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Government Concentrates

March 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 9

DHS to beef up security at 4,000 chemical plants

Antiterrorism security efforts at some 4,000 chemical plants will be strengthened by the Department of Homeland Security over the next year, a top department official told a House government reform subcommittee at a hearing last week in Pittsburgh. DHS Assistant Secretary Robert Liscouski stressed the importance of chemical plant security, noting that during past high terrorism alerts, National Guard and state police had been sent to about 150 key U.S. sites and more than half were chemical plants. Liscouski applauded voluntary programs by chemical and petroleum trade associations, and it was unclear whether the 4,000 plants he discussed would reach beyond the approximately same number of plants subject to these company-run antiterrorism efforts. Liscouski added that there are about 66,000 U.S. chemical facilities, but he singled out 4,012 that should have terrorist vulnerability assessments performed. Attacks at any of these plants would affect populations of at least 1,000, he said. Also last week, DHS issued regulations ensuring that company-supplied information submitted to the department would not be made available to the public.


Chemical low-dose effect debate grows

The effect of very low doses of chemicals such as those found at levels throughout the environment is fast becoming a major issue of scientific debate, said two key researchers at a briefing last week. Edward J. Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts said he believes that slight contamination of the environment with most toxics is likely to be beneficial, which could lead to looser pollution standards and less costly cleanups. But Linda S. Birnbaum, director of EPA's experimental toxicology division, warns that some chemicals, such as those that mimic estrogen, may be harmful at levels lower than those predicted by standard toxicology testing. However, Calabrese, a major proponent of hormesis--a concept which holds that tiny doses of a hazardous substance can be beneficial--and Birnbaum agreed that determining the effects of low levels of toxics is extremely important. The debate will continue at the Society of Toxicology's meeting later this month.


NRC panel okays human toxicity studies

EPA should consider data from studies that intentionally dose humans with toxic chemicals, but only if the experiments meet strict scientific and ethical standards, says a report by the National Research Council. The report addresses the controversy surrounding whether EPA should accept data from experiments on humans performed by pesticide makers trying to demonstrate that their products might be safer than lab animal tests indicate. The panel recommends a tight framework for approving any human studies of toxic chemicals, including requirements that the benefits to society outweigh individual risks, the study be scientifically valid, and all recognized ethical standards and procedures for protecting participants be followed. The report can be found online at


Hanford medical provider under investigation

The Hanford Environmental Health Foundation (HEHF), a medical services provider at the Department of Energy's Hanford, Wash., cleanup site, is under a growing number of investigations for failure to protect department and contract workers. Last week, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that DOE's Office of Independent Oversight & Performance Assurance (OA) will review allegations that HEHF violated patients' medical privacy, harassed employees, mismanaged medical care, and engaged in fraud. The investigation springs from a report released last year by the Government Accountability Project, which said workers were inadequately protected when exposed to vapors coming from the site's 177 underground waste storage tanks. Abraham added that OA will also review actions of the tank farm contractor, CH2M HILL. The secretary said he asked DOE's Office of Inspector General to begin its own investigation of the worker safety allegations. Worker protection programs at the site are also under scrutiny by Washington state. Also last week, members of Congress urged DOE to step up the Hanford investigation. HEHF denies the allegations.


  • A global treaty controlling persistent organic pollutants will officially enter into force on May 17. France became the 50th country to ratify the accord in February. Despite the treaty's widespread international support, Congress has not yet completed legislation for the U.S. to be a partner to the pact. 

  • University of Pennsylvania graduate student employees organized a two-day strike last week to attempt to force the school to recognize their union and to drop an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board--a federal agency that oversees union activities. The university's appeal has blocked the board from releasing results of the students' representational election held in late February last year. 

  • The Bush Administration's revised climate change research plan is a significant improvement over previous ones and should be vigorously implemented, says a National Research Council committee report. The report applauds the Administration's emphases on technologies as well as on ways climate change may affect ecosystems and people.

  • The Senate once again put off action on its long-delayed energy bill, this time until mid-March. Senate leadership had hoped to bring a revised bill to the Senate floor last week, but it appears increasingly doubtful that a bill can be passed this congressional term.

  • EPA will link its supercomputers to those at DOE's Sandia National Laboratories, under a research agreement signed in February. The supercomputers will allow better and faster runs of environmental computer models and will aid EPA's work in computational toxicology.


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