Tsunami Stirring Up Waves Of Sea Serpents Wireless Flash News 12-30-4
PORTLAND, Maine (Wireless Flash) -- The recent tsunami in south Asia is stirring up lots of relief efforts -- and it could also be splashing all sorts of unknown sea creatures onto the shoreline.
Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, co-author of "The Field Guide To Lake Monsters And Sea Serpents" (Tarcher/ Penguin), predicts that relief workers will soon be finding a large number of "globsters" on area beaches.
"Globsters" is the term given to big masses of round flesh that measure between eight and 20 feet. Although the globs look like octopi, Coleman says they are often previously-undiscovered species of sea serpents, dolphins or whales.
Coleman says human relief efforts must take priority but fears that clean-up workers may destroy the carcasses of new creatures before scientists can identify them.
He hopes that workers who come across any strange sea creatures photograph them and post the photos online so they can be researched after humanitarian efforts are finished.
Bizarre sea creatures aren't the only new animals that could be uncovered by the tsunami: Coleman says many undiscovered land animals may also be identified as they move to higher ground to avoid flooding.
Next Generation May Be Doomed To 'Global Somalia' By Steve Connor Science Editor The Independent - UK 1-22-5
An environmental collapse that would transform the world into a "global Somalia" could begin in 50 years if we fail to do anything about it, a world authority on the rise and fall of civilisations warned yesterday. Professor Jared Diamond, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said society was on the brink of irreversible decline unless 12 major environmental problems were tackled.
Professor Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has spent many years studying the reasons why some societies in history thrived and others slipped into decline. He cited present-day Somalia as among several places where environmental degradation has already helped to trigger a collapse of government and the rule of law.
"Conditions of Somalia will spread," he said. "Somalia is an example of a worst-case scenario. State government has collapsed; it is a dry landscape, difficult to manage and, not surprisingly, it has problems of environmental degradation.
"There are plenty of countries where state government is moving towards collapse ... We will be living in a global Somalia if we don't do anything about it. My children, who are 17 years old, will be living in a global Somalia unless we solve our problems."
He warned that the omens were not looking good for the rich countries to survive the 21st century without a serious and possibly catastrophic drop in their present standard of living.
"If we continue doing the things we are doing now the outcome, which is not the worst-case scenario but the actual outcome, would be that we don't arrive at the end of the century," Professor Diamond said. "Most of our problems are ones with 30- to 50-year time fuses. That is the rate at which we are exploiting the world ... So if we carry on we do not arrive at the end of the century with a First-World lifestyle."
Professor Diamond, who was in London to publicise his book Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Survive, said there were several possibilities if exploitation of the planet and its resources continued at the present rate. "The worst-case scenario can range from an apocalypse to something greyer. An apocalpyse would include fighting in dead earnest [over natural resources]," he said.
"There are also gentler outcomes. Today, there are countries that are poor and getting poorer. So one gentler outcome would be that poverty just spreads. Today, most African countries are poor and quite a few South American countries are poor. A gentle-worst-case scenario is that Brazil becomes poorer and Mexico becomes poorer and in Europe poverty spreads. Instead of eastern Europe catching up to western Europe, western Europe declines towards eastern Europe."
Most of the problems, such as deforestation and soil erosion, were similar to those that led to the collapse of societies ranging from the Maya in Mexico, the Easter Islanders and the Norse inhabitants of Greenland, he said. But the world was also facing global warming and more toxic pollution. "We need to do much more than we are doing now," Professor Diamond said.
Are Animals More Like Us Than We Dream? Scientists Discovering Culture Not Unique To Humans By Peter Christie The Globe and Mail 1-25-5
It's a little after lunchtime, and Bennett (Jeff) Galef Jr. and I are watching daytime, soap-opera-style television. The plot line is typical fare -- a happy couple's love is rent asunder when she spurns him for someone new.
Professor Galef, a McMaster University psychologist, has work he probably should be doing -- scientific manuscripts to review, papers to write, the many duties of an academic elder statesman.
But what's unusual is not that this 63-year-old scientist and high-art aficionado would waste his time on this kind of television, in a windowless basement room four floors below his university office in Hamilton. It is that the actors in this take on Desperate Housewives are all birds -- gawky, dull-brown Japanese quail, to be exact.
"Any time, day or night, you put mature adults together... they're ready to perform," Prof. Galef told me.
As actors go, they're pretty reliable.
For the quail, of course, it's not acting. Their screen appearances -- carefully videotaped ahead of time in specially constructed cages in Prof. Galef's basement laboratory -- are slices of real life that show something surprising about how female quail choose their mates: They copy each other's choices.
When choosing between two males confined to opposite ends of her cage, the quail in this tape -- call her Doris -- repeatedly sidles up to Sid, looking longingly into his eyes. Then, in a heart-breaking instant, it is over: Doris spots another female that has been placed in the compartment of the male she did not choose. To her, the male in the company of the other female suddenly seems sexier. She marches over. Sid is history.
Simply put, Prof. Galef's quail won't follow their hearts when they can follow other quail. In a hardwired world where most animals appear genetically programmed to choose the best, brightest or strongest mates, these quail seem different: They prefer lessons of love to be passed to them not by their DNA but by their peers. They possess the trick of learning preferences and other behaviours from one another.
This may seem like an awfully trivial matter to divert an emeritus professor of psychology, but it is the heart of a passionate international dispute about whether animals have culture.
"As an issue, it has just gone berserk," Prof. Galef says. "People for so long have been concerned with the animal and its physical environment. Now, the relationship between an animal's behaviour and its social environment has come very much to the fore."
Culture is widely considered to be exclusively human. Although we share 95 per cent of our DNA with apes, non-genetic culture is touted as the likely engine for our ride out of the jungle. It is said to have freed people from their underlying biology, leading to the myriad choices that make us human -- selections of mates and careers, ethics and religions, clothes, music or pop-idol heartthrobs.
Animals can learn clever tricks, but most scientists assume the things animals do to survive or mate are strictly coded for in their genes; the careful scripting helps animals avoid mistakes that could cost them their future. Now, the behaviour of creatures such as Prof. Galef's quail has some scientists rethinking this view.
Animals that look to other animals when making important choices, such as selecting a mate, are not following the usual dictates of biology. Instead, they may be exhibiting something akin to culture. And if animals have culture, then a kind of consciousness might not be far behind; if animals have culture, the gulf between us and them might be much smaller than we long presumed.
"It is seen as a sort of steppingstone to humanness," explains Kevin Laland, a psychologist at the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Jeff Galef is a slight, puckishly energetic scientist with a grey goatee and bitten-down nails. Although he doesn't look it, he is retired and putting the finishing touches on the more than 35 years he has spent studying how animals learn from their fellow animals.
In the 1970s, Prof. Galef demonstrated that rats recognize food and avoid poisons by paying attention to chemical cues in the breath of their cage mates, or in the milk of their mothers. It was a breakthrough, because it helped to show that animals could learn not only by genetic predisposition and from individual experience, but at least in some sense from the experiences of others.
Since then, he has consolidated his position on the frontier of science, conducting animal social-learning studies on everything from Mongolian gerbils to vampire bats. With Cecilia Heyes, he co-edited one of the most widely cited texts on the subject, Social Learning in Animals: The Roots of Culture.
"Jeff is kind of like the father figure to the field," Prof. Laland says. "He made people think of this as an important topic, and he introduced experimental rigour into a field which had previously been quite wishy-washy."
It isn't what Prof. Galef first set out to do. Born and raised in Manhattan, he is the son of a frustrated sculptor who was forced to decline a promising artistic career to work in the family import-export business, then died in a plane crash when his son was 17. Affected by his father's true passion, the future Prof. Galef began studying to be a forensic art historian, the kind of high-culture gumshoe who authenticates artworks and uncovers forgeries. Unfortunately, he found he hated chemistry, so he changed course. He went into experimental psychology and then, during graduate school, switched again, to evolutionary psychology.
After his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he accepted a position at McMaster in 1968. But he never set aside his fondness for human culture.
"Art has always been a big part of my life," says Prof. Galef, who is a member of the board of directors for the McMaster Art Gallery and himself a collector of European paintings. "I figure I've seen more of the world than Captain Cook. I've heard more music than Louis XIV, who devoted a third of the GNP of France to it. I've seen more art than the Medicis. It's a wonderful time to be alive."
Animal culture was a contentious idea long before Prof. Galef arrived on the scene. The early grist for the debate emerged in the 1950s.
Small, chickadee-like birds called blue tits were irking British homemakers by, apparently, learning from one another how to peck through the foil bottle caps on door-stoop-delivered milk bottles and skim off the cream. Two biologists saw a pattern in the complaints and traced the origin of the bottle-opening habit to one place, a village in Southampton.
Then, primatologists studying a troupe of macaque monkeys on the Japanese island of Koshima reported a peculiar food-washing habit that was spreading among their study population.
For years, locals had been feeding the monkeys by scattering sweet potatoes on the beach. One day, a crafty, two-year-old female named Imo began wading into the sea and rinsing the sand from her potatoes. Within nine years, all the monkeys were washing their food. They still do, to this day.
Soon, evidence of culture in animals was being reported all over the place. Birds of the same species were found singing in local dialects. Minnows and guppies were discovered following each other to find the best escape routes or the fastest ways to a meal.
In New Zealand, psychologists Gain Hunt and Russell Gray found that crows on the remote Pacific islands of New Caledonia seemed to learn tool-making skills from other crows: They could snip special shapes out of durable leaves to use for hunting insects, and copy the latest, most effective leaf-cut designs from one another.
In two landmark papers, in the prestigious journals Nature and Science, a group of researchers in Africa and another in Borneo announced that chimpanzees and orangutans had complex cultures, sharing a vast array of habits and traditions, from the crafting of dolls out of bundles of leaves to making thin twig "fishing rods" to scoop ants out of holes, as well as a variety of sex tricks.
"It starts to add up to a culture story," says Carel van Schaik, the University of Indiana anthropologist who headed the orangutan work.
The journal articles sparked news stories and editorials in both The New York Times and The Times of London, warning that the distinction between apes and people was becoming perhaps uncomfortably fuzzy.
Closer to home, Canadian whale biologist Hal Whitehead published his arguments that whales and dolphins also have cultures that seem almost human. Many whale social groups share everything from a language of whistles and clicks to complex hunting skills. For instance, culture could explain how humpback whales learn to use tail slaps and blow bubble-ring "nets" to trap food, or how Argentine killer whales teach their young to snatch seals from shoreline seal colonies by violently beaching themselves.
"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher, 1788-1860
"In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, and we all cherish our children’s future."
"I think the mounting evidence has weakened the Cartesian divide between human culture and animal culture in so many ways," Prof. Whitehead says from his Dalhousie University office. "People who look at these barriers between us and non-human animals are finding they don't hold up."
>From the point of view of evolutionary biology, few of these behaviours make obvious sense.
Only the genes that help animals survive and mate are supposed to win in the great Darwinian lottery. Genes for behaviour are no exception. Culture, on the other hand, seems so genetically superfluous. So human.
Over the past century, arguments have waxed and waned about whether human behaviour is more influenced by a person's genes (nature) or by experience (nurture). >From the beginning of the debate, culture figured prominently. Culture could compel people to do things no self-respecting gene would recommend -- things such as taking an oath of celibacy to join the priesthood.
Lately, the human nature-nurture dispute has cooled considerably. Both sides now frequently agree to meet in the middle -- researchers acknowledge that genetic makeup is crucial, but experience acts to switch on or off many of the genes that shape behaviour.
On the subject of animals, however, the debate is really just beginning. A growing group of scientists now believes that the existence of culture in animals may change the way we think of evolution itself.
Culture may affect the way animals act in surprising and unanticipated ways. Like the celibate priests, animals may be compelled by culture to do things contrary to their nature, things that disobey their genetic instructions. It's behaviour that can't be predicted by asking -- as most biologists currently do -- whether an activity helps animals make their way in the world.
Culture can affect where animals choose to live or with whom they choose to mate -- decisions that, in turn, direct the course of evolution for the underlying genes.
Evolutionary biologists who think only in terms of the survival and inheritance of DNA molecules may be missing a whole other force of change.
"The role of these things has been under-explored," says Lee Dugatkin, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky who is the author of The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene.
"There are two concurrent forces going on here. There's genetic evolution and, in addition to that, there are aspects of cultural evolution that go above and beyond what can be explained through the standard evolutionary approach."
Prof. Laland explains, "What starts to count is history, what individuals around you are doing. Culture and cultural evolution are a separate domain from genetic evolution. Separate, but not separate in that they are not completely independent, and the processes interact. When cultural traits spread through a population, they frequently modify the selection pressures acting back on the genes."
It's complicated, but it helps to explain the groundbreaking thinking of Profs. Laland and Dugatkin and other beneficiaries of Prof. Galef's social-learning work.
Both Prof. Laland and Prof. Dugatkin have shown experimentally that tiny aquarium guppies not only learn socially, but that they can be "tricked by culture" to do things their genes would warn against doing, such as taking the long route instead of a short one to food or choosing a substandard mate. Culturally learned habits, therefore, can actually set guppies back, temporarily, in the genetic evolutionary race.
It is this kind of thinking that some believe is poised to change the study of evolutionary biology in important ways. "I would love to believe it is the next big thing," Prof. Laland says. "It's certainly a big thing, whether or not it's the big thing."
And yet, the putative father of animal social-learning science, Prof. Galef himself, isn't buying it. He seems almost gleeful at the seeming paradox.
"Culture in animals? Cumulative culture? No," he says. "I certainly haven't seen any evidence for it."
A lot of scientists treat the word culture too glibly, he says. Sure, social learning -- of the kind Prof. Galef has demonstrated in rats, quail and other creatures -- can bring about behavioural "traditions" in animals.
But culture, human-like culture, is different. While animals may learn from other animals, he says, only humans actively teach one another. Some animals may be capable of building a better mousetrap, but humans are the only species that builds it using the accumulated technology of previous mousetrap designs. More often than not, Prof. Galef says, shared behaviours that researchers say shows culture in animals could be explained in other ways. Better evidence is needed, he says.
"I just have difficulty believing that it's going to turn out that there really is no meaningful distinction between the guys that built the space shuttle and the chimps who managed to crack nuts with a rock. It's not just a quantitative difference; it's just different. We are doing something that the damn chimps just cannot do."
What he describes as caution, however, other scientists see as unwarranted rebuke, and it's caused a reaction. Not long ago, Prof. Galef was notably excluded from the invitation list of a major international conference on mammalian social learning in London.
"I thought it was quite extraordinary," Prof. Laland says. "He would have been the first name down on virtually everybody's list. But I think if you're going to invite Jeff along, then you know there's going to be a certain tone to the meeting.
"There are those who feel that sometimes he is so critical that it puts people off from joining the field. I feel that was the concern of the organizers of that meeting. I think they were wrong to draw that conclusion."
Primatologists, such as those who put together the London conference, are the most frequently rankled by Prof. Galef's ready skepticism, but so is Dalhousie's Prof. Whitehead. "I think it's hurtful," he says. "There is an attitude out there that if you cannot do the experimental approach, then the science isn't worth doing. I utterly reject that. Because then you are throwing away a lot of the most interesting things in nature."
Back in Prof. Galef's office, four floors above his small subterranean lab, the reigning champion and principal naysayer of animal social learning is rocking back in his chair. Around him, crammed bookshelves hold volumes of social-learning texts and scores of biographies of Charles Darwin. Darwin, the architect of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is Prof. Galef's hero.
Large stacks of articles and papers are neatly arranged on the filing cabinet and on a crowded corner of the desk. The shelves are adorned with his wildlife photographs along with a few pictures of his wife, Mertice Clark, an adjunct professor in the department, with whom Prof Galef has often collaborated.
Prof. Galef shrugs, and smiles. He is amused that his doubts about animal culture have caused such a stir. The mischief is mostly unintentional, he says.
He says the reason for his skepticism is not a belief in the primacy of the human culture he so enjoys, nor even his insistence that genes will always have the last word. The reason is simply his service to good science.
The claim that animals have culture is not to be made lightly. It is a notion in need of scientific evidence that is as compelling and solid as the idea itself is profound. That evidence is still missing, he says.
"Of course, I fully expect to be proved wrong," he adds, drawing himself up to his desk. "The point is to convince people that you need more. That's hard. And to do it while everybody is deciding, 'Oh God, there's that guy, make him go away,' that's tougher still.
"I want us to know things, the way we know hydrogen and oxygen make water. If this is ever going to be a real science, what we mean by knowing things has to be much more solid than it is today. . . . If the intellectual pressure is there, then the means for answering these questions may be found."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes of Prof. Galef's quail-TV drama, the quietly clucking birds have no idea that their romantic perturbations have stirred a worldwide debate that divides contemporary biologists.
Indeed, within a very few minutes, the whole feathery affair of Doris and Sid seems a distant memory to these pea-brained birds. She, of course, has moved on to better things, remaking her image of the model mate. He, meanwhile, has mended his broken heart in a moment, consoled by the notion that there are plenty of quail in the coop.
The science of animal behaviour may have been unsettled by their little melodrama, but for the quail, it's nothing to get ruffled about.
- Peter Christie is a science writer and editor living in Kingston.
Developing world births 'falling' Women in the developing world now give birth to fewer than four children on average, according to a major United Nations study on fertility.
The average number of births has fallen from 5.9 children in the 1970s to 3.9 in the 1990s, it says.
In 20 countries, births have now fallen beneath the number needed to maintain current population levels.
The UN Population Division's World Fertility Report says improved contraception is behind the fall.
"Between 1970 and 2000, the world population experienced a major and unprecedented reduction of fertility levels, driven mostly by a decline in developing countries," it says.
China, which has a strict one-child per family policy, saw the most dramatic drop - with an average of four fewer children per woman over the last 30 years.
Algeria, Iran, Mexico, Thailand, Tunisia and Turkey have also reported significant declines, the report says.
But in 21 sub-Saharan African countries, fertility has declined slowly or not at all.
The 20 countries where fertility is at or below the level needed to sustain the current population include China, Hong Kong, Macao, North Korea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Thailand, Armenia, Cyprus, Georgia, Barbados, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Chile.
Those countries recording large falls in birth rates have governments that have decided to promote the use of contraceptives to modify fertility levels.
"A tremendous increase has taken place in the use of family planning," the report says, adding that over half of all women in the world who are married or in some form of union now use contraceptives, compared with 38% during the 1970s.
The developing world has seen a particularly sharp increase - from 27% using contraceptives in the 1970s to 40% by the 1990s.
In both the developed and developing world, women are increasingly choosing to get married later and to postpone having children.
The average age for marriage for women is now 23, and 27 for men.
Pollution is a worldwide problem which does not respect national boundaries and is likely to intensify as the spread of industrial development continues. BBC News looks at some of the places around the world which are hardest hit by pollution.
Arctic: Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
The Arctic has a severe problem with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are chemical substances which accumulate in the food chain, threatening both human and animal health as well as the environment.
According to researchers, dangerous levels of POPs have been found in the Arctic's air, snow, water and wildlife.
It is thought that POPs, like the pesticide DDT, are carried on air currents from the mid-latitudes of North America, Europe and Asia.
Once they reach the Arctic, the harsh climate causes them to freeze into the snow and ice, where they accumulate and concentrate up the food chain.
Although the Arctic might seem like a pristine and remote environment, its severe cold actually encourages POPs to enter the system.
These pollutants can harm many animals, especially those higher up the food chain. According to some researchers, they may be weakening the immune function of mammals like polar bears as well as causing reproductive problems.
Spain: Major oil spill
The Prestige oil tanker sank near northern Spain on 19 November 2002, polluting about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) of coastline.
The spill is estimated to have killed 300,000 seabirds, making it one of Europe's worst wildlife disasters.
The economic cost of the accident to fishing and tourism has been put at about 5bn euros (£3.4bn).
The polluting effects of the Prestige oil spill could still be an issue today. Although a clean-up operation has removed most of the oil on coastal land, there are concerns about the large quantity which sank to the sea bed.
WWF says it may release contaminants which could enter the food chain, including into commercially caught species such as sea bass, octopus, shrimps and crabs.
Ukraine: Chernobyl disaster
The world's worst nuclear accident occurred in what is now the Ukraine on 26 April 1986.
A reactor exploded in Chernobyl's nuclear power station, killing at least 30 people and forcing the evacuation of 135,000 more.
The resulting radioactive cloud spread north over Belarus, where 70% of the radiation fell in the form of contaminated rain, resulting in the long-term pollution of 32% of its territory.
More than two million people used to live in this area - about a fifth of the population of Belarus.
The disaster led to a dramatic rise in levels of thyroid cancer, leukaemia and birth defects in the surrounding area, especially Belarus.
Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan: Aral sea
The shrinking Aral Sea is a severe trouble spot in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, because of over-irrigation and pollution.
Inefficient irrigation systems still consume huge amounts of water which would once have reached the sea.
It has shrunk from a volume of about 1,000 cubic km 40 years ago to 110 cubic km today.
The mineral content of the water is now seven times higher than it was four decades ago.
The water is being severely polluted by pesticides and fertilisers, which local farmers use on their cotton crops.
Where the water has retreated completely there is a vision of environmental apocalypse - vast stretches of desert laden with heavy doses of salt and burdened with a toxic mix of chemical residues washed down over the decades from the farms upstream.
Not only has this devastated natural ecosystems in the area, it has also affected the health of the local human population. Malnutrition is rife and conditions like anaemia and TB are increasing.
The rate of cancer of the oesophagus is higher near the Aral Sea than anywhere else in the world.
According to the WWF, there are high concentrations of accumulated dioxins in whale and dolphin meat sold in Japan.
Dioxins are common pollutants - produced as the result of many industrial processes. They are essentially "unintentional by-products" formed by chemical reactions and combustion processes.
Dioxins are extremely toxic. They can trigger cognitive disorders, immunosuppression, endometriosis and other problems in both humans and animals.
These chemicals are an issue in several parts of the world, and they can be what are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS) which become more concentrated up the food chain.
They are stored in animal fat, which can pose a health risk to humans who eat meat in problem areas.
The WWF claims that dioxin levels up to 172 times the tolerable daily intake were found in marketed whale and dolphin meat in Japan.
Gulf of Mexico, US: Dead zone
A huge "dead zone" of deoxygenated water spreads across the Gulf of Mexico every summer because of severe nitrate pollution.
Dead zone water is completely uninhabitable for most marine animals, and in the Gulf of Mexico it can cover an area of about 15,000 sq km (5,800 sq miles).
The Gulf of Mexico's dead zone has been an annual problem for the last 30 years, because farmers in the Mississippi watershed are using large quantities of nitrate-based fertilisers.
These cause an algal bloom in the water, which guzzles oxygen, suffocating other forms of marine life.
At the moment little is being done to alleviate the problem, and according to conservationists, some locals actually welcome the dead zone's arrival because crabs and lobsters are easy prey as they flee the deoxygenated water.
Romania: River pollution
In January 2000, a storage pond at a gold mine near the city of Baia Mare, in northern Romania, burst its banks in what was to become known as an aquatic version of Chernobyl.
Some 100,000 cubic metres of water, containing an estimated 100 tonnes of cyanide, spilt into small local rivers, then finally into the River Tisza in nearby Hungary.
The spill wiped out all fish and plant life for several hundred kilometres. Five weeks later another spill, this time of heavy metals, struck the same region. It was a disaster for the surrounding river systems.
According to the United Nations the spill, which killed thousands of fish in Hungary and Yugoslavia, was one of the worst river pollution accidents in Europe.
Even two years after the incident fishermen in Hungary claimed their catches were only a fifth of their former levels.
Bhopal, India: Industrial accident
The enormous gas leak from a Union Carbide chemical factory in the Indian city of Bhopal in 1984 was one of the world's worst industrial accidents.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the first few days and tens of thousands suffered terrible side-effects.
A dense cloud of lethal gas escaped from the pesticide plant on the outskirts of the city and rolled into the ramshackle homes of the nearby shanty town.
Then brisk winds moved it onwards into Bhopal, a city of 90,000 people.
For days afterwards, funeral pyres cast a glow over the city and the stench of death mingled with the smoke of the cremations. Mass burials were also conducted.
The atmosphere in Bhopal was declared free of the gas after eight hours.
But the physical and psychological ramifications of that short space of time on 3 December 1984 will continue for a long time to come.
China: Air pollution
China's breakneck economic growth and soaring energy demand has caused it to suffer from some major pollution problems.
At the moment about two-thirds of the country's power comes from coal and coal products - the cheapest and dirtiest forms of energy.
According to the World Bank, air pollution costs the Chinese economy $25bn a year in health expenditure and lost labour productivity - largely because of the use of coal.
This exacts a very real human toll - official figures say 400,000 Chinese citizens die a year from diseases related to air pollution, and, according to the World Bank, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China.
Africa: Obsolete pesticides
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 100,000 tonnes of old and unused toxic pesticides have been abandoned in sites around Africa and the Middle East.
Leaking and corroding metal drums filled with obsolete and dangerous pesticides dot urban and rural landscapes. These chemical leftovers - including the infamous DDT, which is banned in many countries - can harm the environment as well as human health.
The scope of the problem is dramatically illustrated in Ethiopia, where some 3,400 tonnes of obsolete pesticides - some of which are over 20 years old - are stored at 1,000 sites throughout the country.
In the western Ethiopian village of Arjo, FAO researchers found over five tonnes of DDT and malathion in a collapsing barn just yards from homes and pastures.
Residents had long complained of nausea, respiratory ailments and headaches, and reported a strong stench from the unprotected site.
Cleaning up these dangerous substances will cost a huge amount of money - some estimates place it as high as $250m.
Nine new environmental 'hot spots' listed Global list of regions to protect grows to 34 Maroonfronted parrots like these are considered a "vulnerable" species and are native to the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands in the United States and Mexico -- one of the new hotspots identified by scientists. This flock was photographed in the El Taray Sanctuary in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains. Updated: 1:52 p.m. ET Feb. 2, 2005
A global study has identified nine new environmental “hot spots,” areas of great ecological diversity that are under threat and together shelter most of the planet’s endangered plant and animal species.
“Nine new hot spots have been identified, including one that traverses the U.S.-Mexico border, one in southern Africa, and one that encompasses the entire nation of Japan,” said Conservation International, which helped organize the analysis in a book "Hotspots Revisited" that was released Monday.
The findings bring to 34 the number of hot spots identified by leading scientists.
They are home to 75 percent of the world’s most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians, which survive in fragile habitats covering just 2.3 percent of the Earth’s surface.
These areas once covered almost 16 percent of the planet, an area the size of Russia and Australia combined, underscoring the threats posed by human encroachment and habitat destruction.
Nearly 400 scientists and other experts contributed to the four-year study.
Two key factors are used to designate a hot spot: a high concentration of endemic species -- which means they are found nowhere else -- and a serious degree of threat.
Earth's 'emergency rooms' The Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands hot spot has 24 plant and vertebrate families found nowhere else on Earth.
Some of the hot spots have less than 10 percent of their original habitat left -- which means they probably once contained many unidentified species that have been lost forever.
“The biodiversity hot spots are the environmental emergency rooms of our planet ... We must now act decisively to avoid losing these irreplaceable storehouses of Earth’s life forms,” said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International.
“We now know that by concentrating on the hot spots, we are not only protecting species, but deep lineages of evolutionary history. These areas capture the uniqueness of life on Earth,” Mittermeier said.
Tropical trend Most of the hot spots are in tropical or sub-tropical areas, highlighting the diversity of life found near the equator, where yearround warmth and good rainfalls enable many plants and animals to thrive.
But many are also found in very poor countries or regions, which magnifies the threat as impoverished and swelling rural populations encroach on remaining habitat.
The new hot spots that have been added are:
* The East Melanesian islands, which have been degraded dramatically over the last five years; * The Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands on the U.S.-Mexico border; * Japan; * The Horn of Africa; * The Irano-Anatolian region in Iran and Turkey; * The mountains of central Asia; * Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany in southern Africa, which includes parts of Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland; * The Himalaya region; * Eastern Afromontane, which stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe.
Acid Seas 'Will Kill Off Coral Within 70 Years' By Charles Clover Environment Editor The Telegraph - UK 2-4-5
Coral reefs could be dead within two generations and cod replaced by jellyfish because of the acidification of the sea, scientists said yesterday.
The potentially disastrous problem, discovered only recently, is being caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
It is parallel to man-made climate change and scientists believe that it will give new urgency to efforts to phase out fossil fuels.
Carol Turley, the head of science at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, told a conference in Exeter that the acidity of the sea was rising through chemical processes that turned carbon dioxide into carbonic acid.
She said: "It is happening now; nobody is saying it is not happening. It is O-level chemistry but no one noticed until 15 months ago. This is a rapid change that the world - and the organisms in the sea - have not seen for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. There is a very urgent need to do more research."
Ms Turley said that acidification was likely to have "a severe impact" on organisms with calcium in their shells or skeletons, from plankton to sea urchins.
Corals' ability to produce calcium is expected to decline by up to 40 per cent by 2065.
Lobsters and crabs, which form their shells out of another compound known as chitin, may be less susceptible to damage.
As half of all carbon from the atmosphere is "fixed" by microscopic plankton, the take-up of carbon is likely to slow down as the seas became more acidic, accelerating global warming.
Ms Turley said that cod and other fish ate plankton and shellfish that relied for their growth on calcium carbonate. If fish were not there, the sea would fill up with organisms such as jellyfish, which could eat other kinds of plankton.
"In cartoon form, you could say that people should be prepared to change their tastes from cod and chips to jellyfish and chips," she said. "The whole composition of life in the oceans will have changed."
Ms Turley told the conference, called Avoiding Dangerous Change, that coral reefs could find the sea too acidic within 35 to 70 years.
"Your grandchildren are unlikely to be able to dive on a [living] coral reef," she told delegates.
The rise in the acidity of the sea, which is believed to have begun with the burning of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution, has emerged as one of the key messages from the conference on climate change that will be relayed by Tony Blair to world leaders at this year's meeting of the G8, of which Britain is president.
An estimated 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels emitted since the Industrial Revolution has been taken up by the oceans - some 50 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted.
Scientists from the Plymouth laboratory have given the Government an urgent briefing on the problem.
Jerry Blackford, a colleague of Ms Turley, said that the rise in acidity could kill coral reefs long before global warming made the sea too hot for them.
The carbon from fossil fuels that was already in the atmosphere could be enough to stop the coral forming.
"It is getting towards inevitable that the coral reefs have had it," Mr Blackford said.
Climate Warming Spells Species Wipeout - Experts By Jeremy Lovell 2-3-5
EXETER, England (Reuters) - Whole species of animals from frogs to leopards, living in vulnerable areas and with nowhere else to go, face extinction due to global warming, scientists said on Wednesday.
And the faster the temperature rises the worse it gets.
Steve Schneider from Stanford University, California, said there was clear proof that species were reacting to the 0.7 degrees centigrade warming of the atmosphere that had already taken place over the past century.
"This is a harbinger -- nature is already responding," he told reporters at a meeting on climate change. "There is a direct threat to the viability of many species on the planet."
The complication with rapid change was not only the need to speed up the rate of adaptation, mostly through moving territory, but that at the margins, like at the poles or high up in mountains, there was nowhere to go and human settlements may lie in the way.
"The only way rapid climate change can affect species is through extinctions," Schneider said.
Bill Hare from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said that as the climate changed, fragile ecosystems would collapse, taking with them their inhabitants.
Rachel Warren from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change told the meeting that even a one degree temperature rise put butterflies and birds like the Australian Golden Bowerbird under pressure.
At two degrees the pressure spread to fish, frogs, geese, snow leopards, seals and polar bears among other species.
Much beyond that, the species wipeout became wholesale.
Scientists say climate warming is caused by so-called greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and most accept that much of this is from human activities like car exhausts or electricity generation and urgently needs to be curbed.
Almost alone in the developed world, the United States disputes the human element to climate change.
The UN International Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2001 that the world could warm up by between 1.5 and nearly six degrees by the end of the century -- with clear proof that people were to blame for most of the rise.
On Tuesday, IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri said new evidence suggested that the upper limit range might have to be raised.
Scientists have predicted that above two degrees the warming will push the planet into the unknown as ice caps melt, sea levels rise and weather patterns change at accelerating rates.
But Schneider said even at the lower level there could be serious adverse impacts.
"There is a five to 10 percent chance we will have dangerous outcomes just from what is already in the pipeline," he said.
War on Plastic: Rejecting the Toxic Plague By Jan Lundberg t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Sunday 07 February 2005
Plastic as toxic trash is barely an issue with health advocates, environmentalists, and even those of us looking toward the post-petroleum world. Instead, "recycling" and future "bioplastics" distract people from keeping plastic out of their lives. As the evidence from our trashed oceans and damage to human health mounts, plastic can no longer be conveniently ignored. The days of naive trust and denial need to be put behind us, and a war on plastics declared now.
Fortunately, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has before it a first-in-the-nation bag-fee ordinance; the vote is this Tuesday. All major grocery stores would charge customers 17 cents for every shopping bag, plastic as well as paper. Although the logic and the follow through seem well designed, much pressure is being put on the Supervisors to reject the ordinance. (An action alert is at the end of this article.)
Litter bothers all of us, and a smaller number of us worry about petroleum used for dubious purposes in an age of war for oil and global warming caused by fossil fuels. Some of us have learned how the plastic disaster in the middle of the Pacific, for example, has resulted in death for millions of creatures who confuse the toxin-laden plastic particles with krill and plankton. But the cost to humans in general is maybe the bigger story yet to hit.
One recently discovered principle about exposure to toxic chemicals is that very low concentrations can trigger worse damage in many individuals than larger exposures, in part due to the sensitivity of our genes. Also, potency is not possible to predict when various plastics' chemicals combine in our bodies and cause synergistic reactions later on.
Today's extreme dependence on plastics can easily be acknowledged. They are pervasive, cheap, effective, and even "essential." The list of plastic types goes far beyond what we can start listing off the top of our heads. If a product or solid synthetic material is not clearly wood or metal, chances are it is plastic - almost entirely from petroleum. Computers, telephones, cars, boats, teflon cookery, toys, packaging, kitchen appliances and tools, and imitations of a multitude of natural items, are but part of the world of plastics. Living without them would seem unthinkable. However, these plastics are essential to what? Answer: essential to a lifestyle that is fleeting - historically speaking.
There are people who say they cannot live without something, and those who yearn to do so. People think it is a matter of choice. However, when the coming petroleum supply crunch hits and cannot be alleviated by more production - world extraction is soon passing its peak - a combination of factors will deprive global consumers of the constant flow of new products now taken for granted. Therefore, we will not have a choice when we must suddenly start doing without. The supply of petroleum products such as plastics will dry up thanks to the extreme market response that we can anticipate as soon as geologic reality triggers panic. The peak of oil extraction is imminent, with natural gas to follow soon after. Most plastic bags are made from natural gas (methane).
The ongoing use and "disposal" of plastics is a health disaster because we are never rid of the stuff. All the plastic that's ever been produced is still with us today ... unless, of course, it has been incinerated, which spews a plethora of toxic substances into the air. But wait, hasn't there been progress? Plastic grocery sacks are 40 per cent lighter today than they were in 1976, and plastic trash bags are 50 per cent lighter today than in the 1970s. However, growth of the market cancels out any gains, and plastic's pollution just accumulates, whether in the air, water or soil - or our bodies. On many a tropical island beach where plastic junk outnumbers shells, paradise is clearly trashed by modern "convenience." What is unseen is the bioaccumulation of the inherent and hydrophobic toxins adhering to plastics that goes up the food chain to us, even in Kansas eventually.
Most North Americans urinate plastics. Sperm counts are at an historic per capita low. Cancer is an epidemic. Birth deformities, sex organ abnormalities and eventual cancers are becoming more common - all traceable to certain chemical exposures to the fetus. If the human race is not driven extinct by nuclear holocaust or complete distortion of the climate, it may happen through wonderful plastic and other petrochemicals. The latter is an "unscientific" assertion, but later in this report we provide some evidence to give everyone pause.
A movement to spearhead the fight against plastics is forming now. While there have been municipal bans of polystyrene (styrofoam), the plastics/petroleum industry has had a free ride at the expense of the health of the planet and our bodies. While endocrine disruptors and estrogen imitators have been targeted by researchers and public-spirited writers and health organizations, government has done next to nothing as it bows down to industry interests. The War on Plastic will encompass not just a few "problem chemicals" or "the worst plastics," because they are all bad in at least some single way. We must reject the entire toxic petroleum plague to our fullest capability, beginning now.
In California, to complement the Campaign Against the Plastic Plague formed this year in southern California, we at Culture Change have joined this effort with a northern California emphasis. One of our first projects is to support the San Francisco bag fee. We are visiting more Californian communities to promote bag fees and bans on certain plastics. Next, the whole state. We will face increasing opposition. (Once again the petroleum industry will be unhappy with Jan Lundberg, formerly called "the Oracle" by Chevron's vice chairman). But when our rationale and data are considered, almost no one will be able to turn away and ignore the issues.
Waiting for technology to save the lifestyle of using unlimited plastics, by having bioplastics replace the petroleum, is no help. We find that after studying the problems with plant-based replacements (see section above the action alert), and seeing the examples of other environmental problems saddled with non-solutions, fundamental change is the only reasonable approach. Such change will address the whole - our social system, the ecosystem and the economy - instead of spinning our wheels on the ineffectual reforms of mere symptoms of our extremely wasteful society.
Science Misleads in the Cancer Game
The ubiquitous presence of plastics is already killing us. Exactly "how" is never going to be completely isolated. Eighty per cent of cancers are environmentally derived. When we wonder where the epidemic of cancer is coming from, can we say that plastics gave Ms. Jane Doe cancer? Perhaps, but cancer is coming from not only plastics and their associated toxins but also from radiation sources, smog, the modern chemically tainted diet, household and workplace chemicals, etc. To say cancer is "genetic" is to put the onus on our intrinsic humanity, so as to ignore the 80% environmental-source principle.
Migration and release of plastics' chemicals into our food, water, and skin is of little interest to the government and its corporate friends. But certain principles won't go away: for example, polymerizing does not perfectly bind the petroleum chemicals together, especially when substances such as carcinogenic plasticizers are added after polymerization. Did you think that cute "rubber" duckie in the bath tub was harmless? Think again.
The U.S. public is thus treated every bit as shabbily as the Third World victims of plastic pollution. In India, where much of Americans' plastic "recycling" (mostly trash) is sent, the authorities dismiss the sad public health impact there by asking, "How can you prove that these plastic and lead recycling factories are causing these problems?" [source: Plastic Task Force, Berkeley Ecology Center] In a land like India, where biotech crops and corporate fast-food outlets have been sabotaged, it is possible that folks may intensify their destroying of whatever is destroying them. When the environmental movement holds back forthright judgment, and the environment and our health are not protected, people do need to take on plastics and other threats personally. This is because the mainstream movement to protect the environment and public health is going practically nowhere. This is exactly what industry and its scientists want. It's as if industry is funding the environmental movement; in large part it is.
"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher, 1788-1860
"In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, and we all cherish our children’s future."
The prevailing attitude by those already concerned about plastics is that we must just focus on reducing the use of one or two key plastics while continuing to push recycling. This philosophy of compromise, without stating the whole truth that plastics must be eliminated as much and as fast as possible, is a deadly mistake. The funded environmental movement and public health officials are needlessly resigned to accepting a plastic world just because ignorant consumers have habits. The approach of promoting only the bringing of one's own bag for shopping, along with the recycling con game and waiting for bioplastics, has failed and needs to be abandoned publicly.
Paul Goettlich, of Mindfully.org, concludes "There are no safe plastics. All plastics migrate toxins into whatever they contact at all times. It does not matter if it is water- or oil-based; hot or cold; solid or liquid."
Analogy: When war is used as a solution in reacting to an alleged threat or terror, etc., (Saddam, Noriega, ad infinitum) we fail to focus on the real problem - the cause of the war, which is usually corporate America. We are distracted by one alarm after another, while war profiteers and jingoistic politicians bleed us dry. It's the same with plastics - the chemicals are the battles but the war is really about plastic and petroleum dependence. The focus of environmental organizations is often the individual chemical, rather than real solutions such as reusable nontoxic, nonplastic replacement of containers and bags. Instead of wondering what plastic might be safer to microwave, those of us in the know say, "None. And don't microwave anyway."
A host of poisonous chemicals are imbedded in plastic that are unstable, causing genetic damage and resultant disease. Here are a few of the critical, insurmountable challenges from plastic's production and disposal:
* Clear plastic food wrap contains up to 30% DEHP [di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate]. This substance is also in intravenous blood bags. This poison was identified by the State of California for its Proposition 65 list of carcinogens and mutagens, but industry pressure got the listing weakened.
* In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was found that 1,000,000 times more toxins are concentrated on the plastic debris and plastic particles than in ambient sea water.
* Six times as much plastic per weight than zooplankton is in any given amount of sea water taken from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
* Triclosan, in plastics as well as antibacterial soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, and fabrics, is shown to cause health and environmental effects and compound antibiotic resistance. Researchers found that when sunlight is shined on triclosan in water and on fabric, a portion of triclosan is transformed into dioxin.
* Migration from all seven categories of plastic designated with numerals on packaging, including the recyclable types 1 and 2, are (partial list): Acetaldehde, antioxidants, BHT, Chimassorb 81, Irganox (PS 800, 1076, 1010), lead, cadmium, mercury, phthatlates, and the acknowledged carcinogen diethyl hexyphosphate.
* Many more such additives are often present, creating in our bodies synergisms that can be 1,600 times as strong as an estrogen imitator/endocrine disruptor/single chemical may be.
* The main issue surrounding the use of polyvinylchloride (PVC) is the impact of toxic pollutants generated throughout its life cycle. A Greenpeace (UK) study from October 2001 stated in its headline, "UK Government report on PVC misses the point, but still condemns PVC windows and floors." Nowadays, the "green" building code in the U.S. ducks the issue of PVC content.
Bioplastics have started to appear, but they often contain petroleum plastic as well, and even if non-petroleum, when "compostable" they are not guaranteed to be properly composted. Brown paper bags do not break down in landfills.
We have faith in "human ingenuity" and "science" that will "solve our problems" some day, as "they" will "think of something." They sure will:
Dupont is marketing "Greenpla." When you check their website about biodegradable plastics and see Dupont's "Biomax," we see its generic name is "Polybutylenesuccinate/terephthalate" [Note that the last phrase, phthalate, is in a class of highly toxic compounds. - ed.]
I would predict that plant-based plastics will be niche products and used very locally, similar to alcohol fuels which are only realistic for meeting very local, limited needs possibly, in certain parts of the world. Meanwhile, it is time to fight petroleum addiction by concentrating on plastics.
Action Alert: The Movement's First U.S. Battle
The current, high-profile battleground is San Francisco. Following the example of Ireland and other countries that have put a fee on plastic bags, the grocery shoppers of San Francisco may soon start paying a fee of 17 cents per bag. That figure is the cost that the citizenry is already paying in general taxes for some of the costs of plastic-bag trash, such as cleaning up the litter and unclogging the waste system.
The American Plastics Council claims that the bag fee is a crazy idea, saying in the San Francisco Chronicle that "this will hurt those who can least afford it." Just the opposite is true. Northern Californians Against Plastic presented figures to show that if each of the 347,000+ households in San Francisco were to purchase a couple of cotton or canvas bags, over the approximate 10-year life of those bags the total amount saved by consumers - compared to everyone using eight bags each week at 17 cents each - would collectively be over $300 million. And the bag fee would mean revenue to fund programs for the poor, such as free reusable natural-fiber bags. The Chronicle and the Commission on Environment (the San Francisco body putting the bag fee proposal to the Supervisors for an ordinance) have this new information.
If you want to see the 17-cent bag fee on supermarket shopping bags implemented in San Francisco, now is the time to contact the Board of Supervisors. (It's okay if you don't live there.) Before the elected officials might be swayed by the current backlash of negative reaction about the first-in-the-nation ordinance up for consideration by the city, concerned citizens everywhere are urged to email, call, fax, and mail the President of the Board of Supervisors, immediately:
Aaron Peskin - District 3 City Hall 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 244 San Francisco, CA 94102-4689 (415) 554-7450 - voice (415) 554-7454 - fax Aaron.Peskin@sfgov.org
Suggested comment (it's good if many of you reword or rearrange the text):
I support the bag fee at San Francisco grocery stores that would help clean up the environment. Society can easily work out the adjustment to reusing bags and cutting down costs. People are already paying more than the 17-cent cost, because on top of the waste problem the city deals with, there are health problems from plastics, damaged tourism from both the trash and the harm to sea life, and petroleum used for plastics is a strategic commodity that wars are fought over. So please pass the ordinance and be the first city in the U.S. to follow excellent examples such as Ireland which passed a 15-cent fee on plastic bags. The revenue collected would, at a minimum, be good for ensuring San Francisco's success with the program. Thank you, ________.
Let's not get left holding the bag.
Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated, which published the once "bible of the oil industry," the Lundberg Letter. He now writes essays and songs, and publishes CultureChange.org.
Jan Lundberg's first report on the subject: Plastics: Your Formidable Enemy - Culture Change Letter #70.
Apocalypse now: how mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the Earth
Floods, storms and droughts. Melting Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers, oceans turning to acid. The world's top scientists warned last week that dangerous climate change is taking place today, not the day after tomorrow. You don't believe it?
Future historians, looking back from a much hotter and less hospitable world, are likely to play special attention to the first few weeks of 2005. As they puzzle over how a whole generation could have sleepwalked into disaster - destroying the climate that has allowed human civilisation to flourish over the past 11,000 years - they may well identify the past weeks as the time when the last alarms sounded.
"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident."
Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosopher, 1788-1860
"In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, and we all cherish our children’s future."
Science intends to tag all life By Jonathan Amos BBC News science reporter
Scientists are to establish a giant catalogue of life - to, in effect, "barcode" every species on Earth, from tiny plankton to the mighty blue whale.
Initial projects will focus on birds and fish, recording details in their genetic make-up that can be used to tell one life form from another.
The initiative was launched in London at the International Conference for the Barcoding of Life.
Researchers concede it will take many years to complete the task.
"About 1.7 million species are known - we suspect there are anything from 10-30 million species on Earth," explained Dr Richard Lane, director of science at London's Natural History Museum.
"We have discovered that it is quite possible to have a short DNA sequence that can characterise just about every form of life on the planet."
At the cost of about £1 ($1.80) per genetic test, many specimens for each species will now be analysed to obtain their barcode information.
This data will then be put into a giant database which the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) hopes can be used to link off to all the knowledge acquired by science on particular organisms.
DNA - BARCODING LIFE The double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by chemical components, or bases Adenine (A) bonds with thymine (T); cytosine(C) bonds with guanine (G) Written in these "letters" are genes - starting templates that drive the production of proteins which build and maintain an organism's body Barcoding records the order of DNA letters in a particular gene found in mitochondria, the "power units" in cells This DNA changes rapidly over time as species evolve These differences can be used to distinguish species And just as one might Google a species name today to find pictures or a description of an individual insect, the time may come when we have Star Trek-style mobile computers that can read off barcodes and access species information in the field.
"It's like a policeman who sees a car breaking the law and all he's got is the licence plate number - but with that number he's got the owner and when the car was bought," Professor Dan Janzen, from the University of Pennsylvania, US, said.
"And that's what a barcode is - it's that thing that links you to the body of information the taxonomists, the natural historians and ecologists have been accumulating for 200 years."
The consortium pulls together a range of world museums, zoos, research organisations and companies concerned with taxonomy and biodiversity.
DNA barcodes should make species recognition in the field much easier, especially where traditional methods are not practical. In addition, species identification should become more reliable, particularly for non experts.
Just knowing every species on Earth would help answer some fundamental questions in ecology and evolution. And with this information we would get very much better polices to manage and conserve the world around us.
Dr Scott Miller, the chairman of the CBOL, added: "DNA barcoding will make a huge difference to our knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
"The Barcode of Life initiative aims to complement existing taxonomic practice to build on it and expand its power and use."
The segment of DNA to be used in the project is found in a gene known as cytochrome c oxidase I, or COI.
This is involved in the metabolism of all creatures but is coded slightly differently in each one of them.
In humans, for example, COI barcodes differ from one another by only one or two DNA "letters" out of 648; while we differ from chimpanzees at about 60 locations, and in gorillas by about 70.
Wednesday saw the announcement at the London conference of a project to get comprehensive barcode data on all known fish types - currently thought to number 15,000 marine and 8,000 freshwater species.
The bird project will list the world's 10,000 known avian species.
A third project will genetically label the 8,000 kinds of plants in Costa Rica, Central America.
It has to be said that not all of the science community shares the unrestrained enthusiasm of the barcoders.
Some researchers are concerned that taxonomic skills that have traditionally been used to catalogue individual species may suffer - fewer and fewer students now take up the discipline, especially in Western universities.
Doubt has also been expressed that the COI approach will prove as reliable in distinguishing species as is claimed.
This view is shared by butterfly expert James Mallet, from University College London. Although he supports the project, Professor Mallet thinks it may struggle in several settings, such as when a new or hybrid species has just emerged in a population.
"I just wish it hadn't been called barcoding because this should mean things are identical - for any retail product that's how you recognise them," he said.
"This is not true of mitochondrial DNA and in an evolutionary setting where species grade into other species, this is a lot more tricky.
"Closely related species are going to give you more difficulty and the more data you have, including DNA data - and DNA data is very powerful - the better."
Common Foods Laced With Chemical By Andre Picard and Avis Favaro The Globe and Mail 2-14-5
Everyday foods consumed by Canadians - such as salmon, ground beef, cheese and butter - are laced with chemical flame retardants, according to research commissioned by The Globe and Mail and CTV News.
In fact, the research found that Canadian foods are among the most contaminated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the world, with levels up to 1,000 times higher than those found in tests in European countries.
PBDEs are a class of about 25 chemicals that are used as flame retardants in foams, textiles and plastics. They are ubiquitous in modern homes, with the chemicals leeching out of furniture, rugs and electronic products, such as televisions and computers. It is not known exactly how PBDEs migrate from such products into human tissue, but they have been found in industrial sewage sludge, in wildlife and in fatty foods such as meat and fish.
It is unclear what impact the regular absorption of PBDEs has on human health. Nor have scientists established safe levels for the chemicals in humans.
But scientists do say that research conducted on animals - which suggests these chemicals can impair memory, cause learning disabilities and alter thyroid hormone levels - is disquieting and should raise red flags.
"These are persistent toxic chemicals... and certainly it is undesirable to have these toxic chemicals in our food supply," said Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences and public health at the University of Texas, who has done pioneering work on PBDEs.
Research done last year on a group of B.C. women found high levels of PBDEs in their breast milk, but the source was unclear.
"All of a sudden you find out you have something awful in your body and you wonder: 'Where is it coming from?'" said Erin McAllister, a Vancouver mother who took part in the study. "We all suspected it was coming from the food."
To find out, The Globe and Mail and CTV News commissioned an independent laboratory, Axys Analytical Services Ltd. of Sidney, B.C., to test 13 foods commonly consumed by Canadians.
Flame retardants were found in virtually all the foods, sometimes at relatively high levels. Farmed rainbow trout had levels of PBDEs of 3,638 parts per trillion and farmed Atlantic salmon 1,942 ppt. Sausage had 242 ppt and butter 384 ppt, while cheese had PBDEs levels of 23 ppt and milk 10 ppt. Only chicken had virtually undetectable levels. Environmental chemicals tend to accumulate in fat, so not surprisingly fattier foods had higher levels.
"Even though we don't know exactly the meaning of these levels for the health of children or adults... we think the smaller the amount, the safer it would be for people eating the food," Dr. Schecter said.
But Samuel Ben Rejeb, associate director of the bureau of chemical safety in the health products and food branch of Health Canada, said the level of PBDEs in the country's food supply has been closely monitored for years and there is no cause for alarm.
"The levels found in food are very low. They vary in parts per trillion and very low parts per billion - levels that in general were found to not pose a health risk for Canadians."
Dr. Ben Rejeb noted that while food is one of the ways people are exposed to PBDEs, it is not the only one and likely not the biggest source of exposure.
Dr. Schecter said that while it is easy to dismiss levels in food as insignificant, the chemicals do accumulate in the body. He said it's also likely PBDEs pose similar risks to human health as their chemical cousins, polychlorinated biphenyls. The use of PCBs was curtailed in the 1970s after they were found to cause birth defects, impair brain and memory functions, and increase the risk of some forms of cancers.
Many European countries have clamped down on the use of PBDEs in the past decade on the assumption that the chemicals are not good for humans.
Peter O'Toole, program director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, the group that represents manufacturers of flame retardants, said PBDEs "have never been demonstrated to have any human or environmental effects. We're far below any level of potential risk to humans."
The benefits of adding these chemicals to household products and mitigating the impact of fires is well established, Mr. O'Toole said. (Fires claim about 400 lives a year in Canada; these rates have fallen since fire retardants became widespread, especially in furniture, although many officials attribute the change to falling smoking rates.)
Beverly Thorpe of Clean Production Action, a Montreal-based consumer group, said the new data on levels of PBDEs in common foods reaffirm her belief that these chemicals should be banned.
"I think it's scandalous that we are still allowing chemical producers to manufacture these chemicals... It's scandalous that we are allowing industry to use them as flame retardants."
Ms. Thorpe said her biggest concern is the impact on children who are exposed to these chemicals over a long period of time, and could develop physical and developmental problems. (One popular but unproved assumption is that the rise in rate of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is due to PBDEs.)
"Any synthetic chemical we are finding in breast milk and food has got to be a major alarm signal that we have to stop production of these chemicals," she argued.
Ms. McAllister shares those concerns and is worried about her daughter Jessica, now 18 months old. "Children are inhaling these poisons every day... breathing it and eating it every day."!
- Andre Picard is the public health reporter at The Globe and Mail.
- Avis Favaro is the medical reporter at CTV News.
Arctic Becoming Chemical Waste Sump, Says WWF By Jeremy Lovell 2-16-5
LONDON (Reuters) - The Arctic, already a dump for Russian nuclear waste from the Cold War, is also rapidly becoming a chemical sump for the globe, the World Wide Fund for Nature said on Thursday.
New research had found even higher concentrations of banned pesticides like DDT in the Arctic environment than in the countries that produced them.
"This is a catastrophe for the Arctic," said WWF UK toxics program head Elizabeth Salter Green. "Contamination is increasing and more and more chemicals are being found in Arctic species."
The environmental pressure group said some of the chemicals -- found not only in the fat of Arctic species including fish, seals and whales but also in the ice itself -- were affecting immune, hormone and reproductive systems.
It said the chemicals, including flame retardants and those used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, drifted north on sea currents, became trapped in ice and were slowly released back into the environment years later.
"This trend will continue if we don't take action," Salter Green said. "Regulation of the chemicals industry has to improve -- and quickly."
Not only was it turning the Arctic into a chemical timebomb, but its wildlife were suffering too as the pollutants entered the bloodstream and went into vital fatty tissues where they remained for years, becoming steadily more concentrated.
"Arctic contamination has serious implications for wildlife but also for the indigenous peoples who rely on these species for food," said Salter Green.
"Strong chemical regulation is needed to prevent hazardous chemicals from reaching the Arctic in the first place," she added.
The United Nations is already backing an international clean-up operation to rid the Russian Arctic of a cocktail of toxic chemicals left behind after the Cold War.