Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cancun delegates reach climate change deal


Cancun, Mexico (CNN) -- Delegates at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, approved an agreement early Saturday morning despite objections from Bolivia, whose government claimed rich nations "bullied and cajoled" other countries into accepting a deal on their terms.

Protesting the overrule of its country's vote, Bolivia's Foreign Ministry called the Cancun text "hollow" and ineffective in a written statement.

"Its cost will be measured in human lives. History will judge harshly," the statement said, adding that developing nations will face the worst consequences of climate change.

The agreement includes plans to create a $100 billion fund to help developing nations deal with global warming and increase efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon hailed the deal -- the culmination of an overnight marathon session at the end of two weeks of talks.

"It begins a new era of cooperation in climate change. They are the first steps in this long and renewed campaign," he said.

Christiana Figueres, the UN's chief negotiator at the conference, said the results had "reignited" hope in climate change talks.

"Nations have shown they can work together under a common roof, to reach consensus on a common cause. They have shown that consensus in a transparent and inclusive process can create opportunity for all," she said in a statement.

But Bolivia said Saturday's agreement did not go far enough.

A key sticking point was the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and sets greenhouse gas emissions targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union.

"For us, this is not a step forward. It is a step back, because what is being done here is postponing without limit the discussion on the Kyoto Protocol," Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon told delegates early Saturday.

The agreement does not specify what will happen once the Kyoto Protocol expires, postponing the debate until the next scheduled climate talks in South Africa in 2011.

But despite Bolivia's objections, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who chaired the summit, said a decision had been reached and swiftly banged her gavel, saying the text had been approved.

"It is less than what is needed, but it represents a significant step in the right direction," Calderon told delegates.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet and Mario Gonzalez contributed to this report

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Sperm Whales Full of Pollutants

By Jennifer Viegas
  • Pacific Ocean sperm whales carry evidence of exposure to several man-made pollutants.
  • Evidence for the highest pollutant exposure was detected in sperm whales from the Galapagos Islands area.
  • Sperm whales may be important sentinels of ocean health, including specific ocean regions.
sperm whale

A sperm whale underwater. Research shows these mammals carry high levels of man-made pollutants in their bodies. Click to enlarge this image.
Chris Johnson, Ocean Alliance

Sperm whales throughout the Pacific Ocean carry evidence within their bodies of exposure to multiple man-made pollutants, according to a new Environmental Health Perspectives study.

In a surprising finding, researchers found that whales living near the Galapagos Islands appear to have higher levels of pollutants than those in other areas of the Pacific. The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO-protected site and had been considered pristine.

The pollutants include the pesticide DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's, which can also have natural sources, such as volcanoes), hexachlorobenzene, and 30 types of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's).

"Ingestion is the main route of exposure for whales, via contaminants present in their diet," study co-author Celine Godard-Codding said, adding that absorption through skin, such as after an oil spill, is another significant route of exposure.

She and her colleagues biopsied skin and blubber from 234 male and female sperm whales in five locations across the Pacific: the Gulf of California, Mexico; the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; Pacific waters between the Galapagos Islands and Kiribati (Pacific Crossing); Kiribati; and Papua New Guinea.

The scientists analyzed the tissue samples for expression of CYP1A1, an enzyme that metabolizes certain aromatic hydrocarbons. According to the researchers, the more a whale has been exposed to the pollutants mentioned in the study, the more it will express this enzyme.

CYP1A1 presence was highest in whales from the Galapagos Islands, second highest in those from the Gulf of California, and lowest in whales from waters farthest from the continents (Kiribati and Pacific Crossing.)


"We were surprised by the highest levels of the CYP1A1 biomarker seen in the Galapagos," Godard-Codding told Discovery News. "Whether this actually reflects higher levels of pollutants in the Galapagos waters, or in the food chain in these waters, remains unknown."

She explained that the studied pollutants "are mainly man-made" and "end up in the oceans upon release into the environment."

"The oceans are considered the final sink for most persistent environmental contaminants," she said. "It's a global pollution issue with pollutants potentially distributed worldwide by atmospheric or oceanic currents."

Godard-Codding and her team were not able to do a detailed study on the health of the biopsied whales, since the whales were in the wild. Prior research on laboratory animals, including captive aquatic carnivorous mammals, has shown that the pollutants "can cause deleterious effects," she said.

For years, scientists have suspected that sperm whales are likely to accumulate fat-soluble pollutants because the whales are massive -- weighing up to 50 tons -- and can live up to 70 years. This makes them potentially more susceptible to chronic toxic exposure.

Given the present findings, it's now thought that sperm whales may be important sentinels of ocean health, revealing what organic pollutants persist in the marine environment. They may also provide information on specific regions of the Pacific, especially because females and juveniles tend to stay within a 621-mile range.

Sierra Rayne of the University of Victoria and colleagues conducted earlier research on free-ranging orcas, also known as killer whales, and found evidence that they too retain pollutants. In this case, chemical markers for flame retardant compounds were detected in killer whale blubber biopsy samples.

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Nontoxic Nanotech Uses Cinnamon


A dash of spice makes everything nice, including nanotechnology. Scientists at the University of Missouri have a way to make gold nanoparticles using cinnamon instead of toxic chemicals.

Nanotech has all kinds of potential, including as a tool to fight cancer. Small particles -- ones that are much, much smaller than a human cell -- can do what chemicals can't. Gold, in combination with active chemicals, turns out to be ideal for targeted cancer treatment and detection. The problem is that making gold nanoparticles involves toxic chemicals.

A University of Missouri team led by radiology and physics professor Kattesh Katti developed a greener alternative. The researchers took cinnamon, mixed it with gold salts in water and successfully produced gold nanoparticles. Sounds kind of like alchemy at first glance, but the scientists found that cinnamon and other kinds of plants contain naturally occurring chemical compounds called phytochemicals.

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Here I was thinking the spice was great for mulled wine, when it turns out to be great at converting metals into nanoparticles. Katti told the university that their ecologically benign nanoparticles "are biologically active against cancer cells."

To study the cinnamon process, the team tested the nanoparticles on mice. They found that cancerous cells took up significant amounts of the nanoparticles, which were then detected with photoacoustic signals. The scientists published their findings in the journal Pharmaceutical Research (abstract) this fall, concluding that their nanoparticles "may provide a novel approach toward tumor detection through nanopharmaceuticals."

I've been as excited about nanotechnology as I have been wary of its potential detrimental effect on the environment. My concern is that we'll be creating more problems in the process of addressing the ones we already have. If Katti and his team can develop their plant-based nanoparticles into a viable option for cancer treatment and detection, they deserve a celebratory cake. A spicy one.

Photo: Cinnamon is the key ingredient for making gold nanoparticles nontoxically. Credit: S. Diddy.

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HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles