidence of catastrophic fire should be viewed as a working hypothesis.

In 2000, the United States embarked on an emergency $1.6 billion program to reduce fuels on millions of acres, the report states, and the Western Governors Association calls for sustaining this level of investment over the next 10 years. The study calls for a comparable investment in primary and applied research to provide a credible scientific basis for the plan.

Read the report at:

* * *

Bill Would Fund Research on Ocean Links to Human Health

WASHINGTON, DC, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, introduced legislation today to establish a federal research program to examine ocean resources and their applications to human health. The measure establishes a national interagency program to coordinate research efforts and ensure an adequate federal investment in this field.

Citing the need to better understand the relationship between oceans and human health as well as the vast potential for beneficial discoveries, the "Oceans and Human Health Act" seeks to expand the nation's capacity to integrate advanced ocean research with work being done in biomedical research, climatology, genomics, and ecology.

"We now recognize that human health is one area in which the oceans exert major influences that are both positive and negative," said Senator Hollings, a ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) views the link between oceans and human health as "an opportunity and a challenge."

"Oceans have become conduits for a number of environmental threats to human health," the agency says. "Oceans harbor many organisms that show great promise for providing new drugs to combat cancer and fight infectious diseases."

For 20 years, the NIEHS has supported a set of core centers devoted to marine and freshwater biomedical sciences focused on development and application of aquatic organisms as models of human health effects resulting from exposure to environmental toxicants.

Since the 1998 International Year of the Ocean, the NIEHS has participated in interagency activities, workshops, and panels on the ocean's role in human health. The NIEHS has been developing ties with the National Science Foundation Division of Ocean Sciences to address scientific needs related to oceans and human health.

The National Science Foundation and the NIEHS this year have accepted applications for $6 million in grants to explore the connections between oceans and human health as part of a new university based research program that will create Centers for Oceans and Human Health.

Research will investigate such problems as the effects of toxins from harmful algal blooms, contaminated seafood consumption, and a set of Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Science Centers, which are primarily focused on developing aquatic models for use in toxicology.

The new centers are expected to create an environment conducive to interdisciplinary and reciprocally beneficial collaborations among biomedical scientists - epidemiologists, pharmacologists, toxicologists, microbiologists, cell and molecular biologists; and ocean scientists such as biological and physical oceanographers, geochemists, and ecologists - with the common goal of increasing knowledge of the impacts of the ocean on human health.

Senator Hollings said, "While the oceans are a repository for much of our biodiversity, little of it has been cataloged or studied."

"One important aspect that we have yet to explore is the potential of marine life to produce chemicals for treating diseases," said the senator. "There are only three marine compounds now in clinical use, and these were developed in the 1950s. While there are some new compounds in the pipeline, we need to speed this effort up to ensure we get more approved sooner."

* * *

Military Highway Crossing Arizona Mountains Challenged

YUMA, Arizona, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - A planned service highway across the Barry M. Goldwater Range would run through habitat for Sonoran desert wildlife. Environmentalists say a highway could be built that avoids this sensitive area.

Formerly known as the Luke Air Force Range, the Goldwater Range in southwest Arizona serves the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps as an armament and high hazard testing area, a training area for aerial gunnery, rocketry, electronic warfare, and tactical maneuvering and air support, and a place to develop equipment and tactics.

The Goldwater Range contains some of the nation's most unique and well preserved desert, a landscape of mountain ranges and broad alluvial valleys that have had only scattered settlement since late prehistoric times. It is one of the hottest and driest deserts of North America.

The planned $86.7 million Yuma Area Service Highway would link the proposed port of entry at San Luis to Interstate-8, cutting east and north on a remote route through the range and which is habitat for the flat tailed horned lizard, a rare but not federally listed species.

The Federal Highway Administration is the lead agency behind the proposal, with the Arizona Department of Transportation, and the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization cooperating on the project.

Conservationists say the proposed route encourages urban sprawl and traffic to the east of Yuma that will undermine the military mission as well as wildlife habitat values. Local citizens' groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Yuma Audubon Society, are calling for a more westerly highway route, which would avoid the mountain range and sensitive wildlife habitat areas.

“It makes no sense to build a new highway in the middle of nowhere across a military range and endangered wildlife habitat,” said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The governor and task force should take a hard look at this recipe for encroachment and direct the Arizona Department of Transportation to choose a smarter alternative to the west that avoids the Goldwater Range and wildlife areas.”

The highway project’s National Environment Policy Act analysis is being done through a quick environmental assessment, opponents say, rather than a full environmental impact statement. The public comment period on the environmental assessment for the highway is open until June 27.

* * *

Arizona Refinery Fined $75,000 For Air Pollution Violations

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - The Valley Refining Company has agreed to pay more than $75,000 in fines for violations of state air pollution control laws, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Attorney General Terry Goddard announced today.

The violations took place at a petroleum transmix facility the company operates in El Mirage, Arizona.

According to the settlement agreement, the company admits to running the plant with an expired air pollution control permit, failing to properly test and operate the vapor recovery system/thermal oxidizer that resulted in uncontrolled volatile organic compounds being emitted into the atmosphere, and failing to submit a vapor recovery operating plan.

"Valley Refining is a large company that was well aware of the laws governing its operations," Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Owens said. "This action makes it clear that compliance with Arizona environmental laws is expected and that we will enforce those laws to protect the health of Arizona's citizens."

The attorney general said he is seriously pursuing violations of the state's air pollution control laws. "These types of emissions have a significant impact on respiratory problems, and it is up to the Department of Environmental Quality and our office to safeguard and protect Arizonans' health," he said.

The violations surfaced when inspectors determined that the vapor collection and processing system was not working properly during an annual inspection of the facility in February 2001. A month later, a notice was issued for that violation, which allowed the volatile organic compound emissions to escape into the atmosphere.

Despite reporting that the situation had been corrected in April 2001, Valley Refining admitted that it had not yet made the necessary repairs in June 2001. Officials estimate that 29.9 tons of uncontrolled volatile organic compounds were released to the atmosphere during the 18 month period between January 2000 through June 2001.

During that time, officials also learned that the company was planning to sell the facility and had been operating it on an expired air quality permit.

The company entered agreed in August 2001 to operate the facility in compliance with the terms of the order until the issuance of an air quality permit. In September 2001, the facility was sold to Equilon Enterprises, which complied with the provisions detailed in the order until the proper air quality permit was issued in June 2002.

* * *

Floods Affecting Management of Tennessee Wildlife Areas

NASHVILLE, Tennessee, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - Continuous heavy rains in the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee river systems have resulted in extreme flooding that is affecting crop production on several West Tennessee Wildlife Management Areas, says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"This severe flooding has caused the Tennessee Valley Authority to slow the releasing of water from Kentucky and Barkley lakes," said Dan Fuqua, the agency's wildlife area manager of the Kentucky Lake and Barkley management areas.

Fuqua said that all of the areas where the agency normally plants waterfowl food are flooded and will remain flooded as long as lake elevations remain constant. "These lakes have risen to more than seven feet above normal summer elevations," he said. "The water levels in these management areas are at lake level," he said.

When the lake elevations return to normal summer pool levels, the Tennessee Valley Authority will begin pumping the water out of the areas.

"The pumping process takes approximately four weeks to get the water off the waterfowl food areas," said Fuqua. "It takes an additional two weeks of drying time before food plots can be planted. Additional rains will prolong the drying time. TWRA will strive to provide food for waterfowl, but if the water remains on the areas until June 15, the probability is that there will not be food plots planted this year."

The heavy rains have slowed the planting of crops in the Camden Wildlife Management Area on Kentucky Lake. Several years ago the levees in this area were raised to help protect it from flooding. The high water levels in Kentucky Lake are keeping the ground water levels high under the fields, which makes it impossible to bring in planting equipment.

* * *

Bulletin Issued On Nuke Reactor Sump Blockage

WASHINGTON, DC, June 10, 2003 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has issued a bulletin to licensees operating pressurized water reactors asking for information on how they are dealing with the potential for post accident debris blocking a water recirculation sump pump.

Operating experience at boiling water reactors and recent research have indicated that post accident debris could block the plants' containment building sumps. The sumps help provide water to cool the reactor core and containment in an accident.

A pressurized water reactor is one in which heat is transferred from the core to a heat exchanger with water kept under high pressure without boiling the water. There are about 70 licensed pressurized water reactors in the country.

Licensees were given 60 days to respond, either to confirm that their recirculation systems comply with regulations in light of the most recent findings or to describe interim compensatory measures that have been or will be implemented to reduce the risk of debris blockage until a compliance evaluation can be completed.

The bulletin includes examples of ways to deal with this issue, and a public meeting is planned by the NRC staff in late June to further explain the rationale for issuing the bulletin.

NRC staff also plans to issue a generic letter on the sump blockage issue to address longer term corrective actions. The letter, which will undergo a public comment period, will request more information on what evaluations pressurized water reactors licensees may find necessary to ensure their recirculation systems comply with regulations.

Read the bulletin at:

* * *

Ethiopian Skulls Are Oldest Anatomically Modern Humans

BERKELEY, California, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists studying the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia have found fossilized skulls dated at 160,000 years, the oldest known fossils of modern humans.

The skulls, of two adults and one child, dug up near a village called Herto, fill a major gap in the human fossil record, when the facial features and brain cases known today as human first appeared.

The fossils date precisely from the time when biologists using genes to chart human evolution predicted that a genetic Eve lived somewhere in Africa and gave rise to all modern humans.

"We have lacked intermediate fossils between pre-humans and modern humans between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago, and that is where the Herto fossils fit," said paleoanthropologist Tim White, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-leader of the team that excavated and analyzed the discovery site.

Now the fossil record meshes with the molecular evidence, he said. "With these new crania, we can now see what our direct ancestors looked like."

Team member Clark Howell, professor emeritus of integrative biology and co-director of Berkeley's Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, said that these anatomically modern humans predate most neanderthals and therefore could not have descended from them.

The research team also unearthed skull pieces and teeth from seven other hominid individuals, hippopotamus bones bearing cut marks from stone tools, and more than 600 stone tools, including hand axes. All are from the same sediments and era.

"These were people using a sophisticated stone technology," White said. "Using chipped hand axes and other stone tools, they were butchering carcasses of large mammals like hippos and buffalo and undoubtedly knew how to exploit plants."

They lived long before most examples of another early hominid, the neanderthal, homo neanderthalensis, proving beyond a reasonable doubt, White said, that homo sapiens did not descend from these short, stocky creatures. More like cousins, neanderthals split off from the human tree more than 300,000 years ago and died out about 30,000 years ago, perhaps driven to extinction by modern humans.

"These well dated and anatomically diagnostic Herto fossils are unmistakably non-neanderthal," said Howell, a co-author of the homo erectus paper that details the hominids and an expert on early modern humans. "These fossils show that near humans had evolved in Africa long before the European neanderthals disappeared. They thereby demonstrate conclusively that there was never a neanderthal stage in human evolution."

The results of the find will be reported in two papers in the June 12 issue of the journal "Nature."