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Rachel's Democracy & Health News #957

Featured stories in this issue...

Autism Risk Linked To Mercury Emissions from Power Plants
  A new study links mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to
  autism in children.
Forget Nuclear
  We are told the nuclear power industry is making a dramatic
  comeback. However, the facts are otherwise; nuclear power is being
  shunned by Wall Street investors. Here's why.
Indigenous Environmental Network Statement on Fossil Fuels
  The only way humans can eliminate their main contribution to global
  warming is to leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. The
  Indigenous Environmental Network is providing leadership for all of us 
  on this issue.
Is Ethanol Getting a Bum Rap?
  Corn-based ethanol is only a minor contributor to rising food
  prices worldwide. However, there are far better crops than corn for
  making ethanol to fuel motor vehicles. One prime candidate is
  switchgrass, a perennial prairie plant.
Unwelcome Guest: PBDEs in Indoor Dust
  New research reveals that house dust is a major source of exposure
  not only to lead and pesticides but also -- more recently -- to
  hormone-disrupting flame retardants (PBDEs).
The Oceans Feel Impacts from Acid Rain
  Chemicals from power plants and farming especially affect coastal
From: ScienceDaily
April 25, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: A new study links mercury emissions from coal- fired power plants to autism in children.]

How do mercury emissions affect pregnant mothers, the unborn and toddlers? Do the level of emissions impact autism rates? Does it matter whether a mercury-emitting source is 10 miles away from families versus 20 miles? Is the risk of autism greater for children who live closer to the pollution source?

A newly published study of Texas school district data and industrial mercury-release data, conducted by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, indeed shows a statistically significant link between pounds of industrial release of mercury and increased autism rates. It also shows -- for the first time in scientific literature -- a statistically significant association between autism risk and distance from the mercury source.

"This is not a definitive study, but just one more that furthers the association between environmental mercury and autism," said lead author Raymond F. Palmer, Ph.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. The article is in the journal Health & Place.

Dr. Palmer, Stephen Blanchard, Ph.D., of Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and Robert Wood of the UT Health Science Center found that community autism prevalence is reduced by 1 percent to 2 percent with each 10 miles of distance from the pollution source.

"This study was not designed to understand which individuals in the population are at risk due to mercury exposure," Dr. Palmer said. "However, it does suggest generally that there is greater autism risk closer to the polluting source."

The study should encourage further investigations designed to determine the multiple routes of mercury exposure. "The effects of persistent, low-dose exposure to mercury pollution, in addition to fish consumption, deserve attention," Dr. Palmer said. "Ultimately, we will want to know who in the general population is at greatest risk based on genetic susceptibilities such as subtle deficits in the ability to detoxify heavy metals."

The new study findings are consistent with a host of other studies that confirm higher amounts of mercury in plants, animals and humans the closer they are to the pollution source. The price on children may be the highest.

"We suspect low-dose exposures to various environmental toxicants, including mercury, that occur during critical windows of neural development among genetically susceptible children may increase the risk for developmental disorders such as autism," the authors wrote.

Study highlights

** Mercury-release data examined were from 39 coal-fired power plants and 56 industrial facilities in Texas.

** Autism rates examined were from 1,040 Texas school districts.

** For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by all industrial sources in Texas into the environment in 1998, there was a corresponding 2.6 percent increase in autism rates in the Texas school districts in 2002.

** For every 1,000 pounds of mercury released by Texas power plants in 1998, there was a corresponding 3.7 percent increase in autism rates in Texas school districts in 2002.

** Autism prevalence diminished 1 percent to 2 percent for every 10 miles from the source.

** Mercury exposure through fish consumption is well documented, but very little is known about exposure routes through air and ground water. There is evidence that children and other developing organisms are more susceptible to neurobiological effects of mercury.


"We need to be concerned about global mercury emissions since a substantial proportion of mercury releases are spread around the world by long-range air and ocean currents," Dr. Palmer said. "Steps for controlling and eliminating mercury pollution on a worldwide basis may be advantageous. This entails greener, non-mercury-polluting technologies."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated environmental mercury releases at 158 million tons annually nationwide in the late 1990s, the time period studied by the Texas team. Most exposures were said to come from coal-fired utility plants (33 percent of exposures), municipal/medical waste incinerators (29 percent) and commercial/industrial boilers (18 percent). Cement plants also release mercury.

With the enactment of clean air legislation and other measures, mercury deposition into the environment is decreasing slightly.


Dr. Palmer and his colleagues pointed out the study did not reflect the true community prevalence rates of autism because children younger than school age are not counted in the Texas Education Agency data system. The 1:500 autism rates in the study are lower than the 1:150 autism rates in recent reports of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Furthermore, the authors note that distance was not calculated from individual homes to the pollution source but from central points in school districts that varied widely in area.

Data sources

Data for environmentally released mercury were from the United States Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory. Data for releases by coal-fired power plants came from the same inventory and from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. Data for school district autism came from the Texas Education Agency.

Journal reference: Palmer, R.F., et al., Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence. Health & Place (2008), doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.02.001.


From: Rocky Mountain Institute
April 28, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: We are told the nuclear power industry is making a dramatic comeback. However, the facts are otherwise; nuclear power is being shunned by Wall Street investors. Here's why.]

By Amory B. Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevich

Nuclear power, we're told, is a vibrant industry that's dramatically reviving because it's proven, necessary, competitive, reliable, safe, secure, widely used, increasingly popular, and carbon-free -- a perfect replacement for carbon-spewing coal power. New nuclear plants thus sound vital for climate protection, energy security, and powering a growing economy.

There's a catch, though: the private capital market isn't investing in new nuclear plants, and without financing, capitalist utilities aren't buying. The few purchases, nearly all in Asia, are all made by central planners with a draw on the public purse. In the United States, even government subsidies approaching or exceeding new nuclear power's total cost have failed to entice Wall Street.

This non-technical summary article compares the cost, climate protection potential, reliability, financial risk, market success, deployment speed, and energy contribution of new nuclear power with those of its low- or no-carbon competitors. It explains why soaring taxpayer subsidies aren't attracting investors. Capitalists instead favor climate-protecting competitors with less cost, construction time, and financial risk. The nuclear industry claims it has no serious rivals, let alone those competitors -- which, however, already outproduce nuclear power worldwide and are growing enormously faster.

Most remarkably, comparing all options' ability to protect the earth's climate and enhance energy security reveals why nuclear power could never deliver these promised benefits even if it could find free- market buyers -- while its carbon-free rivals, which won $71 billion of private investment in 2007 alone, do offer highly effective climate and security solutions, sooner, with greater confidence.

Uncompetitive Costs

The Economist observed in 2001 that "Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter" -- cheap to run but very expensive to build. Since then, it's become several-fold costlier to build, and in a few years, as old fuel contracts expire, it is expected to become several-fold costlier to run. Its total cost now markedly exceeds that of other common power plants (coal, gas, big wind farms), let alone the even cheaper competitors described below.

Construction costs worldwide have risen far faster for nuclear than non-nuclear plants, due not just to sharply higher steel, copper, nickel, and cement prices but also to an atrophied global infrastructure for making, building, managing, and operating reactors. The industry's flagship Finnish project, led by France's top builder, after 28 months' construction had gone at least 24 months behind schedule and $2 billion over budget.

By 2007, as Figure 1 shows, nuclear was the costliest option among all main competitors, whether using MIT's authoritative but now low 2003 cost assessment,[1] the Keystone Center's mid-2007 update (see Figure 1, pink bar), or later and even higher industry estimates (see Figure 1, pink arrow).[2]

Cogeneration and efficiency are "distributed resources," located near where energy is used. Therefore, they don't incur the capital costs and energy losses of the electric grid, which links large power plants and remote wind farms to customers.[3] Wind farms, like solar cells,[4] also require "firming" to steady their variable output, and all types of generators require some backup for when they inevitably break. The graph reflects these costs.

Making electricity from fuel creates large amounts of byproduct heat that's normally wasted. Combined-cycle industrial cogeneration and buildingscale cogeneration recover most of that heat and use it to displace the need for separate boilers to heat the industrial process or the building, thus creating the economic "credit" shown in Figure 1. Cogenerating electricity and some useful heat from currently discarded industrial heat is even cheaper because no additional fuel is needed.[5]

End-use efficiency lets customers wring more service from each kilowatthour by using smarter technologies. As RMI's [Rocky Mountain Institute's] work with many leading firms has demonstrated, efficiency provides the same or better services with less carbon, less operating cost, and often less up-front investment. The investment required to save a kilowatt-hour averages about two cents nationwide, but has been less than one cent in hundreds of utility programs (mainly for businesses), and can even be less than zero in new buildings and factories -- and in some retrofits that are coordinated with routine renovations.

Wind, cogeneration, and end-use efficiency already provide electrical services more cheaply than central thermal power plants, whether nuclear- or fossil-fuelled. This cost gap will only widen, since central thermal power plants are largely mature while their competitors continue to improve rapidly. The high costs of conventional fossil-fuelled plants would go even higher if their large carbon emissions had to be captured.

Uncompetitive CO2 Displacement

Nuclear plant operations emit almost no carbon -- just a little to produce the fuel under current conditions.[6] Nuclear power is therefore touted as the key replacement for coal-fired power plants. But this seemingly straightforward substitution could instead be done using non-nuclear technologies that are cheaper and faster, so they yield more climate solution per dollar and per year. As Figure 2 shows, various options emit widely differing quantities of CO2 per delivered kilowatt-hour.

Coal is by far the most carbon intensive source of electricity, so displacing it is the yardstick of carbon displacement's effectiveness. A kilowatt-hour of nuclear power does displace nearly all the 0.9-plus kilograms of CO2 emitted by producing a kilowatt-hour from coal. But so does a kilowatt-hour from wind, a kilowatt-hour from recovered-heat industrial cogeneration, or a kilowatt-hour saved by end-use efficiency. And all of these three carbon-free resources cost at least one-third less than nuclear power per kilowatt-hour, so they save more carbon per dollar.

Combined-cycle industrial cogeneration and building-scale cogeneration typically burn natural gas, which does emit carbon (though half as much as coal), so they displace somewhat less net carbon than nuclear power could: around 0.7 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt-hour.[7] Even though cogeneration displaces less carbon than nuclear does per kilowatt-hour, it displaces more carbon than nuclear does per dollar spent on delivered electricity, because it costs far less. With a net delivered cost per kilowatt-hour approximately half of nuclear's, cogeneration delivers twice as many kilowatt-hours per dollar, and therefore displaces around 1.4 kilograms of CO2 for the same cost as displacing 0.9 kilograms of CO2 with nuclear power.

Figure 3 compares different electricity options' cost-effectiveness in reducing CO2 emissions. It counts both their cost-effectiveness, in delivering kilowatthours per dollar, and their carbon emissions, if any.

Nuclear power, being the costliest option, delivers less electrical service per dollar than its rivals, so, not surprisingly, it's also a climate protection loser, surpassing in carbon emissions displaced per dollar only centralized, non-cogenerating combined-cycle power plants burning natural gas.[8] Firmed wind-power and cogeneration are 1.5 times more cost-effective than nuclear at displacing CO2. So is efficiency at even an almost unheard-of seven cents per kilowatt-hour. Efficiency at normally observed costs beats nuclear by a wide margin -- for example, by about ten-fold for efficiency costing one cent per kilowatt-hour.

New nuclear power is so costly that shifting a dollar of spending from nuclear to efficiency protects the climate several-fold more than shifting a dollar of spending from coal to nuclear. Indeed, under plausible assumptions, spending a dollar on new nuclear power instead of on efficient use of electricity has a worse climate effect than spending that dollar on new coal power!

If we're serious about addressing climate change, we must invest resources wisely to expand and accelerate climate protection. Because nuclear power is costly and slow to build, buying more of it rather than of its cheaper, swifter rivals will instead reduce and retard climate protection.

Questionable Reliability

All sources of electricity sometimes fail, differing only in why, how often, how much, for how long, and how predictably. Even the most reliable giant power plants are intermittent: they fail unexpectedly in billion-watt chunks, often for long periods. Of all 132 U.S. nuclear plants built (52 percent of the 253 originally ordered), 21 percent were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems, while another 27 percent have completely failed for a year or more at least once. Even reliably operating nuclear plants must shut down, on average, for 39 days every 17 months for refueling and maintenance. To cope with such intermittence in the operation of both nuclear and centralized fossil-fuelled power plants, which typically fail about 8 percent of the time, utilities must install a roughly 15 percent "reserve margin" of extra capacity, some of which must be continuously fuelled, spinning ready for instant use. Heavily nuclear-dependent regions are particularly at risk because drought, a serious safety problem, or a terrorist incident could close many plants simultaneously.

Nuclear plants have an additional disadvantage: for safety, they must instantly shut down in a power failure, but for nuclear-physics reasons, they can't then be quickly restarted. During the August 2003 Northeast blackout, nine perfectly operating U.S. nuclear units had to shut down. Twelve days of painfully slow restart later, their average capacity loss had exceeded 50 percent. For the first three days, just when they were most needed, their output was below 3 percent of normal. The big transmission lines that highly concentrated nuclear plants require are also vulnerable to lightning, ice storms, rifle bullets, and other interruptions. The bigger our power plants and power lines get, the more frequent and widespread regional blackouts will become. Because 98-99 percent of power failures start in the grid, it's more reliable to bypass the grid by shifting to efficiently used, diverse, dispersed resources sited at or near the customer. Also, a portfolio of many smaller units is unlikely to fail all at once: its diversity makes it especially reliable even if its individual units are not.

The sun doesn't always shine on a given solar panel, nor does the wind always spin a given turbine. Yet if properly firmed, both wind-power, whose global potential is 35 times world electricity use, and solar energy, as much of which falls on the earth's surface about every 70 minutes as humankind uses each year, can deliver reliable power without significant cost for backup or storage. These variable renewable resources become collectively reliable when diversified in type and location and when integrated with three types of resources: steady renewables (geothermal, small hydro, biomass, etc.), existing fuelled plants, and customer demand response. Such integration uses weather forecasting to predict the output of variable renewable resources, just as utilities now forecast demand patterns and hydropower output. In general, keeping power supplies reliable despite large wind and solar fractions will require less backup or storage capacity than utilities have already bought to manage big thermal stations' intermittence. The myth of renewable energy's unreliability has been debunked both by theory and by practical experience. For example, three north German states in 2007 got upwards of 30% of their electricity from wind-power -- 39% in Schleswig-Holstein, whose goal is 100% by 2020.

Large Subsidies to Offset High Financial Risk

The latest U.S. nuclear plant proposed is estimated to cost $12-24 billion (for 2.2-3.0 billion watts), many times industry's claims, and off the chart in Figure 1 above. The utility's owner, a large holding company active in 27 states, has annual revenues of only $15 billion. Such high, and highly uncertain, costs now make financing prohibitively expensive for free-market nuclear plants in the half of the U.S. that has restructured its electricity system, and prone to politically challenging rate shock in the rest: a new nuclear kilowatt-hour costing, say, 16 cents "levelized" over decades implies that the utility must collect about 27 cents to fund its first year of operation.

Lacking investors, nuclear promoters have turned back to taxpayers, who already bear most nuclear accident risks and have no meaningful say in licensing. In the United States, taxpayers also insure operators against legal or regulatory delays and have long subsidized existing nuclear plants by about 1-5 cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2005, desperate for orders, the politically potent nuclear industry got those subsidies raised to about 5-9 cents per kilowatt-hour for new plants, or about 60-90 percent of their entire projected power cost. Wall Street still demurred. In 2007, the industry won relaxed government rules that made its 100 percent loan guarantees (for 80 percent debt financing) even more valuable -- worth, one utility's data revealed, about $13 billion for a single new plant. But rising costs had meanwhile made the $4 billion of new 2005 loan guarantees scarcely sufficient for a single reactor, so Congress raised taxpayers' guarantees to $18.5 billion. Congress will be asked for another $30+ billion in loan guarantees in 2008. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that defaults are likely.

Wall Street is ever more skeptical that nuclear power is as robustly competitive as claimed. Starting with Warren Buffet, who just abandoned a nuclear project because "it does not make economic sense," the smart money is heading for the exits. The Nuclear Energy Institute is therefore trying to damp down the rosy expectations it created. It now says U.S. nuclear orders will come not in a tidal wave but in two little ripples -- a mere 5-8 units coming online in 2015-16, then more if those are on time and within budget. Even that sounds dubious, as many senior energy industry figures privately agree. In today's capital market, governments can have only about as many nuclear plants as they can force taxpayers to buy.

The Micropower Revolution

While nuclear power struggles in vain to attract private capital, investors have switched to cheaper, faster, less risky alternatives that The Economist calls "micropower" -- distributed turbines and generators in factories or buildings (usually cogenerating useful heat), and all renewable sources of electricity except big hydro dams (those over ten megawatts). These alternatives surpassed nuclear's global capacity in 2002 and its electric output in 2006. Nuclear power now accounts for about 2 percent of worldwide electric capacity additions, vs. 28 percent for micropower (2004-07 average) and probably more in 2007-08.

An even cheaper competitor is end use efficiency ("negawatts") -- saving electricity by using it more efficiently or at smarter times. Despite subsidies generally smaller than nuclear's, and many barriers to fair market entry and competition, negawatts and micropower have lately turned in a stunning global market performance. Micropower's actual and industry-projected electricity production is running away from nuclear's, not even counting the roughly comparable additional growth in negawatts, nor any fossil-fuelled generators under a megawatt (see Figure 4).[9]

The nuclear industry nonetheless claims its only serious competitors are big coal and gas plants. But the marketplace has already abandoned that outmoded battleground for two others: central thermal plants vs. micropower, and megawatts vs. negawatts. For example, the U.S. added more wind-power capacity in 2007 than it added coal-fired capacity in the past five years combined. By beating all central thermal plants, micropower and negawatts together provide about half the world's new electrical services. Micropower alone now provides a sixth of the world's electricity, and from a sixth to more than half of all electricity in twelve industrial countries (the U.S. lags with 6 percent).

In this broader competitive landscape, high carbon prices or taxes can't save nuclear power from its fate. If nuclear did compete only with coal, then far above-market carbon prices might save it; but coal isn't the competitor to beat. Higher carbon prices will advantage all other zero-carbon resources -- renewables, recovered heat cogeneration, and negawatts -- as much as nuclear, and will partly advantage fossil-fueled but low-carbon cogeneration as well.

Small Is Fast, Low-Risk, and High in Total Potential

Small, quickly built units are faster to deploy for a given total effect than a few big, slowly built units. Widely accessible choices that sell like cellphones and PCs can add up to more, sooner, than ponderous plants that get built like cathedrals. And small units are much easier to match to the many small pieces of electrical demand. Even a multimegawatt wind turbine can be built so quickly that the U.S. will probably have a hundred billion watts of them installed before it gets its first one billion watts of new nuclear capacity, if any.

Small, quickly built units also have far lower financial risks than big, slow ones. This gain in financial economics is the tip of a very large iceberg: micropower's more than 200 different kinds of hidden financial and technical benefits can make it about ten times more valuable ( than implied by current prices or by the cost comparisons above. Most of the same benefits apply to negawatts as well.

Despite their small individual size, micropower generators and electrical savings are already adding up to huge totals. Indeed, over decades, negawatts and micropower can shoulder the entire burden of powering the economy.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the utilities' think- tank, has calculated the U.S. negawatt potential (cheaper than just running an existing nuclear plant and delivering its output) to be two to three times nuclear power's 19 percent share of the U.S. electricity market; RMI's more detailed analysis found even more. Cogeneration in factories can make as much U.S. electricity as nuclear does, plus more in buildings, which use 69 percent of U.S. electricity. Wind-power at acceptable U.S. sites can cost-effectively produce at least twice the nation's total electricity use, and other renewables can make even more without significant land-use, variability, or other constraints. Thus just cogeneration, wind-power, and efficient use -- all profitable -- can displace nuclear's current U.S. output roughly 14 times over.

Nuclear power, with its decade-long project cycles, difficult siting, and (above all) unattractiveness to private capital, simply cannot compete. In 2006, for example, it added less global capacity than photovoltaics did, or a tenth as much as wind-power added, or 30-41 times less than micropower added. Renewables other than big hydro dams won $56 billion of private risk capital; nuclear, as usual, got zero. China's distributed renewable capacity reached seven times its nuclear capacity and grew seven times faster. And in 2007, China, Spain, and the U.S. each added more wind-power capacity than the world added nuclear capacity. The nuclear industry does trumpet its growth, yet micropower is bigger and growing 18 times faster.

Security Risks

President Bush rightly identifies the spread of nuclear weapons as the gravest threat to America. Yet that proliferation is largely driven and greatly facilitated by nuclear power's flow of materials, equipment, skills, and knowledge, all hidden behind its innocent- looking civilian disguise. (Reprocessing nuclear fuel, which the President hopes to revive, greatly complicates waste management, increases cost, and boosts proliferation.) Yet acknowledging nuclear power's market failure and moving on to secure, least-cost energy options for global development would unmask and penalize proliferators by making bomb ingredients harder to get, more conspicuous to try to get, and politically costlier to be caught trying to get. This would make proliferation far more difficult, and easier to detect in time by focusing scarce intelligence resources on needles, not haystacks.

Nuclear power has other unique challenges too, such as long-lived radioactive wastes, potential for catastrophic accidents, and vulnerability to terrorist attacks. But in a market economy, the technology couldn't proceed even if it lacked those issues, so we needn't consider them here.


So why do otherwise well-informed people still consider nuclear power a key element of a sound climate strategy? Not because that belief can withstand analytic scrutiny. Rather, it seems, because of a superficially attractive story, an immensely powerful and effective lobby, a new generation who forgot or never knew why nuclear power failed previously (almost nothing has changed), sympathetic leaders of nearly all main governments, deeply rooted habits and rules that favor giant power plants over distributed solutions and enlarged supply over efficient use, the market winners' absence from many official databases (which often count only big plants owned by utilities), and lazy reporting by an unduly credulous press.

Isn't it time we forgot about nuclear power? Informed capitalists have. Politicians and pundits should too. After more than half a century of devoted effort and a half-trillion dollars of public subsidies, nuclear power still can't make its way in the market. If we accept that unequivocal verdict, we can at last get on with the best buys first: proven and ample ways to save more carbon per dollar, faster, more surely, more securely, and with wider consensus. As often before, the biggest key to a sound climate and security strategy is to take market economics seriously.


Mr. Lovins, a physicist, is cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, where Mr. Sheikh is a Research Analyst and Dr. Markevich is a Vice President. Mr. Lovins has consulted for scores of electric utilities, many of them nuclear operators. The authors are grateful to their colleague Dr. Joel Swisher PE for insightful comments and to many cited and uncited sources for research help. A technical paper preprinted for the September 2008 Ambio (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) supports this summary with full details and documentation ( RMI's annual compilation of global micropower data from industrial and governmental sources has been updated through 2006, and in many cases through 2007, at


1. This is conservatively used as the basis for all comparisons in this article. The approximately 2-3 cents/kWh nuclear "production costs" often quoted are the bare operating costs of old plants, excluding their construction and delivery costs (which are higher today), and under cheap old fuel contracts that are expected to rise by several-fold when most of them expire around 2012.

2. All monetary values in this article are in 2007 U.S. dollars. All values are approximate and representative of the respective U.S. technologies in 2007. Capital and operating costs are levelized over the lifespan of the capital investment.

3. Distributed generators may rely on the power grid for emergency backup power, but such backup capacity, being rarely used, doesn't require a marginal expansion of grid capacity, as does the construction of new centralized power plants. Indeed, in ordinary operation, diversified distributed generators free up grid capacity for other users.

4. Solar power is not included in Figure 1 because the delivered cost of solar electricity varies greatly by installation type and financing method. As shown in Figure 4, photovoltaics are currently one of the smaller sources of renewable electricity, and solar thermal power generation is even smaller.

5. A similar credit for displaced boiler fuel can even enable this technology to produce electricity at negative net cost. The graph conservatively omits such credit (which is very site-specific) and shows a typical positive selling price.

6. We ignore here the modest and broadly comparable amounts of energy needed to build any kind of electric generator, as well as possible long-run energy use for nuclear waste management or for extracting uranium from low-grade sources.

7. Since its recovered heat displaces boiler fuel, cogeneration displaces more carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour than a large gas- fired power plant does.

8. However, at long-run gas prices below those assumed here (a levelized 2007-$ cost of $7.72 per million BTU, equivalent to assuming that this price escalates indefinitely by 5%/year beyond inflation- yielding prices far above the $7-10 recently forecast by the Chairman of Chesapeake, the leading independent U.S. gas producer) and at today's high nuclear costs, the combined-cycle plants may save more carbon per dollar than nuclear plants do. This may also be true even at the prices assumed here, if one properly counts combined-cycle plants ability to load-follow, thus complementing and enabling cleaner, cheaper variable renewable resources like wind power. Natural gas could become scarce and costly only if its own efficiency opportunities continue to be largely ignored. RMI's 2004 study Winning the Oil Endgame ( found, and further in-house research confirmed in detail, that the US could save at least half its projected 2025 gas use at an average cost roughly one-tenth of the current gas price. Two-thirds of the potential savings come from efficient use of electricity and would be more than paid for by the capacity value of reducing electric loads.

9. Data for decentralized gas turbines and diesel generators exclude generators of less than 1 megawatt capacity.

Correction: April 28, 2008: Due to new data, footnotes 1 and 8 have been edited to reflect this new information.

Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Institute


From: Censored News
April 25, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: The only way humans can eliminate their main contribution to global warming is to leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. The Indigenous Environmental Network is providing leadership for all of us on this issue.]

As part of the "Road of Destruction" campaign of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), Indigenous grassroots representatives from communities traveled to New York City, New York to make a statement to the Indigenous Peoples of the world and world government leaders and UN agencies on the issue of climate change and fossil fuels.

The following statement (intervention) was read to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on Tuesday, April 22, 2008.

All statements were limited to 3 minutes and even though our collective statement should have been much longer, we respected the policy and limited our words to the 3 minute limit.

Our delegation recognized many of the other statements given by Indigenous peoples from around the world. However, we recognized the link to fossil fuels was not being highlighted.

Casey Camp-Horinek, of the Ponca Nation was selected by the IEN delegation to read the intervention. As a member of concerned Ponca tribal members, Casey Camp has been fighting for environmental and health issues in the shadow of the international headquarters of the Conoco-Phillips refinery and the Carbon Black coke processing plant.

After the statement was read, Casey asked for all Indigenous Peoples that are affected by oil, gas, coal and fossil fuel development, to please stand up. Almost the whole assembly stood up. This visual action demonstrated the need of CO2olonalism and petro politics to be addressed.

IEN with support of Indigenous organizations throughout the world are demanding the Permanent Forum to call for an EMERGENCY WORLD SESSION of the UN General Assembly to address this issue (please see the Recommendation at the end of the statement below). Climate change is an Indigenous rights issue!


April 2008

Topic: Climate

Submitted by the Indigenous Environmental Network, with support of global endorsements: Centre for Organisation Research & Education (Indigenous Peoples' Centre for Policy and Human Rights in India's Eastern Himalayan Territories Center for Organization Research and Education (CORE), Federation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia, Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Western Shoshone Defense Project, Cabildo Wayuu Noona, International Indian Treaty Council, Asociacion Indigena Ambiental, Seventh Generation Fund.

Thank you, Madame Chair, for the opportunity to address the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I'm Casey Camp-Horinek a member of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma.

I represent the Indigenous Environmental Network, which includes the following affiliate organizations and Canadian First Nations governments that are with me today: Pa Tha Tah, REDOIL [Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands], Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Tribal Campus Climate Challenge Youth delegation, Dooda' Desert Rock, Fort Berthold Environmental Awareness Committee, Passamaquoddy Bay Defenders, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Tulalip Youth, Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment.

We cannot deny that the dangers of climate change violate the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Climate change threatens our food systems and ability to practice our ceremonies, forces removals from our traditional lands and territories, and creates disproportionate health impacts on Indigenous Peoples. Climate change is more than an environmental issue to Indigenous Peoples. Our cultures are in crisis -- the inability of governments to address the issue of climate change is tantamount to cultural genocide for our Peoples. The UN and relevant international agencies must address these human rights violations immediately. We cannot wait; climate change is a real issue in the communities we are from. We must build upon the discussion of impacts, and take action to create real solutions to climate change and global warming now.

Madame Chair, while there is a very justifiable increase of global interest on studying climate issues and debates on its solutions, it is business as usual with the expansion of oil, coal and other fossil fuel development within our homelands. The international scientific community, led by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was established through a resolution of the UN General Assembly, has concluded that the burning of oil, gas, liquid natural gas, and coal, as fossil fuels, is the primary source of human-induced climate change and global warming. The Earth has already warmed by 0.76 degrees Celsius (nearly 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists warn that a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could have serious consequences. Above the 2 degrees level, scientists are saying this is the tipping point where temperatures and weather events will be out of control, with an acceleration of climate changes and global warming. Concerned scientists are now saying we are almost at that tipping point, within 10 years.

For the well being of Mother Earth and future generations, the world must move more aggressively than it is now, towards a rigorous plan towards a zero fossil-fuel emissions level by 2050. Conventional fossil-fuel supplies are limited, even if we tear up Mother Earth to extract every last drop of oil and shard of coal. Tearing up the sacredness of our Mother Earth to get to the last drops of oil is not sustainable and violates every principle of our Indigenous Original Instructions.

As Indigenous Peoples gathered here at the Seventh Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, we are in solidarity with many other Indigenous Peoples of every region of our Mother Earth in demanding a worldwide moratorium on new exploration, extraction, and processing of fossil fuels on Indigenous Peoples land and territories.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007 and consecrates fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples. Articles 10, 26, 27, 29, and 32 justify the following recommendation:

1) The Permanent Forum, through ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council] call on the UN General Assembly to convene an emergency world session to fully explore, with all branches of the UN, and relevant treaty bodies, in particular UNCERD, the multiple impacts of climate change and its link to fossil fuel development and the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, to include the topics of, but not limited to social, economic, cultural, environmental, health, food security, land and water rights, and treaty rights.

Thank you.


From: BusinessWeek Magazine
May 1, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Corn-based ethanol is only a minor contributor to rising food prices worldwide. However, there are far better crops than corn for making ethanol to fuel motor vehicles. One prime candidate is switchgrass, a perennial prairie plant.]

By John Carey

Ethanol is taking a tumble. Once hyped as a magic brew for reducing both oil addiction and global warming, alcohol made from corn kernels is now being accused both of triggering a global food crisis and doing more ecological harm than good. Ethanol critics, ranging from environmental groups to pig farmers facing high feed prices, blame mandates from Washington and Brussels stating that billions of gallons of fuel must come from ethanol or other plant-based fuels. These critics are now fighting to get those laws repealed. "What started as an energy policy is leading to spreading hunger and political instability around the world," charges Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. Companies are piling on, too. The Grocery Manufacturers of America has substantially stepped up its lobbying efforts to reduce the corn in gasoline.

There are grains of truth in this backlash, experts say. "There are bad biofuels and good biofuels," says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. Corn-based ethanol ranks as mediocre. Yet it is only a minor cause of high food prices, and better biofuels are on the horizon. The transition to these superior fuels will get a boost from policies now being developed, with California leading the way.

First, a reality check on corn ethanol, which isn't quite the villain critics make it out to be. Last year, American farmers grew a record 13.1 billion bushels of corn on 85 million acres. Of that, 22% went to make about 7 billion gallons of ethanol. That still left enough corn to supply the domestic market, increase exports to record levels, and stockpile a 10% surplus. McKinsey principal Bill Caesar estimates farmers will be able to keep increasing corn-based ethanol production to 15 billion gallons in 2015 (a level of output mandated by federal policy) without reducing the amount going for food and feed, and without increasing acres planted. The secret: continuing improvements in yields.

Of course, it's impossible to divert nearly one-quarter of the corn crop to fuel without causing prices to rise. Corn is now around $5.50 per bushel, more than double its price in 2005. But this has had a relatively small impact on the broader runup in global food prices. Higher corn costs add 2 cents to a box of corn flakes, or 11 cents to a gallon of milk from corn-fed cows. Corn prices have little to do with the increases in rice and wheat, and only a small connection to soybean price jumps. "Biofuels are a very, very small factor" in rising food costs, says David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit group that tries to strengthen communities politically and economically around the world. Absent corn ethanol, food prices would still be up dramatically because of soaring global demand, fast-rising prices for oil and natural gas used to make fertilizer, and climatic factors such as Australia's drought. It's also worth noting that these high crop prices save taxpayers billions of dollars in reduced subsidies to farmers -- far more than is spent to subsidize ethanol.

Certainly, a rapid rise in food prices brings misery to poor countries. But over the long haul, "it's not obvious that high grain prices are inherently bad," asserts Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Years of cheap, subsidized grain in the U.S. and Europe have left farmers in the developing world unable to compete. They can't invest in better seed, machinery, or cultivation practices (page 26). As a result, global average yields for corn, wheat, and rice are less than half what the world's top 10% of farmers achieve. While American corn farmers produce 150 bushels per acre, farms in the developing world often get only 30. "If there is a crime against humanity, it is these low yields," not biofuels, says Richard Hamilton, CEO of Ceres Inc., a Thousand Oaks (Calif.) startup developing biofuel crops. Those low yields will improve if farmers make more money. In the long term, "high prices will lead these countries to produce more of their own food," says Morris, easing the supply shortages.

Ethanol critics also may forget other benefits. For one, the billions of gallons of ethanol are moderating oil prices by "easing energy bottlenecks," says Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Merrill Lynch (MER). Blanch figures that oil prices would be at least 15% higher than they are, if not for today's output of ethanol. And given the dependence of the whole food supply chain on oil and gas, "food prices might be higher if we were not producing biofuels," says venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. The stacks of corn going into ethanol "act as a large cushion," adds Illinois farmer John Reifsteck. As corn prices climb, ethanol companies make less money. When corn becomes too valuable to convert to biofuels, the grain will go back into feed and food.


Still, corn ethanol is far from perfect. It barely helps in the fight against global warming, because of the carbon emissions from all the fossil-fuel energy needed to make it. "Everyone agrees corn is not the right crop," says Merrill Lynch's Blanch. Brazilian sugarcane is more efficient. It doesn't grow in the Amazon region, so it doesn't cause rainforest destruction, and it can be turned into other, more valuable fuels. On Apr. 23, Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville, Calif., announced plans, with Brazilian partners, to make biodiesel, jet fuel, and bio-gasoline from sugarcane.

Even better is biofuel from feedstocks that don't eat into food supplies, displace crops, or cause greenhouse gas emissions from plowing up forests or prairies. One prime candidate is switchgrass, a perennial prairie plant. Thanks to nine-foot-deep roots, switchgrass in test plots in the American Southeast thrived last summer despite an historic drought. The growth and decay of those deep roots also adds carbon to soil, making switchgrass cultivation a boon to fighting global warming. Ceres figures that its new commercial strain of the plant, with improved yields, could be grown on former tobacco, cotton, and rice fields across the southern U.S. "There are a lot of available acres out there," says Ceres' Hamilton.

Instead of throwing out biofuels, the key is to speed up the transition from corn to crops that offer more benefits. There's a surprisingly simple way to do it: Judge fuels on how much greenhouse gas is emitted during their entire production and transport, including emissions caused by converting land from food crops and other uses to fuel crops. Then ratchet down the amount of carbon that's allowed.

This low-carbon fuel standard approach sets the market free to pick the best fuels to meet the standard. It immediately rules out biofuels from palm oil plantations carved out of the rainforest, for instance. It would also steer farmers away from corn because of corn ethanol's lack of substantial greenhouse gas benefits. "Almost all of the pathways for using food crops to make energy will look very bad with a carbon metric," explains UC Davis' Sperling, who has worked on the approach. "The low-carbon fuel standard is one of the most outstanding policy instruments we have ever developed," he says. Make this approach widespread, and it should be possible to have our biofuels and eat our crops, too.

Blame energy costs, not ethanol, for your grocery bill

Has ethanol contributed to the surge in food prices? Not very much, concludes a group of agricultural economists at Texas A&M University in an Apr. 10 report from the school's Agricultural & Food Policy Center. "The underlying force driving changes in the agricultural industry, along with the economy as a whole, is overall higher energy costs," the researchers conclude, not biofuels. In addition, reducing the amount of ethanol the government requires each year "does not result in significantly lower corn prices," they say. That's because the ethanol industry is here to stay, since it is now being driven largely by market forces rather than by the government's renewable- fuel mandate.

Carey is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington .

Copyright 2000-2008 by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.


From: Environmental Health Perspectives
May 1, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: New research reveals that house dust is a major source of exposure not only to lead and pesticides but also -- more recently -- to hormone-disrupting flame retardants (PBDEs).]

By Kellyn S. Betts

Researchers have known for years that house dust is a major exposure route for lead and certain pesticides. Now attention is turning to another class of dustborne chemicals -- polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. A growing body of research documents that PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants (BFRs) released from many different consumer products can accumulate in people's homes, cars, and workplaces. Moreover, certain segments of the population have extremely high concentrations of these substances in their bodies. However, hard data on the human health impact of these exposures are only just beginning to emerge, with many studies focusing on thyroid effects.

PBDEs have been used extensively in the highly flammable plastic components of consumer goods including couches, mattresses, carpet padding, televisions, computers, cushions, car stereos, navigation systems, car seats, and padded dashboards. By 2001, a sufficient volume of data documenting PBDEs' persistence, toxicity, and tendency to bioaccumulate had emerged that Europeans were calling for two PBDE formulations -- pentaBDE and octaBDE -- to be banned. Both formulations are mixtures of individual PBDE compounds, or congeners; they are named on the basis of the average number of bromine atoms making up the majority of each mixture. PentaBDE was used in cushioning material whereas octaBDE was used primarily in electronics including televisions, computers, and cell phones.Europe went on to ban both PBDEs in August 2004, and the bromine and flame retardant industries also voluntarily ceased production in North America by the end of that year. PentaBDE and octaBDE are now candidates for inclusion in the United Nation's Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which globally bans chemical substances that bioaccumulate through the food web and pose a risk to humans and the environment.

A third PBDE, an additive known as decaBDE, is used in electronic devices and textile backing. It remains in use today in North America, but was banned on 1 April 2008 by the European Court of Justice. The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF), an industry group, is contesting that ruling, and writes on its website: "After 10 years of scientific research and more than 588 studies conducted and/or reviewed, both the environment and human risk assessment reports concluded that there is no significant risk [for decaBDE]." However, animal research suggests the compound may be carcinogenic and links it with developmental toxicity.

PBDEs in the U.S. Population

PBDEs differ from most other POPs in two important and interrelated ways. The first is source of exposure. Whereas food is the main source of most of the persistent pollutants that people take up -- including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and pesticides such as DDT -- study after study suggests that consumer products are the main sources of PBDEs that have been documented in indoor dust. For this reason, researchers have begun to call PBDEs "indoor POPs." The major role played by household dust helps explain another aspect of these compounds that makes them unlike other POPs: their uneven distribution in human populations.

In the 15 February 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, Andreas Sjodin, a chemist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and colleagues published data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) depicting the first nationally representative analysis of U.S. citizens' blood for PBDEs. The publication of these data, which are based on blood samples collected in 2003 and 2004, makes the United States the first country in the world to have nationally representative data on the flame retardants.

The new findings suggest that U.S. citizens harbor levels of PBDEs that are much higher -- between 7.1 and 35 times, considering the median concentrations of BDE-47, the congener detected most frequently -- than Europeans, based on smaller, nonrepresentative studies. BDE-47, which is associated with the pentaBDE formulation, was found in 98.8% of samples tested. The NHANES data document that the youngest Americans participating in the study (aged 12-19 years) tended to have the highest overall concentrations of PBDEs in their blood as a group, while individual older Americans were disproportionately likely to have very high concentrations.

The NHANES data follow the same distribution seen in previous PBDE studies, says Linda Birnbaum, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Experimental Toxicology Division. Up to 10% of the population has significantly higher levels in their fat or blood than the rest of the population, and 5% of the population has PBDE levels more than 7 times the median -- the outlier population.

"PBDEs are very unusual in that we have seen some people with levels fifty times higher than the median," Birnbaum explains. The gap between the body burdens of people with the highest levels of exposure and median levels of exposure is much smaller for most other persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, she explains. For example, about 5% of the population has levels of PCBs and dioxin that are 2 times the median, and 1% has levels that are 3 times the median, she says. The NHANES PBDE data show that the 5% of the population with the highest concentrations of BDE-47 harbor concentrations of the compound that are more than 7 times higher than the geometric mean.

The CDC researchers didn't report the average concentrations of the top 1% of the NHANES PBDE survey's participants, but they say the highest value of total PBDEs reported in NHANES was 3,680 ng/g. This is more than 12 times higher than the 95th percentile of total PBDEs in the NHANES data, which was 291 ng/g, and it makes clear that the most highly exposed members of the U.S. population take up much greater quantities of the compounds, says Myrto Petreas, chief of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control's Environmental Chemistry Branch. Many studies have documented what Birnbaum calls "super highly exposed people" with similarly high -- or higher -- PBDE concentrations who have no known risk factors for excessive PBDE exposure.

This raises the question of what happens to people who are members of the outlier population but are not aware of it, particularly children, points out Mary Turyk, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. "People can be outliers with levels of BFRs tens times higher [or more] and nobody knows who, why, where, and when -- a sort of Russian roulette," says Janna Koppe, an emeritus professor of neonatology at the University of Amsterdam. The NHANES data suggest that millions of Americans could be affected by decisions they made as unwitting consumers over the past several decades, Petreas says.

Exposure Through Dust

Because consumers tend to keep products such as carpeting, couches, and cars for years, if not decades, many homes and offices continue to have potential sources of penta-, octa-, and decaBDE, and their existence is likely to persist for many years, says Tom Webster, associate chairman of the Boston University School of Public Health's Environmental Health Department. Additionally, Bob Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, says a recent report on flame retardants by the Freedonia Group, a market research firm, provides some evidence suggesting pentaBDE is being produced in China and may enter North America in furniture from that country.

Petreas points out that PBDEs can also be emitted from landfills where products are dumped. If products containing PBDEs are incinerated, they can release brominated dioxins and furans. Research published in the 15 August 2007 issue of Environmental Science & Technology documents the presence of polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans in air samples from areas in developing nations such as China where electronics are improperly recycled by burning.

Scientists have shown that some PBDEs can volatilize into the air, and research published over the past year by teams led by Manolis Mandalakis at the University of Crete and Stuart Harrad of the University of Birmingham documents high levels of the flame retardants inside automobiles, Internet cafes, and offices. Research published by Webster and colleagues in the 1 July 2007 issue of Environmental Science & Technology also found high levels of PBDEs in air from homes, particularly in "personal air" sampled near breathing zones, which Webster says indicates a "personal dust cloud" -- the so-called Pigpen effect. In a review published in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, Matthew Lorber of the EPA estimated that more than 80% of PBDE exposure is from nonfood sources, mainly exposure to house dust containing PBDEs, from both unintentional ingestion and dermal contact.

In the 1 March 2007 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, a group led by Webster published the first research to definitively link PBDE concentrations in house dust with concentrations in the people living in those homes. Scientists believe the distribution of PBDEs in people's house dust largely mirrors the patterns found in North Americans' blood, says Heather Stapleton, an environmental toxicologist at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. She says the highest concentration she and collaborator Webster have found is 540,000 ng/g house dust (data unpublished), which is just a bit higher than previously recorded levels in dust from a U.K. home and an airplane presented at the Fourth International Workshop on Brominated Flame Retardants, held 24-27 April 2007 in Amsterdam.

The first evidence that PBDEs in dust are readily available and biologically active was published in the 1 April 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Technology by a team led by Janice Huwe of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Biosciences Research Laboratory. The research "demonstrates experimentally and quite conclusively -- using real-world house dust -- that [PBDEs in dust are] very readily taken up into an animal," says Birnbaum, who was senior author on the report. "People often think if something is a particulate or bound to dust, it is not going to be getting into our bodies very well.... We now know that the PBDEs in the dust being found in our homes and our offices can be taken up by our bodies," she concludes. Notably, the research refutes the earlier belief that the large size of decaBDE molecules prevents their being taken up and renders them biologically unavailable. It is conceivable that other POPS might behave in the same way if they were found in high levels inside people's homes, Birnbaum says.

At the April 2007 BFR workshop, Joe Allen, who was then a graduate student in environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, presented information about the use of X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to determine which household items contain bromine, a marker for the presence of PBDEs. XRF has been used for years to analyze house paint for the presence of lead, and it is the first technique to appear promising for pinpointing the consumer products that contain bromine.

The handheld XRF analyzers now available are "really the only way to determine if a product may have PBDEs, without actually taking a 'biopsy' of the product, which is plainly not feasible for any in-home research study," says Allen, now a staff scientist at the consultancy Environmental Health & Engineering. He says the work he has done to date, which has been accepted for publication in Environmental Science & Technology, suggests that furniture and televisions are the primary sources of the PBDE levels in U.S. house dust.

However, just how PBDEs from consumer goods end up in dust remains what Stapleton calls "one of the big unknowns." It is also unclear what it is about house dust that makes PBDEs stick to it.

Routes of Exposure

Since no one intentionally eats dust, how is exposure occurring? Earlier this year, a team led by Stapleton and Webster provided new insight into this riddle by looking at it in a fresh way. Acting on a hunch, they decided to measure whether PBDEs stick to people's hands. Their research, slated for publication in the 1 May 2008 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, documents that people can have "surprisingly" high quantities of PBDEs on their hands, Stapleton says. If people put their hands in their mouths, the PBDEs on their skin may be inadvertently ingested.

Miriam Diamond of the University of Toronto Geography Department says people may be taking up PBDEs on their skin simply by touching household objects. Diamond's research has demonstrated that minuscule oil droplets broadcast into home air from activities such as cooking can deposit on almost any household surface to produce a thin, sticky film that can trap indoor chemicals. She documented that levels of PBDEs in films on indoor windows were up to 20 times greater than similar films on the outside of those windows in an article published in Environmental Science & Technology on 1 February 2004.

Such organic films can build up on nearly all indoor surfaces, including surfaces that have not been previously treated with PBDEs -- "any indoor surface where you can get a build-up of dust [is susceptible]," says Tom Harner, a research scientist at Environment Canada. The way Harner envisions it, after PBDEs volatilize into the indoor air -- however that happens -- they are likely to eventually land on a surface with an organic film. In other words, any surface containing a film is a potential -- albeit temporary -- sink, he says. When someone touches such a surface, a portion of the organic film and the POPs it contains can be transferred to his or her hands because human hands naturally absorb oils, Harner points out.

Stapleton and Webster say that smoking, nail biting, and eating oily finger foods such as French fries, nuts, and sandwiches with unwashed hands are all routes by which people may unwittingly consume PBDEs. Their research suggests that "hygiene and behavior can have a big impact on [people's] body burden," as Stapleton puts it.

Differential Exposures

Children under the age of 12 weren't included in the NHANES PBDE study, but the CDC is currently testing pooled samples of blood from children aged 3-11 years to get a better handle on U.S. levels in this age group, says Larry Needham, chief of the Organic Analytical Toxicology Branch of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. The most comprehensive data collected thus far on children's PBDE levels are from pooled samples from Australia. In research presented at the April 2007 BFR workshop, Leisa-Maree Toms of the University of Queensland and her colleagues reported that the PBDE concentrations in blood taken from children aged 0-4 years were more than 4 times higher than PBDEs in people over age 16. However, pooled data won't show if some individual children have extraordinarily high level of PBDEs in their blood, Stapleton points out.

Lorber estimates that children take in approximately 7 times more PBDEs each day than adults because they spend so much time putting their hands in their mouths. Stapleton's new work showing that PBDEs attach themselves to people's hands suggests the gap may be even larger. In fact, Stapleton says the dose of PBDEs that toddlers can take up by putting their hands in their mouths is approximately equal to the amount infants receive from breastfeeding, which was previously believed to be the greatest source of exposure that a person could receive over the course of his or her lifetime.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the NHANES data show that adults aged 60 and above were more than twice as likely to have PBDE concentrations in their blood that landed them in the high outlier population. "This suggests that older people's ability to [eliminate] the PBDE compounds is decreased, or that they are getting greater exposure, perhaps because they spend more time indoors," Stapleton says.

The NHANES data show that men and women tend to have differing proportions of some PBDE compounds in their blood, suggesting the sexes may metabolize PBDEs differently, Stapleton says. "Maybe females are more vulnerable to effects from PBDEs because of that," she points out, noting that women generally have higher thyroid hormone fluctuations and are more susceptible to disorders and cancer of the thyroid.

Some researchers wonder if there could be a connection between PBDE exposure and thyroid cancer, a disease that disproportionately affects women. The U.S. National Cancer Institute's 2006 Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer documents that thyroid cancer incidence rates among women have increased since 1981, a time frame that roughly mirrors when PBDEs have been found in the environment.

"Over the past ten years, the incidence of thyroid cancer in women has been increasing faster than any other cancer in either women or men," says Pamela Horn-Ross, associate director of the Northern California Cancer Center. However, "there has been little research to date on the relationship between PBDE exposures and cancer in humans," adds Peggy Reynolds, a senior research scientist at the same center.

Health Effects

Most of our current understanding about how PBDEs affect living organisms comes from animal toxicity studies. "The major PBDE toxicities seen in laboratory tests are toxicities to the liver and thyroid," says June Dunnick, a toxicologist with the NIEHS. "The National Toxicology Program [NTP] is conducting a cancer study to determine the carcinogenic potential of lower-molecular-weight polybrominated diphenyl ethers [which are associated with the pentaBDE and octaBDE formulations]. Cancer potential is one of the unanswered questions about this set of chemicals, and no one has addressed this issue to date."

The only carcinogenicity study of a PBDE compound was conducted for decaBDE by the NTP in the 1970s, but the way decaBDE was added to test animals' food may have led to limited absorption of the chemical, says Birnbaum. Nevertheless, the study revealed that rodents exposed to high doses of decaBDE developed tumors in their livers and thyroid glands.

Experiments conducted over the past decades show that exposure to PBDEs can cause endocrine disruption in amphibians, birds, fish, mice, and rats, including effects on thyroid, ovarian, and androgen functioning, says Birnbaum. When pregnant fish, mice, and rats are exposed to PBDEs, the flame retardants can cause neurodevelopmental effects in their offspring related to cognition, learning, memory, and the ability to respond to novel stimuli. These changes are also seen when infantile animals are exposed to PBDEs. PBDEs have also been linked to alterations in sperm morphology and function as well as to ovarian toxicity in developing animals.

The concentrations associated with these health effects in animal studies are less than 10 times higher than the PBDE concentrations that are now being reported in the most highly exposed segment of North Americans, Birnbaum says. We need more well-designed epidemiologic studies to see if these same effects are occurring in people, says Sjodin.

Meanwhile, recent studies are beginning to sketch out evidence of human health effects. At the April 2007 BFR workshop, Turyk presented the first evidence that PBDEs can alter thyroid hormone levels in humans. Turyk's data came from a cohort of mostly older men and women who ate Great Lakes fish. She says she is mainly seeing an association between elevated PBDE concentrations and increased T4 (thyroxine) in men's blood.

"We are seeing subtle changes in some of the thyroid hormone levels that appear to be related to PBDE body burden after controlling for possible confounding by age, body mass index, lipids, and medications," Turyk explains. She stresses that she excluded people with existing thyroid disease and those taking hormones, and that the link is independent of the cohort population's levels of PCBs and DDE (the chief metabolite of DDT). PBDE exposure has been inversely correlated with T4 levels in animal studies, Birnbaum points out.

Similarly, workers exposed to PBDEs by working in or living near a recycling center in China were more likely to have elevated levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) compared with other citizens, according to a study led by Jing Yuan of Huazhong University of Science and Technology published 15 March 2008 in Environmental Science & Technology. Elevations of TSH are indicative of stress on the thyroid system, Birnbaum says.

A study published in the March 2008 issue of EHP by Maria Athanasiadou of Stockholm University and colleagues documents for the first time that hydroxylated PBDE metabolites can bioaccumulate in human blood serum. Hydroxylated metabolites of PBDEs were shown in the July 2000 issue of Toxicological Sciences to compete with thyroid hormones in blood to access transport proteins, although it is not clear if this also happens in humans, says Timo Hamers, an environmental toxicologist at Amsterdam's Institute for Environmental Studies. Research presented at the April 2007 BFR workshop by Rocio Fernandez Canton of Utrecht University also documents that hydroxylated PBDEs are antiandrogenic.

Even small perturbations of thyroid hormones can have a negative influence on early fetal brain development, according to a study published in September 2003 in Clinical Endocrinology by Victor Pop of Tilburg University. Pop's findings document that women who at 12 weeks gestation had low T4 concentrations -- though still within what is considered to be the normal range -- bore children who demonstrated impaired mental and motor functioning at 1 to 2 years of age. (This study examined thyroid perturbation in general, not in relation to PBDE exposure.)

Researchers have known for several years that babies can have detectable levels of PBDEs in their blood. In a study published in the July 2003 issue of EHP, researchers led by Anita Mazdai of the Indiana University School of Medicine reported that the concentrations of PBDEs in umbilical cord blood from a group of 12 infants ranged from 14 to 460 ng/g lipid and correlated well with the concentrations in their mothers. More recently, a team led by Lynn Goldman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health collected cord blood from a cohort of 297 Baltimore babies who have concentrations of PBDEs similar to those of the Indiana babies, including a few samples with levels much higher than the median for this group. Goldman is investigating what may be an association between PBDE concentrations and thyroid hormones in the Baltimore cohort.

Elevated PBDE concentrations in mothers' milk were correlated with cryptorchidism (undescended testes) in their children in a study published in the October 2007 issue of EHP by Katharina Maria Main of Rigshospitalet University. At 4.16 ng/g, PBDE concentrations associated with cryptorchidism in that study were much lower than those reported in the Mazdai study. Turyk points out that the PBDE levels associated with the cryptorchidism reported in the Main study"are seven times lower on average than those in our adult population."

Koppe says, "it is certainly possible that there is a link between PBDE exposure in the fetus and cryptorchidism." However, in a letter published in the May 2008 issue of EHP, she notes that 4 of 33 Finnish boys and 1 of 28 Danish boys with cryptorchidism had mothers with diabetes, a known major cause of congenital malformations. Main counters that although the original analysis did not correct for diabetes, a reanalysis of the data omitting diabetic mothers still returned a significant association between PBDEs in breast milk and cryptorchidism [for the complete exchange, see Correspondence, p. A195 this issue].

More BFR Research in the Future

Elaine Ron, a senior investigator and epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute, says her institute is trying to find a way to explore whether there could be a link between PBDEs and papillary thyroid cancer, the form that has been increasing most rapidly, in any of the cohorts currently being studied for thyroid cancer risk factors. "Thyroid cancer is pretty much of an enigma. We know that radiation can increase risk quite dramatically depending upon the age of exposure, but other risk factors are not very clear," Ron says.

A number of studies are gearing up to further investigate how maternal PBDE exposures affect thyroid function in children. For example, the Chemicals, Health and Pregnancy (CHirP) study, being led by a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia has just finished recruiting 150 pregnant women and will assess levels of both PBDEs and thyroid hormones, says Glenys Webster, the study's director. "We now know that small changes in thyroid hormone levels -- especially during early pregnancy -- may affect neurological development in children. Since everyone is exposed to PBDEs, even small effects on thyroid hormones may therefore be of concern for public health," she says.

Koppe notes that if mothers with low T4 levels are identified early on in their pregnancies, the reduction can be compensated for to minimize its effects. Webster adds that if her study ferrets out developmental effects, her next step would be to try to find funding for a case- control study to examine children for possible links to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, and learning disabilities.

Research such as the CHirP study is important because the thyroid perturbations documented to date in people "may not be clinically significant in an individual, but could contribute to overall disease burden in the population," Turyk says.

Besides PBDEs, the CHirP study will also measure participants' concentrations of PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, and polyfluorinated compounds including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Stapleton says she is also planning to participate in a similar study being funded by the CDC. In 2006, Stapleton helped the National Institute of Standards and Technology produce an official Standard Reference Material that documents the presence in house dust of 33 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 30 PCBs, and 4 chlorinated pesticides in addition to 15 PBDE compounds.

Over the past year, a number of researchers reported finding at least five other bromine-containing flame retardants in household dust in the same skewed patterns that have been documented for PBDEs. Stapleton says she, too, detected flame retardants besides PBDEs on people's hands. The implications are significant, she points out, "once you start to think about all the chemicals in dust that [people] are exposed to."


From: Oceanus Magazine
May 2, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Chemicals from power plants and farming especially affect coastal waters]

By Mike Carlowicz

The release of sulfur and nitrogen into the atmosphere by power plants and agricultural activities is making seawater more acidic, especially in coastal waters, according to a study published September 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Acid rain isn't just a problem of the land; it's also affecting the ocean," said Scott Doney, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and lead author of the study. "That effect is most pronounced near the coasts, which are already some of the most heavily affected and vulnerable parts of the ocean due to pollution, overfishing, and climate change."

Farming, livestock husbandry, and the combustion of fossil fuels releases excess sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and nitrogen oxides to the atmos-phere, where they are transformed into nitric acid and sulfuric acid. A portion of these compounds is blown offshore, where they enter the ocean and alter its chemistry.

The acids lower seawater's pH and strip it of carbonate ions. (Ultimately, so does ammonia, a base, which is converted to nitrates and nitric acid.) That hampers the ability of marine organisms -- such as sea urchins, shellfish, corals, and certain types of plankton -- to harness calcium carbonate to make hard outer shells or "exoskeletons." These organisms provide essential food and habitat to other species, so their demise could affect entire ocean ecosystems.

Ocean acidification is already a concern because excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels produces the same effects. Though carbon dioxide remains the dominating factor, "no one has really addressed the role of acid rain and nitrogen," Doney said.

Doney collaborated on the project with Natalie Mahowald, Jean-Fran�ois Lamarque, and Phil Rasch of the National Center for Atmos-pheric Research, Richard Feely of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Fred Mackenzie of the University of Hawaii, and Ivan Lima of WHOI.

The research team analyzed data on agricultural, fossil fuel and other atmospheric emissions. They built theoretical and computational models of the ocean and atmosphere to simulate where the nitrogen and sulfur emissions were likely to have the most impact. Then they ground- truthed their model's results with field observations in coastal waters by other scientists. The most heavily affected areas tend to be downwind of eastern North America, western Europe, and east and south Asia.

In January 2008, the editors of Discover magazine recognized the research as one of its "100 Top Science Stories of 2007."

Copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


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