Issue Date: December 19, 2011
Government & Policy Concentrates
Chemicals used in natural gas extraction may be contaminating drinking water in a small Wyoming town, EPA says. A draft report released on Dec. 8 states that groundwater pollution in Pavillion, Wyo., is “likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing,” a drilling technique known as fracking that unlocks gas trapped in shale rock. EPA’s analysis of samples taken from an aquifer detected “methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons, and other chemical compounds,” such as glycols and alcohols, which are common components of fluids used in fracking. The report marks the first time that EPA has linked fracking chemicals to tainted water. Encana, which owns the Pavillion gas field, calls EPA’s findings “conjecture” that “only serve to trigger undue alarm.” It says the poor water quality is due to the area’s geology, in which naturally occurring sulfate and dissolved solids mix with the water supply. But Jessica Ennis, policy analyst at the law firm Earthjustice, says the draft “confirms what residents of the gas fields have been saying all along: The chemicals used in fracking can indeed migrate into groundwater.”
IBM announced plans to give the National Institutes of Health a database of more than 2.4 million chemical compounds. NIH will add this information to PubChem, a freely available database of chemical structures of small organic molecules and information on their biological activities. IBM pulled the chemical data from about 4.7 million patents and 11 million biomedical journal abstracts over the period of 1976 to 2000. According to the firm, the newly compiled data will help researchers more easily elucidate important relationships among chemical compounds and will aid drug discovery. IBM—which created the database in collaboration with AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, DuPont, and Pfizer—extracted the data using techniques such as automatic image analysis and enhanced optical recognition of chemical images and symbols.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions approved legislation last week that would bolster the nation’s ability to respond to a pandemic or an attack involving a biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear weapon. “We have made remarkable progress in strengthening our nation’s medical and public health preparedness and response in recent years, but more needs to be done,” says Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, the committee’s ranking Republican member and cosponsor of S. 1855. The bill reauthorizes several government initiatives that were created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, such as Project BioShield. The multi-billion-dollar program, managed by the Department of Health & Human Services, provides biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies with financial incentives to research and develop vaccines and other treatments for unconventional threats such as anthrax, smallpox, and botulism. The House of Representatives passed similar legislation (H.R. 2405) on Dec. 6.
EPA has released a new plan to speed up the screening of chemicals for their effects on hormonal systems under its Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program. Called EDSP21, the plan calls for integrating high-throughput (HTP) in vitro assays with computational methods to assess the potential toxicity of hundreds of chemicals, including dozens of pesticides and drinking-water contaminants. EDSP21 relies on advances in computational modeling, molecular biology, toxicology, and robotics. The plan will allow EPA to “prioritize and screen chemicals with greater speed, efficiency, and accuracy, while minimizing the use of laboratory animals,” the agency said in a statement. The new tools will be phased in over the next several years as they undergo further development and validation. In the near term, EPA plans to use existing data, computational models, and HTP in vitro assays to prioritize which pesticides and other chemicals it will screen. In the next two to five years, EPA plans to use validated HTP in vitro assays instead of the currently used in vitro screening tests. In the long term, EPA will consider using validated HTP in vitro assays to replace all in vivo screening assays, eliminating all animal tests for screening purposes.
Many changes to oil and gas drilling activities in U.S. waters are recommended in a report released last week by a National Research Council engineering panel. The panel reviewed events leading up to the April 20, 2010, BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The report says that although companies ultimately have the expertise and responsibility for well design and operation, they must be required to meet explicit goals developed and overseen by a single regulator. Currently, eight agencies regulate offshore drilling, it notes. In addition, regulatory oversight needs more resources, the report says, pointing out that one federal inspector oversees 54 Gulf rigs. The report also recommends better training and education for regulators and workers. Despite criticisms, it called recent Department of Interior regulatory reforms a “good first step.” The report also says industry’s trust in a blowout preventer (BOP) device to stop oil flow was “misplaced” and urged that the BOP system be redesigned, rigorously tested, and better maintained.
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